Facts within a Myth

by Steve Yohe


The Strangler's last years

In 1959, Lewis returned to Wisconsin Rapids for the funeral of his sister Hattie Buckley. The only relatives left in Wisconsin Rapids were nephews Patrick Buckley and Ben Buckley. His other two sisters lived in the state of Washington.

In October of 1959, Lewis helped in the pro training of Danny Hodge, three-time national collegiate wrestling champion at Oklahoma University, who's record in school was 46-0 with 36 pins. In early 1960, Lewis seconded Hodge in some of his early pro match. Lewis was so impressed with Hodge that he gave him one of Billy Sandow's old headlock machines. Lewis had two such machines in 1960. Today, one resides in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the other is on display at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum at Waterloo, Iowa.[481]

Paul Bowser promoted a Boston Garden card, on July 15, 1960, that saw Lou Thesz and Ed Carpentier draw with Killer Kowalski & Hans Schmidt. Three days earlier, Bowser suffered a heart attack at his home in Lexington and was taken to the Concord Emerson Hospital. After two surgeries, Paul Bowser died on July 17, 1960. He was buried at Lexington's Westview Cemetery.[482]

By the 1960's, Lewis was legally blind after all the years of suffering from Trachoma. He returned to being fully retired, supported by his wife, and donations from acquaintances.[481a] He took to religion and preached in many Christian Science churches through out the mid-west, playing the part of a repentant sinner. He claimed to have been "completely devoted to expounding the message of the Lord." He once was quoted as saying "They sit out there and listen because they're afraid that, if they don't, I may get mad and put a headlock on them."

Joe Malcewicz, Paul Bowser's best pure wrestler and one of Lewis' top rivals during the 1920's, became the major promoter in San Francisco in 1935. He was a good man known for his honesty and fair payoffs. Lewis always listed him with Stecher and Jim Browning as one of the three top hookers he wrestled in his career. In 1961, Malcewicz was put out of business in San Francisco by Roy Shire, Ray Stevens and local TV. He died on April 20, 1962 at the age of 65.[482a]

Sam Avey continue to run a strong wrestling promotion in Tulsa Oklahoma into the 1950's. On September 20, 1952, a lightning strike burned down the Coliseum, leaving him without a major arena. In January 1958, he sold his promotion to Leroy McGuirk. Avey was vice president of Farmers and Merchants State Bank, and served as NWA treasurer until August 1960. Sam Avey died, at age 67, on August 9, 1962.

Lewis' good friend Lou Thesz remained one of wrestling's greatest stars. Pat O'Connor reign as NWA world champion, was over shadowed by Buddy Rogers, and on June 30, 1961 the two drew 38,000 and a gate of $125,000 in Chicago. Rogers won the title and returned much of it's past glory over the next year and half. But Rogers was controlled by Eastern Promoter Vincent J. Mc Mahon and the old school NWA promoters were upset by the few dates they were getting with the champion. The fact was that the North America territory was too big for one champion to cover. Buddy Roger drew well but his body was shot from years of being a top worker. His work suffered, although fans really couldn't tell, and he missed a lot of actions due to injuries. So Sam Muchnick and the other NWA promoters wanted their title back and on the East Coast, Toots Mondt was talking Vincent J. Mahon into forming a new organization, with it's own champion.

The NWA needed a new champion and the person they picked was old Lou Thesz. On January 24, 1963, Thesz pined Rogers in Toronto winning the National Wrestling Alliance world title for the third time. Thesz being asked back as champion has to be considered one of the greatest complements in pro wrestling history.

Thesz remain champion for three years, losing it to friend Gene Kiniski (by disqualification) in St Louis on January 7, 1966.

