ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth
by Steve Yohe
1920 with Joe Stecher as Champion
After the Wladek loss, Lewis headed back to San Jose after first wrestling a few matches in the Chicago area. He was in San Jose for the holidays, then wrestled his way through Kansas and Missouri and had a few matches in Utica and Boston. He was present at the Caddock/Stecher title unification match on January 30, 1920.
Many of pro wrestling's greatest events, such as the Gotch/Hackenschmidt matches, the first two Stecher/Lewis match and you might even say the first Stecher/Caddock match, ended up as scandalous disappointments, but this match between wrestling's best lived up to its full potential. It drew a sold out 10,000 and had a $75,000 gate with the cities best sitting in seats going at $22 a spot. It was promoted as an upper class affair.
Caddock was the aggressor for the first hour but the physical and emotional strain seemed to wear him down during the one fall finish match, and he ended up in Stecher's body scissors, being pinned after two hours and five minutes. It was considered a classic match in which both men showed all their speed and skill. Stecher and Caddock were paid $30,000 for the motion picture rights and forty minutes of the match remains on tape today. Even in today's age of moonsaults and chairshots, the work holds up and many even consider the match a shoot. After the pin, Stecher lifted Caddock to his feet and Earl's handshake followed. The two limped to the dressing room, but neither man would be forgotten by the New York fans. They would return to wrestle again, but never against each other.
With the win, Joe Stecher became the first undisputed world champion sense Frank Gotch. His purse was $25,000 plus his cut of the movie money. A report in the FREMONT EVENING TRIBUNE of February 3, claimed that Stecher was part of a syndicate of five sports gamblers, and that group had covered all Caddock bets in Dodge before the title match. Stecher's share in the syndicate pool was 20% of the gross amount "and then a share of what was left".
In January 1920 came a report that Stanislaus Zbyszko was returning to American. Back in 1914 he was probably the best wrestler in America and the only defeat on his record, that fans would know of, was a June 2, 1910 loss to Frank Gotch in Chicago. He returned home in 1914, and was held under house arrest in Europe through 1919. In the process he had lost his fortune and was hunger to wrestle any of the top wrestlers.
Jack Curley recruited Jim Londos about the same time and the Greek left Canton in January for the big time… New York City. Curley not only stole Canton promoter Mike Mc Kinney's biggest star, but also stole the match he had been promoting for months. On January 5, 1920 Jim Londos defeated William Demetral for the Greek wrestling title at the 71st Regt. Armory in Manhattan. After the match, fans and old timers claimed that it was, without doubt, one of the most grueling bouts they had ever witnessed. Londos won with a double-arm scissors after 1 hour 49 minutes and 20 seconds of vicious wrestling. The win gave Londos a title match with Stecher.
Both Lewis and Londos were working in Norfolk, Virginia. Heel manager Billy Sandow was making claims that Lewis could throw the small star three times in two hours, and Londos took him up on the challenge. The match took place on February 4, 1920 at Norfolk Club, Lewis needed to pin Londos three times in two hours to win the handicap match. Londos, outweighed by 45 pounds, was never in trouble and the contest went the full two hours without a fall. In fact, Lewis was out wrestled and at one point even called a time out to save himself from being submitted. The house was full and the match was the best seen that year.
A lot in the years that follow is made of the rivalry between Ed Lewis and Jim Londos, but it is very clear that up until 1926, the established star Lewis was doing everything he could, next to a clean job, to put Londos over. It's also very clear that Lewis was very good at playing the subtle heel…..and most of the time, he wasn't too subtle.
Lewis then traveled to Kansas City where he defeated Wladek Zbyszko on February 16.
Londos got his title match with Joe Stecher at the 71st Regiment Armory on February 20, 1920. It was printed that Jimmy gave Stecher the hardest battle of his career but he was still pined in 2 hours 13 minutes and 34 seconds with a wrist lock. The arena was sold out with no standing room, so the police had to lock the doors to keep thousands outside. The only thing between Jimmy and a championship victory was weight.
