Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe


The Strangler's First Title Reign

Soon after Lewis left New York for home by train, but it seems appropriate that he would have present the next night at Madison Square Garden to watch friend Jack Dempsey defend his Heavyweight boxing title verses Bill Brennan. It was a bad night for Dempsey. Brennan gave him a very tough fight and the battle was even until Jack finish Brennan with body punches in the twelfth round. The worst part of the night was the booing Dempsey received from the New York fight fans for being a "slacker" during WWI. Ed must have been glad he hadn't make the same mistake. Ed did seem impressed with Dempsey's purse for the night and if made Lewis and Billy Sandow wondered if some of that boxing money could be within their reach. Gene Tunney was also present that night and he was impressed with the way Dempsey missed right hands, leaving himself wide open for a counter.

Joe Stecher returned to Nebraska. On December 23 he was admitted to Omaha's Fenger-Danisg Hospital with neuritis in his left arm. While there he also had some bad teeth removed by dentists. His first match as ex-champ was on March 7, 1921 in Omaha, beating John Olin in straight falls.

Lewis's train arrived in San Francisco on December 21, to be met by Ada Scott and five month old daughter Bobada. The couple claimed, even with him being on the East Coast for two months, that the baby still recognized her father.

The most important revelation, in that newspaper report, was the complaint Lewis made about his eyes. He called his train ride the longest of his career because he couldn't read and had to wear dark glasses. His vision was so bad that a friend had to read aloud to him. This was the first account we have of Lewis's life long battle with Trachoma. He claims he got the aliment before training started for Stecher, then it went away, but returned by match time.

Trachoma is an eye infection that comes from contact with the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatic. It was highly contagious and came from direct contact with eye, nose, or throat secretions from affected individuals or from infected objects such as towels or wrestling mats. Multiple episodes of the infection could and did lead to blindness. Scarring in the eyelid lead to a distortion of the vision with buckling of the lid so that the lashes rub on the cornea of the eye. The creation of antibiotic in the late 1940's ended the treat in major countries and today it exists only in the poorest parts of the world. Sanitation standards also helped put a stop to the problem and today it would be considered just "pink eye".

In 1920 there was an epidemic of Trachoma in New York City and it plague everyone in the wrestling world. There is a story in THE UNFINISHED LEWIS BIOGRAPHY claiming that the wrestler Chris Jordan brought the disease to wrestling after a tour of India. I don't know if that is true but it was in the America way before 1920 and by 1913 emigrants going through Ellis Island were being tested for it and President Woodrow Wilson had designated funds for the eradication of the disease.

The year 1920 saw just about every major and minor wrestler in New York City, including Jim Londos, Earl Caddock, Dick Daviscourt, William Demetral, Johnny Meyers, and Wladek Zbyszko, become infected.[106] Everyone found a cure but Ed "Strangler" Lewis. Seems strange because he was married to one of the countries best and richest doctors The disease would stay with him for the rest of his life, and there is no way to tell how many people Lewis himself infected. In his biography, he said that if anything in his life failed to make sense or needed more explaining, the answer probably had to do with the curse of Trachoma.

Lewis' first title defense was in Boston for promoter Lou Daro on January 6, 1921 against Renato Gardini. Gardini was a good performer in the 1920's and a major draw in towns with a large Italian population. Lewis won with the headlock which set off a small riot in the crowd of 6,000. The headlock's fame continue to grow when Lewis beat Dick Daviscourt in Rochester on January 21. The report in newspapers was that Daviscourt suffered dislocated vertebrae from the hold.

Lewis' first show for Jack Curley was on January 24 verses Earl Caddock in the Seventy-first Armory. Caddock, the big favorite with the New York wrestling crowd, was considered the top contender due to his clean win over The Strangler in Des Moines. At the weigh in, Lewis registered 228 to Caddock's 188, a difference of 40 pounds. The match drew a crowd of almost 8,000. As the match progressed the crowd showed in unmistakable terms just where its sentiments rested. Every Lewis attempt at a hold was booed and every Caddock move sent the crowd into ecstasies. In every movement the Iowan reflected the easy grace that went with perfect physical condition. He was fast on his feet, agile as a jungle cat, worked quickly and variably with his hands and feet and carried crushing power in his well-developed arms. The former champ had a variety of holds and a comprehensive knowledge of every trick in the wrestling art. Lewis was lumbering and relied almost solely on his headlock. Fifteen times Caddock broke the hold or just evaded it. But after one hour and a half, Lewis got to Caddock and the Iowan began to tier. In the last four minutes of the match, Lewis hit five headlocks. The last one gave Lewis the victory, but Caddock lay still and inert on the mat, conquered in a manner which left not the slightest room for doubt as to the punishing effect of the hold.