On November 7, 1965, Thesz had a wrestling date in Tulsa, so he flew into town a day early so he could visit with mentor Lewis. Lewis seemed in good spirits and wanted Lou to take him to Oklahoma City so the two could visit a hotel they used to enjoy during their traveling days. So the two took a day long trip to the Skillern Hotel. Ed spent the day reminiscing about his career and the people he had know and were gone. He seemed to enjoy himself and the two drove back that night, so Lou could defend his title against Sputnik Monroe. Thesz then left the territory, not realizing that the trip was Ed's way of saying goodbye. Several weeks later, Thesz got word that Ed was in bad shape, after a series of strokes, and had been hospitalized at the Veterans Hospital in Muskogeees.

In early 1966, Lewis was honored by his hometown of Nekoosa. A ten foot high marker was erected in the city by the South Wood County Historical Corporation. The large plaque memorialized his career and listed the names of many of the great men he had wrestled. A number of his old friends were present, but Lewis was unable to attend because he was confined to a nursing home. The marker still stands today at the intersection of Prospect Avenue (State Highway 73) and 9th Street.

On August 6, 1966, Thesz stopped in Muskogee, to see Lewis, on the way to some matches in Florida. Lou got to the Veterans Hospital early in the morning and Lewis was sleeping in a wheelchair. The nurses told Thesz that Ed had had a bad night and had been medicated, so Lou left and got on his plane for Tampa. Later that day he got a phone call from Jack Pfefer, who had visited Lewis the afternoon following Thesz. Pfefer told Lou that the doctor felt Lewis was "fading fast". Pfefer told Lou to get back as soon as possible.[483]

Ed "Strangler" Lewis died in his sleep on August 7, 1966 at age 76.

Funeral services were held at the Ninde Funeral Home in Tulsa. The private service was officiated over by Willard Russell, a Christian Science reader at Tulsa's Golden Chapel. Lewis was cremated and later buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, in section 53, grave 3546.[483a]

The two Zbyszko brothers, Wladek and Stan, continued to live together on their pig farm near Savannah, Missouri, north of St Joseph, Missouri. The two were involved with the development of pro wrestling in South America and it's claimed that Johnny Valentine and Harley Race worked and received some training on their farm. The 88 year old Stanislaus Zbyszko died on the farm after a heart attack on September 23, 1967. Wladek Zbyszko, one of Lewis' greatest rivals, died on June 10, 1968 and is now resting at the Savannah Cemetery. I believe, if my counting is correct, that he was 75 (Born November 20, 1891).

Billy Sandow, Lewis' manager and friend from 1915 to 1932, who should be given full credit for finding Lewis, training him and making him one of sport's greatest stars, was a, behind the scene, promoter of wrestling in Kansas after leaving St Louis in 1939. The professional break up seemed to have also ended the friendship, because after 1932 Shandow is written out of Lewis' story. Sandow died on September 15, 1972 at the age of 88.

Aurelio Fabiani, the promoter of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, died at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia on April 26, 1973 at age 82. The man who brought great wrestling to Philadelphia and turned Jim Londos into a superstar has yet to be admitted to any Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Joe Stecher out lived Lewis by almost eight years. Ed's greatest rival, after over 35 years of being institutionalized, died at the Veteran's Hospital of St Cloud, Minnesota on March 29, 1974, at the age of 80. His remains were shipped to San Francisco, where his wife lived, and Joe can be found at Cypress Memorial Park, Coma California (Niche P, Tier 1, in the Garden of Serenity). In public, Lewis always stated that Stecher was the best wrestler he ever met, but he lacked heart. In private, with friendly insiders like Thesz, he'd say he didn't know who was the better wrestler, and admitted he'd have been beaten in short time if he had gone to the mat with Stecher without stalling.

Jim Londos lived out his life just as he had planed it. Wrestling's greatest box office star, had a career that lasted from 1915 to 1959. His last years of life, were spent as a rich gentleman farmer in Escondido, California. In the 1960's, he sold most of his farm, becoming even richer, and today a large portion of the city of Escondido rests on it. Unlike Lewis, Londos would never said anything disrespectful about his old bitter rival. When asked about their September 20, 1934 battle in Wrigley Field, Chicago, that broke the all time gate record, Londos always played down his victory, making a point of saying that Lewis was old and past his prime. Perhaps he knew Lewis popularity made him invulnerable to critics. Londos suffered a heart attack at Palomar General Hospital and died on August 19, 1975. He was buried at a prime spot, next to his wife, at the Oak Hill Memorial Park, on a green hill over looking his city of Escondido.

