Provided by J Michael Kenyon through WRESTLING AS WE LIKED IT.
THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF STRANGLER LEWIS
Wrestling World, November 1962
by Elmer Ferguson
And now, the man who made 15 million dollars in the wrestling ring and spent it as if money was going out of fashion, passes into the darkness. Not the darkness of death. The darkness of the blind.
Ed (Strangler) Lewis once called wrestlers "the kings of men." And he was one of the kings, was this fabulous man who held the heavyweight wrestling championship five times over a period of 25 years, back in the days when there was only one champion, when there was no time limit and matches might last four or five hours. A great pwerhouse of a man in his prime, Lewis had a 56-inch chest, wore a 22-inch collar, weighed in the vicinity of 250 pounds, which figured. When he was born back in 1889 Ed (Strangler) Lewis was a 15-pound baby.
It is pitiful to think that such a man, such a mighty athlete, such a career, should end in the darkness of the blind. But there it is. Trachoma, the scourge of the wrestlers, the dread plague of the mat trade, before modern antiseptics lessened the danger, took its toll, despite the best efforts of great specialists to nullify its effects. Lewis spent a fortune, and not a small fortune, at least $100,000, seeking to save his sight. Perhaps this enabled him to possess vision longer than might otherwise have been the case.
At first, he went totally blind. Then medical science came to his aid, and his sight was partially restored. Then the disease gained strength again. And steadily, the past few years, his sight grew more and more dim. The inexorable curtain rolled slowly down, predestined, and the eyes that watched the stirring sports panorama of even back beyond the Roaring Twenties, in which he was a figure as mighty as Dempsey, Tilden, Ruth, Bobby Jones and the rest, sees nothing now but the wall of darkness.
Perhaps, today in the dark, Ed Lewis misses his bridge game more than anything else. He loved the game. He fancied himself as an expert, and did, in fact, have a rating of sorts. As his sight gradually faded, he played as best he could. He would hold his cards closer and closer to the end of his nose, inches away. He played bridge so long as he could see the spots, even though dimly. Hearts is the game of highest popularity among the wrestlers. We've played a lot of bridge and hearts with Ed Lewis at the home of Eddie Quinn, the Montreal promoter, and he loved the game, played it well. Today, he can play no more.
Ed (Strangler) Lewis, as he was known throughout his long era, inherited the name he made famous on the mat. For he was neither a Lewis nor, in fact, a Strangler.
He was born Robert Herman Julius Friedrich, in a small Wisconsin village, but before him there had been another wrestler, Evan Lewis, called The Strangler. And when he started what became one of the greatest and most eventful careers in wrestling, young Robert Friedrich took that name, in part to hide his identity from his folks.
There were, of course, those who believed him to be master of an illegal strangle-hold, which, even to this day, is barred from wrestling grips. He was a striking figure, this barrel-chested athlete, the personification of power.
"The 'Strangler' term stuck to me," Lewis once said, "because early in my wrestling career, I originated a headlock, being convinced that the human brain would yield to pressure, and that if such pressure was consistently applied, it would constitute a knockout just as sporific as a solid punch to the jaw by a hard-hitting boxer.
"I devised a wooden facsimile of a human head. It was split down the center, the two halves connected by powerful steel springs. To increase the power of my grip, I carried this gadget with me, and worked on it for hours, until I had developed a grip that could crack a skull, and would certainly stun the recipient. But it was not a stranglehold. Never in the course of my long career was I disqualified for seeking to strangle an opponent, by putting pressure on the throat. The pressure was on the head, through the jaw. It took a bit longer than a hard-hitting boxer's blow to the jaw, to effect a knockout, but it had the same result. Pressure cut off the blood supply to the brain.
"The most punishing grip before my time, and one widely publicized," Lewis said when we were talking, one time, of older days, older figures, "was the Frank Gotch toe-hold, which could break a man's leg. In fact, on one occasion, it did. For Gotch was a merciless performer. It is quite possible this grip he invented started the vogue towards holds that forced a wrestler, through intense pain and the threat ofr a broken arm, or leg, to give up when there was no chance of winning. For they all knew that Gotch definitely would break a man's leg, and glory in the fact, if his opponent did not yield. I have always felt that Gotch was an over-rated wrestler. I don't believe he was as good as Tom Jenkins but, of course, this is speculation, can't be proven. He was a great competitor, beyond doubt, a wrestler who set out to win every match, as fast as he could, and as decisively.
"Joe Stecher followed Gotch's toe-hold with the body-scissors. This was a leg-hold, and Joe had the legs for it. He invented the grip himself, and added strength to his long legs by wrapping them around bags of grain on his Kansas farm, and squeezing until the bag burst. This was a killer grip. Once Stecher secured it, there was little doubt about the outcome.
"I followed this with the head-lock, which was widely and scientifically discussed. Of course, the strange-hold is illegal. I never used it to begin with. I had a pressure hold similar to the Japanese sleeper hold of later years. The victim, if the hold took, and it generally did, would temporarily lose his senses. That's when I made my arrangements to pin him. It was a good hold and I made it better by constant application. Wrestlers use it today, but not as proficiently."
Lewis had great admiration for Joe Stecher's mat prowess. And, indeed, well he might. For he and Stecher once wrestled a total of eleven hours with only one fall. Stecher fought off all the efforts of Lewis to clamp the head-lock on him. And the great muscles of the Lewis body resisted the best pressure the steel-like Stecher legs could exert.
Lewis and Stecher met in Evansville, Indiana, late in 1915. They wrestled two hours and a half, without a fall. On July 4, 1916, they were matched to cross grips at Omaha. This match started at four o'clock in the afternoon, the referee called it a draw at 9:30 that evening. They met again in New York, nearly a year later, and Lewis won the only fall in three hours, eight minutes. Thus Lewis got the only fall in 11 hours, 8 minutes of hard wrestling.
