Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe


1917 and The Olin World Title

Lewis had a rematch with Santel on Jan. 2, 1917 that ended up a 2:30:01 draw. Stecher was to meet the winner and he picked Santel wanting the Lewis rematch in Omaha.[50] On Feb. 22, Stecher destroyed Santel in two straight falls. The match drew 12,000 fans and $12,643.

Stecher spent two weeks at the end of January at Excelsior Springs, Nebraska receiving treatment on his right shoulder. Doctors recommended that he take three months off but he returned to the ring on February 7. There were also rumors of a nervous break down.

Between Stecher and Lewis, I feel that Stecher was the superior wrestler, but the one area that Lewis dominated was his durability, which gave him the ability to take punishment night after night in long championship contests. Stecher's body would break down and he needed time off to recover, while Lewis's powerful body seemed able to absorb punishment and keep going.

Stecher continued to follow Lewis around the West Coast, and both wrestled matches in Los Angeles. They were being billed as the two greatest wrestlers in the world. While training at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, Stecher complained of a knee injury, a result of the match with Santel.

In early 1917, Lewis worked in an early Douglas Fairbanks movie, either as a stunt man or an extra. The name of the five reel film was "REACHING FOR THE MOON". I would think Lewis knew Bull Montana, Fairbanks trainer and friend, or met Fairbanks at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Lewis may have been involved in a short fight scene in the film. The movie was released on November 17, 1917.[50a]

In February and March, Lewis wrestled in Caton Ohio, Norfolk, Virginia, and Houston, Texas beating some of his old favorites, Charley Cutler, Ben Roller, Paul Martinson, and Ivan Linow, in two straight falls.

The tired Stecher, injured, sick, and newly married, lost his title for real on April 4, 1917 in Omaha to his old friend and undefeated rival Earl Caddock. Stecher forced the action in the first fall, because Caddock was on the defense for an hour, so his local fans could win their bets on him lasting 60 minutes. Earl then came out of his shell, but the champion won the fall in one hour and 22 minutes with a scissors and body lock. In the 2nd fall, Caddock went after Joe. At the 55 minute mark, he seemed to pin Stecher using a head scissor and a English arm bar, but the move was not allowed by the referee, who claimed he had ordered a break and a return to the center of the mat. The match continued for another 40 minutes until Caddock took the fall with a full nelson and pin. The crowd went nuts seeing Stecher pinned for the first time in his career. When the break between falls ended, Stecher didn't return to the ring. After notice was served to seconds (Joe Hetmanek) to produce Joe or else, else happened, and Caddock was given the third fall and world championship.[51]

There are a lot of reasons given for Stecher's refusal to return. He might have been injured, or sick, or just too worn out. Joe would claim he wasn't ever told to return by his manager, and such a double-cross was possible because the Stechers had attempted to dump manager Joe Hetmanek for the Gotch camp in December 1916. I think it was a worked ending that was 1917's version of a screw finish. Stecher needed time off and just dumped the title to trusted friend Earl Caddock.[52]

Stecher wrestled two minor matches in April, then didn't wrestle until September. On September 3, 1917, he beat Marin Plestina in Omaha. On Sept. 12, the Stecher's contract with Joe Hetmanek ended, and Tony Stecher took over as Joe manager.

By 1917, promoters had convinced John Olin to claim the world title, so on May 2, 1917 he defended this title verse Strangler Lewis in Chicago. The match was refereed by Frank Gotch and Lewis won his first true world championship when Olin injured his shoulder and couldn't continue after two hours and 37 minutes. Olin admitted defeat but complained that referee Gotch was coaching Lewis at times during the match. After the match, Gotch praised Lewis saying he was the best wrestler in the world.[53]

The Olin Title line was forgotten by our time and got little recognition in 1917, but some may have thought of it as the true "in the ring" world title, so it has to be considered a big moment in Lewis's career.

Gotch is of very little help to historians of 2011 with his quotes and titles bequeaths to various wrestlers over his later years. In June 1917, his health worsened and in October he was admitted to a Chicago hospital. On Dec. 16, 1917, Frank Gotch died from Uremic (ureic) poisoning (usually meaning kidney failure) around noon at his home in Humbolt, Iowa. The proud champion weighted 115 pounds and had lost much of his mental faculties by the time of his death. He was a rich man, owning two farms, an auto dealership and land in the Dakotas, Seattle, and Canada. He was also a bank director and president of a local street railway and an electric light company. His funeral was held on December 19 in front of 2,000 people, with his eulogy given by the governor of Iowa. There would be no more Frank Gotch comebacks. Pro wrestling would have to survive without him.

