ED "STRANGLER" LEWIS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.