Toots Mondt remain a power on the East Coast. He played a major part in the promotion of wrestling at Madison Square Garden and formed with Vincent McMahon the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, which later became known as the WWF or WWE. He also played a important part in the careers of Antonino Rocca and Bruno Sammartino. By 1960, Mondt acted only as a shareholder and was semi-retired, used only in an advisory capacity. He retire complete in 1969, and moved from Jackson Heights, Long Island, to St Louis. He died from pneumonia on June 11, 1976. He was 82.

On June 2, 1975, the Ed "Strangler" Lewis belt was auctioned off in Boston.[484]

John Pesek never did another job after the Strangler Lewis series of match in 1942. His last match took place on January 28, 1959. Like Jim Londos, he never dropped his (MWA) world title in the ring. He also ran a productive farm (9 miles south of Ravenna, Nebraska), but Pesek also had one of the most famous kennels of racing dogs in the nation. He was the only man ever enshrined in the Greyhound Racing Hall of Fame and the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. It's said that Pesek revolutionized the sport of dog racing, bring the super dog "Just Andrew" from Australia to America. "Just Andrew" is also in the Greyhound Hall of Fame, with 30 of his offsprings. In 1978, it was claimed that 80% of the greyhounds racing were descended from "Just Andrew". John Pesek died from a heart attack, while eating breakfast in Ravenna with his two older children, Elizabeth and Jack, on March 12, 1978. He was buried at Highland Cemetery, west of Ravenna.[485]

In 1979, Bobbie Lee West, Lewis' wife for over 29 years, passed away in Tulsa.

Jack Dempsey remained a sports icon. He continued to make public appearances and ran a famous restaurant in Manhattan. He took a hands-on approach and spent much of his time greeting awestruck tourist at the door. The press called him sport's greatest gentleman. He died from strokes and heart failure on May 31, 1983, at age 87, and is buried in the Southampton Cemetery in Southampton, New York. Gene Tunney, Dempsey's conqueror, preceded him in death by five years (Nov. 7, 1978). Dempsey's 3,000 word obituary was written by Red Smith and printed on the front page of the New York Times. Tunney's death was reported on page 22 with an unbylined obituary of 750 words.[485a]

Lou Thesz's career basically ended after a tour of Japan in April 1982. Still in tremendous condition, he remained a legend for his workouts in the gym. In 1984, most insiders felt he was more than a match for WWF world champion Hulk Hogan. At times, he still would accept special matches, but that ended in December 1990 in Japan's Tokyo Dome when he injured his hip in a match with Masa Chono. Like with Lewis, he stayed in the sport by acting as a special referee and accepted positions with promotions like the UWFI in Japan. With a career that rivaled any in wrestling's history, he was honored by the Cauliflower Ally Club in 1991 and later that year replaced Archie Moore as the Club's President. For the last portion of his life he functioned as pro wrestling's elder statesman, and even was a part of the best pro wrestling history site on the internet, The Lou Thesz Forum at Wrestling Classics.com. He also became a great help to a new generation of wrestling historians, and never showed his annoyance with nobodies who knew historical dates and questioned his memory. Lou could not have a conversation without praising his old friend and mentor, Ed Lewis. Lou Thesz died on April 28, 2002 from complications following open heart surgery. He was 86 years old.

It would be impossible to have a legitimate Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame without the name of Strangler Lewis on it's rolls and Ed is in all of the major ones including: The Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (the initial class of 1996), The Profession Wrestling Hall of Fame (PWHF of Amsterdam, New York) (the initial class of 2002), Wisconsin's Athletic Hall of Fame (initial class of 1951) and The International Wrestling Institute and Museum George Tragos/Lou Thesz Hall of Fame (initial class of 1959).

