ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth
by Steve Yohe
Ed Don George and Another Title
On January 1, 1931, the Glendale Chamber of Commerce announce that they were going to stage a $4,000 open golf tournament in the city in December and the sponsors were Glendale residents Lou Daro and Ed "Strangler" Lewis.
The next day, January 2, Lewis was sideswiped by a car in the street in front of his restaurant on the 700 block on South Brand in Glendale. He sustained a severe bruise on his pelvic bone and cuts around his hip. This forced Lewis to cancel some dates in Chicago and the East coast, and he didn't wrestle in January.
He was going to wrestler Frank Judson in Chicago but he was replaced by champion Ed Don George. With the Chicago commission letting up, big time pro wrestling had returned with the two major promotions both running shows. The Bowser promoter was Joe Coffey and a Londos group was being run by Doc Krone.
On January 5, 1931, Lou Daro announced that he had practically ironed out details for a dream match between Gus Sonnenberg and Jim Londos. The Greek had agreed and Daro was going to meet with Sonnenberg in the coming week. Daro had made a lot of money with the Wrigley Field card and he wanted to promote another, even bigger, card in April 1931. Daro was experienced in handling big cards, had a long history with Londos, and was trusted, so he and most everyone else thought he could pull the cross promotion match off. It had the potential to break all attendance records.
The next day, Ed Lewis made an announcement. Lewis said he had a $5,000 bond posted with the state commission for a match with Jim Londos, and demanded that he be given the match with the Greek, not Sonnenberg. Lou Daro stated that Londos refused to have anything to do with a Lewis match. With Sonnenberg in town, building for a rematch with George, the topic of Londos was dropped. Lewis's hatred for Londos and Ed's stunt had cost Daro and Londos their super match. Londos didn't seem to care, on January 26, he drew another 22,200 and gate of $59,496.50 at Madison Square Garden in beating Jim McMillen.
On January 7, 1931, Gus Sonnenberg showed he was still box office without the title by beating Henri De Glane in front of a large crowd on a rainy night at The Olympic. The winner was supposed to get a title match with Ed Don George, but Sonnenberg had commitments on the East Coast so De Glane got the title match on January 21. George then beat Henri at another sold out Olympic.
Sonnenberg went back to Boston to wrestle John Pesek on January 22. Pesek dropped out of the match and had to be replaced by Lee Wyckoff. Sonnenberg still drew a crowd of 14,000.
Lewis returned to the ring on February 4, 1931, beating up Dr. Karl Sarpolis in the semi-final of a Everett Marshall/Ad Santel match. Marshall won and he also beat De Glane in two straight falls on February 18, setting up a title match with George on March 4.
On February 18, promoter Ray Fabiani offered Ed Don George $50,000 to wrestle Jim Londos in Philadelphia or Boston. Later on April 4, Jack Curley offered Ed Don George a match with Londos in New York City. The match would take place outdoors, probably in Yankee Stadium, for the Hearst Milk Fund in April, May, or June. When George doesn't respond, Curley booked a rematch between Londos and Ray Steele which drew 21,000 ($63,000) on June 29.
The March 4 title match had George pinning Marshall with The Olympic sold out (10,400). In the semi-final, Lewis wrestled Henri DeGlane again in what would be a very interesting match considering the events that would follow in the coming months. Lewis beat De Glane in two straight falls, winning both with headlocks in 30:06 and 4:25. Ed was called "the old war horse" but was said to be looking in good condition after working with Sandow for a few months. It seemed that Lou Daro (or perhaps booker Sandow) was giving Lewis more of a build up than he had had in a few years.
A third match with Everett Marshall took place on March 18, with the winner to meet Ed Don George on a out door card in April. Lewis won two straight falls with headlocks in 48:00 and 5:32.
Also on the card was the local debut of Joe Savoldi, the ex-Notre Dame football star. He was the first performer to use the drop kick and he may have been the first wrestler to shave his chest. He would take his place as one of the many stars of the 1930's.
