ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
Facts within a Myth
by Steve Yohe
Lou Thesz and the two NWAs
Lewis' friend, Lou Thesz, never had any desirer to go over seas to fight Germans. He was a pro wrestler and that was his only obsession. With help from powerful friends, he rode out the war working in a medical company stationed at Fort Lewis. In April, 1946 he was transferred to Fort Sam Houston and was discharged from the Army on July 26, 1946.
Thesz was ambitious and it didn't take the two time world champion (MWA and NWA titles) long to win another title. On September 11, 1946, Lou beat his good friend Bobby Managoff for the local world title in Montreal. He then returned to St Louis to once again became the town's favorite babyface by beat Buddy Rogers in front of 11,085. On January 23, 1947, Thesz had his first match challenging Bill Longson for his St. Louis NWA world title. Lou, while still Montreal world champion (unknown in St. Louis), lost the match but the attendance was 15,180.
On February 8, 1947, the first TV station in St Louis inaugurated service in St Louis. The first 6 inch black and white TV sets cost $469, but costs were going to drop and most smart people saw it as the future of entertainment.
On February 20, 1947, Lou dropped his Montreal world title to Bobby Managoff, but won it back from Managoff on April 16, 1947. Meanwhile Longson lost his NWA world title to Whipper Billy Watson via a disqualification on February 21.
Thesz then pinned champion Billy Watson in St Louis on April 25, 1947. At that point, Thesz held both the NWA and Montreal world titles. No one could play the champion better than Lou Thesz. He was a classy looking man, who was a super athlete, fine performer, and the best pure wrestler of his generation. So he held both titles for most of 1947.
Late in the year, the Montreal promoter Eddie Quin wanted to put his title back on local star Yvon Robert. Tom Packs didn't want to cheapen the more important NWA title, so they had Thesz first drop his NWA title back to Bill Longson on November 21, 1947 in St Louis, and then lose the Montreal title to Robert on November 26. The idea was that Lou would regain his NWA title down.
Around June 5, 1948, Lou Thesz with money and support from Canadian promoters Frank Tunney, Eddie Quin and wrestlers Bill Longson and Bobby Managoff, bought the St Louis promotion from Tom Packs. With the promotion, Thesz took complete control of the old National Wrestling Association world title.
In buying the promotion, Thesz found himself in the middle of the St Louis wrestling war with his old friend Sam Muchnick. The battle had been going on sense 1945, and Thesz's company had always dominated Muchnick's side, but things would change.
On July 18, 1948,[478a] a number of the smaller promoters from the mid-west met at the President Hotel of Waterloo Iowa. The group formed an organization to add in exchanging talent and battling Packs' larger St Louis promotion. The group consisted of Pinkie George (Des Moines), Tony Stecher (Minneapolis), Sam Muchnick (St Louis), Orville Brown (Kansas City) and Max Clayton (Omaha). Group president Pinkie George had been using the name National Wrestling Alliance in Des Moines (mainly to confuse fans with Tom Packs National Wrestling Association) and the group agreed to continue using that name and use George's world champion, Orville Brown (who was also the Kansas City MWA world champion). This alliance worked well and many other promoters liked the idea, because it was a way to create a monopoly, control talent and lower costs. Within a few months Al Half (Columbus) and Harry Light (Detroit) had joined. By 1949, even Paul Bowser was part of the group.
Two days later on July 20 in Indianapolis, Thesz defeated Longson to become the National Wrestling Association world champion.
You could tell Thesz was in charge because, almost immediately, Ed Lewis started finding work. On July 30, Lewis was the special referee for a Thesz/Managoff match in St Louis. Lewis was also getting referee jobs with Lou's partners in Montreal (Eddie Quin) and Toronto (Frank Tunney).
On November 22, 1948, Ed Lewis was named chairman of a newly organized group called "The Wrestling Promoters' Association of America and Allied Countries". I don't know who these promoters were but my guess it was Thesz's NWAssociation, some New York promoters including Toots Mondt, grouped with Canadian promoters Frank Tunney and Eddie Quin. I think they were attempting to form an alliance of their own to battle the new NWAlliance. At a press conference held in a New York Hotel, Strangler Lewis was promoted to the position of "Mat Czar". The job consisted of public relation, ending the battle over who was the true world champion, and bring back wrestling to New York's Madison Square Garden. Lewis was to be paid $25,000 a year, but claims are that he received very little of that. Three weeks later, Jack Dempsey announced he was working with his friend, Lewis, to bring wrestling back to the Garden. Other than that, nothing really happens while Lewis was this wrestling Czar. In 1949, Lewis continued to referee off and on. Whatever he was making, wasn't very much, and many people were upset in seeing the former great champion doing so poorly.
