ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth
by Steve Yohe
Lewis wins Mid-west World Title in 1942
John Pesek was also still wrestling. For over ten years he had been "homesteading" in Nebraska, Iowa, and Ohio. His manager and promoter was Al Half, who idolized him and protected him from the idea of doing jobs. Pesek wasn't like most wrestlers, he had money, owning a farm and championship stable of racing dogs. Pro wrestling was a part time job for Pesek and only the opportunity of beating former stars could get him in the ring. Over the years, he got revenge over all the wrestlers who had defeated him when he was part of the trust. Late in their careers he got such stars, as Joe Stecher, Wladek Zbyszko, Everett Marshall, Hans Steinkle, and Marin Plestina, to come to Columbus or Lincoln to put him over. Pesek, himself, hadn't done a job since losing to Ray Steele in St Louis on November 23, 1933. Pesek and Lewis had wrestled at least four times, with Ed always winning. In 1942, Lewis needed money, so he was willing to join Pesek's list.
Lewis, whenever in Omaha, had challenged Pesek to a "shoot" match, but the Ravenna Tiger had been busy racing greyhounds for most of the year. When a break in Pesek's schedule opened up, promoter Max Clayton was able to match the two in Omaha for October 20, 1942. Ticket prices were scaled higher than normal cards with reserve seats going at $1.65 and $1.10 with general admission tickets listed at 55 cents. The attendance of 4,000, with the mark up in prices, made the card one of the highest grosses in Omaha in years.
Lewis' age was 52 and he weighted 268 pounds, while Pesek's age was a secret, but I believe he was around 48, and his weight was his normal 190 pounds. The match was billed as two out of three falls with a 90 minute time limit. Everyone claimed the match would be an old style shoot.
Once the match started, Pesek moved around with his old-time agility, as wary and cunning as ever. He usually was in the advantageous position and he had Lewis groaning whenever he applied an arm or leg hold. Most of Lewis's weight was located above his waistline, giving him a "humpty-dumpy" shape. He seemed to have tremendous strength in his arms, and he concentrated solely on applying his headlocks. He had the strategy of a bully, badgering, shoving, letting his weight rest on Pesek, while staying on the offensive. There was a lot of interesting fencing for position, and the two men were on their feet much of the time. After about 25 minutes, Pesek got Lewis down and started to work on Lewis' legs. Breaking away, Lewis started applying major headlocks, but Pesek dropped down and reversed Lewis into a leg lock to win the first fall in 40:05.
The Strangler then battled back to pin Pesek with a headlock in 5:55. During the third fall, Lewis hit Pesek on the jaw and Pesek retaliated. There was some scuffling, and at one point Pesek thought that the referee Harry Cadell was holding his arms, so Lewis could get in a few extra licks. Pesek pushed Cadell away and threw the huge Lewis out on the ring. His temper flaring, Pesek then threw the referee out of the ring on top of Lewis. When everyone got back into the ring, Pesek found himself disqualified. Most of the fans in the mid-west had never heard of Pesek losing, and he had everyone believing he was invincible, so the win by Lewis had to be considered a huge victory.
John Pesek major rivals in the mid-west were Bill Longson and Orville Brown. He wasn't really on the same level as Longson, who held the more nationally know NWA title and worked major territories like St Louis, Texas, The South and up into Canada. No one drew crowds like Longson and his only true rival probably was Lou Thesz, but Thesz was locked up with a US Army problem and out of the wrestling picture. Pesek and Orville Brown were thought of as being on the same level and worked the same area.
Brown was a farmer/cowboy who worked his way threw the minor shoot style of Kansas and Iowa to become a true pro wrestler. During the period of 1933 to 1936, he was considered a major wrestler and a strong contender to Jim London' title. After wrestling fell apart as a national sport in 1937, Orville worked on the East Coast and then "homesteaded" in Columbus, Ohio. Brown was good looking, in a mid-west way, a fine worker, who was powerful and could take care of himself, in the ring and out. He got over well in Columbus but John Pesek was always in the way, refusing to job or drop his MWA world title.