"In this five-hour match," Lewis once told the writer, "Joe Stecher was the most formidable man I ever knew. Our Omaha bout sweemed to take something out of Joe. He was two weeks in the hospital and never was just the same later on."
And then there began the Lewis parade of titles. Stecher was still champion in 1920 when Lewis defeated him. And here is the story of the way this great giant man won and lost the crowns, in a day when there was only one champion.
(Title number five was tainted, in a way of speaking, because Jim Londos and Ed Don George each had what each thought was a logical claim to the "title." Their claims were brought back into the line of successsion in 1935 by Danno O'Mahoney when he defeated George after having beaten Londos the same year. Londos previously had won from Browning the year bwefore. The terms "defeat," "lost" and "win" are used loosely, as in some instances there were other factors involved: for example, DeGlane's alleged biting of himself to win the match on a foul from Lewis in Montreal in 1931.)
- 1920--Defeated Joe Stecher.
- 1921--Lost to Stanislaus Zbyszko
- 1922--Defeated Stanislaus Zbyszko
- 1925--Lost to Wayne Munn, who later lost to Zbyszko, who lost to Stecher.
- 1928--Defeated Joe Stecher.
- 1929--Lost to Gus Sonnenberg, who lost to Ed Don George.
- 1931--Defeated Ed Don George.
- 1931--Lost to Henri DeGlane.
- 1932--Defeated Dick Shikat.
- 1933--Lost to Jim Browning.
And one at least three occasions, Lewis' defeats were both spectacular and unusual. The late Wayne Munn, giant football star, a novice at wrestling but tremendously strong, tossed Lewis outside the ring at Kansas City, in the 'mid-1920s, and Lewis lost the title when he could not continue. "I just underrated him," Lewis told me afterwards. As champ;ion, later on, Gus Sonnenberg butted Eed out of a Boston ring with that billy-goat flying tackle, which revolutionized wrestling. Ed landed on his noggin on the concrete floor -- losing again.
But the weirdest defeat of all came when he met Henri DeGlane of France, in Montreal, in a match for his title. DeGlane had become a real idol with Montreal wrestling fans. He was a handsome chap, with a fine physique, thick muscles developed by carrying barrels of wine in a Parisian winery, accomplished in the Greco-Roman style of wrestling, and quick to learn the catch-as-catch-can grips when he came to America.
The Mount Royal Arena, which seated around 7,000, was packed to the doors that night. There was tension in the air. The late Paul Bowser, top promoter of his day, came to Montreal for the match. Lewis brought along his manager, Billy Sandow, to guard his interests.
The late Eugene Tremblay, a great lightweight wrestler in his day, was the referee. Things were going along smoothly enough, it seemed, when suddenly DeGlane held up one arm, let out a yell, and shouted: "He bit me!" pointing to a red mark on his forearm.
Lewis was immediately disqualified out of fall and match, and a great hubbub arose. Lewis demanded a photographer should take immediate pictures of the DeGlane wounds, to p;rove that the Lewis teeth couldn't have done it. The amazed referee wanted to know why in the world they should take such a photo.
"Why," roared the furious Lewis, "to prove that they're his teeth marks, not mine. The so-and-so bit himself, then blamed me."
But the ruling stood. And as the night grew later, the marks on DeGlane's arm grew larger, and more angry. "No wonder," Lewis snarled. "He goes into his dressing-room every few minutes and takes a few more bits. If he keeps this up, he'll gnaw his arm right off."
Lewis and his manager posted $5,000 with the athletic commission to guarantee a return match. But he never met DeGlane until after the French wrestler had lost the briefly-held title. In this match, Lewis wouldn't throw DeGlane at once. But he seized the French grappler, hurled him all over the ring, bounced him off the posts, and off the floor. For once, the reasonably amiable Lewis was in a cold, bitter fury. He was out not merely to beat, but to punish the victor in The Battle of The Bite. Deglane was almost terroized by the ferocity of the Lewis attack, and after he had been pinned, and staggered out of the ring, DeGlane refused to go back. "He's a madman," said DeGlane in his room. And only threats of no payment induced him to return, for another shellacking.
A great athlete goes into the darkness. There may never be another such as Lewis, and the mat greats of his time, Stecher, Browning, the two giant Zbyszko brothers from Poland, Jim Londos, the Golden Greek.
Lewis lived like one of the kings of men. He was a guest at times, as he travelled around the world, of rajahs and notables. He wrestled and hunted tigers in India and in Siam he fondled boa constrictors as big around as his huge neck. He had all kinds of exciting experiences in his travels, but the thing that gave him one of his greatest thrills is that in pre-war days, when Japan was still a closely-guarded country, he took a motion-picture of the entire Jap navy, and movies of the forbidden palace in Tokyo.
When he "shot" the Japanese navy, en route to Kobe, the captain of the ship said, "Throw that film away, Ed, or you'll get us into trouble." But Lewis held on to it, escaped having his camera sealed in Kobe, rode in a taxi to the imperial palace in Tokyo and made movies of it through iron palings. "They arrested my driver," he told us, "but they never touched my camera and let me off scot free."
All of which is only a small part, a few scattered incidents, from The Saga of the Strangler, the incredible story of one of the greatest athletes of our time, a man who earned more money than Jack Dempsey, or Gene Tunney, who lived life to the full, and loved it.
And today, in the darkness, he doesn't complain. "Why should I?" he told a friend. "I've had a wonderful life, I've seen all of the world, I've flown a million miles, been everywhere. It's been a great life, and I wouldn't swap any part of it for anybody else's life."