Sam Muchnick's position in the St Louis war improved with help of the new NWAlliance and its champion Orville Brown. Jack Pefer also helped Muchnick by having his best wrestler, Buddy Rogers, jump from Thesz's group. For years Rogers had been Thesz only major rival as the best babyface in St Louis. But Thesz, Longson, and Packs hated Rogers and did everything they could to keep him down by jobbing him every chance they got. In 1949, Rogers had turned heel, taking on a Nature Boy gimmick in Pfefer's Hollywood promotion. Muchnick started using the heel Rogers and he became a huge draw again in St Louis.
By mid-1949, both St Louis promotions were losing money. Thesz didn't enjoy promoting and wanted to spend all his time wrestling. Muchnick and Thesz had been friends before and talks resulted in both promotions joining as one. Both sides presented their agreement at the July 29, 1949 NWA convention. Members felt, that with nation wide network TV stations televising wrestling, promoters couldn't no longer afford multiple champions. So agreements were made for Orville Brown and Thesz to meet in a title unification match in St Louis on November 29, 1949.
Orville had proved himself a fine champion, but most promoters thought Thesz would be a better national champion. The idea at the time was for Brown to win the unification match, have return matches, with Brown again coming out on top in every major city. When that seemed to be cooling off, Thesz would win the title and start the feud all over again until Brown was of no further use.
On September 11, 1949, Ray Steele probably the best true wrestler of the 1930's, and good friend to both Lewis and Thesz, died in his sleep from a heart attack while hunting in Boise Idaho at age 49. He was buried at Lincoln Nebraska.
On November 1, Orville Brown was driving from a match in Des Moines to his home in Kansas City, when his car skidded underneath a jackknifed trailer-truck. Orville suffered brain damage and was in a coma for five days. When awaken, he was paralyzed on the left side. These injuries forced his retirement and he relinquished his NWAlliance world title.
On November 28, 1949, the National Wrestling Alliance named Lou Thesz as their new champion. The Alliance also agreed that Sam Muchnick would be in charge of the championship bookings. The St Louis group found themselves in control of the title and the Alliance, so Thesz reigned as NWA world champion for over six years.
Lewis and the management of the champion
The convention also named Ed Lewis as its "ambassador of good will". It was seen as a playback position after all of Lewis' years of serves. To help the ailing Lewis financially, each NWA member sent $25 to Lewis each month (other reports claim the amount to be $12,500). Lewis' job had him working as a NWA spokesman, handling controversial issues and wandering from territory to territory ironing out snags between members.[478aa]
In 1950, there are claims that Lewis mentored Timothy Geohagen in Ontario.
On May 3, 1950, a minor film called the BODYHOLD opened in theaters. Lewis played a small part as a referee.
Lewis was still working, off and on, at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and one of the boys, he trained, turned out to be Gene LeBell. LeBell, who was to become an AAU National Judo Champion, a pro wrestler, a hall of fame Hollywood stuntman, and a MMA pioneer, was the son of Olympic Auditorium promoter Aileen "LaBell" Eaton. When not in school, Gene would hang around the Olympic getting in trouble. His mother would send him over to the L.A. Athletic Club to keep him out of her hair. LeBell would ride on his bike to the Club and spend his afternoons getting tied into knots by the giant Strangler Lewis. Gene says Lewis weight over 300 pounds and looked more like a barrel than a man. He learned a lot from Lewis and claimed Ed was impossible to take down.[478b]
With Thesz as champion, the NWA drew larger, with just about every major promoter allied or a member. During 1950, Thesz argued that he needed a manager to help him on the road. Thesz pushed for that person to be Ed Lewis. There were some older promoters, who felt that the sport owed something to the old champion, while others (like Al Haft), figured Lewis had made his money and spent it, so it wasn't their responsibility to provide the old man with social security checks. But Thesz was a good champion and very powerful promoter. Everyone knew that to way to Lou's hatred was to show disrespect toward Lewis.