On May 11, John Olin lost to Wladek Zbyszko in Louisville when he was again unable to continue due to an injury.

After Joe Stecher's destruction of home town favorite Ad Santel in February 1917, San Francisco wrestling fell back into hard times. Promoter Frank Schuler gave up his position as promoter to allow a mark named Charley Newman, whose real job was owner of the largest saloon on Market Street, to take control.

Back in New York, Jack Curley had a young man named Jack Kearns working odd jobs for him. Kearns, later become famous as the manager of Jack Dempsey, but in 1917 he was hated by everyone in New York City. Early that year, Curley got rid of Kearns by sending him to San Francisco to manage a wrestler named Tony (Anton) Irsa. Ad Santel's reputation had been damaged by the beating given to him by Stecher and he was having trouble with his promoter Schuler. Santel at a local gym offered to work out with Irsa. His need to get back on the good side of Schuler motivated a double-cross on Kearns. Santel shot and destroyed Irsa in front of the local sports writers.

With his wrestler ruined, Kearns was left in Oakland with nothing to do. So he found a down on his luck boxer named Jack Dempsey and started managing him around April 1917.

Kearn becomes buddies with Charley "what me worry" Newman[53a] and talked him into bankrolling a Lewis/Zbyszko title match in San Francisco. Using his contacts with Curley, Kearn got Newman to give $3,000 guarantees to both Wladek and Lewis, plus expenses.

Lewis and Sandow arrived in town for a week of training before the June 6, 1917 match. Wladek and his manager Jack Curley did the same. Around that time, Kearn disappeared, leaving Newman alone to think about the large guarantees. He soon realized that the guarantees, just guaranteed he was going to lose a lot of money. With Curley, Sandow, Lewis, and Kearn all in one city working over a mark like Newman, you can understand the mess going on. Newman wanted to cancel the card but the group of wrestling pros managed to get him to the arena that night, mainly because he had already given them expense money.

At 9:00 they counted $836 in the box office. Newman freaked and twice the match was cancelled. Newman refused to pay, saying Kearn should pick up half of the bill. Kearn told everyone that Newman was handling the financial end of the affair. At 9:30, fans were starting to riot in the arena and the police were brought in. At some point, Curley agreed to a compromise of $1,400 for Wladek and Sandow agreed to $2,000 for Lewis.[54]

At 10:58, Lewis and Wladek entered the ring. It ended at 1:45 AM. The two and a half hour time limit ran out with Zbyszko winning the only fall on a fluke. Lewis had Wladek in a hold with Zbyszko holding the ropes as Ed pulled. The referee told Wladek to let go…so he did and both performers fell into the ring…with Wladek on top. This was ruled a flying fall for Zbyszko. Lewis was the aggressor and looked to be the better man, but he lost. No title was ever mentioned in the San Francisco newspaper but later, in Boston, it was made plain that Lewis lost his Olin Line world title in the mess.[55]

The newspaper pronounced wrestling dead in the city and Newman said he would never promote again after losing at least $2,100. Then, two days later, old promoter Frank Schuler stepped forward saying the city was still alive and he was again taking over the promotion. San Francisco wrestling was back in the hands of professionals. Curley was mad at Kearns over the incident, so Kearn was never involved with the wrestling game again. He was stuck with the managing of Jack Dempsey.

Ed Lewis was happy because he got to spend three weeks courting Dr. Ada Scott Morton in San Jose. On June 21, Lewis gave a deposition in a court case involving Ada and her ex-husband Dr. Andrew W. Morton. Andrew was seeking to recover $70,000 worth of property (an orange grove) deeded to his former wife in a divorce settlement in February 1917. He was claiming fraud and misrepresentation, possibly as a result of her relationship with a certain wrestler.[55b] Lewis produced affidavits that proved he was on the East Coast and not in the West on the date charged.[55c]

Lewis got a rematch with Wladek on a big July 4 card at Braves Field in Boston. Wladek won the first fall in 57:45 by reversing a crotch hold into a body roll and pin. Zbyszko injured his right elbow and a knee during the 2nd fall when he was thrown out the ring. Lewis then pinned him with a half-nelson in 24:44. Zbyszko had to be carried to the dressing room for the rest period and everyone was surprised at his gameness in returning for the 3rd falls, but he was no match for Lewis. The match was stopped in 45 seconds. This match was billed for the Olin world title and Ed regained it. The crowd was said to have been one of the largest in Boston sports history.[56]

Wladek got his title rematch on September 3, 1917, wrestling a draw with Lewis at Birmingham, Alabama.

