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ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe

CHAPTER 12

1918 and The Age of Jack Curley

Lewis stopped off in Canton on January 1, 1918 to give the young Jim Londos his rematch. This time they went to a two and half hour draw. Londos out wrestled Lewis for the first two hours, but in the last 30 minutes Lewis's 40 pound weight advantage wore the Greek down. In the last ten minutes Lewis applied his headlock five times but Londos manage to hold on until the time limit ran out. Referee, Jerry Walls, ruled the match a draw but most fans thought Ed would have won in a finish match. Still lasting two and a half hours and getting a draw with one of the top four men in the world made Londos a major player.[64]

On January 4, 1918, Lewis was back in Savannah wrestling Wladek Zbyszko in a match under GR rules. Both were claiming a world title. The match was a 1:15:00 draw with Lewis working well in the GR style, but fans preferred Catch wrestling and the promoters stated that they would stick with the American style from that point on. Lewis may have injured a rib during the match, but was back wrestling in 20 days.

In January 1918, Earl Caddock, the person just about everyone recognized as the true world champion, was stationed at Fort Dodge teaching bayonet fighting to other troops and coaching sports teams. A deal was made with the Army and Caddock was given passes while his unit was in training, so he was able to continue his wrestling career. In late January, a promotional battle took place between Curley, Oscar Thorson (the major promoter in Des Moines) and Gene Melady of Omaha, over the site of a title unification match between Caddock and Wladek Zbyszko. Des Moines won the match and the date was set for February 8.

In the press, Sandow did his best to discredit Caddock. This lead to Melady saying a match with Lewis would be considered after he finished with Wladek. The quote: "The refusal to meet the Strangler is not based on any belief that he is not a good wrestler, but simply on the fact that so many of his contests have proved unsatisfactory. Lewis and his manager have succeeded in killing the game nearly everywhere they have appeared, because Lewis whenever he meets a man of ability has shown a penchant for playing on the defensive alone. His most notable offense was in Omaha when he wrestled Joe Stecher five hours without once trying to take the offensive."[65] Melady stated that he was willing to have Caddock sign for a Lewis match, if Sandow would put up a forfeit or bond that insured that the Strangler would wrestle instead of stall.

On Feb. 8, 1918,either before or after the Caddock/Wladek match, Jack Curley called a meeting between the major wrestling promoters, such as Gene Melady, Oscar Thorson, Carl Marfigi and Otto Floto, and major newspaper man such as Ed Smith, Sec Taylor, and Sandy Griswold. Curley proposed rule changes such as time limits, decisions, and one fall matches. It was Curley's idea to make wrestling like boxing with pins being like KO's and decisions accepted as true victories. Curley walked away from the meeting with his rule changes; some of which lasted over time (note New York City's reliance on one-fall matches) while the less popular were hidden or thrown away. Never the less, Curley and New York City had shown newfound power over the sport.[66]

It seems the rules were focused on Lewis with time limits and decisions were put in effect so a wrestler couldn't stall through a match with the hope of an opponent blowing up after hours of standing around. This would give the fans insurance that they were going to see both men work to the best of their ability.

As for the Unification match, Caddock won a two and half hour decision over Wladek. Caddock won the first fall in one hour and twenty minute with his head scissors and wrist lock. Zbyszko out weighted the champion by 45 pounds and when Earl had a body scissor applied, Wladek stood up with Caddock on his back. He then fell backward and Caddock landed on his back and head to be pinned in thirty one minutes. To the fans it seemed like a fluke, but it was only the second fall ever lost by Caddock. In the third fall Caddock out wrestled Wladek, but the Pole's strength stopped any pinning attempt. Referee Ed Smith gave the decision to Caddock. Many Zbyszko fans thought Curley's insistence on a time limit cost Wladek the title because Caddock seemed injured in the third fall. The match drew 7,000 with 4,000 of them from out of town.[67]

