Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe


The New Champion Finds A Contender

In April of 1912, Dodge City Nebraska's Joe Stecher began his wrestling career with a win over friend Earl Caddock. By 1914, he was the talk of the wrestling world and the man insiders felt would replace Frank Gotch as the next wrestling superstar. Stecher was a farm boy and a wrestling machine, who was beating Nebraska's best wrestlers in shoots, in straight falls and in short time. He took pleasure in beating the best students of Farmer Burns, so Burns sent his best, Marin Plestina, to Lincoln Nebraska to take care of him. On March 25, 1914, Stecher wrestled rings around Plestina winning in two straight quick falls. Plestina ended up not even being a good test for Stecher.[23] Burns then sent Ad Santel, under the name Otto Carpenter, to Fremount, Nebraska on Jan. 5, 1915 to show up the young Stecher. Santel also was destroyed in two straight falls. Stecher in 1915, seemed like the safest bet in wrestling and the Nebraska farmers saw no way they could lose money by putting it on Joe to win.

On Feb. 20, 1915, Charles Cutler and his manager William Rochells went into the downtown offices of the Chicago Tribune and claim the world title. They justified this by saying Frank Gotch was retired and Cutler was undefeated in two years as the American title holder. Cutler posted a bond with the tribune reporter and challenged all contenders to meet him.[24] A short time later, a major match was signed for him to meet Joe Stecher in Omaha on July 5, 1915.

On May 10, 1915, Charley Cutler defended his claim verses Ed "Strangler" Lewis in Lexington. After an hour and fifteen minute, with neither wrestler gaining a fall, Lewis complained that Cutler was using a strangle hold. He then blew his cool over the injustice and knocked Cutler down with two punches. The match was then awarded to Cutler on a foul. The newspaper reported that the two continued the fight in the dressing room, but was stopped by officials.[25] So it looked like Lewis had another blood feud like the one with Wladek Zbyszko, but the next report we have is Ed going to Chicago to help train champ Cutler for the Joe Stecher match. (26)

On July 5, 1915, Lewis was ringside in Omaha to watch Joe Stecher take Charles Cutler's world title claim. The new champion won his two straight falls in 18:04 and 10:00 using his leg scissor. In the betting, the farmers of Nebraska won thousands from the Chicago fans who came by trainloads to see the match. Lewis and Earl Caddock trained Cutler and Ed in his unpublished Bio claimed the two of them lost $2,800 betting on Charley. It's a hard story to believe sense the two of them must have known it was a "work".[26] The crowd was listed as 15,000, which, at the time, was one of the biggest non-Gotch attendance marks in wrestling history.[27] After the defeat, Cutler went to Stecher to say "Joe, you are a champion if there ever was a champion born."

Ringside watching the match, sat the old champion, Frank Gotch. That night Stecher would receive his first public offer for a showdown with Gotch. Chicago promoter offered the Stechers $25,000 for the match. No deal was made.

Lewis's old friend Bill Barton was promoting wrestling in Evansville, Indiana and was able to book a championship match, to a finish, for Ed verses the new champion on October 21, 1915. Stecher had been busy defending his title and to Joe, who had never seen Lewis perform, Ed was just another contender standing in line. Lewis, however, hadn't had a match sense May and had been in training, first with Cutler and then in his own camp with Sandow. He had watched the match in Omaha and knew Stecher's every move.

Although he knew all the fundamental holds, Ed Lewis was not a great technical wrestler, moving in and out of holds, like Caddock, Pesek, Gotch or even Londos. His strong point as a wrestler was strength, size, balance, coordination, intelligence, and stamina. The stamina didn't seems to come from training so much as from an ability to relax in the ring. He was a defense wrestler, who took pride in not letting his opposition get behind him in a position of control. Whenever he was faced with a shoot situation, he would revert to this defense style, which never seemed to beat anyone, but did frustrate opponents and fans. It didn't bother Ed to have long boring matches, just so long as he didn't get pinned.

The first Stecher/Lewis match took place in Evansville on October 20, 1915. At the pre-match press conference, Stecher was the farm boy, timid around the press, but still showing the pose of a champion. This contrasted with the well dressed and street wise Lewis, who was always willing to talk with the press or anyone else. Lewis looked heavier and stronger but once in the ring this illusion evaporated.

For two hours, Lewis ran and refused to lock up with Stecher. Having scouted Stecher, he claimed Joe only had three or four take downs and every time he saw Stecher's "tell" he just moved away. Lewis was able to block Stecher's every move, but he did nothing on offense. Stecher had no fear of Lewis and four time he dove in for a take down and Ed was able to get behind him on the mat. Each time, Lewis gave up his position and got back up on his feet. He was afraid that on the ground Stecher would reverse him and apply the scissors. Tony Stecher, Joe's trainer, complain to the referee that it was the contenders job to attempt to defeat a champion and that Lewis should wrestle, but Lewis would not change his strategy. The boring match upset the spectators and boo's filled the hall.

