HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Within the past sixteen years professional wrestling has become the best organized professional sport in America. Baseball, hockey, boxing, tennis, golf and football have yet to achieve the degree of perfection in organization and the solidarity of unified action which prevails among the mat pachyderms.
These ring mastodons known as wrestlers, have organized their business far beyond the wildest dreams of those early grappling figures known as Frank Gotch, George Hackenschmidt, Earl Caddock, Fred Beale, Tom Jenkins, and other colorful personalities who zoomed across the catch-as-catch-can horizon early in this century.
Picture unheralded champions who draw bigger crowds than tennis racketeer Bill Tilden, actress Greta Garbo, fisticuffer Jack Dempsey, Mae West, and “Dynamite” Joe Louis, and consider raw-boned country bumpkins who are possessed of incomes of from twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars yearly, and you have in a nutshell professional wrestling, America’s most profitable and best organized sport.
It’s not the sport of kings, but the entertainment of the hoi polloi. Some two thousand heavyweight grapplers appear weekly in more than a thousand auditoriums throughout the United States and Canada, and those eight men behind the scenes who furnish the slam-bang style of pier six brawling to devotees of the scrambled-eared neckbenders garner a total yearly income of nearly ten millions of dollars.
In one short year in the United States, matman Danno O’Mahoney appeared in more towns and cities, drew more money, and wrestled before more people than the highly touted and praise-agented “Dynamite” Joe Louis. During that period, after all expenses were deducted, O’Mahoney made one hundred and fifty thousand dollars clear for his own particular pocketbook. While Louis earned much more in the same period, training expenses and the division of his earnings among various piece men and racketeers who cut in on him, brought his net earnings to approximately one hundred thousand dollars. Pretty good pickings whether a wrestler or fighter, you might say, and true enough, but consider that the average pugilist’s and athlete’s professional career spans only ten years, while a “meat tosser” looks forward to forty years of active competition.
Stanislaus Zbyszko, John Killonis, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Jim Londos, Joe Stecher, Fred Grubmier and Marian Plestina, just to name a few, were grappling when most of us were in swaddling clothes, but they continue today, like Barnum’s famed elephant, “bigga and betta” than ever.
Think of Woodrow Wilson, Jack Johnson, Gene Tunney, Calvin Coolidge, Jack Dempsey, Enrico Caruso, Benny Leonard, Blanche Sweet, Mickey Walker, Tommy Gibbons, Theda Bara and other public figures who have passed from the picture since those wrestlers first put on their tights, and you’ll realize their longevity.
Too, most fighters and theatrical performers are lucky indeed if they can average seventy-five dollars weekly during their periods of competition.
Chiselers and the primrose pathway get most of their money. It is not uncommon for a run of the mine neckbender to average one hundred and fifty dollars weekly over a period of twenty-five years. And because they wrestle so often and must be in reasonable shape, matmen drop very little of this long green along Heartbreak Boulevard.
Down through the pages of history have come stories of wrestling. It is the most elemental of sports. Homer twanged his lyre about the glories of Grecian matmen and even the Bible speaks of “grappling.”
As sports oracle Frank G. Menke points out in his accurate All Sports Record Book, it is difficult to approach the subject of present day wrestling without becoming facetious. The modern grapplers are such hoydenish fellows, who do such weird things, in utter conflict with all the sane rules of competition, that the obvious conclusion is the lads are just fooling. The mat boys have invented many melodramatic effects in their bouts that certainly arouse the fans, but on second and more sober thought, lead the spectator to wonder what it’s all about and how they get that way. No matter how the wrestlers and promoters dodge the issue, the question of wrestling’s honesty crops up. The fans who know of matmen meeting bonebreaking partners every night in the week, often inquire if the sport is on the level.
The ruling of the New York State Athletic Commission answers that by declaring that all mat contests, unless otherwise billed by authority of the Commission, are exhibitions only, and not matches or contests. The grappling industry doesn’t mind this a bit so long as the fans pay their money at the box office to witness the catch-as-catch-can carnivals.
