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ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe

CHAPTER 6

1914 and Billy Sandow

Lewis went home to Lexington, but returned to Chicago for another major match verses Fred Beell on Feb. 2, 1914. Lewis tricked Beell with a "side roll" to win the 1st fall in 9:37, Beell made Lewis submit to a headlock in the 2nd and he pined Lewis in 10:35 after a toe hold in the last fall. So Lewis lost again and he didn't return to Chicago for the rest of 1914.[14]

Before 1918, most of the power in pro wrestling was in the hands of managers. To be a major star in the sport, you needed a strong manager. Managers didn't just manage bookings and money, they provided training for their performers and probably booked the actual matches. The manager with the biggest star, who could draw the most money, would control who won or lost. Most of the time that meant his wrestler won, and if another manager didn't like the situation, he didn't have to take the big money match. Sometimes the dominate manager would pull a switch, if there was more money to be made losing. Even Gotch did big money losses to Jenkins and Beell. The manager also made bets and made sure his grappler got his cut from gamblers. A good manager might have meant more to a wrestler than great wrestling ability.

By 1900, Farmer Burns was the biggest manager in wrestling and he control most of the major wrestlers and ran barnstorming through out most of American. In 1914, he was in decline and losing control with his champion, Frank Gotch, wanting out of the business. Most felt Gotch had one more big match in him but it would have to be against someone worth his time, who could give him that last big payday.

In Lexington, Lewis was managed by Jerry Walls, a carnie who became involved with wrestling as a promoter and showman. He worked with Lewis for two years without a written contract. Ed didn't seem to respect him very much After he got Lewis through the door of stardom, but didn't seem smart enough to get him any further.

On Jan. 28, 1914, Lewis was once again matched up with Dr. Ben Roller in Lexington. Roller won the first fall with a crotch lift and slam for the pin in 41 minutes and Lewis won the second using the "neck yoke" in 21 minutes. The match was filled with a lot of out of the ring fighting and after one such occasion, Roller slammed Lewis to get the pin, but it seemed to be a mistake by referee Wallace Yeager, because Ed shoulders were clearly off the mat. The fans were upset over that and the fact that Police Gazette rules state that the two wrestlers on the ropes needed to return to the center of the ring before grapping restarted. So Roller's win over Lewis was a cheap one and another match would be needed down the road.[15] This was a pattern most Lewis matches would follow.

During his stay in the South, Roller was being managed by Billy Sandow. Sandow was a fine lighter weight wrestler, who worked as a trainer and ran a gym in Chicago. His true last name was Bauman and he had two brother, Julius and Maxwell, involve in the wrestling game as promoters. In 1914, he was trying to make a name for himself as a manager. Roller loved to talk, so he didn't need Sandow out front, but it would seem that Sandow was working with Lewis and helping the young wrestler get over via his series of matches with the Doctor. We know Sandow was connected with Lewis in Chicago because in photos of Lewis published in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 30, 1913, Ed is shown working out with Sandow.

On Feb. 4, 1914, a Lexington storyline created for the newspapers was that Billy Sandow was bringing in a well known "unknown" to meet homeboy Lewis. The "unknown" later was revealed to be Marin Plestina, the last great heavyweight developed by the Farmer Burns camp.

On Feb. 5, Lewis was taking on all comers at the Lexington Ada Meade theater. The deal was a challenger would get $1 for each minute he lasted verses the Strangler. Lewis wrestled Sandow that night and pinned him in 10 minutes. Billy made $10 or so it seemed..[16]

Lewis and Plestina met on Feb. 10, 1914 at the Lexington Opera House. The match ended up being a two hour draw, so a return match was set up for Feb. 18, with the strangle hold being legal. Referee Heywood Allen, promoter in Louisville, disqualified Lewis in 43 minutes for rough work, including wrestling off the mat and refusing to break. Plestina then pinned Ed after a slam in five minutes. Even in losing two straight falls, Lewis had a way of not losing clean. Sandow was present at both matches.[17]

With Frank Gotch claiming to be retired, the best wrestler in the world was most likely Stanislaus Zbyszko, who was attempting to claim his own world title. Zbyszko met Lewis on March 23, 1914 in front of the largest crowd in Lexington wrestling history. The match was a handicap match in which Zbyszko had to pin Ed twice in an hour. This type of a match was considered an exhibition, with no title or record in danger, but were done constantly in the early days of pro wrestling. I believe they were done mainly for gambling, which generated more money than gates or attendance. It also was a way to build to rematches and advance wrestlers. Most of the major stars of the time had lost such matches, including Frank Gotch losing one to Zbyszko (Nov. 25, 1909 Buffalo) before their famous match in Chicago on June 1, 1910.

