The mat picture changed from time to time, with promoters in various cities shifting their scene of activities, but the triumvirate of Sandow, Lewis and Mondt reigned supreme and “The Brain” cracked his whip in the manner expected of a wrestling Czar.
Various independent combinations cropped up here and there, but the solidity of the “Big Trust” prevented them from getting too far with their operations. The title was the all-important thing and Lewis held the valued diadem securely on his head.
Jack Curley of New York, in company with the Stecher brothers, and the Zbyszko brothers, worked feverishly to break the combine, but their efforts proved fruitless in all but a few isolated spots. It was Sandow himself, who supplied many a hectic day for his two partners, Lewis and Mondt.
In 1924 Sandow attended a University of Nebraska football game and witnessed the fine gridiron work of Wayne “Big” Munn. Sandow returned to a conference with his partners full of enthusiasm.
“If we could get this fellow Munn to turn to wrestling, he’d be a sensation. He could be built up until he was ready for a shot and then throw Lewis,” Sandow told them.
“Can he wrestle?” asked both Lewis and Mondt.
“What if he can’t?” replied Billy. “He’ll bring the college element into the game and we’ll make a lot of dough. That’s what the sport needs, new blood.”
“Suppose someone hooks him after he’s champion?” asked Lewis.
“No one will hook him because we won’t let him work with anyone unless we know the fellow’s okeh,” responded The Brain, “and besides,” he continued, “both you fellows can protect him and if we think there’s any danger we can put in our own referee.”
Considerable discussion followed thereafter, but Sandow finally had his way. Munn was induced to turn wrestler, and in Gabe Kaufmann’s club in Kansas City on January 8, 1925, Wayne “Big” Munn became World’s Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, when he won the title on default from Ed Lewis, when the latter was unable to continue his match after being thrown from the ring and into the audience.
Lewis was taken to a Kansas City Hospital, in a supposedly serious condition, and Munn was heralded from one end of America to the other as the new champion.
There were some doubting Thomases, however, and Floyd Fitzsimmons of Benton Harbor, Mich., dickered with Sandow and closed for Lewis and Munn to wrestle again on Decoration Day, May 30, 1925. The ballyhoo drums began to beat on the return bout for the title. A two hundred thousand dollar gate was predicted.
A bombshell burst around the “Gold Dust Trio’s” heads before the scheduled return match could take place. Sandow’s greed provided the fuse to light off the explosion.
Munn received an offer and Sandow accepted it, for the new champion to wrestle ancient Stanislaus Zbyszko in Philadelphia on April 15, 1925. Lewis and Mondt wanted the bout passed up. They feared a double cross Sandow reassured them.
“There’s nothing to fear from old man Zbyszko any more,” he told them. “He and Wladek had some trouble with the Stecher boys and Jack Curley, and are no longer working with them. I’ve got both brothers tied up so there can’t be anything wrong. It’s a chance to pick up some easy money and I’ll be there to see that everything is all right.”
The bout went through as scheduled and Stanislaus Zbyszko threw Wayne Munn flat on his back, not once but so many times that the referee, who was friendly to the Sandow interests, was compelled to call the turn correctly, and proclaim Zbyszko the winner and new champion.
Old Stanislaus won the first fall in eight minutes and the second in four minutes, a total of twelve minutes in all. The reader can get a quick glimpse of matters wrestling and secure a line on the future happenings when it is pointed out that just a few years later, Zbyszko, the mighty, who tumbled Munn off his throne, after the latter had beaten Lewis, visited Paddulo, India, on January 31, 1928, where, before a huge crowd, he was defeated in four seconds by the Great Gama. Gotch had done it in six seconds, it took Gama four seconds and yet a man apparently not a first flight grappler, if we can judge by the Gotch and Gama defeats, was able to throw World’s Champion Munn, two straight falls inside of twelve minutes. The Zbyszko victory over Munn was one of the epochal double crossings of matdom.
Warren Brown, sports editor of the Chicago Herald and Examiner, phoned the sad news of Munn’s defeat to Mondt, who was in Louisville where he had wrestled for the edification of the turf devotees.
“Toots” was in his hotel room preparing to depart for Chicago when he received the message.