Lou Daro rented Wrigley Field for April 13, 1931, booking the sensational new champion Ed Don George against the legendary Ed "Strangler" Lewis. No one thought Ed was going to win. With so many new stars in the sport, there seemed little reason to put the title back on Lewis, but he still was a force who could draw as a challenger, while putting over a young champion. His was a famous name, that everyone wanted on there record.
Daro promoted the event by having the two stars give free workouts at The Olympic Auditorium for a week leading up to the match. George would work out first for an hour and then Lewis and Sandow would show Ed doing exhibition type matches with a number of local wrestlers. A PR stunt was pulled on April 9. After working out, George came ringside and sat with Dean Cromwell, Southern California track coach and reporters, while Lewis was working a routine session with Bill Beth. Billy Sandow started yelling at George, saying he couldn't watch Lewis and would stop the workout if George stayed. George told Sandow: "I'm not interested in his training work—we'll settle our argument Monday night. Tell your big fellow to be prepared for a busy night."
The match drew a disappointing 12,000 to the baseball stadium. Most of the fans bought the cheap tickets, and once the first preliminary match started, they rushed down from the grandstands to jam themselves in the higher priced seats. The police spent most of the night moving crashers sitting in a late arriving high roller's seat. A few days after the match, Daro stated he would have made more money running the match at the Olympic, which had a much lower rent.
At some point, Lewis made it known to George that he was going to lose the match and the title. The story is that Ed told him in front of the large crowd: "Ok kid, tonight's the night, and we can do it the easy or the hard way!" The story usually has this happening in the middle of the ring as the referee was giving instructions. About 9 minutes of this match has turn up from newsreels in the last few months, including the introductions. Wrestles didn't meet in the center of the ring before matches in 1931, so that part of the story needs to be changed.
Anyway George took his to mean, he was dropping the title and they could either do it as a work or a shoot. George did the pro thing and worked the match. Lewis dominated the action and George was never able to try any of the tackles the fans cried for. After 1:10:56 and seven headlocks, Lewis pined George to take the first fall. The champion looked weak coming out for the second fall. Another headlock had George in major trouble but Ed Don was able to wriggle out of the pin and crawled dizzily through the ropes for a count of 9. On return, Lewis put him in a body lock that incorporated a hammer lock. Lewis took George to the matt and rolled him over with Lewis on top pushing the champion's shoulders to the mat.[301a] The crowd didn't get the significance of the hold and only when referee Don McDonald drop to his knees to check George's shoulders did they realize something was about to happen. Lewis held the grip despite George's frantic struggle and Ed tremendous weight pushed the champ's shoulders down. When the referee patted Lewis's back to end the fall and the match, the crowd was stunned in surprise. Even when Lewis was officially proclaimed the new champion there was but scattering applause for the veteran. Lewis bowed politely and strutted out of the ring, "wrapping a blanket about his ample person with all the dignity and grace of a Roman senator manipulating his toga."
Just about everyone agrees that Lewis stole the title that night. As for the "easy or hard way" quote, I don't know if that happened. It was a story told by Lewis and repeated by Lou Thesz over the years.[302a] It's such a good story and line that it has been repeated over and over by Dave Meltzer's WRESTLING OBSERVER NEWSLETTER thought the years. I kind of doubt it, but it's such a good line that it will last, regardless of any truth. It's can't be seen on the film clips, and it's not mentioned in any newspaper report.
As for Ed Don George, a young Olympic class wrestler, being intimidated into dropping the title by a 40 year old. I really doubt that. I believe that Billy Sandow was either the booker or a partner for Lou Daro in Los Angeles. George was an employee working as a performer for the Bowser group. He had been a pro wrestler for only a year and had to have been green in the ways things worked. Ed Lewis was his idol and the reason he became a wrestler. He must have seen Sandow, and maybe Lewis, as front office personnel and his boss. So if Billy told him to job, he'll probably do the job. George didn't have a lot of time to think and consult with his manager, being in front of the public. Sure he knew Ed Lewis was a feared old time shooter, but he was a competitive wrestler too. So I don't see this as some big macho moment in the life of Ed Lewis, I think it was just a young wrestler doing what he was told by a boss.
