The Champion off Guard
The Peerless Champion toured England and Europe after the first Hackenschmidt fiasco, garnered untold purses breaking the legs of unwary and luckless opponents and, after the second tussle with “Hack,” which took place in the White Sox Ball Park in Chicago, Labor Day, September 4, 1911, wrestled until 1912, broke his leg and retired, undefeated, as World’s Champion.
The second Hack bout, the repercussions of which can still be heard among mat moguls, will be covered in a later chapter of this work, inasmuch as the details are of more intimate concern in the lives of persons who are still glorifying this green earth.
Gotch wanted to enjoy the fruits of his wrestling labors and yet hold onto the title earnings during his retirement, and figured, with his managerial partners, that the best way to do this would be to appoint a successor. He named Jesse Westergard and Henry Ordeman as logical contenders, ordering them to wrestle and the winner to be named titleholder by royal Gotch proclamation. Ordeman won, was in turn tossed by Charlie Cutler in 1914 and the latter became the generally recognized titleholder.
Cutler cleaned up all opposition of any consequence and failing in his efforts to persuade “Hack” to come to America for a return bout under “fair” conditions, he began casting around in green pastures for profitable opposition. He soon had his wish gratified.
Into Minneapolis, where Cutler headquartered, came rumblings of some greenhorns out in Dodge City, Nebraska, who had a likely looking farm kid they believed could grapple the like as had never before been seen.
Cutler sent out scouts, learned the promising youngster was a mere kid named Joe Stecher, who, however, possessed the lucrative backing of betting hungry farmers, and agreed to tangle with the Dodge City, Nebraska, youngster.
Born in Dodge City in 1896, Stecher had dubbed around in various sports besides wrestling. His brother, a Navy champion, persuaded young Joe to take up the sport seriously, and at the age of 19, the lad was a formidable foeman for any grappler in America. He was managed in his mat maneuverings by his brother Anton, better known as Tony. The latter is today a promoter of wrestling matches in Minneapolis.
Getting back to Stecher, his fame rested upon the scissors hold, a grip which consists in locking the legs around an opponent’s body until crackling sounds announce broken bones and the complete subjugation of the adversary.
It was then, even as now, a matter of common talk that Cutler would never have ventured out into Stecher’s territory for a title bout if he hadn’t understood from close friends that Stecher was a person hardly rated as a first class matman and that Stecher and his manager brother, Tony Stecher, would talk “business.” Cutler entered the lion’s den and was promptly eaten up. It was in July, 1915, when Stecher won over Cutler in straight falls in 29 minutes.
Friends who had wagered thousands and mortgaged their homes to place bets upon Cutler, because of the latter’s assurance, lost their all.
Stecher was the wrestling Lion of the Hour and eager mat manipulators tried to entice the retired Gotch to tangle with the new sensation. The Humboldt hoyden didn’t refuse, he merely demanded an impossible guarantee, and there the matter rested.
The wrestling game didn’t really begin to fall into disrepute, however, despite Gotch’s enthusiastic efforts to push the sport into oblivion via bouts with Hackenschmidt, until Stecher and Earl Caddock, “the man of a thousand holds,” tangled in Omaha, on April 9,1917.
Again the unsuspecting friends and supporters of a wrestling king were taken into camp by the sharpers. Ranch men and farmers, who had seen Stecher apply his famed scissors hold to luckless opponents were convinced that not a living man had a chance to beat their Nebraska pride and joy. Imagine their consternation when Stecher lost.
The Stecher-Caddock bout has always remained one of the unexplained matdom mysteries. Joe won the first fall shortly after the half hour mark, and Caddock the second after nearly an hour and forty minutes of tugging. Then it was that Stecher threw down the many friends who had been betting on him by refusing to come out of his dressing room for the third and deciding fall. Caddock was named victor by “default.”
The United States’ entry into the World War brought wrestling promotions and competition to a temporary halt. Caddock was serving overseas with distinction while Stecher did his bit in the navy.
At the end of the War, however, a wrestling combination was formed which became known in matdom as “The Big Four,” consisting of Jack Curley, Tony Stecher, Stanislaus Zbyszko and Earl Caddock. Under the big four banner some of the most lucrative matches in the east were promoted.
Joe and Earl played many a return date throughout the United States and they wrestled before packed houses every time. Sometimes they appeared against each other and again they might oppose “tough” opponents on the same card. The Stecher-Caddock bouts became virtual theatrical road companies and could be likened to Sarah Bernhardt or Ellen Terry’s farewell appearances. Their most frequent adversaries were the two Zbyszko brothers, Stanislaus and the younger Wladek.