There is some argument to the idea that Ed "Strangler" Lewis was pro wrestling's greatest shooter, I believe Stecher, Gotch, Caddock, Pesek, Steele, and some of the older and lighter performers have just as much claim to that title as Ed. And I don't believe he surpassed Jim Londos, Gotch, or even Hulk Hogan as a wrestling "star", but when you follow Ed Lewis career, you follow the history of the sport.


  • 481 OKLAHOMA SHOOTER: THE DAN HODGE STORY by Mike Chapman page 107 to 109
  • 481a Lewis lived on South Cincinnati Avenue in Tulsa, and the internet report I've found claims he lived with his wife and daughter. If true and the daughter wasn't from some past Bobbie Lee West relationship, it would be a rare appearance of Bobada Friedrich, the child formed from Lewis' marriage with Dr. Ada Scott Morton. Bobada would have been in her 30's.

    Frankie Cain served as driver for Lewis during these years and got to know him well. For this project, historian Steve Johnson, who is a editor for THE WASHINGTON POST and a author of many major wrestling books including a forth coming book on Jim Londos, has gone out of his way to write a short article on Frankie Cain's friendship with Lewis.

    By Steve Johnson

    Ed Lewis was to wrestling in the Roaring Twenties what Jack Dempsey was to boxing, a larger-than-life figure that was equally at home glad-handing the citizenry as he was mauling opponents. His nickname, "Strangler", lifted from Evan Lewis, no doubt helped; when some newsboy hawking a tabloid shouted "Strangler Lewis Tops Stecher!" the inflection in his voice was probably no different than when he shrieked "Latest on the Manassa Mauler!" or "Sultan of Swat Belts Two!"

    Lewis wielded tremendous influence in and out of the ring, but it was not all-encompassing. Growing up around the Columbus, Ohio, wrestling circuit, Frankie Cain followed Lewis' career as a youngster, discussed it with other wrestlers and eventually came to know Lewis to the point that he chauffeured him across the country when the legend's eyes started to fail. "He wasn't a big draw, himself. He had to wait until he got the right opponent. Like everyone else, he was no exception. He wasn't like a Buddy Rogers who could draw without the belt, which he did for years. But Ed, back in those days, he was respected for his wrestling ability. I'd seen him when I was very young and of course, he was over the hill then, but from what the old-timers told me, he was no different than any world champion, as you had to have the right opponent to get those main gates."

    What made Lewis stand out from the pack was his hail-fellow-well-met personality, a stark contrast to his in-ring character, whose grinding headlock grip provoked its sgare of hisses. "If someone told him who was in the restroom, that he had some fans there, Ed would jump up and go meet him. Actually, he would have made a great politician. Oh yes, oh my, how he could talk!" said Cain, who later became famous as The Great Mephisto. "Ed was probably the only person I've seen who could walk into any newspaper around the country when he was managing wrestlers, and they were thrilled to meet him. He presented himself very well."

    His friendly nature probably represented an asset when Lewis aged and remained an active wrestler, since his weight fluctuated between overweight and obese. "I just thought by looking at him in his later years, it must have been a struggle for him to keep in top shape," Cain said. But he came to the ring smiling and he waved at the people. Always had that big smile. That, I think, helped him."
  • 482 THE WRESTLER (magazine), February 1967—THE STORY THEY COULDN"T TELL ABOUT ED (STRANGLER) LEWIS BY THE MAN WHO SHARED HIS SECRET—The man, with this untold secret, didn't leave us with his name. I liked his Lewis quotes and don't have a great feel for Lewis' religious pursuits.
  • 483a Mark Hewitt one of world's great wrestling historians and a good friend, who's writing style I've attempted to copy over the years, has written a tribute to Strangler Lewis just for this project and I've selected this spot to insert it.

