ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth
by Steve Yohe
Jack Curley announced that he had booked Strangler Lewis to defend his title verses Stanislaus Zbyszko at the Twenty-second Regiment Armory on May 6, 1921. Zbyszko was old. He was born in Poland on April 1, 1880. Some say he's birth date was 1878. But by 1921, he was between 40 and 43 years old and looked the part. (New York papers claimed 42.) After the retirement of Frank Gotch, he was considered the best wrestler and biggest star in the sport. But in 1915, he left the country and got tied up with wars in Russia and Europe and didn't return to America until 1920. His younger brother was Wladek Zbyszko. He was small 5 foot 8 inches but powerful with a 22 inches neck and 55 inch chest. His major attributes were great strength and endurance. Stan was also smart and sophisticated but he wasn't a technical wrestler. The same could be said about most former Greco-roman style performers. He was a good friend of Jack Curley, who managed his brother, and when Sandow and Lewis found out Curley's intentions, it didn't sit well. At one point leading up to the match, a report was out that Lewis planed to retire after the match, although the report was later called a misunderstanding. Stan weighted 226 for the match to Lewis' 235. Zbyszko had lost 50 pounds sense his return to wrestling and had taken on the look of a shaved head . Some felt the new bald style was to be used as a defense against the Lewis headlock.
10,000 fans were present the night of May 6. The match was fast and spectacular with Lewis the aggressor. Being more agile, quicker and resourceful than Stan, he pushed him all over the ring with Zbyszko willing to stay on the defense until a mistake was made. Ed seemed to be trying to tire out his old rival, but it didn't work. Stan sweaty bald head and 22 inches neck seemed the perfect match for The Strangler's headlock. Lewis jumped to apply the feared hold after 20 minute, but Zbyszko hunched his shoulders Lewis missed his target. Ed flew through the air and landed fat on his back. Stanislaus lurched forward and quickly encircled the stunned Lewis in a neck hold, which pined the Strangler's shoulders to the mat and gave the world title to the Pole. Time was 23 minutes and 17 seconds.[113a]
The fans rushed the ring, this time to cheer for the new champion.
So Ed Lewis's first title reign ended after 4 months and 24 days. I've always felt that the poor crowd for the Pesek match was the factor for Curley taking the title off Lewis, but in writing this it just seems that Curley was fed up with all the pressure he's gotten from officials, politicians and arena management from having a heel world champion after years of respectable champions like George Hackenschmidt, Frank Gotch, Joe Stecher and Earl Caddock. Perhaps it was just a result of Curley's booking style, who liked to switch title holders, keeping everyone in his company strong. Curley saw Stan Zbyszko as a sophisticated cultured man who the public would support. He was wrong. But in looking at Lewis' first short title reign, you'd have to say he failed as a major champion.
At some point in 1921, Jack Curley lost or gave up his control over Pro wrestling. I've never really figured out why. The thought has been that he had some sort of trouble with the new Athletic Commission and couldn't get a license from the New York License committee. I don't know if that's true anymore and can't find that in print. I think now, that Curley was fed up with pro wrestling and saw bad times ahead. From interviews it's clean that he felt that wrestling's business went in cycles or waves. The good times were always followed by the bad. As a up and down thing and his interview always say he believe 1922 to 1926 were down times. 1915 to 1921 had been great for wrestling and Curley, so it was time for things to change. Curley wasn't just a wrestling promoter, he started with pro boxing and invested in other areas like tennis and Broadway shows. I think it was Curley's plan to sit out a few years until pro wrestling became a money winning proposition again.