>> Continue to CHAPTER 11


  • 50a This information on the film "REACHING FOR THE MOON" was supplied by historian Ken Viewer, who has been working on finding old wrestling matches through newsreel companies and universities with film libraries. The film seems to exist on DVD, but I've never seen it.
  • 51 JOE STECHER by Steve Yohe THE DES MOINES REGISTER April 10, 1917 CHICAGO TRIBUNE April 10, 1917
  • 52 Statements from the April 11 DES MOINES REGISTER:

    Referee Charley Sherman: "When Caddock came back into the ring for the third fall, Joe Hetmanek, Stecher's manager, came around to Caddock's corner, and in the presence of (Frank) Gotch, Caddock, myself, and I believe Gene Melady, said Stecher had injured his neck and would not come back for another bout. Then I awarded the match to Caddock, which was the only thing to do under the circumstances."

    Joe Stecher: "I have but few excuses and no complaint. I was honestly defeated, insofar as the fall I lost was concerned. But as to the final decision of the referee, I must say that when in my room after this fall nobody notified me that the time was up, as either my manager, Mr. Melady, or the referee should, and while I was suffering greatly from a running ear and a surging cold in my head and chest, I was ready to go back, to go on with the match, and intended to, but was not given the opportunity. But I have no harsh words for anyone. I was beaten and that is all there is to it, and in Earl Caddock the game has an honest and deserving successor to myself."

    Manager Joe Hetmanek: "I went to Joe's dressing room during the intermission after Caddock's fall, and when the Caddock henchmen were clamoring that the match be awarded to Earl on the grounds that time was up and Joe refused to return, I told Tony to hurry and get Joe out, but he replied that Joe said: "I won't go back and you can't make me go back!" Knowing Joe, I then hurried out and informed the referee that Joe refused to return. But it is all history now and I only want to say that Joe Stecher was not himself. He was ill from several causes, but at that he had Caddock beaten easily, when he did show flashes of his form, and as himself, I think is far and away the better man."

  • Back to Yohe: You can tell from this that the Stecher did seem to be fed up with Manager Hetmanek, who only access to Joe was through Tony and they seemed willing to dump the loss in his lap. I stick to my theory that this was just a worked screw finish designed to give Joe rest away from the title. Everything points to that…and the fact that it was another way to make money off of gamblers sweeten the idea. Joe was a strange guy and very simple. He just wanted to wrestle and care little about anything else. Tony was the brains and had control. Another theory not normally stated is…maybe Joe was told in the dressing room, for the first time, that he was losing…and thru ethics or ego, refused to go back out to job. I doubt it but it's another idea to think about. Some will want me to say it was a shoot and what happen…happen. Everyone is free to think what they want because no one really knows nor will anyone ever really know. It's just fun.

    It should be noted that Stecher proclaims Caddock the new champion, something that didn't happen after the John Olin match. I think it's a tradition that the old champion has to give the title to the next one. Also Frank Gotch was ringside and in view of everyone. In the official photos, taken before the match, Gotch is standing between Stecher and Caddock. The referee does go out of his way to say that Hetmanek gave up in front of Gotch….like Gotch's approval of the ruling meant something. This is something to think about in terms of Ed Lewis, who never admits to losing a title until Jim Browning in New York City.
  • 53 CHICAGO TRIBUNE May 3, 1917—The Olin/Lewis match drew 7,000 fans. Newspaper report said the match was a contest of great strength and endurance but lack the science and endurance fans were accustomed to in Frank Gotch matches.
  • 53a Bad Yohe joke playing around with the Alfred E. Newman name. Sorry.
  • 54 An attorney named F. T. Finch show up at one point to put an attachment on the box office for $1,225, which he claimed was due on a judgment secured against Newman. Charley tried to punch him but then called it a mix-up and bought off Finch with $300.
  • 55 SAN FRANSICO CHRONICLE June 4 to June 8, 1917 also RING MAGAZINE: MEMOIRS OF A PROMOTER BY JACK CURLEY (as told to Frank Graham) December issue 1931.
  • 55b OAKLAND TRIBUNE June 22, 1917
  • 55c OAKLAND TRIBUNE April 9, 1919
  • 56 BOSTON GLOBE July 5, 1917