The WAWLI Papers, page 1


by Frank Smith
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

BOSTON, Massachusetts, January 17, 1931 -- Twenty-four heavyweight wrestling champions in the last 60 years, an average of one in each two and one-half years -- that is what statistics show. This discovery, after delving deep into sports archives, puts a quietus on the hue and cry that once a man becomes champion, he retains the title indefinitely. The recent victory of Ed Don George, the Wolverine Express, over the colorful Gus Sonnenberg in Los Angeles caused a demand for a review of events that led to the crowning of the young New Yorker. The spectacular and unexpected entry of the University of Michigan's former wrestling champion into the professional limelight does not minimize the fact that he was a real sensation before his name sparkled in electric lights across this broad land.

In this day of $50,000 and $75,000 houses, it is of great interest to turn back in the history of wrestling in this country to the first tournaments of 60 years ago and follow through. Smoothing out the musty pages of newspapers, it is found that James H. McLaughlin won the first wrestling tournament in America. This was on March 10, 1870, at Detroit, Mich. As a result of his victory, McLaughlin became known as the world's champion as far as America was concerned. The match was governed by the old collar and elbow rules. With a bag of gold approximating $500 went a championship belt.

McLaughlin successfully defended his title against Homer Lane on March 30, 1870, and L. Torrence on February 4, 1871, at Titusville, Pa. For five years McLaughlin did little if anything in the ring, but one June 29, 1876, he answered the challenge of James H. Martin and the pair wrestled a four-hour draw at Detroit, Mich. The title and $1,000 were at stake. The two met in a return bout in New York on October 16, 1876, under the same conditions and McLaughlin retained the title.

Out from Vermont on December 28, 1876, came a young farmer named James Owens. This husky youngster took the title, the belt and the $1,000 that went with them. Records show that Owens held the title for only a brief spell. Five weeks later, February 6, 1877, to be exact, newspaper records credit William Muldoon, at present the most influential member of the New York state athletic commission, with a victory over young Owens, yet one reads that the young Vermonter held his collar and elbow title by beating J. Martin, May 29, 1877, for a purse of $1,000, and C. Murphy in Boston, September 19, 1877, for a purse of $500 -- big sums in those days.

The outstanding wrestlers of that time were McLaughlin, Owens, Martin, Charles Murphy, Theodore Bauer, William Muldoon, Clarence Whistler, Edwin Bibby, William Acton, Evan (Strangler) Lewis, Ernest Roeber, John McMahon, H.M. Dufur, Duncan Ross, Tom Connor, William Miller, Anton Pierre, Capt. Daley, Donald Dunnie, Carl Abts, Meteski Soraski, Jack Carkeek and Andre Cristol.

Another big match of that time was between John Graham and Whistler in 1883. Graham won. Whistler and Muldoon met in several great battles in those days. Dufur defeated McMahon December 13, 1883, in Boston in a match that was said to be for the collar and elbow championship and the following year, on January 24, McLaughlin defeated Dufur in a best two out of three-fal match for the collar and elbow championship. Detroit saw the match.

For all this time, however, there is no record of a defeat for Muldoon. The former New York policeman was beaten by Ernest Roeber in 1887 and he held the Muldoon title until May 18, 1890, when he was defeated by Evan (Strangler) Lewis.

Although the collar and elbow style of wrestling was much in evidence at that time, the Lancashire rules were beginning to gain favor with the fans. Greco- Roman wrestling also was being extensively used in the United States. By taking the good features of both mat rules, the catch-as-catch-can style was developed in this country. It permits holds on any part of the body, barring only the strangle hold, generally speaking.

Milton (Farmer) Burns won the title from Evan Lewis in 1895, according to available reports, and two years later he was defeated by Tom Jenkins of Cleveland.

Beginning in 1897, the list of mat champions developed in this country becomes easier to follow, because of the greater national interest in wrestling. More attention was given the big bouts by the newspapers. It was also about this time that the catch- as-catch-can style of wrestling was being used exclusively in this country.

Jenkins lost his claim to the world's title to Frank A. Gotch, a farmer boy from Humboldt, Ia., January 27, 1904, in Bellingham, Wash. Jenkins, however, won it back March 15, 1905, in New York City. On this occasion, he held the title but two months when George Hackenschmidt, the "Russian Lion," came to this country to relieve him of his honors. The debacle occurred in old Madison Square Garden, New York City, on May 4, 1905.

Hackenschmidt scurried back to Europe with the title, so Gotch and Jenkins decided to wrestle it out for the championship of America. They met on May 19, 1905, and Jenkins won. This bout was held in New York City. The scene of operations changed to Kansas City, Mo., where on May 23, 1906, Gotch beat Jenkins. That won him the American title which he lost to Fred Beell at New Orleans on December 1, 1906, but he won it back on December 17 of the same year in Kansas City.