Around March of 1918, Curley traveled to the mid-west and signed agreements with Joe Stecher and Ed Lewis. Most of the major matches were being held in the small cites of Iowa, Kentucky & Nebraska who drew large crowds from the countryside for holidays such as Fourth of July or The Kentucky Derby. The agreement by Curley, Sandow, and the Stechers formed a "Trust" that would take wrestling out of the small towns to the large cites of the East, such as New York City, controlled by Curley. Curley also had a large stable of talent that he would book out to emerging promoter along the East Coast and into the South. I don't know if Gene Melady agreed to the pact and that may have had something to do with the inability of Earl Caddock, guided by Melady, to drop the World Title back to Joe Stecher before being sent to Europe and WWI.[68]

Joe Stecher had returned to wrestling slowly in the last four months of 1917. He appeared for Curley on January 29, 1918 beating Yussik Hussane on the first of four cards booked into Madison Square Garden between Jan. 29 and April 26. All four cards were sellout for Curley.

On the second card, March 1, 1918, Stecher wrestled Wladek Zbyszko to a two hour draw. The referee George Bothner ruled that the match was a draw but most reports felt Stecher should have been the winner. Sandow and Lewis were making noise in the newspapers, saying that Caddock and Stecher were refusing to meet him.[69] That did seem like the storyline, but the next two cards had Ed in the main event verses Wladek and Stecher. He must have signed up with Jack. Perhaps the alliance took place on March 9, when Sandow was in the New York office of Curley signing for another Zbyszko match.[69a]

Lewis' headlock was becoming an issue. Many insiders claimed the move should be banned because Lewis would slide his arm down on the windpipe and turn the hold into a strangle. Lewis and some officials, such as George Bothner, claimed he was just blocking blood flow to the brain. All of the talk was turning Lewis's headlock into the most famous hold in sports. In the 1917 tournament loss to Wladek, Lewis agreed to not using the hold, but in the New York rematch it would be legal.

On March 19, 1918, Lewis met Wladek Zbyszko in a "packed" Madison Square Garden, in a match called the fastest and wildest in the history of New York City wrestling. There was bad blood between the two from the bell. Zbyszko kept head butting Lewis and Ed caught the Pole a dozen times in the headlock. Walter's eyes looked ready to pop in Lewis' viselike grip but he wriggled his way free each time. At 38:28, Zbyszko hit The Strangler with another head butt and Lewis fell helpless out of the ring. The referee Billy Roche awarded the decision to Lewis on a foul. A riot followed with the sold out crowd trying to get at Wladek. One spectator hit Zbyszko over the head with a cane that inflicted a bad cut. For the win, Lewis was given his rematch with Joe Stecher.[70]

Following this match, Lewis developed an "infectious disease". I believe Dr. Ada Scott Morton, now his long time girl friend, had been traveling with him, possibly being passed off as his wife.[71] She took Ed back to San Francisco, where she had him seen by specialist. The report doesn't say what kind of a disease he had, but it was a threat to his career. Lewis was know for having the eye disease Trachoma, but 1918 seem too early for him to have been infected. He was also known for various skin problems such as carbuncles. By the end of April, he returned fit enough for his match with Stecher.

Lewis got his third match with Joe Stecher in Madison Square Garden on April 26. Reports called it a great match with the grapplers punishing each other with deadly holds that were cleverly broken just as they seemed on the verge of defeat. Stecher was quicker and more aggressive, but found his scissors countered by Lewis' great strength. Stecher countered Ed headlock and it was never an issue. After two hours, the match was called a draw by referee Billy Roche. The arena was sold out and it was said to be the best match of the season.

Some of the fans and reporters in Nebraska were upset that Stecher had broken his promise to not wrestle Lewis outside of the state, but they also realize that New York City was too big for a small city, like Omaha, to compete with.

On May 8 in Chicago, Wladek Zbyszko got another shot at Earl Caddock's world title. Once again he lost a two hour decision. Caddock's perfect physical condition and a superior wrestling knowledge proved too much for the Pole, but fans were beginning to talk about Caddock's inability to pin the large (at least 47 pounds with Wladek) contenders. Wladek, like his older brother, had a way of lying face down with no one able to turn them or put a major hold on them. (Stan Zbyszko used this trick verse the Great Gama in Europe during the 1930's). Most thought the match was boring and the new unsatisfying decision rule was disliked by fans.