There also was a problem with the use of the National Guard armories in New York. Up until late 1921, wrestling and boxing bouts in New York armories were under the supervision of the State National Guard, and, under the Walker Law, the commission had no authority over these match. So Jack Curley was able to run cards in the 71st Armory without a license from the commission, but at some point in the year, the Adjutant General's office investigated promoter's use of all of its building as wrestling and boxing arenas. Resulting rule changes gave the commission more jurisdiction. A ruling was made that armory promoters would, there after, need to be licensed. Curley had no license because he didn't need one up to that time. On December 30 1921, the commission announced that Curley had applied for a license to promote in the Seventy-first Regiment Armory, but nothing more was written. It does explain why Curley stopped using Madison Squire Garden in early 1921.
Curley was very close to light-heavyweight boxer George Carpentier and even promoted a bout between him and Battling Levinsky on Oct. 12, 1920. Carpentier's win in that match set him up for a heavyweight title match with Jack Dempsey. Curley attempted to promote the title match but was out bid by his rival boxing promoter, Tex Rickard. Rickard knew very little about actual boxing, but was a bold investor who was willing to take chances. To get the Dempsey/Carpentier match and house the bout, Rickard was willing to build a arena in Jersey City at the cost of half a million 1921 dollars. The fight ended up as boxing's first million dollar gate, drawing 80,000 fans and $1,789,238. It is a fact that Curley added Carpentier's manager, Marcel Deschamps, in negotiations with Rickard and everything else right up to the fight date on July 2, 1921 (112). There was much more money in boxing that pro wrestling, and I believe everyone including Curley and Sandow/Lewis were banging their heads on the wall to think of a way to get a cut of it. It's very possible that Curley spent much of his time with Carpenter in 1921 and let the wrestling business fall apart.[114a] Curley or his people did promote wrestling in Boston and New Jersey during this time.
Carpentier was too small and no one ever thought he had a chance against Dempsey. He was box-office and that's all. So Curley hid George from the press, by locking out visitors from the training champ. At the fight, Rickard made Dempsey agree to carry Carpentier for four rounds to insure enough fight footage to show in movie theater. So Jack won by KO in the 4th round. It was "worked" as well as any wrestling match.
Joe Stecher was still wrestling and, on May 26, he put over the new champion Stan Zbyszko in Kansas City. Joe then traveled to San Francisco to beat Ad Santel on September 28 (or 27).
San Francisco promoter Frank Schuler was then able to book ex-champ Stecher with home town ex-champ Strangler Lewis on October 10, 1921. It was a two out of three fall match with a two hour time limit. The match went the full time limit with Joe Stecher wining a referee's decision. The match was another good one and close but Stecher's condition won the match for him and there was no question it was the right decision. Dr Ada Scott Friedrich ringside even shook her head in confirmation. Lewis' condition was off and he coughed through most of the match, so he probably was sick. So Stecher had another victory over Lewis.
This match had Jack Curley's booking written all over it. He was keeping his men strong and paying Joe back for the two jobs to Zbyszko. Over the next years we see that Sandow wants nothing to do with Stecher, and it had to have been Curley that got the two in the ring that night. I think it's right after this match that Curley loses control over the sport.
Billy Sandow and Lewis broke away to form their own company. Somehow they talked champion Stan Zbyszko into joining up with them. The company also included Sandow's brothers Maxwell and Jules Bauman.
Tex Rickard Becomes a Wrestling Promoter
Madison Square Garden, managed by boxing promoter Tex Rickard, wanted pro wrestling back into the building, so Rickard decided to bring in his own group of wrestlers made up of those available and not under contract. One he picked was Marin Plestina, who's manager Joe Carroll Marsh had for over two years had been hounding Curley's wrestlers for matches. The two would show up before major matches in places like Boston and Des Moines and get stories printed saying Curley's men were fakes and Plestina could beat guys like Caddock, Stecher and Lewis in one night. Marsh also sent letters to sports editors all over the nation exposing storylines before they happened. He also was hated by Sandow and Lewis.