So Thesz won the argument and Ed Lewis became Lou's manager in November 1950. Ed would travel ahead of Lou to provide publicity for his major title matches by getting space in local newspaper. Ed was known and liked by sports reporters and him just walking into a pressroom was news enough to get space on any sports page. Reporters and fans may have not remembered any of his matches, but the name Strangler Lewis was a part of sport's legend, that echo of others like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones, Jim Thorpe, and Bill Tilden. As Thesz's manager, he was billed by promoters and newsmen as pro wrestling's greatest star and legitimate wrestler. With Gotch dead, Stecher in a nursing home, and Londos running a farm, who was left to say different. Thesz knew the prestige he'd receive just having Strangler Lewis in his corner, would tell the world that the present champion was as good as any wrestler who ever lived.
Thesz and Lewis were a perfect team. Lou loved Lewis like a father and never got tired of him. Ed told him stories, some of them true, and showed him the best hotels and finest restaurants. Thesz was very good looking and a dignified champion, but he was reserved around some people and lived a disciplined life style. He was also careful in who he made friends with. In fact, Thesz was more like Jim Londos than Strangler Lewis. Lewis was gregarious and attempted to make friends with everyone. In the ring, Lewis was always disliked, and boos could be heard during every match, but in life, he was liked by just about everyone he came in contact with. Ed also was anything but disciplined. If he wanted food, he ate. If he wanted to party, he stayed up all night. If he had a shot at a women, he took her. If he had money, he spent it and worried about it later.
After a match, Lou would eat and then sleep. Lewis after seconding the champion at the arena, would go out drinking, playing cards, and having a good time. In the morning, Lou would get up and find Lewis in the hotel lobby, waiting to eat breakfast. Lewis would then leave for the next city, while Thesz went to the gym.
Lewis didn't stay with Thesz all the time. He seems to have just worked the major cities and major matches. His cut, of every card he worked on, was 2 1/2 percent of the gate.[478c] Many promoters didn't like the deal, but Thesz thought Ed made them money in the long run.[478d]
Lewis was enshrined in Wisconsin's Athletic Hall of Fame as a charter member on November 28, 1951.
On October 10, 1954, Anton "Tony" Stecher, bother and former manager of Joe Stecher, who was the long time promoter in Minneapolis, died after a heart attack. His promotion was taken over by his son, Dennis Stecher, and Wally Karbo. Joe Stecher was still alive and in good physical health, living in a nursing home.
The first few years of Thesz's title reign were big money winners, but by the end of 1955 the public grew tired of watching wrestling on TV, so business dropped off. In early 1956, the federal government started an investigation of the NWA claiming the organization was a monopoly, which it was. Most of the smart people in pro wrestling were terrified of the FBI and Thesz was one of them. So in early 1956 (some think December 1955), Thesz sold his share of the St Louis promotion to Sam Muchnick.
Thesz's body was also suffering from all the years on the road defending the title. In March Lou injured his ankle (Thesz claimed he broke it) skiing with his wife in California. Needing a vacation, with the FBI investigation hanging over everyone's head, Thesz made a deal with promoter Frank Tunney to let Billy Watson hold the title threw most of 1956. So on March 15, 1956, Thesz lost the NWA world title to Whipper Billy Watson by "count out of the ring" in front of 15,000 fans in Toronto. The referee was Jack Dempsey.
During these events of early 1956, Lewis lost his managerial job. With Thesz no longer a powerful promoter and without the title, there was no longer a use for Lewis. Ed returned to his home in Tulsa to live out what was left of his life with his wife Bobbie Lee West.
If Thesz's ankle was broken, he was a very fast healer. Three weeks after the title loss, Lou was back in the ring with Watson on April 6 at St Louis. Lou lost that match via a disqualification, a result that got Thesz suspended in town for 60 days. Thesz had moved to the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles and had grown a strong relationship with Olympic Auditorium promoter Jules Strongbow. After the April 6 match, Thesz continued to wrestle, working a least two matches a week for the rest on the year. He had other attempts to take the title away from Watson, wrestling the champion in Houston, Vancouver, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Thesz's ankle was doing so well that the August 5 match in Los Angeles went to a 90 minute draw.
At the September 1956 conference, the National Wrestling Alliance renewed their pledge to Ed Lewis with a $7,500 annual salary. Thesz wanted Lewis back and Ed was used to work with other wrestlers like Dory Funk Sr., Bob Ellis, Pepper Gomes and Dick Hutton.[478e]
Lewis courted Bob Ellis into pro wrestling during 1956, and stories claim that Ed taught Ellis his "bulldog" headlock.[478f]
On October 15, 1956, The National Wrestling Alliance dissolved under a judgment filed in the U.S. district court of Iowa, by Judge William F. Riley. The agreement had the NWA agreeing to cancel all its existing rules, regulations, and bylaws and then drawing up a new code consistent with the terms of the court order. The agreement was made by the work of Sam Muchnick. It was safe for a Thesz return.