The pro-Lewis crowd cheered their boy on, as Lewis broke hold after hold put on him by Zbyszko. In fact, it seemed like Ed was being tied into knots by Stan, and was only breaking them with sheer strength. At the forty-one minute mark, Stan put on a toe hold Ed couldn't get out of, and Lewis gave up. For the last 19 minutes, Lewis ran around and even off the non-roped mat to avoided contact with Zbyszko and, as the crowd cheered, time ran out. Referee Heywood Allen announced Lewis the winner.[18]

Zbyszko was blind with rage because Lewis played with him by leaving the ring and refusing to wrestle as a honorable wrestler would and may of the fans also hated Lewis's tactics but referee Allen stated that there was nothing he could do if Lewis followed his order to return to the ring. If Lewis had refused to return, he would have given the match to Zbyszko. Allen then said Zbyszko could have requested a roped off ring, but didn't…so it was his own fault.

This Zbyszko match, with Lewis refusing to lock up with the champion, wouldn't the only time he'd use the tactic to frustrate a superior wrestler. In fact, it would become the style he'd become famous for.

Wladek Zbyszko followed his brother Stanislaus to America in 1913. He claimed to have won the European title in a Paris France tournament in 1911, and unlike most European performers was well schooled in catch-as-can style (Catch Style) of wrestling. He was a big man and probably had one of the best bodies in wrestling. Highly skilled as a wrestler, he was also an elegant gentleman with social graces when out of the ring. In the ring, his size, strength, and skill was coupled with a sadistic will to hurt opponents. And he didn't like to lose.

Lewis claimed he hated Wladek from the first moment he watched the wrestler in a dressing room attempting to sing opera. In later life Lewis would have little good to say about Wladek, but it was his series of matches with Zbyszko, and Joe Stecher, that created his legend and reputation.

In 1914, Wladek was getting the push that Ed wanted. The giant had beaten Tom Jenkins and Roller, with the promoters looking to feud him with the Alex Aberg, the Greco-Roman style world champion in New York City. Lewis had been in Chicago with Wladek, and made a point of challenging him, even going so far as to distributing printed petitions for a match. The night of Lewis's Chicago loss to Beell, Wladek attempted, before the match, to attack Ed in the ring. Detroit promoters induced Wladek to meet Ed in their city, so the first Zbyszko/Lewis match was booked for April 4, 1914 at the Armory. This was only two weeks after Ed match with Stan Zbyszko and on that night Lewis bet the older brother a suit of clothes that he would win.

Wladek came to the arena with the assurance of Ed's manager, Jerry Walls, that the match was going to be a "work" and he assumed that he was "going over". Lewis never seems to co-operate in first matches, and once in the ring, Wladek found he had been fooled. Lewis blocked Zbyszko's every move and the foreign wrestler couldn't do anything with him. Wladek then, in frustration, began to foul Lewis by eye gouging, finger twisting and elbowing. Lewis complained to the referee but nothing was done. Lewis then hit Wladek with three hard punches to the face. With a riot about to take place, a flock of police jumped into the ring and the match was stopped after 20 minute. It was ruled a no contest.[19]

A rematch took place on April 23, 1914 in Buffalo NY. Lewis battled Wladek as an equal in the first fall, but after an hour, Zbyszko got rough. After two terrific slams, the second on his head, the Strangler was pined. Lewis was almost knocked out and couldn't return for the second fall. Wladek Zbyszko was declared the winner.[20]

After losing to Charley Cutler at Lexington on April 27, the record shows Lewis to be inactive until December 1914. I believe Lewis was sick with a stomach problem, Ed claimed his hatred for Wladek caused the condition, and he returned to Lansing, Iowa for rest and training.[21] I believe it was during this period that he took on Billy Sandow as his manager.

Billy Sandow was a wrestler, trainer, and manager with strong family ties in wrestling. His real name was Bauman and he worked closely with his three brothers. Jules was the oldest, who promoted areas in upstate New York. Max operated out of Savannah and played the park of John Pesek's manager for a time. Another brother, not really involved much in pro wrestling, was named Alexander. Working out of Chicago, Sandow and Lewis had known each other for some time. Sandow had managed Ben Roller, Yussuf Hussein and Marvin Plestina in matches with Ed and the two have been shown training together in Chicago photographs. Sandow, and just about everyone in wrestling, saw the promise in Lewis and the union between wrestler and manager was formed by the end of 1914. This handshake agreement would last for almost 20 years.

Billy Sandow was the "big time" manager that Ed Lewis's career need. Sandow was ruthless in his promotion of his young wrestler. Sandow had acquired wrestling smarts and contacts from years of being around the business, so knew the value of "ballyhoo" (a wrestling term which is a nice way to say "lies used in self promoting".) Sandow, hard working and energetic, would do anything or say anything to get Ed Lewis over. Under no condition, would Billy never admit he was wrong, about anything.