Two days later, Lewis won a decision over Wladek in Louisville. Zbyszko won the first fall in 1:34:00 with a double hammerlock and Lewis took the second in 35:00 with the headlock. Ed was the aggressor throughout and was awarded the decision after two and a half hours. Wladek would also lose a decision to Stecher in Omaha on June 12.

On May 14, Billy Sandow traveled to Des Moines to arrange a match with Caddock. He argued that Lewis had been drafted into the Army and if the two were ever to meet, now was the time. Lewis was still claiming the Olin world title and was willing to accept any terms asked to get the match. Agreements were made for June 21, 1918 in Des Moines.

Caddock wrestled rings around Lewis although he was, once again, unable to pin a larger contender. But the champion was so far ahead on points that referee Ed Smith quit keeping score after two hours of the 150 minute match. Only once was Ed able to secure his headlock and it was broken with ease. Every other hold Lewis applied was broken at Caddock's will and half the time the champion would reverse the move to end up behind the challenger. Lewis took no chances and stayed on defense except for about 15 minutes of the entire two and half hour match. Four times it seemed the champion was about to take a fall but Ed's superior weight helped him break away. Whenever the two were on the mat, Caddock was always behind. The match was a Caddock show from start to finish. Caddock claimed he was the undisputed heavyweight wrestling champion. Gate was $22,000.

The drafted Strangler entered the Army on July 27, 1918 and was stationed at Camp Grant at Rockville Illinois. He was promoted from private to sergeant before he was given a uniform, serving as an instructor in physical education and athletics. He spent his off time entertaining by wrestling at the YMCA building and at hospitals. Billy Sandow was also in the service, he claimed he gave instructions in hand to hand fighting at five different training camps. Sandow then attended officer's training school at Camp Gordon. He was then sent to Camp Hancock and was waiting for his commission when the armistice was signed.[71a]

Joe Stecher joined the Navy on July 30 and was stationed at the Great Lakes Training Center in Chicago. Tony Stecher was turned down because he was the father of two twins. A third brother, Louis, had graduated from Annapolis and was an officer serving in British waters. At one point, Lewis's Camp Grant was to meet Stecher's camp in wrestling and there was talk of the two meeting, but nothing came of it.

On August 4, 1918, Earl Caddock's eighty-eight division left for the East Coast, with orders to sail overseas with in the following week (Aug. 7). He was off to the war, taking the undisputed world wrestling title with him.

By August 20, Caddock was stationed at Hericourt, France. The Eighty-Eighth was stationed safe, far behind the lines, but Caddock felt a need to see action. Occasionally, in the evenings, he would ride a motorcycle to visit the front and spend a few hours in the trenches. It was during one of these clandestine visits that a green cross shell exploded near him and some of the poisonous phosgene gas reached him before he could adjust his gas mask. Caddock was not seriously injured but was sick for a few weeks.[72]

Around Sept. 14, the Eighty-Eighth relieved the Twenty-Ninth Division at Belfort on the lines opposite to Mullhaus and Germany. It was a quiet front with shelling being the main danger. On Oct. 4, 1918, a ceasefire was called between Allied forces and Germany.

November saw Caddock sent to officer training school, which he hated. He was treated badly, and it rained all the time. The food and his health were poor and he spent $500 of his own money on food. The conditions for the troops in France were a nightmare. Over 112,432 men died in their short stay, fifty percent of that number from disease.

The Eighty-Eighth had orders to attack Germany on Nov. 12, but on Nov. 11 the armistice was signed at Compiegne, France and the war was over. Around Nov. 28, the Eighty-Eighth left Belfort.

Lewis defeated Bob Managoff in Chicago on November 29, 1918. In December, Lewis was discharged for the Army and beat old friend Dr Ben Roller at Montreal. He then went home for the holiday. One report said he was recovering from an injury suffered in the Army.

Stecher was discharged from the navy on December 19, 1918, he had been in training during his service and claimed to have gained 20 pounds of muscle.