This was Lewis' fourth time holding this AWA world title, but he had also won the Olin world title twice. With Jim Londos holding the New York, Pennsylvania, and NBA world title it could no longer be called an undisputed title. As soon as Lewis could find a reporter he was willing to talk about the Greek, "I am ready to meet any grappler in the world, and that includes Jimmy Londos especially. I will smoke him out (as George Bush did with Osama Bin Laden), and if he will venture into the ring with me I'll beat him as decisively as the 14 previous times that I proved my superiority over him."
Lewis/DeGlane and the Battle of the Bite
After the match Lewis and Sandow took their stolen title out on the road, traveling to Sandow's former home, Kansas City, to defeat Sandow's other wrestling star, Everett Marshall on April 20.
No one can say what went on in the mind of Paul Bowser, but from other situations in wrestling history that resembled this one, the first thought a wrestling promoter has is to accept the situation and negotiate before their title is sold to another competitor. Bowser had been friends and a business partners with Sandow and Lewis for a number of years. I think he realized the need to understand the situation, find out what Sandow and Lewis planed, and if these plans extended beyond just sealing the title…. and find out if Jack Curley was involved. Having the title on Strangler Lewis was one thing, but it being sold to Curley and Jim Londos would ruin him.
Lewis and Sandow had learned, in the years 1926 to 1928, that a title meant nothing without a powerful promoter behind it. To make money they would have to pick between an old friend in Bowser or an old enemy in Jack Curley. If they pick Curley, it would mean doing the job for Jim Londos.
Lewis beat Fred Peterson in Tulsa on April 23 and then traveled to Chicago for a title match with Gene LeDoux on April 28.
Marcus Griffin, in his book FALL GUYS, claimed that Sandow and Lewis met with Paul Bowser in Chicago before the match. Griffin claimed that Sandow had held $70,000 of Bowser's money as a forfeit. Sandow was given the money as part of the deal made before Lewis dropped the title to Sonnenberg. In Chicago, Sandow returned $50,000 to Bowser and kept $20,000. Bowser then agreed to not try "any funny stuff".
I don't believe that story, as I don't believe Griffin on any of his stories that date before 1933. Most of the facts in FALL GUYS, that take place before Marcus Griffin started working for Toots Mondt's office in 1933, and that can be check through research…. have been proven wrong. Errors fill the book. If Bowser had violated the contract with Sandow, in giving the title to Ed Don George, why would Billy give $50,000 back to Bowser.
I don't believe that the old Lewis was promotable as champion. Bowser knew it…and had other plans of his own. Lewis probably knew it too but his ego was in the way. I think Lewis wanted a title claim more than the actual title and a deal was made where he could drop the title and still have the wrestling world think he was the true champion.
Lewis defended the title and beat LaDoux on April 28.
I don't know when the match was booked, but Lewis and Sandow around this time agreed to wrestle Henri DeGlane for the title in Montreal on May 4, 1931. Why would he agree to go to Montreal, a town run by Paul Bowser, the promoter he double-crossed less than three weeks before? Did Lewis expect everyone to believe he was dumb enough to walk into a trap? (I guess he did.)
The match took place on May 4 in Montreal in front of 7,000. Lewis' attitude leading up to the match was that Henri DeGlane, an Olympic champion, was small time and he just wanted to beat him and go home. DeGlane presented a problem to Lewis in the first fall by standing erect with his hands high to block any attempt at a headlock, and the younger Frenchman's footwork and speed stopped any attack to his lower extremities. Lewis looked tired, old and on edge. DeGlane moved around the ring at a fast pace making Lewis wast energy following him. After a half hour, Henri stepped on the gas, and hit Lewis with one arm lock after another, until at 33 minutes and 15 seconds he won the first fall with an arm lock followed by a convincing flying mare. The crowd went nuts seeing their French hero win the fall over the old champion.