He seemed to be honest in his dealing with Lewis and other wrestling insiders. His word seemed to have credibility and he was always willing to make deals. This made him seem to be easy to work with, but he always knew how to get what he wanted.

There were many weasel type managers in wrestling, but when you compare Billy Sandow with the other major dignified managers in the late teens: Earl Caddock's Gene Melady, Joe Stecher's Tony Stecher, and Wladek Zbyszko's Jack Curley,….Sandow comes off as the major heel.

Sandow was also a top level trainer, who claimed to use a system called "Kinetic Stress" to get the best out of Lewis. The Kinetic Stress system of conditioning seemed to be the stressing of muscle groups by the use of pulleys, levers and straps. I don't know how much of this system applies to the training of pro wrestlers nor how much of the theory was created for public relations and the press, but Lewis did seem to improve under Sandow. Ed's weight was always credited in his defeats, but, under Sandow, Lewis went from 195 pounds in 1913 to 215 in 1915. After Sandow, Lewis's size became one of his strong points and he was able to keep his quickness and balance.

Under Sandow, Lewis's finishing hold was changed from the "neck yoke" to the "head lock". In the early years of pro wrestling, the brutal element of the sport was played down and sportsmanship played an important role. The main object was to pin your opponent, not make him submit. All the famous finishing holds of the era were used to pin wrestlers, and injuring someone was considered unsporting. Gotch's toe hold, Stecher's body scissors and Caddock's head scissors were pinning moves. Lewis's headlock was used for the same purpose. Ed would weaken his man with the headlock, which was said to cut flow of blood to the brain, and then hip lock the wrestler to the mat with a violent slam with the giant Lewis handing on top, ready to pin his opponent. Most of the time he would have to use a series of headlock before pinning his man. This was the basic hold he used during his career, but it may have sometime been used as a submission after about 1922 as styles changed. This form of a standing headlock take down would seems to have been a "show" move for worked situations. In a contest, a wrestler would not want to put someone in a position to get behind him while standing. (Today, how many standing headlocks have you seen used in the UFC?) It's used today, in every pro wrestling match, as a take down, and no one thinks much about it. Its days as a spectacular finisher are now long gone.

Sandow created a gimmick training aid, called a headlock machine. Built by one of the lesser known Bauman brothers, Alexander, it was a wooden head, cut in half, with a railroad spring attached in the middle. The story is that by forcing the two half's together Lewis developed the strength need to apply the headlock. It was mainly a P.R. tool, used to get copy in the press.[22] Sandow later developed a similar machine to publicize Everett Marshall's full nelson hold.

>> Continue to CHAPTER 7

FOOTNOTES

  • 14 CHICAGO TRIBUNE Feb. 10, 1914
  • 15 LEXINGTON HERALD Jan. 29, 1914
  • 16 LEXINGTON HERALD Feb. 5, 1914 and Feb. 6, 1914
  • 17 CHICAGO TRIBUNE Feb. 11, 1914 and Feb. 29, 1914
  • 18 LEXINGTON HERALD March 24, 1914
  • 19 THE DETROIT FREE PRESS April 6 to April 8, 1914. Most of the story line about the match being a shoot and Ed's bet with Stan came from THE LEWIS UNPUBLISHED BIOGRAPHY. I would believe the idea of it being a shoot if Lewis hadn't used the same storyline in a May 11, 1914 match in Louisville with Charley Cutler.
  • 20 BUFFALO COURIER April 24, 1914
  • 21 THE ED LEWIS RING RECORD put together by J Michael Kenyon, Don Luce, Mark Hewett, Steve Yohe, Dan Anderson, Fred Hornby, Richard Haynes, Libnan Ayoub, Vance Nevada, and a number of other wrestling historians. The section on Lewis's stomach illness comes from THE UNPUBLISHED LEWIS BIOGRAPHY. Lewis claimed his hatred of Wladek caused the illness and it wasn't until he cleansed himself of the poisons generated by the emotion that he returned to normal. He promised to not get catch up in such emotions again, and, from that, he gained in strength and confidence. (It should be remembered that the Bio was written during Lewis's Christian period.) The training site used by Lewis, working with a Greek wrestler named Gus Kavaris, was on Mount Osmur on the banks of the Mississippi near Lansing, Iowa.
  • 22 The headlock machine was well known and written about during Lewis's career but you can read about it in THE DAN HODGE STORY by Mike Chapman, page 109. Two of the machines exist today, one owned by Danny Hodge and the other is in the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum at Waterloo, Iowa. The idea of Alexander being the builder of the machine came from comments to Tim Hornbaker by members of the Sandow family and can be found in NATIONAL WRESTLING ALLIANCE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE MONOPOLY THAT STRANGLED PRO WRESTLING by Tim Hornbaker (page 65).


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