As the population of the world increased, so did the popularity of wrestling. It is a form of sport requiring no special equipment. In ancient Rome and Greece, bonecrushing was most popular and such contests were employed to settle national athletic supremacy. As far back as 511 B.C., history tells of Milo of Croton, of Athens, who was so strong that he could hurl a three hundred pound opponent twenty feet.
Those were the days when a matman was a big shot. Milo broke arms and legs like match sticks and the greater damage he did to an opponent, the more wildly he was cheered by the Athenians. Like the famed Paul Bunyan of our Wisconsin woods, Milo tore trees out of the ground by the roots, could carry a chariot on his head with six men seated in it, could kill an ox by punching it between the eyes, could gain a strangle hold on a bull and kill it without real effort, after which he would eat the raw meat. His appetite was such that an omelet of four dozen eggs failed to satisfy him. Milo finally came to a bad end through his own over-confidence. According to historians, he was out hiking in the Greek groves one fine afternoon and came upon a huge tree. One of those trees only found in mythology. At any rate, Milo noticed that some wood choppers were trying to cut the tree down, and upon making inquiry, learned they had been at their task seven long years and had only managed to hew a quarter of the trunk away.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Milo in whatever prose the ancient Greeks used. “I’ll split the tree down the center and you guys put the trunk of another tree in as a wedge and you’ll be able to make faster progress in your labors.”
It was no sooner said than done, and Milo, stripping to his leopard skin, split the tree in two with his bare hands and then stepped between the parted trunk and bid the workmen to put their wedge in. The wood-choppers were tardy, however, and before they could insert their wedge, which was probably as long and as wide as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, Milo’s strength gave out, the tree snapped together and the great athletic hero was crushed to death. His remains were devoured by hungry wolves who came upon his corpse while the workmen were away from the scene seeking aid for their luckless strong man. Even the women of the ancient world wrestled (as they do today). Vases from ancient Greece, dug out of the ruins show the handiwork of the fair sex and always the favorite poses were those of the matmen.
The Emerald Isle, too, has its wrestling heroes who antedated the present bonecrushers known as Danno Mahoney and Steve “Crusher” Casey. Perhaps the best known of the Celtic grapplers was Terence O’Houlihan Griffin. Misty Irish folklore does not reveal whether or not he was a member of the author’s family.
At any rate, Terence O’Houlihan Griffin was, of course, one of the many Irish kings. He was so strong he could hold himself at arm’s length. Scooped gaps through the Wicklow Mountains with his bare hands. Exercised his youngest son by playing catch with him, using huge boulders the size of the Empire State Building. Was faster than the storm winds sweeping over the Gaelic coast, and in wrestling battle-royals, would take on ten thousand men at a time and pin them all with one swoop of his big hand. According to fable it was nothing for Terence to swing bulls above his head and hurl them for miles, and twenty of the greatest ships, in full rigging hooked to his immense body, couldn’t budge him one inch. Such deeds as knocking down steers with a blow of his fist were beneath him. He left those minor exercises to his younger sons and daughters who needed the training. Terence’s epic brawl with Roy Neal, which lasted ten years, without either drawing breath, left many a landmark on the Emerald Isle in the form of huge rock mounds, made when the contestants hurled boulder after boulder at each other.
It seems it all started when Neal expressed a desire to marry one of Terence’s daughters and the irate parent objected to the advances. It all ended with a truce, Neal had his way, and the resulting progeny was Brian Baru, greatest of all Irish wrestlers and strong men.
William J. “Bill” Walshe, of the Toronto, Canada, Mail and Empire, points out that grappling is a universal sport. Its very elemental background makes it understandable to the spectator who has never before witnessed contests.