Lewis and Sandow argued with referee Eugene Tremblay, a former world lightweight champion, so persistent that the police were called into the ring to remove Billy on the grounds he had no license to manage in Canada.
The second fall started with DeGlane sailing right in after Lewis' arms again. After 9 minutes and 35 seconds of Henri working over Ed's arms, the challenger managed to get Lewis into a near fall with DeGlane on top with one shoulder down and the other on the way. DeGlane then jumped up, yelling that Lewis bit him on the arm. The referee looked at the tooth marks on DeGlane's arm and then presented the situation to the Athletic Commissioner, Dr. Gaston Demers, who told the referee to disqualified Lewis, and awarded the fall, the match, and the title to the challenger.
As the crowd celebrated, Lewis argued with the referee that DeGlane had bit himself. The Montreal commissioner, Demers, backed up Referee Tremblay, so Lewis announced that he was going to have a cast made of his teeth to match with the bite marks, but all of that was soon forgotten.
Most wrestling books, that have been written over the years, have pressed the story that DeGlane bite himself and stole the title for Paul Bowser. My view has the match being a "work" from top to bottom. Questions: 1) How many wrestlers, through out history, have been disqualified for biting? If there was a plot, what made Bowser think the referee would disqualify Lewis? That would take a ton of guts, taking a title from a legend… for biting, and for the first time in history. The referee and the commissioner would have had to been in on the plot. 2) Who would ever defend a title in a town controlled by the very promoter you screwed over three weeks before? For years, Sandow protected Lewis from double-crosses. He wouldn't even let Lewis meet shooters from his own promotion, guys who could make them money like John Pesek, Dick Shikat, and Marin Plestina. In 1928, Sandow wouldn't even let Lewis meet Londos, who was 40 pounds lighter and Lewis was never allowed to ever defend a title verse Joe Stecher. Sandow was suspicious of everything and everybody. So how do you explain Sandow letting Lewis go up to Montreal to wrestle a French Olympic champion? Doesn't make sense. 3) That being said, why would Lewis give DeGlane control of the match by losing the first fall? He also allowed DeGlane to be on top for most of the night. Was Lewis that dumb or that bad of a wrestler?
I think the match was a work and just another screw finish that Lewis used whenever he lost. He had to have been in on the finish because he allowed DeGlane to be on top with him in a pinning situation, before the bite spot took place. It was too theatrical to be anything but a work. The whole match had to have been agreed upon in Chicago, before Sandow accepted the match in Montreal.
Paul Bowser was moving into Montreal and he and DeGlane were making plans to promote in France. He wanted a French champion, and, after all the jobs DeGlane did for Sonnenberg, George, and even Lewis, he was set with a long list of major contenders.
Lewis lost Bowser's Boston AWA title, but the screw finish left him his "heat" and he could still claim the title in his strong cities, like Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Tulsa. I think Bowser realized that Lewis, with his pride intact, would also be hounding Londos in Chicago and Los Angeles.
Lewis remained in good standing with Bowser and he never expresses the rage like he did with Londos and Curley. If Lewis double-crossed Bowser in Los Angeles, he was forgiven in Montreal. The $20,000 not returned in Chicago was probably just the Lewis cut for dropping the title. It all worked out, it was probably a lot better to read in Paris that their champion DeGlane had beaten the famous Strangler Lewis, than the rookie Ed Don George.