Ten days later, March 2, 1920, Jack Curley, realizing he needed a bigger building, booked Londos to meet Strangler Lewis in Madison Square Garden and it attracted a capacity crowd with every nook and cranny filled. The police were ready this time and there was no disorder outside in the streets. The Lewis-Londos match was a stubbornly contested affair, in which brute strength was the ruling factor. The grapplers went at each other in violent rushes which caused them to tumble into the press roll frequently. Londos was agile, extremely clever on the defense, successful in his attack and several times had Lewis on the verge of defeat. In the end, however, the Stranglers crushing arm power and headlocks forced Londos to submit. At the two-hour mark Lewis appeared to be tiring and Londos looked fresh. Three times Londos broke out of Lewis's headlock. In the first, Lewis held the hold for some time as the Greek twisted into position, the powerful Londos rose erect with Lewis clinging to his head. The Strangler was then just shaken off. Londos duplicated the feat more that once while the crowd yelled loudly. The efforts, however, sapped Londos's strength and when, at the 2 hours 2 minutes mark, Lewis again secured his hold, the Greek was forced to submit. Lewis got the win while Londos got the adoration of the crowd.
Less than two weeks later on March 15, 1920, Curley booked Lewis in a match that would have to be considered one of the highlights of his career. Ed was to wrestle Caddock, the ex-champion and number one contender for Stecher's crown. Lewis was number two on the list and Curley billed the contest as an elimination match for a title match. Caddock had only one known lost, to Stecher, on his record and very few could say they had ever pined the Iowan for a fall. As champion Caddock had beaten Lewis via decision and was a huge favorite in New York City. Pound for pound, the 185 pound Caddock was considered the finest technical wrestler in the world. With his war record and wrestling style, there was no more popular babyface in the sport.
On March 15, 1920, the two major contenders squared off in front of another sold out Madison Square Garden of 11,000. The crowd had picked Caddock to win and cheered the war veteran's every move. Until the finish, Caddock had justified the crowd's support by out pointing Lewis in every way. Although lighter and smaller, he had displayed a speed and aggressiveness that more than countered The Strangler's weight. The first indication that Earl was weakening came after 1 hour and 33 minutes, when Ed threw the Iowan to the mat heavily and almost pinned him with a face lock and leg hold. Caddock broke free after a tortuous struggle. Lewis then resumed the attack with the suddenness and quickness of a lightning flash. A head lock and hip throw slammed Caddock to the mat and Lewis slowly turned the ex-champ over on his shoulders for a three count by referee George Bothner. Time was 1:35:45.
In the ring, Caddock was examined by a doctor, and it was announced that his collar bone was broken. Earl would later tell reporters that it was Ed's face lock that injured him, but every fan in the building believed it was Lewis's headlock that did the damage. Lewis's victory was unpopular, but he had won his chance to meet Stecher. Ed was on a big win streak in 1920, beating Londos, Wladek and then Caddock, and many reporters and insiders felt that The Strangler would soon take Stecher's title.
Curley booked the event into the Seventy-first Armory on April 16, 1920. The days of Lewis and Stecher wrestling five hours without touching each other were long gone. The two now knew and trusted each other and the fact that both had the same boss in Jack Curley smooth out any bumps in the relationship. Stecher had returned from his training during WWI a bigger stronger wrestler in perfect condition, who no longer based his style solely on the scissors. In 1920, his style was well rounded and he seemed the master of every hold. Lewis on the other hand, had grown in size and weight with his feared headlock becoming more and more the tool he used to bring excitement to his matches. In fact the headlock was taking on a life of it's own. Sometimes overshadowing Lewis himself. Lewis was a gentleman outside the ring, well liked by everyone. He wrestled clean but his headlock was taking on heel dimensions all its own with fans and sports writers. It was seen as a brutal hold that caused injury. Some of the old hardcore fans thought it was too brutal for the scientific sport of wrestling, that used to be a contest of pinning a foe, not hurting them. The injury to Caddock had lifted the Lewis headlock, over Gotch's toe hold, as the most famous hold in pro wrestling history.[100a]
The most remembered Stecher/Lewis matches are either the 5 hour draw in Omaha in 1913 or the Lewis title wins, but my favorite match between the two is the April 16. 1920 match. Stecher had been considered the champion wrestler for some time and was coming off of two major wins over Lewis. In Jack Curley's booking style, he didn't like long term world champions and his ability to get results from performers came from the fact it was his booking style was to keep everyone strong. Of the big four wrestlers of 1915 to 1921, Lewis was the only one not to have been promoted by Curley as undisputed world champion. It seemed like his turn had come. I think that the smarts of April 1920, saw Lewis beating Stecher for the title, and some money was probably bet that way. It seemed like the smart move by booker Curley, but it wasn't. Jack was smarter than they thought.