“Joe,” said Brown, “did you know that Munn lost his title tonight in Philadelphia?” “Speak a little more clearly, Warren, I can’t hear you,” replied Toots, “I misunderstood you. It sounded like you said Munn lost. You mean Zbyszko lost, don’t you?” “Nope,” replied Brown, “I mean Munn lost.”
Mondt fainted dead away and Brown vows to this day that he heard Toots’ body crash to the floor, over the wire.
Old Stanislaus quickly showed his hand, however. It took him only a matter of weeks (Decoration Day, 1925) to meet and suffer defeat at the hands of Joe Stecher in St. Louis. The Stecher-Zbyszko bout drew fifty thousand dollars.
The defeat of Munn left the Sandow-Lewis-Mondt combination in a bad way. Interest in the Benton Harbor match began to wane and it was apparent there wouldn’t be much of a house to witness the bout, since Munn had lost his laurels. Political pressure was brought to bear and some of the Illinois and Michigan officials were persuaded to reverse the verdict of the Philadelphia match, but the damage had been done and the Benton Harbor bout, which Lewis won, drew sixty thousand dollars, about one-fourth the gate expected when the match had been made.
The work of restoring Lewis’ prestige became an arduous one. “The Gold Dust Trio” was fighting for its wrestling life. While Lewis continued to draw fairly large houses, many of the Sandow wrestlers deserted his standard to work with Stecher, the new champion.
Stecher virtually put the title in moth balls. He was surrounded by the Mondt-Sandow-Lewis combination and feared defeat from every quarter. Lewis managed to get Stecher into the ring with him on July 5, 1926, in Omaha, but at the end of five hours of tugging and hauling, with spectators throwing papers, chairs and bottles into the ring, the bout was called a draw.
The decision was as wormwood to Lewis, who, with Referee Ed Smith as impartial third man, had felt certain he would humble the tenacious Joe.
Lewis entered the ring half blinded from trachoma, that dread ravaging eye disease which Yussif Mahmout, the original “Terrible Turk” first brought to this country.
Despite his handicap, Lewis was able to parry Stecher and keep him at a sufficient distance to at least prevent the scissors king from winning.
Mondt, the Rasputin of the mat moguls, began laying his traps for the wily Stecher brothers. He almost snared the Champion in Boston, on April 3, 1926. One Jake Bressler of Iowa was being built up in Paul Bowser’s club as the “Mysterious Unknown.” No name or other identifying marks, just “The Mysterious Unknown.” It was an old ruse often used in the past with masked marvels, red devils and blue menaces. Jake Bressler, the redoubtable Joe Stecher was willing to meet, but imagine his consternation when on the night of the bout in question, another “Unknown” had been substituted in the person of tough, rough, skilled and capable Joe Malcewicz, the Utica, New York, “Panther,” who had, in the gymnasium only, of course, taken the measure of many a wrestling foeman.
The Stecher brothers refused to go through with the match, and there the matter ended. Strangely enough, the credulous mat fan didn’t seem to think this at all out of the way. Scissors Joe could go along, night after night meeting such “tough” nuts as the Zbyszko brothers, Ivan Poddubny, Dick Daviscourt, and Jim Londos, but balked when another worthy foeman was substituted.
Here was Tony Stecher’s statement regarding the Boston attempt to “hook” brother Joe and his heavyweight mat championship.
“As we were guaranteed $12,500 for the Boston bout and $10,000 for the Philadelphia match, I agreed, and we came east. In Boston we would meet a wrestler called “The Unknown,” but in reality Jake Bressler, whom Joe figured to beat quite easily. In Philadelphia, Joe was matched with Wladek Zbyszko. The promoter in Boston kept stalling on the payment of guarantee, and finally promised he would give brother Joe his guarantee after the bout. As the referee and terms were satisfactory, we entered the ring, expecting to make a quick bout of it, with Joe throwing Jake inside half an hour.
“When we entered the ring, Bressler was sitting by the ringside, but just as soon as we got in our corner he disappeared, as did the promoter and all the rest connected with the club. Into the ring came Joe Malcewicz of Utica, New York, who, stripping down to ring togs from street clothes, made ready to wrestle my brother.