While Bowser and Lewis played games with their title, Londos continued to break all attendance records as champion. On February 18 he drew 9,000 and $15,000 in beating George Zaharias in Chicago. On February 20, had brought in 10,567 and $19,774 in St Louis beating Ray Steele. February 23 saw him back in Madison Square Garden drawing 21,500 and $60,216 in beating Jim McMillen. March 6 he drew 10,000 in Philadelphia beating Karl Pojello. March 13 he drew 12,000 in Boston defeating Gino Garibaldi. He was back to Madison Square Garden on March 23 drawing 17,000 beating Herb Freeman. On April 22, 1931 in Chicago, he drew 17,250 and $34,419 for win over Kola Kwariana. Not only was Londos drawing, but the promoters like Packs, Curley and Fabiani had developed a bunch of major performers who the public wanted to watch challenging for the title. Londos' title line couldn't be traced back to Gotch, but the large crowds were strengthening his claim through out the world. The Golden era of pro wrestling had begun.
Four day after the title loss (May 4), Lewis was in Rochester beating Sandow's other wrestler Everett Marshall. Lewis and Sandow were doing what they always did, claim the world title. They then left the Bauman home town for a match in Chicago.
Back on April 28, Lewis had posted a $5,000 check with the Illinois Athletic Commission as a challenge to Londos. The commission then gave Londos ten days to sign for a match with Lewis. On May 12, Londos' lawyers notified the commission that he refused to wrestle Ed Lewis. On May 13, the commission announced that the world title was vacant in Illinois and Londos could no longer be billed as champion in the state. Londos claimed he wouldn't wrestle Lewis because Ed was too old and he didn't want to injury an old man. He also said he was returning the same treatment Lewis gave him in 1928, when the Strangler wouldn't defend the title against him.
Londos may have been killing them at the box office but Lewis was winning the PR war in Chicago. On May 10, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE printed a story saying that the Montreal Commission had decided that Henri DeGlane bit himself in their recent match and wasn't the champion. The story was a lie, probably planted by Sandow, the Montreal Commission still considered DeGlane the champion….but all that was a long way from Chicago.
On May 13, 1931, Lewis appeared in Chicago defending his world title in beating Frank Judson.
After minor matches in Kansas City and Tulsa, Lewis returned home to Los Angeles to beat Karl Sarpolis at the Olympic Auditorium on June 10, 1931. The California Commission was still recognizing Lewis as world champion and the card drew 9,000.
On September 25, General John V. Chinnin (or Clinnon), Chainman of the Illinois state athletic commission and president of the National Boxing Association, recognized the title claims of Strangler Lewis and made an invitation to nine wrestlers: Jim Londos, Wladek Zbyszko, John Pesek, George Calza, Kola Kwariani, Gus Sonnenberg, Ed Don George, Henri DeGlane and Joe Stecher, to meet Lewis in Chicago, with the winner being named Illinois world champion.
On October 17, the National Boxing Association, through John Chinnin, announced that it was declining to assume responsibility for the conduct of pro wrestling and left the control of the sport to athletic commissions of the various states. Around this time, some of the members branched out to form the NWA (National Wrestling Association). It claimed to have a membership of 16 states (Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Michigan, Connecticut, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Oregon). The NBA officially claimed no affiliation with the NWA, but the NWA felt it was a subsidiary of the NBA. (Yes I don't understand it either.) On September 30, the NWA announced it still recognized Jim Londos as world champion.
A major wrestling star in Chicago was football player Jim McMillen. He had drawn major crowds against Londos in New York and other places while playing for the Chicago Bears. He also owned a part of the Chicago Bears and would be a vice president of the club under president George Halas. McMillen had been a major wrestler in collage and was a good pro wrestling performer, using all the moves of the football type workers including the flying tackle. He and Londos wrestled in Chicago's Solder Field on September 7, 1931. Londos won, but the crowd would seem to have been a major disappointment with only 7,300 showing up. Perhaps the Lewis' moment in Chicago hurt the card. (Londos had drawn 17,250 and $34,419 on April 22 in Chicago.) It was also a non-title match because of the commission.
On September 14, the CHICAGO TRIBUNE printed that Londos would be willing to wrestle Lewis but wanted a guarantee of $250,000. In other words, he wasn't going to wrestle Lewis. On September 30, the NWA stated it still recognized Londos as champion.