During this time period, which I call the dark ages of pro wrestling, the best way for a star wrestler to make money, was to get into promotion and control your own territory. Kind of creating your own world to work out of, and make money for yourself, instead of relying on some cheating promoter. Orville Brown was the prototype for this type of system. In 1940, he took over the Kansas City area of Kansas. From there he worked for other promoters in Des Moines, St Joseph, Topeka, Louisville, and in small town all over Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. 2,000 fans doesn't sound like much, but at 65 cent to a $1 a head, a good wrestler could make $200 a night, five nights a week, covering the mid-west. There usually were only three matches to a card, the main event, a semi-main usually main up of locals, and a opening match usually made up of young boys working for a few bucks. Most of the cut went to the main eventers, who earned their payoffs by working long matches. $200 was more money than most people made in a month in 1940. (In 1951 the average income was $2,800 a year) With promoting, and two or three farms, Brown became a wealthy man.
The mid-western fan was much different than the fans in Los Angeles or New York. They didn't pay their money to laugh, watching pure action and performers making fun of the sport. They had a tradition of true wrestling and that's what they wanted to watch, serious wrestling. It was an area made for Strangler Lewis.
But wrestling was no longer promoted on a national level. These small towns knew very little about the storylines being used in other cities. The local newspapers rarely covered wrestling news from another territories, and the fans were kept in the dark about any storyline other than their own. So the mid-west was filled with different world titles. Champions could lose their title in one town and still be defending a world title in another town against the very guy who beat him and won his title. The promoters had no rules to control them, so they did what they thought could make them the most money.
Orville Brown was a fine booker and he wasn't afraid to do a job or drop a title to keep a storyline going. He was limited in how many stars he could use, so he booked in such a way as to not "blow" anyone off. He wrestled some guys, like Bobby Bruns, a 100 times and kept it interesting.
On June 13, 1940, Orville Brown defeated Bobby Bruns for a Jack Pfeffer East-coast world title in Kansas City, Kansas, called the Mid-west World Title, which will be called the Kansas City MWA Title. On June 22, 1940, the Columbus Promoter Al Haft striped John Pesek of the Columbus MWA world title for being inactive and failing to meet contenders, mainly Orville Brown. (This MWA title had been awarded to Pesek after he had been stripped, for no good reason, by the NWA on August 16, 1938.) Orville Brown then wrestled Dick Shikat on June 27, 1940 for the vacant Columbus MWA world title, with Brown winning. So Brown in 1942 actually held two different MWA titles, but very few fans knew this, because each city had different storylines.
Orville hired Ed Lewis in October 1942, and the two worked together through out 1943.
The first meeting took place, two days after the win over Pesek, on October 22, 1942 in Kansas City. 3,600 fans watched Brown defend his MWA title by winning the first fall with an Indian death lock in 19:50. Lewis worked Brown over with headlocks and won the second in 11:20. Between rounds Orville asked for an extra five minutes rest and Lewis agreed. In the third fall, Lewis threw Orville out of the ring and was attempting to block his return but got hit with a tackle and pined in 5:20.
Omaha wasn't satisfied with the ending of the Pesek/Lewis match so a rematch took place on November 3, 1942. This time the result was different. Pesek attacked Lewis with no mercy, and Lewis resembled a high school football player going against a pro. After 26 minutes and 50 seconds of the first fall, Pesek wriggled out of a headlock to put Lewis into a hold called a "knee-over-toe hold". Pesek had Lewis in the hold for over two minutes when referee Joe Zikmund screamed at Lewis "You'd better holler "uncle" or he'll tear the hell out of your leg!" Lewis then lay exhausted, as Pesek was given the first fall. Fans then got up, knowing the result. The rest waited until Pesek returned to the ring before the 10 minute rest was over. Lewis could not continue. In the dressing room, Lewis attempted to raise his leg and groaned, "Cheez, dat guy practically de-legged me. At least der were no fouls, huh?" The match drew 3,700.
Lewis' leg must have recovered fast because on November 5, 1942 in Kansas City, Lewis defeated Orville Brown via a decision. The Kansas City MWA title didn't change hands on a decision, but it did mean there would be another match.
On October 7, 1942 Montreal champion, Yvon Robert, defeated Wild Bill Longson in a title unification match in Montreal, winning the NWA world title. On November 6, Lewis was defeated in St Louis by the new champion Yvon Robert in 27:58.
On November 18, 1942, Lewis was back in Des Moines for another match with Orville Brown. It wasn't a title match because Brown had lost his claim in Des Moines in a title unification match with Bill Longson back on July 22, 1942. Lewis roughed up Brown in the first fall and pined him using the headlock. It looked like Ed was going to be a cinch to soon finish his younger adversary, but Brown won both of the next two falls using a reverse toe-lock in 4:05 and 2:55.