The 71st Regiment Armory was Curley's choice as the site. It held 3,000 less than the Garden and it didn't have the prestige that was associated with Madison Square Garden, but its rent was lower and it had a better location in the city. Curley also didn't have to deal with his rival Tex Rickard, who managed the Garden and had drove Curley out of the sport of boxing. You will find that the gates pre-1929 and the depression, were larger that later, because Curley and others could charge as much as $20 for a ringside seat. There may have been less fans in the arena, but there were more dollars. I have no gate or attendance for the April 1920 match but they made good money.
The bout turn out to be a terrific match of grueling endurance and skill, that lasted three hours, four minutes and fifteen minutes. There was action thought out the match. The early portion saw Lewis get in close to the champion to take him down to the mat in a body lock. At one point he put on the headlock but Joe broke the hold. Lewis used the lock many times during his matches and wrestlers were able to break it or get lose, but it was used to wear down his foes and it only needed to work once for victory. Both hit the mat in the early going, with both scrambling to get out of harms way. At one point both fell thought the ropes to the floor. Both the headlock and the scissors were worked during the match. For three hours there was nothing to choose between the two. Every know submission hold was used and broken. At that point, Stecher seemed to weaken and four times he was almost pinned by headlocks. On Lewis' fifth try, the champion made a spectacular comeback, with amazing strength he lifted Lewis off his feet while still in the headlock. He then threw the huge hulk of the challenger to the mat with Lewis landing on his head. (Sounded like Stecher knew Thesz's side suplex.). He then raped his legs around Ed and, using an arm bar, pinned Lewis flat for the pin. The crowd stormed the ring to congratulate Stecher on defending his title.
All we have today is a newspaper report, but it seems like a spectacular wrestling match that should be remembered as one of wrestling's greatest contests. At that point, Lewis's record verse Stecher was one win, two draws and four major loses. Lewis would do better in the future.
On May 20, 1920 the James J. Walker Bill was signed into law by the New York Governor Al Smith. The bill legalized boxing in the state and set up a three man commission to control boxing and wrestling in the state. The Commission, which still exists today, ruled that anyone connected with ring sports had to be licensed by the state.
The mid-west was still sore over Lewis's New York win over Earl Caddock and a lot of talk was being made in a build up to another match. Billy Sandow claimed that Caddock was afraid of Lewis's headlock and would never have the nerve to get back into the ring with Ed. Gene Malady, manager of Caddock, claimed that Earl had Lewis pinned at the 30 minute mark of the New York match, but the referee was distracted by Sandow and no count was made. He also called the headlock a strangle and complained about the match being only one fall. Caddock refused another New York match and there was no way Lewis would wrestle in Omaha. One of the major promoters, Oscar Thorson of Des Moines Iowa, traveled to Boston in May and was able to sign the match. The date would be June 8 in Des Moines and it would be a two out of three fall match to a finish.
That night saw the Des Moines Coliseum filled with 6,500 Iowans looking for revenge over Lewis. Caddock reversed a headlock into his favorite hold, the head scissors, to win the first fall in 43:30. Lewis came back to win the second fall with the headlock in 27:00. Lewis had a 40 pound advantage over Caddock but he was almost as fast, and the match was judged by the reporter as exciting and spectacular as any ever held in the city. Caddock turned defeat into victory in the third fall with a toe hold and wrist lock that pinned the "Strangler's" shoulders to the canvas in 7:00. Caddock's fine condition had won over Lewis's vicious headlock and the crowd departed shouting praise for their ex-champ.
This is a quote from the June 10, 1920 DES MOINES REGISTER'S by reporter Sec Taylor: "…from the 6,000 or more persons who saw it one hears thousands of words of praise…….with the occasional word of criticism from those who steadfastly believe that all of the mat contests of the present day are cooked up for the fans. The charge that the wrestlers whispered to each other, that the result was prearranged and similar talk is always heard after the big matches, but the fact remains that even those who make these accusations are always among the spectators and apparently fear they will miss something good if they stay away. Even the few who are skeptical admit that Tuesday night's match was the best they ever saw and that it was worth the price of admission. It was full of hard wrestling, clever, and fast work by both contestants, exciting moments when the issue was in doubt and spectacular and thrilling moves on the part of both men."
In July Lewis returned to San Jose to be present at the birth of his daughter. Ada and Ed decide to name the poor girl Bobada, a conglomeration or combination of the first names of both father and mother.
In July Joe Stecher, working out with the minor league Stecher Club of Dodge Nebraska, injured his left arm. The baseball injury took him to Excelsior Springs Missouri for treatment.
