ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth
by Steve Yohe
1916 And The New York Tournament
By 1915 the history of American Greco (or Graeco)-Roman pro wrestling (GR) was on its last page. It had been popular at the end on the 19th century due to great GR champions like William Muldoon, but most Americans preferred the Catch-as-Catch-Can style and GR was rarely used or talked about after Frank Gotch destroyed George Hackenschmidt in 1908 and 1911. GR wrestling is a sport of strength and endurance in which huge powerful giants (sometimes more fat than big) lock up in a wrestling contests in which no holds are allowed below the waist. It's much different than the Catch style, so most of the champion GR performers from Europe were used to job to American stars. It's a limited form of wrestling, that would have contestants locked in strength holds for long periods of time, and didn't have the moment or variety of holds of the Catch style.
But in 1915, a New York City Opera promoter named Samuel Rachmann, took advantage of a migration of European wrestler, trying to escape from the wars on the continent, and the large emigrant population of New York City, to promote two major GR tournaments in the city during 1915.
The first, and lesser known, took place in May and June. The final match took place on June 25, 1915 between the GR champion Alexander Aberg and Wladek Zbyszko. The title match was ruled a draw after three hours and forty minutes of brutal wrestling. Aberg seemed to get the better of the contest, as Wladek fell into a "semi-conscious" state for three days following the match. A rematch for the GR title took place on October 25, 1915 in Madison Square Garden with Aberg defeating Wladek in one hour and four minutes. These matches with Aberg, were losses, but they were putting Wladek over in the city making Lewis's old friend a big star.
From Nov. 8, 1915 to Jan. 29, 1916, Rachmann ran his second and most famous GR International tournament at the Manhattan Opera House. It is famous today for the creation of the first masked man and for Strangler Lewis's domination, but the original goal was to put over Alex Aberg and then Wladek Zbyszko. Because of the beginning of wars in Europe that would lead to WWII, Rachmann was able to put some of the major wrestlers in the world on salary for as low as $50 a week. Some of the stars used were Ben Roller, Charles Cutler, George Lurich, Dimitrius Tofalos, Yusif Hussane, Renado Gardini, Ivan Linow and of course, The Masked Marvel. Lou Daro (The Great Daro) and Frank Levett (later Man Mountain Dean) also made short appearances. Alex Aberg was the GR champion and considered unbeatable. He was never beaten in the tournament but he was booked as a GR idealist who refused to perform in the Catch style.
They wrestled 6 nights a week with two matinees on weekends. Most matches were 20 minutes but if a challenge was made, wrestlers could and did wrestle what was called finish matches but, regardless of their name, they had to end by the city's one o'clock curfew. The early matches were all GR, but once the promotion started to tank, they allowed the catch style to be used. This tournament pretty much ended the use of GR in American pro wrestling.
The tournament began on Nov. 8, but Lewis didn't show up until Nov. 22. Sense it was an International Tournament, Lewis was billed as being from Germany. Ed was as International as the House of Pancakes but many Americans were being billed as foreigners, so the German speaking Lewis fit the billing. He was pushed from the beginning and won five straight matches before wrestling a 20 minute draw with Wladek Zbyszko on Nov. 30. A large number of these matches, because of the short timelimit, ended up as draws, and Lewis then entered a long period of them. His over all record during his stay in the tournament was 21 wins, one loss and 15 draws. At one point he wrestled six draws in a row. During the tournament he had four draws with Wladek (who had at least 13 draws in the tournament). This type of booking was normal in GR tournaments in Europe.
Lewis went to a 20 minute draw with Aberg on Dec. 4, which led to another Aberg draw on Dec. 9 which lasted 1:04:00 before being stopped by the curfew. It was said to be an action filled match and Ed did well wrestling in the GR style against the champion. The match barely got any mention in the press because that night marked the debut of The Masked Marvel.
The idea for a masked wrestlers seems to have originated with a opera promoter named Mark A. Luescher. Using the hero of a novel "THAT FRENCHMAN" by Archibald Clavering Gunter, he dressed an opera diva named La Belle Dazle up in a red mask and toured the country to sell out crowds. Luascher suggested a masked mystery gimmick to Ben Atwood, press agent for the opera house wrestling shows. Atwood went to Jack Curley, who was managing Yusif Hussane in the tournament but not promoting, and Charlie Cutler, and two came up with a wrestler to play the part with a mask for him to hide his identity. Up until his debut into Rachmann's tournament, the fans were losing interest in the show, but with the masked man headlining they started seeing box office drawers fill with money. The masked man was really Mort Henderson, a Rochester performer, who had been picked by Cutler and Curley while wrestling in Pennsylvania. Once outfitted with a proper mask, the unknown became a major wrestler over night. His only true major victory was a win over George Lurich but he wrestled many long draws with the best like: Wladek Zbyszko (Dec. 17 2:13:00 and Dec. 30 1:56:00 and Jan. 5 1:58:00), Aberg (Dec. 17 2:21:00), and Lurich (Jan. 12 1:27:00). The Masked Marvel got good reviews in the press as a performer and everyone seemed willing to make him look good. He was not the first masked wrestler, but he was the first to be promoted to the top level for any length of time. Did the gimmick expose the business? Yes, but no one seemed to care with good money being made off him.