On November 25, the movie GENTLEMAN JIM opened nation wide and became one of Errol Flynn's biggest hits and is still considered a classic even today.
It must have given Lewis some good luck, because the next day, November 26, 1942, Ed defeated Orville Brown in Kansas City for it's version of the MWA world title.
On December 1, Lewis got some type of victory over John Pesek in Dayton, Ohio.
Lewis, was on a roll, as he defeated Orville Brown in Columbus on December 3, 1942 via count out of the ring in 26 minutes, winning that city's version of the MWA world title.
The MWA champion then wrestled former NWA world champion, Wild Bill Longson, in Louisville on December 8, 1942. The promoter, Heywood Allen, claimed that it was he who changed Robert Friedrich name to Strangler Lewis when Ed performed at the old Buckingham Theater in 1913. That night he allowed any fan who could prove they had been present in 1913 to watch the show free. Lewis beat Longson on a disqualification.
On December 10, The Strangler defended the title and defeated Lee Wyckoff in Kansas City. This was a rematch of their 1936 Madison Square Garden match, which Lewis claimed was a shoot. Another Kansas City match took place on January 14, 1943 and Wyckoff beat Lewis, taking the Kansas City version of the MWA world title.
The Strangler then lost the Columbus version of the MWA title to John Pesek on January 28, 1943. Time after time Lewis attempted to get the headlock on Pesek but the speedy Tiger slipped out of the hold. The ending saw Pesek reverse a body slam into a leglock and Lewis submitted in 25 minutes.
At 53 years of age, Strangler Lewis would never be able to claim another world title.
On February 4, Lewis lost to Orville Brown in Kansas City. This set Brown up for a title match with Lee Wyckoff on February 18, a match Orville won, regaining his Kansas City MWA world title.
In March, Lewis appreciation for a wrestling license in Florida was turned down by boxing commission chairman Frank Markle, saying Ed was too old to wrestle in the state. Lewis countered with a challenge to defeat any five boxers in one night or forfeit a $2,500 bond.
1943 saw Lewis getting pushed in Detroit. He beat Orville Brown twice (March 1 and March 15) and he got two wins over the last (almost) undisputed world champion Danno O'Mahoney (April 5 and April 19).
Lewis' wrestling career was coming to a close and, from that point forward, would be looking for other type jobs to support his life style. On April 19, 1943, it was announced that Strangler Lewis was the new wrestling promoter at the Detroit Arena Garden. He replaced Louis Markowitz. Lewis' first card drew 1,700. Lewis claimed he wanted a more dignified style of wrestling, but the newspaper pointed out that the only dignified thing at the show was Lewis, "dressed to the nines", standing at the front door greeting patrons while a band serenaded them to their seats. The matches were said to be ludicrous. Nothing came from this and Lewis went back to wrestling in Canada and the North-east.
In Toronto Lewis lost matches to Maurice Tillet (March 18), Leo Numa (June 24) and Earl McCready (July 8). He then return to Kansas to lose MWA title matches to Orville Brown in Kansas City (September 23) and Topeka (September 29).
On August 6, 1943, NAZTY NUISANCE a minor film, with Lewis in a small part, was released.
In Chicago, he lost to Kola Kwariani on October 13, 1943. He then spent November touring the East Coast, getting wins over Hans Kampfer, Golden Terror, and Babe Sharkey.
1944 saw Ed getting built up in Minneapolis by Tony Stecher for a big match with Bronko Nagurski. He beat Orville Brown (January 4), Ken Fenelon (January 11) and Ray Steele (January 18), before losing the big match to Nagurski on January 19 in St Paul.
On March 7, 1944, Babe Sharkey won a tournament in Baltimore. This gave him the right to wrestle Strangler Lewis for the Maryland world title on March 14. Sharkey won the match and the world title. Lewis also lost a title rematch to Sharkey in Baltimore on March 28.
Lewis then returned to Minneapolis for a match with his oldest rival Wladek Zbyszko on April 18. Wladek had never stopped wrestling and was a year younger that Lewis. He and his brother Stanislaus lived on a farmer near St Joseph, Missouri and was active in promoting wrestling in South America. He had wrestled around Kansas for years. At one point he even wore a mask and billed himself as The Great Apollo. Lewis won the match.