It looked to everyone that the favorite Caddock was truly injured as he laid unconscious in the center of the mat. The crowd then went into a frenzy of excitement, with a major riot about to take place. With Caddock looking like a dead man, the gathering transformed into a spectacle which had seldom been seen in New York wrestling. The crowd was thrown into a fury and rushed the ring, tramping chair, railings and high priced society members in ringside box seats. Officers guarded the inside of the ring, as Caddock's handlers, lead by manager Gene Melady, rushed to work on limp Caddock, as Lewis stool over watching. The crowd cried "kill the murderer." After two minute, it seemed his senses were restored and he was placed on a stool. After a further rest, he rose to his feet and shook Lewis' hand. That seemed to calm some in the crowd, but when Lewis left the ring he had to have guards surround him as they forced their way through the crowd to the dressing room. After being away from the East Coast for two months, Lewis, the new world champion, probably thought he would be treated better than Jack Dempsey, but it seems the two were in the same boat.[107]

On January 27, Lewis beat a Gustav Sulzo in Kansas City and left him unconscious after a headlock. Another fan riot followed. The days of popular champions, like Stecher and Caddock, seemed over.

Joe Stecher kept his title belt after losing the championship. So Lewis needed a belt of his own. In January 1921, Strangler Lewis was awarded a $10,000 championship belt by the Central Athletic Club of Kansas City. Storyline says it was set with 39 diamonds and plated in gold. Historians have called this belt, the "Lewis Belt".

Jack Curley announced, on January 30, 1921, that the feared headlock would be banned in any match promoted by him in New York City. Curley was the booker who had help promote Lewis' headlock, but he must have been under great pressure from the new Commission and by the classily high paying fans, who got stomped on by the mob. He couldn't afford another riot and he was attempting to put all the heat on Lewis, Billy Sandow and the hold. Lewis, being powerful but less skilled than the lighter stars, was someone that fans resented more than hated, but I think they never had any love for Sandow. So what they had at the time, was the first true heel world champion. Curley, like Frankenstein, had created a monster, and it was a new enough concept that he didn't know what to do with it.[108]

The first reaction from Lewis' camp was negative, but they soon realized they need Curley. After a few days Lewis announced that he had consented to no longer using the headlock.

On January 31, Lewis returned to Lou Daro's Boston Mechanics Hall and again beat Renato Gardini, this time with the headlock banned. Ada Scott was ringside.

On Feb. 3, 1921, Jack Curley mailed telegrams, to the top 50 promoters in American, asking them to meet in Kansas City, around March 20, to discuss the making up of new rules and the banning of dangerous holds like the headlock. This could have been pure public relation to take heat off himself, and I don't know if the meeting ever took place. The state legislature in Albany was working on a bill to bar not only the headlock, but also other dangerous holds like the Strangle, toe hold and the body scissors.[109]

It seemed that the next super match was going to be with Stanislaus Zbyszko, who on March 14, 1921 beat ex-champ Joe Stecher at the 71st Armory. After suffering from Stecher's scissor, Zbyszko body slammed Joe and got the pin with a crotch hold in 2:16:10. Attendance was 7,000.

On March 15, Lewis purchased an airplane (a Laird Sparrow) so he and Sandow took lesions, learning how to fly. This was 1921 and airplanes were far from safe, but the two can take credit as the first wrestling insiders to fly from card to card. At least while Ed was world champion. I don't believe that Ed or Billy ever really learn to fly the plane themselves, but hired a pilot to get them from city to city in one piece. Lewis loved to fly, Sandow hated it.[110]

John Pesek was in the process of become the next big star. He was the best wrestler to come out of the shoot world of Nebraska after Stecher. He had wins over Wladek Zbyszko, Londos and was in the process of his first major East Coast push. Pesek wasn't much bigger than Caddock and, through history, fans have argued over who was the best wrestler pound for pound. Pesek, unlike Caddock and Stecher, wasn't just a hooker. He was what was called a "ripper", which meant in wrestling terms that he liked to hurt people. It was Curley and Sandow's idea to use him as a policeman for Lewis. On the under card of a February 28 Stan Zbyszko main event in New York, Pesek wrestled a new legitimate wrestler from Finland named Aromas Lateen, who was talking about making trouble for Lewis. Peek almost broke his arm and the Lateen problem was solved. This coming during the uproar over "rough wrestling", probably didn't help Curley.[110a]