>> Continue to CHAPTER 13

FOOTNOTES

  • 64 THE CANTON REPOSITORY January 2, 1918
  • 65 THE DES MOINES REGISTER January 23, 1918
  • 66 THE DES MOINES REGISTER February 10, 1918—Sandy Griswold also talks about the meeting in the OMAHA WORLD-HERALD February 28, 1918.
  • 67 THE DES MOINES REGISTER February 9, 1918
  • 68 To those few people who believe that pro wrestling consisted of "shoots" or "contests", these illusions were forever erased with these agreements and the forming of this version of a Curley trust. The agreement would form the line between the shoot era and the worked period. To many historians, who have read all the reports, the idea of a time line, between real and fake, seems like a joke.
  • 69 Sandy Griswold, one of the best wrestling writers in the history of the sport, wrote this in the OMAHA WORLD-HERALD February 27, 1918 (SANDY'S DOPE): "Here is a specimen of the stuff some of the New York writers are peddling to the suckers down there. This is from the typewriter of Daniel, a sports writer of much talent, on the Evening Sun, and while it proves that Daniel is not what might be called au fait in the ramifications of the mat game, he means well, and must not be wrongly judged. Here's Daniel's comments: B. C. Sandow, manager of the Strangler, charges that a wrestling combination has been formed to the detriment of his grappler…. The fact is that in the championship controversy Lewis stands higher than any of the others and with the "Strangler" asking for a chance to wrestle Zbyszko, Stecher, or Caddock, wefail to seethe necessity for an immediate meeting between the Pole and the scissors expert. Stecher has not been in the title hunt for some time, since his defeats by Olin and Caddock, and Zbyszko was eliminated by Caddock recently. The public is entitled to the best bouts available, and if it is convinced that some first-class wrestler is being discriminated against it may decide to give the game the go by." Sandy continued "Rich, isn't it? This slandering of Ed Lewis, particularly. It is all probably quite true that Lewis is bellyaching for a match with champion Earl Caddock, and runner-up Joe Stecher, and his old stable-mate Wladek Zbyszko, but the opinion is that he'll be allowed to belly-ache for many moons yet. He forever killed his chances for a match with Stecher by his cowardly and unsportsmanlike actions in his match with him two years ago, and so far as Caddock is concerned, he and his manager Gene Melady, are to longsighted and too businesslike to ever give him the slightest consideration—that is, anyway, until after the controversies with all the legitimate adversaries has been settled. No one is anxious to see Lewis perform again, and at that he would be nuts for Caddock, Stecher, or even Zbyszko, that is, of course, providing he gave them a square battle. So far as his headlock is concerned, that's all bosh, and nobody knows it better than he does himself. Oh no, what the public now wants is the return go between Caddock and Stecher."

    On March 12, 1918, Sandy writes this about Lewis and his headlock before the March 19 match with Wladek: "Now that is one colossal joke. Lewis' headlock has been one of the commonest holds in wrestling, since that young Babylonian threw the bull in Voltaire's romance—Zadig. But Eddie needn't peeve—Zbyszko is his friend. They've only wrestled each other about two dozen times, and Zibby surely isn't going to back on him now."

    YOHE: I think the mid-west heat was real, but any problem, at this time, with Curley was worked. Lewis signs with Curley and becomes one of the gang until 1922. As for the mid-west, he would always be a heel. Some feel that Ed Lewis created the heel character in pro wrestling, but I think his and Sandow personality forced it on him.
  • 69a THE DES MOINES REGISTER March 10, 1918
  • 70 NEW YORK TIMES March 20, 1918
  • 71 The report, THE CANTON REPOSITORY April 6, 1918, claims Dr. Ada Scott Morton was his wife with the marriage taking place a few months before. We know Scott was following Lewis around the country and continues for some time. It was the only way the two could spend time together. It seems believable that he was passing her off as a wife in 1918. The date of the true marriage was May 8, 1919. It should also be noted that the marriage date set in THE UNPUBLISHED LEWIS BIOGRAPHY was March, 1918.
  • 71a THE KANSAS CITY STAR April 29, 1923
  • 72 THE DES MOINES REGISTER May 31, 1919


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