For Rickard's first card in the Garden on November 14, 1921, he booked Marin Plestina to meet John Pesek, who had employment as a "policeman" in the Curley promotion but was now part of the Sandow group. The storyline was that Zbyszko would meet the winner. It was the "trustbuster" Plestina's chance to show that he was a true contender and that his claims were true. Most fans felt they were going to see one of the rare "shoot" in pro wrestling. Present ringside was Lewis, Sandow, Tom Jenkins, Ernest Roeber, and Dr. Roller The commission ruled that all the holds that had been used in the past in the city would be legal as long as they were used for pin falls and not to punish. It was also billed as a two out of three fall match.
Billy Sandow had made his orders clear to Pesek, he wasn't looking for a pin, he wanted Plestina hurt and humiliated.
Pesek went to work as soon as the match started. His favorite trick was gouging. Pesek would dig his thumb into Plestina's right eye over and over. The referee cautioned him with in the first five minutes, but Pesek had his orders and he wasn't going to stop. The only hold attempted by Pesek was a reverse headlock but Plastina broke it with out difficulty. When he wasn't gouging, Pesek was head butting. At 11:19 he was disqualified for the first fall by the referee. Despite warnings by the referee and the commission, Pesek continued to eye gouge, strangle, head-butt and punch the "trustbuster". At one point they went to the mat with the Tigerman on top, but the large Plestina just stood up and shook him off like he was nothing. At 24:02, Pesek was disqualified for the second fall. With the fans looking like they were going to riot over the lack of a contest, the commission ruled that they would go one more fall to a finish. This was like a tonic to Pesek, who became even more daring in his fouls, while Plestina didn't say a word. With the butting and gouging continuing and the crowd rushing around the ring like a riot was coming, the referee disqualified Pesek for a third time at 7:05. It was a disgusting spectacle with Plestina left bleeding from the nose, mouth, and cuts on various places on his face. Both his eyes were closed from all the gouging. He was taken to and treated at the Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital.
Plestina was declared the winner due to fouls and John Pesek's money was held up with the commission banning him for "life" from participating in bout under the New York Commission's jurisdiction. Pesek did wrestle a few time in New York in the following years but he was never a major draw on the East Coast again. Sandow and his followers would twist the story over the years to make fans believe that Pesek took Plestina apart in a shoot, but nothing near that happened. At the time, it was called the most unsatisfactory match in the cities history, and it ended up a repugnant mess.
Pesek's manager, Larney Lichtenstein, and Joe Marsh had their licenses suspended pending an investigation. Lichtenstein claimed he knew nothing and quit as Pesek's manager. Max Bauman, Sandow's brother, paid him $22,000 for the Tigerman's contract.
Plestina reputation was exposed in the match and he was never taken seriously by fans again.
The New York Athletic Commission was become stranger by the week. It first banned all punishing holds, but by November 14, 1921, was allowing all the old hold as long as they were used to pin foes and not used to injure or force submissions. It then made all main events two out of three falls but if no falls were recorded in two hours, the match would become one falls. If the one fall lasted another hour without a pin, the referee could then give a decision. But the worst ruling was the return to the old way of determining bouts, call rolling falls or flying falls. Under this system, a wrestler was pined as soon as his shoulders touch the mat. So they eliminated the three count, and both shoulders didn't have to be on the mat at the same time. A man could just roll through on his back and be considered pined. (Wish I could explain this better, but I don't really understand it myself.) What the commission did was return pro wrestling back to the rules of Greco-Roman wrestling of pre-1900. The result was, giving the fans of New York City pro wrestling, one more thing to hate.
Tex Richard then booked a rematch between Lewis and Zbyszko into Madison Square Garden for November 28, 1921 under the new rules. To add to the excitement of the new rules, Richard donated a $5,000 diamond studded belt to be presented to the winner. This was something he did with his boxing champions and the belts were all called "Richard belts". During Lewis' first reign, he used his "Lewis belt" and it had been passed on to Zbyszko the night of the title loss. So the winner of the rematch would have two belts. The two belts did not look alike. With a heavy rain outside, the Zbyszko/Lewis rematch drew only 7,000 to the Garden.