Curley did sign Lewis to wrestle John Peek on April 4, 1921 at the 71st Armory with the headlock banned and the title on the line. Lewis seemed upset with Pesek and said he would retire if beaten by him. Lewis weighted 232 to Pesek's 195. Lewis had slowly been gaining weight over the last year and it didn't help that he keep getting booked with true wrestlers, small but always in top condition, like Caddock, Londos, Pesek and Stecher. There were some reports that described Ed as a "whale" or "corpulent" but he still wasn't the fat Lewis that he'd become in the late 1920's.

The bout was full of action from the start but it soon became apparent that the loss of the headlock cramped the champion's style. As in all these match, Pesek wrestled rings around him. With in two minutes, Pesek had a near pin using a double wrist lock. Lewis seemed to need his headlock while Pesek had every hold in the book to used. When Lewis did get Pesek in a dangerous position, Pesek would twist out doing a head stand landing on his feet. At one point Lewis forgot and put on a headlock, that was followed by a cry from everyone in the house, and the hold was broken by referee George Bothner. But as he usually did, Lewis made his comeback, Ed got a good wrist lock on that lasted two minutes, but just when it looked like Pesek would be turned for a pin, he twisted out of the hold. But Pesek's right arm was dead. Lewis clamped on the hold again and Pesek had lost the strength to resist any longer. Lewis switched to a bar and hammer lock for the pin in 1:34:32. So the good news was that Ed proved he could beat a major 195 pound wrestler without the headlock, but bad news was that the attendance was a poor 4,000.[111]

On April 12, 1921, Lewis and Earl Caddock were signed for a rematch at Des Moines coliseum, which had added new seats, for promoter Oscar Thorson. It was said that the match up, drew the largest indoor crowd in history, out side of New York City. In the match, the headlock was legal. Lewis had one of his best matches beating the small Caddock in two straight falls. The first fall lasted 1:34:00 and the second 7:38:00, both won with Lewis' headlock. The victory didn't stop the boos or the insulting reporters who called him fat. After the victory, a fan threw a rock at Lewis but for the most part the crowd seemed stunned by the Caddock's defeat. They lingered for a short time afterward before filling slowly out of the Coliseum.[112]

The next day April 13, Lewis and Sandow flew to Chicago to wrestle Jim Londos. It was called a spectacular match with both using every know hold in wrestling. Six headlocks finished Londos, who was outweighed by 35 pounds, in 1:52:00. On the undercard, Stanislaus Zbyszko defeated John Pesek with a crotch and half nelson in 1:22:00.[113] The Chicago Second Regiment Armory was sold out.

>> Continue to CHAPTER 16


  • 106 THE DES MOINES REGISTER April 1, 1921
  • 107 NEW YORK TIMES January 25, 1921
  • 108 NEW YORK TIMES January 31, 1921
  • 109 NEW YORK TIMES February 4, 1921
  • 110 THE DES MOINES REGISTER April 11, 1921
  • 110a In Armas Laitenen's American debut, he wrestled a one and half hour draw with Stanislaus Zbyszko. The match with Pesek ended with him claiming an arm injury. Pesek tried every hold against him, legal and non-legal, to beat him. Years later Billy Sandow, in an interview, called the shoot "the most impressive" he'd ever seen and went on to relate how Pesek nearly tore the big Finn's arm from his shoulder. Laitenan worked matches as he was told after that. He had a brief career in America and then returned to Finland to become a major law enforcement official. My knowledge of this and most everything else came from my friend and great wrestling historian Mark Hewitt who wrote the book CATCH WRESTLING in 2005. The Pesek/Laitenen match is on page 155. CATCH WRESTLING is one of the few true major wrestling history books and it's not talked about enough.
  • 111 NEW YORK TIMES April 5, 1921 The Lewis/Pesek match was a work but Pesek himself gave credit to Ed, always saying that Lewis was his master on the mat. Quote: "The Strangler knew how to use his heft expertly." From CATCH WRESTLING by Mark Hewitt, page 155.
  • 112 DEMPSEY By Jack Dempsey with Barbara Piattelli Dempsey Page 131
  • 113 THE DES MOINES REGISTER April 14, 1921