Grappling is followed by every nationality from Occident to Orient and by all classes of people from kings to cannibals. On all continents where there is wrestling, different rules govern the game. Different countries have their favorite sports. The United States glories in baseball; Spain in its bull fighting and Jai Alai; Canada has its ice hockey and lacrosse; the English like their soccer; the French enthuse over tennis and fencing; New Zealand and Australia follow their cricket and rugger teams; Ireland boasts of its boxers; the Swiss, Norwegians and other people of colder countries specialize in winter sports; most nations patronize horse racing, but the wrestling game only is followed and played by all. Wrestling is a natural heritage, the primate play of men that will probably last until the sound of the final trumpet—and continue on into the next world. The sport is older than history, in comparison all other games are new inventions, with the exception of foot racing, which also goes back to ancient history. Most of our popular sports date back to a few years before our grandfathers. Golf, which is called the “royal and ancient game,” is a babe in arms compared to wrestling.
The first records of wrestling are tabulated in stone, told in tradition, ancient history and biblical stories. Homer, the immortal, was perhaps the first wrestling reporter. He covered the bout between Ajax and Odysseus. The exact date of the origin of wrestling cannot be ascertained, but it must have started with man, and the finish match between Cain and Abel was probably the first catch-as-catch-can grappling battle.
When the archaeologists dug deep for the ruined cities they located signs of the wrestling sport. King Tut was a rabid ringsider. The walls of the temple tombs of Beni and Hasan near the Nile are sculptured with scenes depicting wrestling matches. In fact, there is evidence of the sport since 3,000 years before the Christian era. Wrestling was introduced at the 18th Olympiad about 704 B.C. Sukune, the model of Japanese grapplers, was undisputed champion in 23 B.C. Other countries had their grappling gods just as today.
Along with the heroes there were the matchmakers of old. They promoted the sport before most of the present-day games were even conceived. Perhaps the big bouts of today seem huge, but the most important ever decided, for the richest wrestling purse, was when the Japanese Emperor Buntoku, in 858 A.D., had his twin sons wrestle for his throne; and Koreshito, the winner, succeeded as heir.
There have been three different styles of wrestling through the ages. Graeco-Roman, a combination of ancient Greek and Roman grappling, which is now seen only in Europe and the Olympic games; jiu-jitsu, originated in Japan; and catch-as-catch-can, the mode that prevails in the U.S.A., which has devotees throughout the world.
Since a time preceding the Christian era, wrestling has been the national sport of Japan, with the gigantic Sumo wrestler ever present and ready to grapple at a fete for the Emperor, or at any festive public ceremony.
The sons of Sumo wrestlers married the daughters of Sumo wrestlers for more than twenty centuries, the idea being that the mating would result in sons of tremendous bulk and power. It has. The average male Sumo offspring, having reached maturity, often is five feet nine inches in height—exceptional for a son of Nippon —and the weight has scaled between three and four hundred pounds.
Wrestling tournaments in Japan started about 25 B.C. The modern events continue for eleven days. A contest ends when (a) one man has thrown his opponent to the floor; (b) when he has caused the other to touch the floor with hands or knee; or (c) when one has forced his opponent’s feet beyond the “ring” boundary.
Here in the United States the outstanding statesmen were devotees of the art of neckbending. George Washington, Daniel Boone, David Crockett, and Sam Houston were all noted participants in bonecrushing bouts.
Even Abraham Lincoln stood out as a grappler, long before the other phases of public life beckoned, and it is said he carried a slightly cauliflowered ear to his grave.
Lincoln wrestled all over the Mississippi and Ohio river country, his career beginning at nineteen, in New Orleans, in 1828, and continuing until affairs of state prevented him from defending his mat laurels further.
Honest Abe took on all comers and never required any man to post forfeits to guarantee appearance. His only medal was the huge, cauliflowered left ear he carried to eternal rest.
Lincoln’s outstanding championship match took place when he threw Dan Needham, two straight falls, at Coles County, Illinois.
Abe must have had, according to best perusal of ancient wrestling records, some three hundred matches in all and was never defeated.
History tells us that General U. S. Grant particularly liked grappling. When General Robert E. Lee strode into Grant’s tent at Appomattox to arrange terms for the Confederate surrender, it is recounted that Grant apologized for the untidy condition of his headquarters.
“Pay no attention to things, Bob,” he said, “me and some of the boys were having a wrestling match in here last night.”