At the two hour mark, the upset Stecher rushed Lewis and Ed had no where to go but over the ropes to the floor. In the fall, Ed hit his head on a chair. He laid on the floor and Billy Sandow told the referee, that he was injured and couldn't continue. The ringside physician, Dr Phil Warter, ruled he was not injured and could still wrestle. Lewis refused. The referee, Bert Sisson, then gave the first fall to Stecher and announced that he would give the champion the match if Lewis refused to return after a 15 minutes rest period.

In the dressing room, between falls, two other Doctors examined Lewis and said there was no reason he couldn't wrestle. When he didn't return to the ring, Stecher was awarded the second fall and the match. Reports printed the next day said that everyone present felt that there "was no doubt of the outcome. Sooner or later, Stecher would have gotten his deadly hold on him."

Back in the arena, hell broke out. The mayor of Evansville, who's last name was Bosse, got in to the ring and gave a speech. He complained that "the match was not on the square." He had the Chief of Police hold up the receipts and promised to give most of it to charity. The police claimed they had received telegraphs and phone messages before the match saying "Stop fake wrestling match tonight."

Lewis was taken to the hospital and the next morning, a report was issued saying he had a minor groin injury. Mayor Bosse allowed promoter William F. Barton expense money but Lewis and Stecher were never paid (they were going to split up $400). I don't think they cared, they both probably made far more from the gamblers. With Stecher being unbeatable, the major betting was on how long his opponents would last. It was very convenient for Lewis, to take his dive out of the ring, right after the two hour mark of the match.[28]

You would think this embarrassing match would have killed The Strangler's career, but once back in the big cities of Chicago and New York, Sandow and Lewis told reporters stories of a great match in which Lewis out maneuvered and out thought the great Stecher for two hours. In time, the two even changed the result, with most believing the match was a draw or no contest. Sandow believed that if you told a lie and it got printed enough, it became truth. Sandow may have been right, because by the time Lewis got to New York City in November 1915, he was considered a major star and a top challenger to Stecher's title.

Sandow was ruthless in his promotion of Ed "Strangler" Lewis and he did a brilliant job in creating the myth that lives today. Billy Sandow's style was quite similar to the job Boxing manager Jack Kearns did for young Jack Dempsey. I think the difference between the two is that Sandow remain friends with Lewis and seemed honest with money, or at least up to the standards of pro wrestling. Telling lies was just part of Sandow's job and he did it well. Kearns alienated everyone, including Dempsey.

>> Continue to CHAPTER 8


  • 23 NEBRASKA STATE JOURNAL March 27, 1914
  • 24 CHICAGO TRIBUNE Feb. 21, 1915—Doesn't seem that promoters had big plans for Charles Cutler. I think they just needed a champion type wrestler for Stecher to beat. The big money would come later, a Gotch/Stecher super match. I think Cutler was a smart guy who was better suited as a front offices worker. In 1912, Cutler had managed future world heavyweight boxing champion Jess Willard and in 1911 he had played a major part in the promotion of George Hackenschmidt before the super match with Frank Gotch in Chicago. All of this leads me to believe Cutler was very close to Jack Curley and he seems to have been Curley's booker in New York City. Cutler in ring wrestling career seemed to have peaked with putting Stecher over and didn't last long.
  • 27 OMAHA WORLD-HERALD July 6, 1915
  • 28 EVANSVILLE PRESS Oct 20 to Oct 22 1915—The story goes on saying that pro wrestling was banned in Evansville, at least for a short time. Evansville was later know as a stop off for Tom Pack's troop of wrestlers between Indianapolis and St Louis, but it was never considered one of the major wrestling cities. It would seem that they booked the first Lewis/Stecher match in a minor city to set up the rivalry between the two, but I don't think they never planned on a clean finish. The new champion Stecher seemed to be over the shoot period in his career and probably expected a worked match from Lewis. It's impossible to say anything for sure, but it's not beyond imagination that Lewis was uncooperative and refused to job clean. He and Sandow seemed to have formed a pattern of not cooperating in first matches with bigger stars. The loss wasn't important, he just wasn't going to lose his "heat". The finish seemed to have been the worked plan (by Lewis or maybe everyone), coming after all the gambling money on "Lewis over two hours" was assured. Because of the gambling and officials present, these worked matches had to look like true contests, so perhaps the body of these match were the two shooting, but the finish would have to be agreed upon. This match being a terrible mess had to be considered Lewis's, and his boring style's, fault. If all of this talk is BS and the whole match was a shoot, then Lewis ran from Stecher and was afraid of Joe's skill and scissors. That, to me, makes him look worst that working a bad match. Of course, Lewis learned nothing from this match and his lies covered up any embarrassment.