    By Mark Hewitt

    Ed "Strangler" Lewis boasted that from 1914 through 1940 he was never legitimately defeated in a wrestling match. Was that just bluster, braggadocio, or ballyhoo? There are many opinions on just who was the greatest professional wrestler of all times. Who could have beaten who? Some contend that Frank Gotch ranks as the unbeatable champion heavyweight; other names come up like Joe Stecher and Lou Thesz. How would modern legit grapplers like Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar or a MMA fighter like Fedor Emelianenko fare against the old-timers? Certainly without a time machine, all this is just conjecture. However, I am in the camp that maintains that Lewis would have ended up on top of the heap in a tournament involving all the greats of all eras.

    "Strangler" Lewis was an amazing combination of skill, strength, cunning, and endurance. In fact his stamina was nothing short of phenomenal. He was powerful as a bull. Lewis knew the grappling arts from A to Z. He had an uncanny ability to sense when an opponent was ready to make a move or go after a certain hold, and he was able to block it. "Tigerman" John Pesek, considered by many as one of, if not, the greatest pure catch-as-catch-can wrestlers who ever lived, acknowledged Lewis' mastery on the mat. Pesek remarked stoically, "The Strangler knew how to use his heft expertly."

    Lewis' rise to the top really took off on the Lexington/Louisville circuits of Bill Barton and Jerry Walls. When he partnered with the enigmatic Billy Sandow, Lewis exploded onto the national scene, becoming a dominant figure in the pro wrestling heavyweight ranks for the next few decades. Ed Lewis entered into the popular culture of his period. Once his competitive days were past he remained an elder-statesman of the pro wrestling world.

    The wild and wooly world of professional wrestling has always been full of smoke and mirrors and circus-like showmanship. But there is also an underlying tradition of tough "shooters" and occasional bonafide contests. Ed "Strangler" Lewis could hold his own on the mat with anybody.

    Steve Yohe has done an excellent job of both researching the life and times of Lewis and of penning an interesting and highly-readable biography about this legendary character.

    Mark S. Hewitt
  • 484 JOHN PESEK—THE WRESTLER FROM RAVENNA by Valerie Vierk (granddaughter of John) Mary Lee Pesek (daughter of John) and Geoffrey Pesek (grandson of John)
  • 485a TUNNEY by Jack Cavanaugh, page 400 to 401
  • 485 Over the years, historians have tried to follow the path of the "Lewis Championship Belt". After Joe Stecher dropped the undisputed title to Lewis, he kept his belt (The Stecher Belt). The "Lewis Belt" was awarded to Ed in Kansas City in January 1921 by The Central Athletic Club. When Lewis lost to Stanislaus Zbyszko on May 6, 1921, Stan got the belt along with the title. After defending the title against Lewis on November 28, 1921 in Madison Square Garden, Zbyszko was awarded another belt by promoter Tex Rickard. This belt is called the "Rickard" or :Zbyszko belt". In boxing, the tradition is for the new champion to ware the title belt out of the ring, but in the dressing room, it is given back to the old champion and a new belt is made and later awarded to the new champion. Rickard was a boxing promoter and he gave "Rickard belts" to all the boxing champions, so he gave the same honor to Zbyszko. When Lewis re-won the undisputed title from Stan on March 3, 1922, he got both the "Lewis Belt" and the "Rickard Belt". The "Rickard Belt" is never mention after the May 30, 1925 title title match with Wayne Munn. When Lewis defeated Joe Stecher in St Louis on February 20, 1928, Stecher again kept his "Stecher Belt" and Lewis just kept using his old belt.

    Billy Sandow and Lewis sold the "Lewis Belt", with the title, to Paul Bowser with Gus Sonnenberg victory on January 4, 1929. Sonnenberg gave up the "Lewis" belt after losing in Los Angeles to Ed Don George on December 10, 1930. Lewis did not get the belt back after the double-cross of George on April 13, 1931. Bowser probably gave the belt to Henri DeGlane after the bite match in Montreal on May 4, 1931 and passed it back to Ed Don George after losing on February 10, 1933.