On October 27, Lewis traveled to Montreal Canada to defeat Wladek Zbyszko. Ed's old rival was losing his national push and this was his third defeat to Lewis in 1920. This didn't stop Jack Curley from booking the two back into the 71st Armory on November 23 in another contenders match with the winner getting a title shot. Lewis once again pinned Wladek Zbyszko with the use of the headlock in 1:25:45 in front of 10,000 fans. Wladek claimed that Lewis had changed his headlock and that the move had become even more deadly. This would be the last match between the two foes until 1931.
A rematch between Stecher and Lewis was set for the Seventy-first Regiment Armory on December 13, 1920. On December 5, both Lewis and the champion began training in New York City. Lewis did his roadwork in Central Park while both wrestlers trained at George Bothner's gymnasium up until the day of the match. It's interesting that Boxing champion Jack Dempsey was also in Central Park, doing his running for a December 14 title match at the Garden with Bill Brennan.
The eighth Stecher/Lewis match filled the Armory with almost 9,000 people. The building was so over flowed, with people standing on the main floor and in the gallery, that the Fire Department ordered the doors closed and late comers, even with tickets, were turned away. Once the match started, there was little to choose between the two wrestlers, they tugged , pulled, pushed, and mauled each other for over an hour without either being able to apply a finishing hold. Lewis tried arm bars, half-nelsons, toe holds and slams in the early going to wear Stecher down so he could work him into the headlock, but the Nebraskan invariable slipped the hold without any loss of strength. Time and again Stecher tried to clutch Lewis in his powerful legs, but Ed was too strong to be held for any great period of time. After one hour and thirty-five minutes, Stecher seemed to be the stronger of the two, but the last seven minutes saw Lewis break lose with speed and agility to take control of the match. Reports claim that those seven minutes were wrestling's most dramatic. Lewis locked on a headlock and threw Joe to the canvas. For 54 seconds Stecher squirmed, twisted, jumped and sought by every means to extricate himself…. before breaking free. The champion had hardly regained his feet and was tottering and swaying with the dizziness that resulted from the use of the Strangler's finishing hold, when Lewis jumped on him like a lion playing with a sick deer. Another vice like grip saw Joe fighting for another 35 second before pulling himself free. He rose to his feet like a boxer who had taken a 9 count. Lewis, with a lust for victory and the title, leaped in again with the left arm looping eagerly for the hold which would finish his prey. A third headlock threw Stecher to the mat with the crowd standing knowing the end was near. But the effort was taking its effect on Lewis too and Joe broke free in only 7 seconds. With both nearly exhausted, Lewis rush in for a forth headlock but Stecher countered and threw Ed to the floor. Like a flash, Stecher was on him as the crowd let out a deafening yell. Tony Stecher and Billy Sandow screamed encouragement to the men that couldn't possibility be hear thought the noise and the excitement of the moment.
Stecher slipped on his famous scissors and applied so much pressure that the sweat oozed from both men. The veins of Stechers upper extremities stood out like his head was going to explode, but Lewis wouldn't give up or allow himself to be turned for a pin. For two minutes Joe applied the killing pressure in a last attempt to retain his honor, but Lewis fought savagely to release himself. Finally, Stecher's strength slowly gave way and Lewis, with one tremendous lunge, pulled himself free.
Stecher could barely stand as the exhausted Lewis dove at him for a fifth headlock. It looked like the end and the crowd, sensing the result, changed its yells to shouts of encouragement for the toiling Lewis. Ed held the hold for 30 seconds but Stecher somehow pulled free. But back on his feet he staggered drunkenly about the ring until Lewis leaped in with another hold, which was also broken. The hold robbed the champion of the little he had left so Lewis lurched forward and clamped on the seventh and last headlock. The hiplock throw followed with Stecher crashing on the mat. Lewis pinned Stecher with the little strength he had left. The graceful champion had finally been defeated.
Lewis let go of the grip after he felt the victorious slap on the back. Amid a dim which threatened to lift the roof off the armory, Lewis staggered weakly against the ropes. Billy Sandow jumped into the ring to hold him upright and he was placed on a stool. The handlers of Stecher ran to the fallen man and assisted him to another stool facing Lewis. For some time, the handlers worked to revive the two men who had battled for 1:41:56. Stecher needed the most attention but he was the first to his feet. He swayed drunkenly toward his corner, as if to leave the ring, but stopped. Then, as if in an afterthought, staggered on weary legs back across the ring to where Lewis was sitting and clasped the Strangler's hand. Many times over the preceding years Ed had believed he was world champion and said so…..now everyone believed it. (105)
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