The mystery didn't last long. On Dec. 16, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed that The Masked Marvel was Mort Henderson. I believe the reporter got the information from Mort's manager, Ed Pollard, who then denied the charge. The angle continued like nothing happened.
Lewis became the first man to defeat The Masked Marvel on December 20, when the Strangler tricked the Marvel using a headlock followed by a wristlock and pin in 11:50. The ending happened so fast that it took the crowd a minute to realize the Marvel had been pinned. After the crowd regained its breath, it gave Lewis an ovation that he never forgot. The paper claimed he cried in the ring. The match had been an even affair, so a finish match was held on December 22, which ended up in a draw in 1:59:00. A third match between the two took place on January 3, and it also was a draw but lasted two hours and thirdly one minutes.
Lewis had his big GR showdown with Alex Aberg on Dec. 29, 1916. Lewis started fast but after 20 minutes he found Aberg gaining in strength. Aberg put Lewis into a double nelson and after Ed broke the hold, he seemed groggy. After 50 minutes Lewis was slammed by Aberg and pinned by an inside arm lock. Lewis had to be helped out of the ring and later claimed Aberg wasn't human and "the strongest wrestler before the public in 1915".
On January 15, 1916, Ed Lewis defeated Dr Ben Roller under catch rules. The next day manager Billy Sandow was interviewed in the newspaper saying that Ed Lewis was the catch style world champion due to the victory. He also claimed the first Stecher match was a draw and only stopped after The Strangler had held Stecher in a bridge for twenty-three minutes and Joe broke his finger to break free. This appeared around the same time that Jack Curley announced that the true world champion Joe Stecher would defend his title verses Wladek Zbyszko on January 27 in Madison Square Garden.
On January 17, Lewis scored one of his biggest wins at the Opera house in pinning Wladek Zbyszko in 1:21:07 under catch rules. The win and his continuing title claim, put Sandow back on the sports page claiming Lewis should replace Wladek against Stecher. Sandow and Lewis would claim, through the following years, that they won the catch section of the tournament. No one knows for sure, but in no place is there a mention of a "catch-as-catch-can" tournament in any newspaper. Ed Lewis could say he was the star during his two months stay at the Opera House and the strongest catch wrestler, but there is no straight out mention of a catch tournament. There was only a GR tournament champion and that was Alex Aberg.
Lewis and Sandow then left the tournament before it completed. Rachmann wanted to take Lewis on a American tour meeting Aberg, but Sandow wanted more that the $200 a week he was getting in New York City. Lewis then started working on the East Coast, probably for Jack Curley, with an agreement to wrestle Stecher again in Omaha around July 4.
On Jan. 24, 1916, Alex Aberg defeated Wladek Zbyszko to win the GR tournament title. As was the habit of most major cards in pro wrestling's early period, the match was terrible and an insult to the fans who paid to be present. At 25:52 Zbyszko was thrown from the ring crashing him into the back of the stage. Wladek struck the floor and then rolled over on a table, laying still. When he was attended to, he claimed an injury, saying he couldn't continue. The fans yelled "quitter" and "fake". They shouted down any announcement and it looked like a riot was about to take place. A Doctor came into the ring and said that Wladek could continue, but Zbyszko refused. Zbyszko then announced, that he was injured, but would continue if the spectators desired him to do so. The crowd, being unsympathetic to Wladek's plight, made it plain they wanted him to wrestle, so Wladek walked off the stage and did not return. 50 minutes later referee George Bothner declared Aberg the winner.
Jack Curley had been a force in boxing for most of the 1900's, but he also had experience as a wrestling promoter in Chicago and the North West; and had managed Hackenschmidt, Roller and Yussif Hussane. Curley was the boxing promoter who found America's white hope, having staged famous Jack Johnson/Jess Willard fight in Havana Cuba on April 5, 1915. Jack Curley, was about as big and powerful a promoter as you could find in the world, but his position in boxing was challenged by a new man named Tex Rickard. Curley, not willing to offer the big guarantees, nor take the chances of Rickard, left boxing to concentrate on controlling the world of pro wrestling.