The next week in Minneapolis (April 25), Lewis was again beaten by Ray Steele.
Lewis then traveled to Montreal for a series of matches, losing to Frank Sexton on July 5, 1944. Sexton was in the process of becoming one of the top performers of the 1940's. In June 1945, Sexton would defeat Steve Casey for Boston's AWA world title (the title of Lewis, Sonenberg, and O'Mahoney) and keep it until May 1950. Sexton was the East coast version of Lou Thesz.
Lewis then returned home to the North-West to be near his sister and family. He seemed to be only wrestling part time and his weight got to the 300 pound level. He also owned a home in Tulsa, which he and his wife lived in off and on.
Only August 23, 1944, he had his last match with Wladek Zbyszko in Salt Lake City. Lewis won. A few days later on August 26 at Calgary, Lewis put over Ray Steele.
Gus Sonnenberg had joined the US Navy in 1943, but got sick at beginning of 1944. On September 9, 1944 Sonnenberg died from Leukemia at Betheada MD Navel Hospital at age 44. He was buried at Park Cemetery in Marquette.
On September 14, 1944, Bob Managoff, the man who took Bob Friedrich's name, forcing him to become Strangler Lewis in 1913, died at his home at 2557 Division Street in Chicago.
On September 20, 1944 Lewis gave an interview saying he had just completed a 14 week tour of US Army, Navy, and Marine bases giving two hour classes on self defense. He claimed to have visited Japan a number of times and had learned Ju-Jitsu. His standard interview included stories of having wrestled 6,200 match (not possible), made and spent millions of dollars (don't try to add up the numbers), and had traveled all over the world. He claims, at times, to have visited Japan five times. Once is possible, but the Japanese of today have no record of him. Lewis even claim he was a spy for American intelligence, having taken photo of varies buildings and military post while in Japan.
He traveled to Wichita on December 6 to lose two straight falls to Orville Brown. Reports were being circulated that Lewis was about to retire again. They were denied by Ed.
In 1945, Lewis agreed to manage Cliff Gustafson in the North-West for promoter Tony Stecher. Gustafson was a former University of Minnesota wrestler, who had won the AAU and the intercollegiate title. Stecher had been promoting the wrestler since the end of 1938. Gustafson was a fine amateur, but as a pro, he was stiff, colorless and liked to hurt opponents. Stecher needed someone to guild Gustafson during a tour of Seattle, Portland, Winnipeg and other minor cities. Lewis was offered the job of managing Cliff, and Ed accepted. Lewis would help with interviews, second the wrestler in the ring and sometimes wrestle on the under cards. Ed needed a good job and he performed his duties well.
When not working with Gustafson, Lewis seemed to be visiting Army and Navy bases putting on shows with a group of wrestlers that included Babe Sharky, Henry Piers, and Milo Steinborn.
Gustafson's tour was cut short on September 17 when he was injured at Seattle in a match with Seelie Samara. The out of shape Lewis was forced to take Gustafson's bookings and found himself doing a lot of jobs. Lou Thesz was stationed at Ft Lewis, in Tacoma, wrestling when off duty. During August and September, Thesz beat Lewis at least four times, most in straight falls. Lewis also did jobs for Seelie Samara, Rube Wright (three times), Dick Raines, and Pierre DeGlane.
On September 2, 1946, the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II and pro wrestling's labor shortage.
Late in 1945, Lewis wrestled on the East Coast, with nothing important happening.
In 1946, Tom Packs was engaged in a major wrestling war with one of his old employees named Sam Muchnick. On January 9, 1946, Lewis wrestled for Muchnick, losing to Ed Virag. The match drew 4,015.
Following the death of Lewis' father, his mother Molly Friedrich continued to live in Nekoosa but, in September 1945, she became ill. So she moved to Wisconsin Falls to live with a daughter, Mrs. Jay Buckley. On January 10, 1946, she died at 4 o'clock in the morning. Lewis was present in Nekoosa for the funeral and burial on January 12.[471a]
In February, Lewis did jobs for Ali Baba (February 5 and 6 in Baltimore and Philadelphia), and Babe Sharley (Boston-February 14). He then seemed to stick to refereeing for the rest of the year, in Toronto and then in Northern California.