Lewis won the first fall in 17:31 with a headlock and pin to a thunderous ovation from the crowd. Lewis forced the advantage in the second fall, but Stan was declared the winner when he seemed to have forced Ed's shoulders to the mat while the challenger was striving to free himself from a neck and crotch hold. The crowd booed the referee's call on the rolling fall and a riot was only held down by the five-minute intermission between falls. The third fall saw Lewis throw Zbyszko with a bodyhold and as the pair went down with the strangler on top, Ed attempted to apply his headlock. Being unsuccessful, he shifted and sought to grab Zbyszko's wrist, but the Pole turned suddenly, forcing Lewis clear of the mat by sheer strength as he wriggled upward, Zbyszko crashed his rival down and then clutched Lewis in a double armlock for the decisive fall (14:56). Some reports say it was also a rolling fall. Zbyszko was then presented with the new championship belt and the Lewis Belt to the applause of the crowd.[115a]
Lewis spent early December wrestling in Kansas before returning home to San Jose to spent the holiday with the family. Ada Scott held a big party on Christmas Eve for the poor and needy of the city. An elaborate tree was erected in Ed's home gymnasium, and it was rumored that Lewis played Santa Claus, giving candy, toys, and other presents to children, many of which had been donated by the city. The home was located on Alum Rock Avenue.
On January 6, Lewis defeated Dick Daviscourt in one of their many matches in Wichita, and then traveled to Havana Cuba for a match. Sandow turned down a Boston rematch with Stan Zbyszko (January 19), thinking Lewis would have a better chance wrestling him in Wichita or Kansas City, where he wouldn't have to deal with strange rules like rolling falls.
On January 22, 1922, Lewis was in New York City training for a February 6 Renato Gardini match in the Garden when he awoke to read newspaper headlines saying that Tex Rickard had been arrested on charges of having sexually abused a number, later set at seven, of young girls ranging from age eleven to fifteen. Over the next few months stories were published from the testimony of a grand jury investigation and later from a trial. It was claimed that Rickard, who was married and living on Madison Avenue, picked up the young girls at a swimming pool in Madison Square Garden and had sex, or tried to rape them, at his suite in the Garden Tower. Madison Square Garden was known for it's risqué nude statue of the god Diana over looking the city and for rumors of wild parties in it's rooftop cabaret.
The trial took place in March of 1922, and there were other little pieces of drama in the days leading up to the event. One of the girls, being questioned by the police, was kidnapped on January 27 by a former boxer named Nathan Pond. On a tip, the police found her on a farm two weeks later. Pond was alleged to have offered the girl (Nellie Gasko) a bribe not to testify against Rickard after she had already signed papers saying that Tex had attacked her on three occasions. Other people claimed to have been bribed and some others just disappeared. Stories were published about Rickard's early life as a gambling casino and brothel owner in the wild west. One story had Tex seducing a young girl and then being whipped by the girl's mother, who then committed suicide. (I don't know if the dead one was the girl or the mother.)
At the trial, the girls all turned out to be older than first reported, the 11 year old became 15, and most had been arrested for theft, robbery, forging checks, begging, and a variety of other offenses. Rickard's lawyer produced an impressive list of character witnesses to vouch for Tex, even the son of former president Theodore Roosevelt (Kermit Roosevelt). All claimed his reputation was impeccable. Rickard testified that on the day of one of the major rapes, he was at the November 12 Dartmouth-Pennsylvania football game with witnesses. Tex explained, why he couldn't remember who won or what the color of the team's uniforms were, by saying he didn't like football and it was the first game he had ever gone to.
On March 27, 1922, it took the jury an hour and a half to return a not guilty verdict. Regardless of the verdict, Rickard's reputation was tarnished and claims were made that he was through as a sports promoter, but after a few months, Richard returned to his position of promoting boxing at the Garden. But the year 1922 was a bad and busy one for Richard, and the result had Billy Sandow and Jack Dempsey running free.