The "Russian Lion" was induced to return to this country in March, 1908, and on April 3, in Chicago, lost the championship to Gotch. The "gate" for that match was the largest up to that time -- about $45,000. The match lasted 2 hours, 3 minutes, Hackenschmidt quitting.

Gotch kept the title until his death, December 16, 1917, although he announced his retirement from the ring on April 1, 1913, after his victory over George Lurich. He quit definitely two years later.

Charles Cutler of Chicago became recognized world's champion at Gotch's retirement, and after ruling the heavyweight division for about a year, he lost the title to Joe Stecher in Omaha, Neb., on July 5, 1915.

Stecher held the title until his first meeting with Earl Caddock, former national amateur champion. The records show that Stecher quirt at the end of the second fall, and Caddock became the world's heavyweight mat king, although he weighed but 186 pounds.

Caddock volunteered for war service and was badly battered during the big conflict. He was not the great wrestler he was when he exited the trenches and in a match with Stecher on January 30, 1920, in New York City, he lost the title.

Robert Frederich, who had been wrestling about eight years then as Ed (Strangler) Lewis, met and defeated Stecher in New York on December 13, 1920. Lewis put Stecher to sleep on his feet with a series of devastating headlocks in 1 hour and 40 minutes of wrestling. This was the fifth meeting of this pair of top notchers. Lewis had beaten Stecher the previous year in a three-hour match, but at that time Stecher was not the champion. The 1920 match proved to be the last between the pair for eight years

Note: Be careful to not trust everything in this article on faith. Stecher and Lewis had met at least SEVEN times prior to the title switch, and they met again Oct. 4, 1921, in San Francisco, with Stecher winning a two-hour decision.

Lewis held the title for about six months when he consented to meet Stanislaus Zbyszko, the veteran Pole, in New York City. The match was one fall to a finish, and Lewis, reports of the battle show, lost when a "rolling" fall was counted on him. Rolling falls are used to decide Greco-Roman matches.

The "Strangler" claimed he was "jobbed" out of the title and demanded a return match, which was scheduled for Kansas City. (Note: Lewis vs. Zbyszko took place in Wichita, after Lewis lost TWO bouts by "rolling" falls to the big Pole in NYC). A $10,000 diamond studded belt (the belt now held by Ed Don George) was the big prize put up by the promoters. Lewis won two out of three falls and this time he ruled the heavyweight division until he was knocked out of the ring in Kansas City by Wayne (Big) Munn on January 8, 1925.

Lewis claimed he had been fouled when he was deliberately thrown from the ring. He went to his dressing room and refused to continue the bout. However, he finally consented to return to the ring, although badly injured, with the understanding that his protest stood. He was beaten. Before Lewis had a chance to get a return match with Munn, the latter was defeated by Stanislaus Zbyszko in Philadelphia on April 15, 1925.

The Pole's victory caused a grand mix-up in the heavyweight division. Lewis still claimed the title because of the Munn foul, and Zbyszko claimed it by virtue of his victory over Munn. On the night of May 30, 1925, Stecher met and defeated Zbyszko in Philadelphia to win the latter's claim to the title, while on the same evening in Kansas City, Lewis beat Munn in a return bout.

Note: Stecher vs. Zbyszko took place in St. Louis, while Lewis-Munn happened in Michigan City, Indiana.

Whatever difference existed between Stecher and Lewis on their respective claims to the title were definitely settled in St. Louis February 20, 1928, when these two met for the first time since 1920. Lewis won two out of three falls. Lewis took the first and third falls, Stecher won the second in 56 seconds!

It was about this time that Gus Sonnenberg was making his start as a professional wrestler, and about one year later, January 4, 1929, in Boston, the Darmouth "Dynamiter" toppled Lewis off the mat throne with a vicious assortment of tackles and "billy goat" butts. Lewis was counted out as he was returning to the ring after being smashed through the ropes for about the seventh time.

Sonnenberg held the title for about two years and in that time wrestling developed into the most popular indoor sport in the country, as a comparison of wrestling and boxing "gate" figures in nearly every big city in the country where these two sports were held will show.

The "Dynamiter" had such an easy time defeated his foes in return matches that he expected little trouble from Ed Don George when he went to Los Angeles for a second battle with the former national amateur champion December 10, 1930.

Sonnenberg had been a lucky winner in their first match. They had met head-on in the center of the ring when each tried to win the deciding fall with a flying tackle. Both were knocked out, but Sonnenberg recovered first and was declared the victor. In the second match, however, George used a head scissors and hammerlock to beat the champion. He hurt Sonnenberg's left shoulder early in the bout and he kept after that arm until he won.

The future of the new champion seems much brighter than that of most champions have been. He has the wrestling ability, the so-called mat color and a great record as an amateur wrestler. He is no overnight sensation. He wrestled five years before he won the title, but most of the time as an amateur.

Sonnenberg was champion for about two years and in that time almost $5,000,000 was paid into the gate to see him in action.

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