On November 9, 1956, Lou Thesz defeated Billy Watson in St Louis by KO to re-win his NWA world title.
Lewis was present at the Floyd Patterson/Archie Moore fight in Chicago on November 30, 1956 and was interviewed by RING MAGAZINE.
Between May 4 and May 12 of 1957, Japanese promoter/wrestler Rikidozan visited Thesz at his San Fernando Valley home. He offered the champion at least $30,000 (real money, unlike some of the other claims in wrestling history) to tour Japan defending the title against Rikidozan. An agreement was made for October 1957. Around this time, plans were also made for Thesz to tour Australia and Singapore.
The NWA and Muchnick didn't this idea of Thesz visiting Japan. They weren't getting a cut of the $30,000 and they worried about the title being stolen in a double-cross. Rikidozan changed their point of view by paying them the normal NWA booking fees and giving Muchnick his normal 3%. Sam also may have thought he was going to get a cut of Lou's $30,000, but Lou never let that happen.
To prevent the possibility of a title double-cross overseas, the group got clever and developed a storyline that created two NWA world champions. On June 14, 1957, Lou Thesz seemed to lose the NWA world title to Edouard Carpentier in Chicago. In the third fall, Thesz hurt his back and was defenseless. Lou kept going to the ropes to save himself from being pined. The referee stopped the match, saying he was disqualifying Thesz for not defending himself. Carpentier was declared the winner and new NWA world champion.
Now, on an "unable to continue" finish, a title can change hands, and that's what seemed to happen. But the referee used the word "disqualify" in announcing the verdict and NWA rules states that a title cannot change via a "disqualification". It sounded like some type of a mistake, but it was just a way to confuse fans and create controversy. The idea by everyone involved was to create a back up champion, in case Thesz was double-crossed in Japan and dropped the title to Rikidozan or someone else on the trip. If Lou did lose somehow, the NWA would just claim he wasn't champion, having lost the title to Carpentier.
The plan seemed like there was going to be a title unification rematch in St Louis on Thesz's return. The promoters would then decide who they wanted as champion, but the plan didn't work out.
After Lou's June 14 loss, the official NWA champion seemed to be Carpentier, but both men defended what they called the NWA world title wherever they appeared. In cities where Thesz was appearing the fans weren't told about Carpentier and they continued like nothing had happened.
On June 27, 1957, Thesz defended his version of the NWA title against Dory Funk (father of Dory JR and Terry Funk) in Amarillo. The booker, old Dr. Karl Sarpolis, created a storyline that had Funk paying Ed "Strangler" Lewis to manage and train him for the match. Lewis appeared in Funks corner, but the match ended up a draw after Lou injured his leg. The angle helped draw a large 8,000 in small Amarillo. So it seems that Thesz was still attempting to make his friend Lewis a little money and they may have tried the same storyline in other cities.
A rematch between Carpentier and Thesz took place on July 25 in Montreal. The match, which drew 15,931, ended in a disqualification when Thesz once again injured his back and kept crawling under the ropes to save himself from being pinned by the Frenchman. Carpentier got upset because Montreal referee Yvon Robert refused to disqualify Thesz like the Chicago referee, so he punched him, getting himself disqualified.
On July 27, 1957, San Muchnik was quoted in THE MONTREAL STAR saying that the title couldn't change on a disqualification and that Carpentier was still NWA champion. A 60 minute draw between Carpentier and Thesz followed in Chicago on August 16.
Around that time, Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn realized that he was drawing huge crowds, unlike St Louis and the rest of the wrestling world, using his own world title, and the prestige of his own top babyface having the NWA world title meant very little in Montreal And the NWA using Carpentier was going to limit his use of his own performer. Quinn realized that losing dates on his top face wasn't going to make him any extra money. Quinn was also upset that the hated Jack Pfefer was allowed to hang around the NWA convention in St Louis that started in August. So Quinn pulled Carpentier from the NWA champion storyline, suggesting that the NWA should just rule that Thesz got his title back after the disqualification win in Montreal.
On August 25, 1957, the NWA, at its convention, ruled that the NWA world title belonged with Lou Thesz because the June 14 Thesz/Carpentier match in Chicago was a disqualification and a title couldn't change on a disqualification. So Edouard Carpentier's name was erased from record books, and as far as the NWA was concerned, he was never champion. Basically, the NWA just disowned their past storyline and moved on.