“Then a different referee from the man whom we had agreed upon entered the ring and told us to get started with our wrestling. I realized it was all a plant and refused to go on with the bout. The referee wasn’t the man we agreed upon and neither was Malcewicz the opponent. I ordered my brother out of the ring, a riot started, and we went to the dressing room, where, after packing our bags, we headed for Philadelphia.
“I was on to the scheme. The plan was to get the referee either to disqualify Joe Stecher for some supposed foul, or see that Malcewicz, through some means within the power of the referee, was declared the winner and new champion. With that referee we wouldn’t have had a chance to win.”
For the record let it be said that Referee Leon Burbank declared Malcewicz champion by default, and Stecher no longer champion. Fans, however, generally ignored the Malcewicz claims, and Stecher continued to be recognized as titleholder.
Malcewicz, however, had figured before in other bouts of the Stecher-Malcewicz nature. Just after Earl Caddock returned from overseas with the A.E.F., Joe met Earl in a non-title bout in Utica, in which Caddock was to toss Malcewicz within an hour. The referee double-crossed Caddock, and Malcewicz stayed the limit, with the arbiter declaring Malcewicz victor and new champion. The recognition never did stick, however, and when Stecher and Caddock met in New York, it was generally recognized for the title.
The Gold Dust Trio continued operation after the Stecher-Malcewicz incident in Boston. “Strangler” Lewis continued to bill himself as World’s Champion, though his claims were not generally recognized. It was merely a grasping at straws to preserve the “Strangler’s” box office appeal until he could again get Stecher into the ring with him.
Lewis possessed a glib tongue and denounced Stecher for a coward because of his refusal to meet him in a return bout. Even the phlegmatic Joe finally got riled and agreed to meet Lewis in St. Louis, on February 20, 1928. The bout went two and a half hours and was a nip and tuck affair. Lewis won the first fall shortly after the two-hour mark was reached, lost the second fall in one minute, and won the third and deciding fall in thirteen minutes.
Wrestlers and promoters from all over the United States were on hand to witness the Stecher-Lewis championship duel. With a neutral referee, one agreed upon by both contestants, it promised to be one of those seldom witnessed bouts, “a shooting match.” The St. Louis Coliseum was jammed to the rafters. Lewis was led by the hand into the ring by Sandow. If the Stecher camp had been aware of Lewis’ eye condition, there might have been a different story told, but Mondt and Sandow had kept Lewis’ trachoma carefully hidden. For, while Lewis was in splendid physical condition, he could barely see the outline of figures before his face. For weeks the ravages of the dread Oriental scourge had compelled Lewis to wear black glasses and remain in darkened rooms. This, then, was the man who humbled the mighty Stecher.
Shortly after Lewis and Stecher had leveled for two hours, the spectators noticed Lewis and his adversary were talking. The conversation continued only briefly, and Lewis then pinned Joe. The rest of the bout followed as recounted.
After the bout’s conclusion, Jim Londos and Renato Gardini, with smirks on their faces came into Lewis’ dressing room.
“And we thought we were going to see a shooting match,” sneered Londos.
“Well,” answered Mondt, “you fellows wouldn’t know a shooting match when you saw one. You never were in any.”
Suffice to say at this time that despite protection and “program” bouts, probably no greater wrestlers, in the opinions of experts, existed in modern grappling than Stecher, Lewis, Mondt and Dean Detton. Whether they could beat the great Hindu Punjab matmen, is another question, but certainly for sheer courage they outrank Gotch in greatness.
In the St. Louis bout, Joe’s scissors broke two of Lewis’ ribs, and though half blind, Lewis possessed enough courage to hold out longer than his Dodge City rival.
An aftermath conversation cites better than anything else the courage possessed by Lewis. In the dressing room after the bout, Stecher congratulated Lewis, saying: “Ed, you’re a better man. I held out as long as I could. I thought you were going many times while we were in there, but you fooled me and I finally got discouraged and gave up.” “I’m glad you did, Joe,” responded Lewis, “because I could hardly see you toward the end and I was ready to quit just when you did.” Joe shook his head sadly.
“I guess, Ed,” he concluded, “you have too much patience for me.” Toots Mondt interrupted, “Do you mean patience,” he asked, “or just plain guts?”