As most of you know, and as my patient sweetheart has long lamented, I’m a fan of pro wrestling. Ask some of your average fans who was the most important pro wrestler ever and you’ll likely wind up with a toss-up between Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan. A few of the kids might throw in a nomination for Steve Austin or The Rock, and a real old timer might suggest Gorgeous George or Lou Thesz, depending on his taste. But if you ask me (and for the sake of expediency I’m assuming you did), there was someone who was way more important than all of those guys, a man who was not only the greatest box office star of his era, but also a key figure in completing the transition of professional wrestling from legitimate sport to the staged, theatrical product we see today. His parents named him Robert Friedrich, but he was best known as Ed “Strangler” Lewis. He was born in the little Wisconsin town of Nekoosa on this date in 1891.
He started wrestling at age 14, taking his ring name from Evan “Strangler” Lewis. That first Strangler was a Wisconsin boy too, born in the even tinier town of Ridgeway in 1860, and the first widely recognized American Heavyweight Champion. That title ceased to exist two years after young Ed began his career, after it was unified with the World Heavyweight Title by Frank Gotch. Back at the turn of the 20th century pro wrestling was still more sport than show business. Wrestlers would occasionally agree to lose matches ahead of time, and opponents cooperating with each other to make a more entertaining match certainly wasn’t unheard of, but the truly successful wrestlers were all genuine tough guys, and most of the headliners considered working a match (“work” being the vernacular for a match where the outcome is predetermined) beneath them. When Frank Gotch defeated George Hackenschmidt for the World Title in 1908 the bout lasted two hours and ended when Hackenschmidt, fearing Gotch was about to break his leg, surrendered.
In 1914 Ed Lewis hired former wrestler Billy Sandow as his manager. It proved a successful partnership, with Lewis winning the first of his five (or seven, depending how you count) World Heavyweight Championships in 1920. Around this time Lewis and Sandow brought former carnival wrestler Toots Mondt aboard as a trainer and sparring partner. Mondt saw the dwindling attendance at wrestling events and devised a solution, something to stoke the public’s waning interest in the sport. Together, Mondt, Sandow and Lewis developed what Mondt called “Slam-Bang Western Style Wrestling.” Matches now took place in boxing-style rings, had time limits, and included outlandish moves like body slams, suplexes and judo throws, and whips into the ropes instead of the more realistic mat-based style that had dominated pro wrestling since the mid-19th century.
Lewis, Sandow and Mondt went into business for themselves, booking their own shows rather than working for local promoters. They developed the concept of an undercard, advertising a lineup of several matches capped by a main event instead of a single high-profile bout. Most importantly, they made worked matches the standard rather than the exception. Any concerns the wrestlers may have had about intentionally losing a fight were alleviated by the gate receipts slam-bang wrestling was soon able to generate. Vince McMahon likes people to believe he and Hulk Hogan were the guys who took pro wrestling out of bars and bingo halls and brought it to stadiums and sports arenas, but he’s off by about fifty years. The team of Lewis, Sandow and Mondt — famously dubbed the Gold-Dust Trio — were able to run slam-bang shows in large venues almost immediately. Ed Lewis wrestled at Madison Square Garden and in front of 30,000 people at Wrigley Field twenty years before Hogan was born.
The trio soon had a large stable of wrestlers contracted to appear at their shows, forming what was essentially the first major pro wrestling promotion, the predecessor of the NWA, the WWF, and every other wrestling company you’ve ever heard of. Anticipating that fans would eventually tire of seeing the same man hold the World Title indefinitely, Lewis would from time to time lose his belt to a deserving contender, only to win it back after several months. Instead of booking opponents to face each other once, whole series of matches were promoted, resulting in the first programmed feuds.
The Strangler’s great rival was big Nebraskan Joe Stecher, called “The Scissors King” for his feared leg scissors submission hold. Lewis defeated Stecher for his first World Championship in 1920. Stecher regained the title five years later, defeating former Gold-Dust contractor Stanislaus Zbyszko, who had double-crossed the Trio’s chosen champion and left to work for Stecher. What happened next ensured that pro wrestling’s transformation from legit competitive sport to staged theatrical exhibition would be a permanent one. Lewis and Stecher sincerely disliked each other. But instead of settling their issues with a shoot in the ring, they agreed to work together in promoting their hotly anticipated rematch.
Stecher defended his World Heavyweight Championship in a best-two-of-three-falls match against Lewis at the Coliseum in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 21, 1928. After wrestling for two hours and fifteen minutes, the Scissors King did the job he’d been paid to do, submitting to an arm scissors to give Lewis the third and deciding fall, and the title. It was the most important, profitable match in the history of pro wrestling to that point. For a modern equivalent, imagine Hulk Hogan agreeing to put Ric Flair over clean in a World title match in, say, 1987. It cemented Lewis as wrestling’s top draw and greatest champion, while Stecher spent the remainder of his career putting over young up-and-comers before suffering a nervous breakdown and spending the last thirty years of his life institutionalized. Thus was the stage set for what we know today as professional wrestling.
Ed Lewis continued wrestling for almost twenty years after his rematch with Stecher, losing and regaining his World Title, making new stars all along the way. The Gold-Dust Trio dissolved later in 1928. Sandow continued working as a manager, and Mondt went on to co-found the World Wide Wrestling Federation with Vince McMahon Sr. In 1947, out of shape and nearly blind, Lewis retired as an active wrestler. He eventually went to work for the newly formed National Wrestling Alliance, appearing at ringside as the manager of Lou Thesz, whom he’d helped to train in the early ‘30s. Eventually his eyesight deserted him entirely, and he was forced to rely on his friends and family for his care. He died in 1966, 75 years old and penniless, proof that tragic stories are not a recent phenomenon in his business. Judging by the sad end of its founding father, tragedy is encoded in professional wrestling’s DNA.