Carpentier was left with a title "claim" which he would use over the next three year, even dropping it in Boston, Omaha, and Los Angeles. This episode in wrestling history, pretty much ruined the idea of having only one world champion.
By this time, Thesz and Lewis were both fed up with the NWA. Lewis had lost a lot of money because cheap promoters felt his wasn't worth his 3 percent and Thesz was wore out by his schedule and days wasted by minor payoffs in small towns. Lewis convinced Thesz that he'd be better off dumping the NWA and going out on his own. Lewis argued that Thesz was a star, who played the part of a champion better than anyone. He made Thesz believe that he could draw and the public would always consider him the champion, even without the NWA name association. This meant no NWA taking its cut of every gate, so Thesz might even make more money, without all the work that went with being NWA champion. Lewis also told Thesz about all the money to be made overseas.
During the trip to Australia, Singapore, and Japan, Thesz notified Muchnick by mail that he didn't want the title any longer and that Sam should set up a title change as soon as he returned from Japan.
Muchnick and the NWA members need a new champion and the names worthy of the title were small in number. Most felt that Buddy Rogers would make a good heel champion, but Thesz didn't respect Rogers and had always refused to put him over. Rogers was also under contract to Al Haft of Columbus and they worried about running into the same trouble they had with Eddie Quinn and Carpentier. This also eliminated Verne Gagne, who was owned by Fred Kohler. Another candidate was Pat O'Connor.
Ed Lewis had been a big supporter of Dick Hutton and his comments can be found in an 1956 magazines saying he felt the next champion would be Hutton. Living in Tulsa in 1953, Ed may have even played a part in the training of Hutton before turning pro and managed him for short periods of time, when not on the road with Thesz. Hutton was a three time NCAA National Champion on two national championship at Oklahoma A&M, a three times AAU champion, and a 1948 Olympic Games member. Lewis and most amateur officials considered him to be the finest wrestler of his generation. Thesz, who idolized Lewis and was influenced by him, told the NWA that he wanted to drop the title to Hutton. The organization, still wanting Rogers or O'Connor, had to go along with Thesz's wishes, because no one in wrestling could intimidate Lou into losing if he didn't want to. And he wanted to lose to the best true wrestler, Hutton.
After terrible trips through Australia and Singapore, Thesz ended his vacation with a very successful tour of Japan. He returned to America in November and wrestled a few matches around Montreal. On November 12, 1957, Thesz wrestled a draw with Buddy Rogers in Minneapolis. One wonders if this had been the promoters planed title change, but Thesz wouldn't "play ball". Thesz was then booked to meet Dick Hutton in Toronto on November 14, 1957.
The storyline for the match resembled the Funk match in Amarillo, Hutton had recruited Strangler Lewis to manage and train him to defeat his former student, Thesz. This time it worked. After 35:15 of a one fall match, Hutton caught Thesz attempting a "Thesz Press" and body slammed the champion twice. He then applied an abdominal stretch and Lou submitted. Sam Muchnick was present and raised Hutton's hand.
Thesz and Hutton then wrestled a draw in St Louis on November 22, before Lou left on his European tour, which lasted until late February 1958. When he returned, Thesz was booked out of Los Angeles by promoter Jules Strongbow. He began billing himself as International Champion in Europe and continued as champion in the Los Angeles area for a few years. He also ran a resort hotel in Phoenix.
Ed Lewis continued living in Tulsa with his wife. His eyes were worst and his health, at age 68, wasn't what it once was. The champion Dick Hutton also lived in Tulsa and in September 1958, Lewis traveled with Hutton as trainer/manager/publicist in Canada and Minneapolis. On December 26, 1958, he was present in St Louis to watch Hutton defeat Edouard Carpentier. That major match up drew only 4,607.
Hutton was poorly promoted and didn't draw. He lacked color and needed a gimmick. On January 9, 1959, Hutton dropped the NWA title to Pat O'Connor in St Louis, submitting to an O' Connor toe hold in a one fall match. After losing a number of rematches to O'Connor, he was used in Los Angeles by promoter Jules Strongbow and given a cowboy gimmick. He did very well as Cowboy Dick Hutton in Southern California, but was over shadowed by Lou Thesz, Freddie Blassie and The Destroyer and never won the WWA world title. He retired in April 1964 to marry the daughter of a millionaire and train race horses. After 31 years of marriage, his wife Katherine died from Lou Gehrig's disease. Hutton passed away on November 24, 2003 at the age of 80.
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