On February 6, Lewis defeated Renato Gardino on the under card of a Stan Zbyszko defense against the popular Earl Caddock in Madison Square Garden. The card was said to have drawn 12,000 fans, but everyone left the arena upset after Caddock lost both of his falls by rolling falls. In both, Caddock's shoulders touched the mat for the "slightest fraction" of time and Caddock's winning fall, the second, was conventional and there was no doubt over its legitimacy. Once again a big card had been ruined by the rules of the Commission.
Lewis' Second Title Reign and the Obsession with Jack Dempsey
Around February 13, newspapers all over the country ran the story of Jack Dempsey challenging wrestling champion Stanislaus Zbyszko to a mixed match. Dempsey was quoted: "I'll knock out Zbyszko and a half dozen other champion wrestlers in the same night." Following the Carpentier match, which drew over 80,000 and the first million –dollar gate with a total of $1,789,238, Dempsey had hardly been busy, shooting minor movies in Hollywood and touring with vaudeville shows. Lewis and Dempsey were friends and Billy Sandow knew Jack's manager "Doc" Jack Kearns from San Francisco. Tex Rickard and Kearns felt that a lot of title defenses for Dempsey would hurt his box office, so Dempsey was just playing around in Hollywood looking for something to do. Billy Sandow looked at the math and figured that a good boxing gate was more that Lewis could make in years of wrestling. A "worked" mixed match between champions would be an easy way for both sides to make some good money without taking any risks. But the champion was Stanislaus Zbyszko, and if Sandow and Lewis were to get their full cut of the boxing money, a change would have to be made.
On February 21, Wladek Zbyszko defeated Joe Stecher in Madison Square Garden using a rolling fall. The bogus pin once again upset the now small and apathetic crowd. On the under card, Lewis defeated Cliff Binckley also using a rolling fall. For Wladek, he was awarded the American title for the win, but after that night I can find no further mention of the new title. In fact, you would not find Lewis, Stecher, or Wladek together on the same card for a long time. It also was the last wrestling card in Madison Square Garden until March 1928. Tex Rickard did attempt to promote a huge Garden wrestling show in December 1923, but his request for a license was turned down by the New York license committee, who claimed there was only enough wrestlers and good matches in New York City for one major promoter, and that promoter was Jack Curley. So Tex Rickard left the wrestling business and died at age 59 on January 5, 1929 in a Miami Hospital from an infection following surgery on a gangrenous appendix.
On March 3, 1922, Ed "Strangler" Lewis regained his undisputed world title beating Stanislaus Zbyszko in a two out of three fall match in Wichita, Kansas under traditional rules that didn't include "rolling falls". Zbyszko won the first fall in 41:20 with a body scissors and arm lock. Zbyszko was said to be overconfident in the second fall, he worked on Lewis arm and was attempting another winglock, but Ed swung around to push or "punch" the champion in the face. Zbyszko fell across the ring and landed on his back. The Strangler jumped on him to apply the headlock and pin in 18 minutes. Stan's manager claimed a foul but it wasn't allowed by the referee Paul Sickner. Stan was dazed and was an easy victim to Lewis' headlock during the three minute third fall. Stan's manager Jack Herman cried foul, but Lewis left that night the champ. In winning the match, Lewis was awarded two belts. One was his original belt (the Lewis belt) and the belt Zbyszko won on November 28, 1921 in Madison Square Garden (the Zbyszko belt or Rickard belt).
The match was attended by a crowd of 4,925, and the gate was below $17,000. Stan was paid $7,000 for the loss and Ed made $5,000, so promoter Tom Law didn't do so well. Bad weather and muddy roads were a factor. The true reason for staging the match in Wichita is unknown, but gambling was still a factor in that area and it may have been a good place for an upset title win.