In January of 1915, he booked the champion Joe Stecher into Madison Square Garden at the same time Rachmann was still running his Opera House tournament. At first, Curley had Stecher set up to defend verses Wladek Zbyszko, but three day before card Wladek made a fool of himself in the Jan. 25 match with Aberg and became unusable. So Curley contacted The Masked Marvel and Strangler Lewis to take Zbyszko's place in the title match. Rachmann, didn't see anything in the idea for him, so he took Curley to court claiming both wrestlers were under contracts. Turned out that Henderson was being paid $100 a week and Lewis was getting $200, "to engaged to take part in the wrestling performances, just as actors are engaged to perform" in stage plays. Curley was friends with Rachmann and the two came to terms by the next day, so Jack made the announcement that Stecher would be meeting The Masked Marvel that night.
The statements in court blew the cover of Rachmann's tournament and confirmed The Masked Marvel's identity as Mort Henderson. Most of the air left in the Opera House Tournament then fled for a cleaner environment.
On the day of the match, Sandow was in the newspapers again complaining that Stecher shouldn't be billed as Catch world champion because that title belonged to Lewis. But the new champion Stecher seemed to be getting most of the fan's attention and very few thought much of Sandow's comments.
On January 27, 1916, Stecher's first showing in New York City was a great success. Joe beat The Marvel in straight falls, 9:50 and 5:51, with his scissors hold. In outclassing one of the major stars of the Opera tournament, the paper claimed he "gave competitive sports a tremendous boost by his sportsmanlike actions" and that "Not since Frank Gotch showed here has there been such a wrestler" in the city. Stecher was a hit in front of one of the largest crowds in New York City in years. High society had turned out and approved of the sport. So Jack Curley had found a home in New York City and he remained the dominate wrestling promoter in town until 1937.
The last card of Sam Rachmann's tournament took place on January 29, 1916. Alex Aberg received a $5,000 purse for winning first place in the GR tournament. No prize for catch wrestling was mentioned. The main event had The Masked Marvel losing to Sulo Hevonpaa. There were challenges printed about Aberg wanting a match with Joe Stecher, but the match never seemed to have taken place. Hachmann had plans on a GR tournament to tour the country but it also never happened. For the most part, Greco-Roman wrestling in America just seemed to die.
In late 1915, reports were that Gotch was coming out of retirement for the Stecher match. In Jan. 1916 Frank traveled to Los Angeles on a family vacation but the real reason was to train. He later signed a contract to wrestle Ad Santel in San Francisco on February 22, but drops out due to a lack of conditioning. This lead to him being sued by the promoter.
On Feb. 24, Gene Melady, one of, if not the most, powerful wrestling promoter in American, said he had an options on both Stecher and Gotch for a match at the Omaha Fair Grounds on Labor Day. He planed to erect an arena big enough to draw a $150,000 gate. It all would depended on Gotch's feelings after training a few weeks. Other reports of the match, taking place in Chicago and Sioux City, follow.
In March, Gotch had two matches. In one he beat William Demetral at the Los Angeles Athletic Club (March 10, 1916) and in the other he won a handicap match over Herman Strech, Jack White and Sam Clapham in San Diego (March 12, 1916). On both nights he looked terrible.
On April 4, Gotch returned to his home, Hunboldt, Iowa, and announces he had signed to appear with the Sells-Floto Circus, starting on April 15. Said he would be paid $1,100 a week or $1,350 if he signs to meet Stecher. By May 1, Gotch had stomach problems and couldn't eat. Weighting only 185 pounds, he canceled his contract with the circus. Saying the condition started in California, he went back home to Humbolt but returned to the circus on May 24, noting that he needed the money. On June 14, Harry Tammen, owner of the Sells-Floto Circus, claimed Gotch has signed to meet Stecher in Chicago. On July 18, 1916, Frank Gotch broke the fibula bone in his left leg wrestling an exhibition match with Bob Managoff. Everyone involved then realized that a Stecher/Gotch super match would never happen.
Stecher had spent much of 1916 wrestling minor opponents and spinning his wheels waiting on Gotch. At this point he realized he needed a new rival to make big money off of. All signs pointed to Strangler Lewis to be the first to play the part.
Lewis and Sandow had continued to claim the world title, even after Alex Aberg got a temporary injunction from a judge telling them to stop. Aberg sited his win over Lewis as proof.
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