    George used the belt for a period of time, but by April 23, 1935 Bowser sent the "Lewis Belt" to Lou Daro of Los Angeles. It was awarded to the winner of an International Tournament. Vincent Lopez won the tournament and the "Lewis Belt" on July 24, 1935. Why would Bowser give up his valuable belt? Danno O'Mahoney had been in the tournament and a favorite to win it, but was pulled after Bowser got Jim Londos to agree to job his NWA/NY title to Danno. Lopez used the belt for the rest of 1935 but probably Daro returned it to Bowser in 1936. After that the belt was used over the years as Bowser's AWA championship belt going from Yvon Roberts (?), to Steve Casey (February 11-38) to Marv Westenberg (as The Shadow)(March 3, 1939) to Gus Sonnenberg (March 16, 1939) to Steve Casey (March 29, 1939) to Maurice Tillet (May 13, 1940) to Steve Casey (May 13, 1942) to Sandor Szabo (March 29, 1944?) to Yvon Robert (June 14, 1944?) to Steve Casey (May 13, 1942) to Maurice Tillet (August 1, 1944) to Steve Casey (August 15, 1944) to Sandor Szabo (April 25, 1945) to Frank Sexton (May 5, 1945) to Steve Casey (June 6, 1945) to Frank Sexton (June 27, 1945).

    From photos the size of the "Lewis Belt" or AWA belt changed, and the feeling of many historians seems to be that there was more that one belt being used. The second belt is not the "Rickard belt", because I have photos, and it looks nothing like the "Lewis Belt".

    In 1949, Bowser joined the NWA and he gave the AWA title and use of the belt to Frank Sexton, who was being promoted by Al Haft. It seems Sexton had more than one belt. Frank gave one of them to Don Eagle after dropping the title to Don Eagle on May 23, 1950. Photos of Eagle from Columbus show him with the belt or a version of the belt. Eagle was kind of a head case & it seems that the title & belt went to Bill Miller (May 1, 1952) and then Buddy Rogers (May 1952). After losing to Eagle, Frank Sexton still claimed the title in Europe and took a very good looking version of the "Lewis Belt" to France, where he dropped both (title and belt) to Felix Miquet in Paris on January 22, 1951. There are photos in the February 1952 issue of Boxing and Wrestling Magazine of Felix Miquet presenting the "Lewis Belt" to the man who had defeated him for the European world title, Ivar Martenson.

    I believe the "Lewis Belt" that was used by Buddy Rogers, was returned to it's owner Paul Bowser and it remained in his possession until his death in 1960. Atty. George Colbert, executive of the Bowser will, found the belt among Bowser's belongings and put it up for auction in the process of settling the estate. It was purchased by a Boston jeweler, who planed to strip the diamonds and gold. Once he realized the history of the object in his possession, the jeweler changed his mind. A few years later, he sold the belt to George Franklin, head of the Allston Moving Company and a major wrestling fan. He displayed the belt in the window of his office for 18 months, before selling it to local Boston outlaw promoter Tony Santos.

    On April 27, 1967, Frank Scarpa won a tournament for the vacant "Big Time Wrestling World Time". After the win, Scarpa was presented with the "Lewis Belt" and there are photos of Scarpa wearing it in Santos' programs next to a Ed Lewis' photo with the belt. Scarpa remained Santos' world champion, until his death in January of 1969. In late 69 or the early 70's, Santos lent the belt to Cowboy Ron Hill, who used it as a Light Heavyweight title belt. I talked to Hill years ago and he said the belt was dirty and rusted when he got it from Santos, but he cleaned and polished it. Later it was returned to Santos.

    On June 2, 1975, the "Lewis belt" was put up for auction, using a sealed bid system, by Santos Promotion (P.O. Box 193 Back Bay, Boston, Mass. O2117). It was billed as the original world's heavyweight title belt, with a picture of Lewis wearing it. It had 34 diamonds 20 pt each and a large center diamond that was 7 ½ carats. The weight of the gold belt was 2 ½ pounds. No one knows what happened after that. I think it was striped and melted down by a jeweler and is in some women's jewelry box today. To me, that Ed "Strangler" Lewis' belt is the Holy Grail of wrestling artifacts.