Rumors are that this was the first wrestling match ever recorded by network radio. I believe that, because 1922 was a big year in the development of network radio and for the expansion of the medium in America. (The first boxing match on radio was the Dempsey/Carpentier match on July 2, 1921.) This had the same effect on pro sports that TV would have on wrestling in 1948. Radio didn't seem to help the popularity of pro wrestling in 1922, but it did create a major star in "Strangler Lewis" who's name recognition would rank with the other made stars of the twenty like Babe Ruth, Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, Jim Thorpe,, and many others that are still legendary today. By 1924, names like Stecher, Wladek Zbyszko, and even Frank Gotch seem minor when compared with the popularity of Strangler Lewis's name that had been created by the use of radio.
Trying to not waste too much time, March 16 saw Billy Sandow announcing that new champion Strangler Lewis had posted a $5,000 bond with the sports editor of the Nashville Banner as a challenge to boxing champion Jack Dempsey. Sandow claimed that Ed would beat the boxing champion in less than 20 minutes or forfeit the $5,000. In New York City Jack Keams stated that Dempsey was willing to meet Lewis in a mixed match or in a wrestling match.
Lewis as champion took on a busy schedule. Wrestling five nights a week during March, he traveled thought the South, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. He was hampered by a bad case of carbuncles that cause him to miss two minor shows, but he recovered well enough to defeat Yousiff Mahmout on March 27 in Wichita.
On March 13, 1922, Lewis made his first appearance in St Louis beating the Australian wrestler Jurka Jurka. St Louis hadn't yet achieved it's reputation as the center of American wrestling, but Lewis was brought back on March 29, 1922 for a big match with the town's favorite wrestler, Ed's old protege, Jim Londos.
The match drew the largest crowd in St Louis history, estimated at 5,000. Lewis won the first fall in 1:17:10 with the headlock. Londos surprised everyone in the building by winning the second fall in 14:45 with his Japanese armlock coupled with a wrist lock. The headlock finished Londos in the third fall in 22:40. It was an interesting match all the way, with Lewis the aggressor, but he could not trick the Greek. Londos on more than one occasion brought the crowd to its feet by getting his armlock on the champion. Londos was faster and a more of a clever grappler, but he couldn't overcome Ed's 40 pound weight advantage. Londos winning a fall, over the most famous wrestler in the world, could only have helped his career.
After WWI, Billy Sandow lived in Cherryvale, Kansas, in Montgomery County, near Kansas City. He became friends with his grocer, a man named Sam Avey. Sandow brought Avey into pro wrestling, where he was used as a referee. In 1922, Sandow set up Avey as the promoter in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During that year, Lewis wrestled at least four times in Tulsa and over the years it became one of Lewis' strongest city. Late in Ed's life, he even lived in Oklahoma. Avey developed Tulsa into a major wrestling town and became a rich man owning a pro hockey team and a radio station. He also played a major part in the development of the careers of wrestling stars Leroy McGuirk and Dick Hutton.[123a]
Lewis remained active thought the rest of 1922 up until July 4. Some of his big matches were:
On April 13, he defeated Earl Caddock in Wichita, winning two out of the three falls.
On April 19, Lewis beat Dick Daviscourt in Boston in two straight falls using the headlock (1st fall 1:13:31, the 2nd fall 14:10).
On April 25, Stanislaus Zbyszko got his first rematch against Lewis in Kansas City. He lost two out of three fall to the champion.
On June 7, Ed returned to Boston and again beat Earl Caddock two out of three falls. Lewis took the first in 22:02 with a headlock, Caddock won the second with his head scissors and wristlock in 7:08, and the champ won the third with the headlock in 10:33. Lewis' policeman John Pesek defeated Dick Daviscourt on the under card.
The tour stopped on July 4 in Wichita, where Lewis beat Alan Eustace. The other wrestlers he met and defeated (most more than once) during the year were Jatrinda Gobar, George Hill, Cliff Binckley, John Freberg, John Grandovich, Farmer George Bailey, and Jack Sampson.
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