Late in the year he attempted to market a rubber exerciser called the Strangler Lewis' Health Builder. It resulted in another nothing. Lewis claimed he sold a million of the Health Builders, but also admitted he was broke.
Lewis spent the last part of 1946 and January of 1947 wrestling for promoter George Zaharias in the area around Denver. After putting the young Everett Marshall over nationally in the famous Los Angeles match of April 16, 1930, Lewis had won many rematches and seemed to avoid any loss to Marshall, mainly because of Everett's strong connection with Billy Sandow. The two hadn't met during the years Marshall was recognized as world champion, but with Lewis needing money and Everett making a comeback in 1946, the match seemed to be a natural. The storyline started on December 30, 1946, when referee Lewis screwed up and cost Marshall a Denver match with a Frank Gonzales. Three Denver matches followed. Marshall won the first by disqualification on January 6, 1947. Lewis took the second meeting clean on January 20, and Marshall won the third clean on February 10. During this period, he also did two jobs to Tom Zaharias (January 8 in Colorado Springs) and Ed White (February 12 at Colorado Springs). He then returned to the North-West, both as a wrestler and a referee. He spent May wrestling in the South and lost two matches to Don McIntyre.
Unlike Lewis, Marshall wasn't making a comeback in need of a payday. Since the late 1930's, he had own a large farm, growing mainly onions and cantaloupes. Everett was probably a better farmer than a wrestler. On July 9, 1947, he announced his retirement and unlike many other stars, he never returned to the ring. In September 1963, Everett, looking to retire from farming, sold three million dollars of farm land (110,000 acres) to a group of swindlers and he ended up in bankruptcy court. He still had enough money to help finance the Colorado Boys Ranch, that gave many trouble youths a place to make good in the years that followed. The ranch is still active today. Everett Marshall died on February 10, 1973, at age 67, from complications following surgery. His wife, Harriet Marshall, died at age 92 in 2001. He left many friends and a daughter, Ann Schomburg of Denver, and a son named Bob.[473a]
Lewis moved back to Los Angeles, from Tulsa, in June, 1947, thinking it would be the easiest place to find work. On June 25, 1947 he wrestled his last title match, meeting California world champion Enrique Torres at The Olympic Auditorium. Lewis lost, but drew a crowd of 9,200.
With the war and the depression over, pro wrestling started to come out of it's Dark Age and once TV started showing matches it entered a period that rivaled the early 1930's for prosperity. The biggest draw in wrestling during 1947 was ex-boxing champion, Primo Carnera.
On December 7, 1947, promoters matched Lewis with Carnera in Miami. Ed claimed it was the 253rd time he had flown across the country. Primo won the match and Ed took another plane trip back to California.
In later 1947, Jack Sherry was in Hawaii claiming he was the best wrestler in the world and was willing to meet anyone. Sherry, had for years been telling people stories about how he was tricked into jobbing to Strangler Lewis in the New York title match in Madison Square Garden (October 10, 1932). After that match, he spent years wrestling in England claiming to be a world champion. He was known as a feared hooker and, after the Lewis match, I have no knowledge of him losing. Honolulu promoters contacted Lewis in Hollywood, asking him if he wanted a match with Sherry. Lewis accepted for $2,500 and expenses if he won and nothing if he lost. For a month the 57 year old trained. Word got back to Honolulu that the wrestler getting off the plane was going to be the real Strangler Lewis. On the night of the match (Jan. 28, 1948), Jack Sherry didn't show. With Sherry ducking Lewis, his place was taken by the young star, Butch Levy. Lewis won the match. It was the last match of Lewis' career.
In the early part of the year, Lewis took the position of Athletic Instructor and greeter at The Los Angeles Athletic Club. I think Lewis and everyone else believed his future was in public relations, of one type or another. Part of Lewis' job entailed talking to boy's clubs, visiting reform schools and giving talks on juvenile delinquency. Ed was fat and looked old in many ways, but he was huge and still had the grace and balance of a champion. He was a good talker who always enjoyed public speaking.
On March 13, Lewis cancelled a match in Fresno with Flash Gordon claiming an elbow injury.
On March 29, 1948, Lewis' California wrestling license was revoked after he failed the physical examination for journeymen wrestlers. The commission stated he would still be allowed to referee. This, in effect, was the date of Strangler Lewis' retirement as an active pro wrestler.
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