Be it said here to the credit of Caddock, that no man alive ever distinguished himself more in the American service during the World War and returned more modestly to resume his bone breaking activities. He came back to America after the Armistice, broken in health and spirit and soon proved easy prey to the connivers in the mat sport. He lost his crown to Stecher in 1920, but his fame as a gentleman and square shooter with his friends will remain green so long as wrestlers grab for each other’s necks.
When Stecher regained his title from Caddock, the fun was just beginning in American wrestling. It soon became apparent that the bonecrushers would rather bury a knife than an old grudge and the traps and pitfalls for the unwary champions were many.
The mat game was becoming an increasingly odious sport. The connivance between various contestants and the public’s loss of faith had virtually wrecked the game everywhere but in a few isolated spots. Even the houses were falling off in New York City, the “Big Four” Citadel.
The wrestling game became the smelliest sport in the world, and yokels were taken into camp by droves. The word “wrestler” became synonymous with “gypper.” Authorities drove matmen and their henchmen out of towns with warnings “never to come back.” The game indeed entered the doldrums.
New faces, new champions and new manipulators were needed to re-instill public confidence. They appeared upon the mat horizon in the persons of Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Billy Sandow and “Toots” Mondt.
Lewis and Sandow had been dubbing around the Midwest, with occasional flurries eastward, and while Lewis’ record was not too good, yet he showed a remarkable series of good performances for one so new in the catch-as-catch-can racket. He became acquainted with Sandow through a peculiar chain of circumstances.
Sandow, noted as a manager of wrestlers, ventured into Louisville, Kentucky, on the eve before the famed Blue Grass Derby.
Sandow was then guiding the mat destinies of Doctor Benjamin Roller, and one Yussif Hussane, advertised as “The Terrible Turk.”
A last minute disappointment in the opponent who was to meet Yussif sent Sandow and promoter Jack Herman scrambling through the town for an adversary so the match could be staged as scheduled.
An amateur wrestler named Robert Julius Fredericks was finally selected for the sacrificial goat. Fredericks agreed to lose to Yussif. As a matter of fact, the thought of the greenhorn ever having a chance of winning never entered the heads of either Sandow or Herman. They took it for granted that Yussif was the great matman he had so effectively demonstrated himself to be on many occasions.
Life began for Herman, Sandow, Fredericks and Yussif at ten o’clock on the evening of the match. Just before the contestants were scheduled to enter the ring for their bout, Herman and Sandow came to the dressing room of Fredericks and Sandow said:
“Now, Bob, Yussif has to catch a train out of here by eleven o’clock because he’s wrestling tomorrow night in Chicago. The Turk says to tell you to make it a good bout, but make it short and sweet. Lose to him two falls in twenty minutes so he and I won’t miss the train.”
“You fellows listen to me,” he said. “I’m working down here as a wrestling coach. There are people here tonight who expect me to give a good account of myself. If I lose two falls in twenty minutes to this fellow it may mean the loss of my job and many friends. I haven’t told my friends I’m going to win, but I expect to make a showing so they won’t be disappointed in me.”
Sandow was enraged.
“You ingrate,” shouted Sandow. “Do you want Yussif to go in there and kill you? He’d take you anyway.”
“Okeh,” answered Fredericks. “If that’s the way you three feel, then you tell Yussif for me we’ll level, and tell him to try and get two falls in twenty minutes.”
Sandow hurried back to the Turk’s dressing room and conveyed the startling information to his wrestler. Be it said to the credit of Yussif he signified his willingness to go through with the match as scheduled. Fredericks defeated him and a new mat figure was born to wrestling history.
Three days later Sandow showed up in Chicago with a new competitor for the grapplers to cope with. He was, of course, none other than Robert Julius Fredericks, of Nekoosa, Wisconsin, who had changed his name to “Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis.”
Through the years he ranked not only as a topflight grappler, many times world’s champion, but present day wrestling history revolves around Sandow, Lewis and Mondt, the latter a wrestler who entered the mat picture a few years later.
After his new found fame, Lewis toured with the Zack Miller, 101 Ranch Wild West Show. He needed opponents to go through his training stunts which he put on for the edification of the customers. Farmer Burns, the one time great mat king and then instructor of wrestlers at his famous Kansas training farm, sent a raw-boned kid named Joseph Mondt to Sandow.
“He’s a big kid, but knows the game. He’s as good a wrestler as you’ll find. We call him ‘Toots,’” Burns wrote to Sandow. “He’s got a good head on him, too, and if you give him a chance he’ll develop, not only into a great wrestler, but he’ll be a help to you in the business.”
Sandow, Lewis and Mondt became known as the “Gold Dust Trio,” and when they entered the bone-crushing picture as a relay team, the fun began in wrestling.