The only wrestler to answer the commission's challenge was old Wladek Zbyszko. So on November 2, 1931, Lewis and Wladek met one more time, this one was for the Illinois world championship. Lewis won the first fall with the headlock in 23:52. Zbyszko won the second after a flying mare. Lewis used a cross body lock to pin Wladek in the third fall in 7:54. The report claimed it was a good match and Lewis was presented a belt by Gen. John V. Clinnin representing the Illinois title. The spectators responded with "one of the most spontaneous demonstrations Lewis had ever received". The match drew 7,244 and $13,064 but didn't come close to filling the spacious Chicago Stadium. Being the Illinois world champion did Lewis little good and I don't think he ever defended the title in Chicago.
Lewis defended his California world title against another young ex-footballer in Joe Savoldi on November 25, 1931 at The Olympic Auditorium for Lou Daro. Savoldi wasn't much as a wrestler but he was a good looking guy with a strong looking body, who introduced the drop kick into main stream wrestling. His drop kicks were stupendous, but his over all work wasn't up to the standards of the other young stars of 1931. Savoldi had beaten Marshall twice and Karl Sarpolis to get the title match with Lewis.
Lewis won the first fall with his reverse hammer lock, which he also was using under the name "cross body block". I think it was Lewis' "shoot move" that he used when worried about someone (like Thesz used his STF.). Not that Lewis would worry about Savoldi. Joe won the second fall in 7:56 with a head scissors. In the third, Lewis caught Savoldi in the air, after a drop kick attempt, and seemed to "power bomb" Savoldi for the pin in 9:15. No attendance was announced, so it may not have been good.
The Ed Lewis Break Up with Billy Sandow
We only have Ed wrestling three more matches after Savoldi in 1931, and those were mainly in the Northwest where he seemed to have family. He seemed to have gone back into semi-retirement, being without a major promoter backing him as champion. Lewis spent his days running his Glendale and Alhambra restaurants, eating, drinking and playing cards until late into the night.
Lou Daro only had two more cards at The Olympic during the year, and he was in the process of dumping the Sandow/Bowser group for the Londos/Pack/Curley team. Los Angeles was always a city willing to change alliances, and go with any promotion or champion that could make them money. Londos had been the top star in town before Lewis had moved in, and Daro wanted him and his title back. Daro knew there was no money in pushing old Lewis or foreigner DeGlane as champion.
Billy Sandow ether owned a part of Kansas City (Missouri) or had great influence over it. That continued after leaving Daro and he also began working with Al Haft of Columbus and John Pesek. Haft was pushing Pesek hard as world champion. Pesek, with an establish territory behind him, took great pleasure in beating the old super stars. He started the year on January 1, 1932 by defeating Joe Stecher, and later in the year, May 11, talked Wladek Zbyszko into jobbing for him in Columbus. Sandow must have been putting pressure on Lewis to do the same and Ed seems to have even signed for such a match. On January 30, 1932, Strangler Lewis was suspended by the Missouri Athletic Commission for failing to follow through on a contract to meet John Pesek in the state. The commission did fail in an attempt to get the NWA to suspend Lewis in all the states affiliated with the organization.
On January 22, 1931, Billy Sandow, visiting his mother in Rochester, announced that his partnership with Ed Lewis was over. The rumor, which was true, was that the Strangler had signed a high paying contract to work for the Jack Curley group on the East Coast. This might explain why Lewis was suspended in Missouri. If the NWA had upheld the ruling it would have upset Lewis' plains on the East Coast and Jack Curley probably had too much influence over the NWA to let that happen.
I've never found anything that made it seem like Sandow or Lewis worked together again. The long relationship between the two friends just ends.
Sandow's break with Lou Daro must have been bitter. In June 1932, Billy started a wrestling war with Lou Daro by promoting at the Hollywood Legion Stadium using Pesek and Marshall as his major stars. On August 25, 1932, Pesek defeated Marshall for a version of the MWA world title in Hollywood.
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