Too often, history seems to be ignored. The same is true for the World of Professional Wrestling, who’s fans believe the pioneers are guys like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper….the 1980s pretty much. Ask any random person who popularized American pro wrestling, and nine times out of ten, you’ll get the answer “Hulk Hogan.” This bothers me, not because I’m not a fan of Hogan, but because there’s about 80 years missing, back when wrestling was truly popularized.
1898-1942, is called the Pioneer Era not because it was the dawn of wrestling, or wrestlers, but because these wrestlers are responsible for the original popularization of wrestling in America. Considering their huge impact on the sport we all love, you would think they would be remembered more. Alas! For most, if not all, are basically unknown to fans today. Personally, I love the Pioneer Era; I’m not quite sure why (probably because I’m a sorta history buff), but it interests me. Hopefully, I can pique your interest a bit, by giving you some info on eight of the great pioneers!
Born on April 4, 1893, Stecher began his career in 1912, at the behest of his parents. Yep, even back then parents didn’t want their kids to become wrestlers. Regardless, Joe won his first professional match, and went on to a great career.
Stecher gained attention by defeating infamous Hooker(look this word up) Yussiff Hussane, who legendary wrestler Martin Burns used to con gamblers out of their money. The young Stecher wasn’t supposed to win, because well, audience members very rarely ever beat the Hookers.
In his career, he held the World Heavyweight Championship three times, and was the first wrestler to ever regain the original version of the title. His most memorable feud was against Ed “Strangler” Lewis. The two competed in one of the longest wrestling bouts ever going 5 1/2 hours for the World Championship.
Stecher’s finishing move was the Body Scissors, as he had amazing leg strength.
Born in Poland and raised in Austria, Zbyszko was inspired to join the wrestling ranks after seeing the success of fellow strongman Georg Hackenschmidt. He quickly established himself as one of Europe’s premier Greco-Roman wrestlers.
As he competed more and more in the United States and England, he began to switch between the catch-as-catch-can style and Greco-Roman style.He wrestled Frank Gotch to a one hour draw in 1909. In their rematch one year later, Gotch got the first and second pins to win the bout, using “certain tactics” that I’ll cover later. However, despite the loss, he was still regarded as one the top wrestlers in the World, and later that year in London, he faced fabled Indian wrestler, Great Gama, in front of a crowd of 100,000. In the match, he was quickly taken down to the mat, where he stayed for well over two hours.This, though, was a defensive strategy, in order to render Gama’s strengths.After nearly three hours, Zbyszko had wrestled his opponent to a draw, which could be considered a win, since it made him one of only a handful of wrestlers to have ever faced Great Gama, and who had not been defeated by the Indian legend.
He captured the World Championship for the first time in 1921, after defeating Ed “Strangler” Lewis, and at the age of 50, won the title for a second and final time.
Known as “The Golden Greek,” Londos was more recognized for his muscled physique and good looks, than his in- ring ability. That’s not to say he wasn’t a good wrestler, though, as several wrestlers of his time, regarded him as one of the very best. He paid his dues working the carnival circuits, and was one of the last competitors during the time when wrestling was a legitimate sport.
Combining his good looks, wrestling ability, and popularity, Londos was regarded as one of the best workers of the era. He was able to establish himself as a top draw, particularly on the East Coast. He was one of the few grapplers who were able to keep fans coming out to the shows during the Great Depression.
During his time, there were many versions of the World Championship, several of which Londos won, including the Unified NBA-NWA and NYSAC world title in 1930. However, he was ultimately stripped of the title when he refused to battle arch-rival, Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Later, he regained the title, and held it for 12 years, until he retired.
After witnessing her first wrestling match in Kansas, Mildred Burke was immediately enamored with the sport. She convinced then Missouri State Champion Billy Wolfe, her future husband, to train her. One training story of her’s, is of how Wolfe first put her in the ring with a male wrestler, who proceeded to slam her hard to the mat. Mildred got back up and returned the maneuver. In 1934, she began working on the carnival circuit, challenging any man in a fair weight range, to pin her in ten minutes. No man ever did.
Her natural toughness and skill led Burke to mainevent status. She would win the World Women’s Championship from Clara Mortensen in 1935, to begin a 19 year reign.She finally lost the title to June Byers, igniting one of the top women’s rivalries of all-time. She claimed to have won hundreds of matches against men, and thousands against women. At the peak of Burke’s career, she was earning as much as famous Yankee’s baseball star, Joe DiMaggio.
In 1954, she opened up the World Women’s Wrestling Association; the first women’s promotion.The promotion was responsible for propelling several greats, such as the Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young. Two years later, she would finally retire, however, she continued to contribute to the business, by opening up her own training school.
I highly recommend the book on her career, “Queen of the Ring.”
MARTIN “FARMER” BURNS
At only the age of eight, Martin began his career, winning fifteen cents in his first match. After his father died, Burns supported his family by working on a farm, where he developed great strength.
Burns was a small wrestler,at only 165 pounds, but he was quick and a submission expert.He didn’t have someone to train him, so many of his maneuvers he created himself. In his first professional match, he wrestled his opponent to a 2 1/2 hour draw. He became the American Heavyweight Champion after defeating Evan Lewis in 1895, and held the title for three years. At one point in his career, he held three World titles simultaneously; the Middleweight, Light- Heavyweight, and Heavyweight championships. He’s said to have won 6,000 matches, losing only 6 throughout his career.
Past his own accomplishments, Martin Burns is best known for training some of the greats of the business.His two most famous students, Frank Gotch and Earl Caddock, both became World Champions and fabled wrestling legends.
ED “STRANGLER” LEWIS
Beginning his wrestling career at 14 years of age, the man changed his name to “Ed Lewis” to honor 19th century grappler, Evan “Strangler” Lewis, because his parents were against him going into the business. The “Strangler” monicker came from a reporter comparing him to Evan, and his use of the Sleeper Hold, a move which he is credited with creating.
Lewis defeated Joe Stecher in 1920 to win his first World Championship, which sparked a lengthy feud between the two, that spanned beyond the ring. Lewis was a member of the Gold Dust Trio, a promotional group who are credited with turning professional wrestling into a true spectacle through storylines and angles. Stecher, with his own promotion, competed against the Trio, creating one of, if not, the first promotional wars in wrestling. Inside the squared circle, the two competed in several matches against one another, their most fabled lasting 5 1/2 hours, making it one of the longest in history. The match ended in a draw.
In an eleven year span, he held the World Championship on four occasions, among several other titles. When he battled Jim Londos at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the two drew an audience of over 35,000, with a record gate over $96,000, that stood until 1952. He was often regarded as “unbeatable,” due to his tremendous skill. Ed “Strangler” Lewis was truly one of the greatest wrestlers from any era.
Known as “The Russian Lion,” Hackenschmidt quickly ascended to become one of wrestling first superstars. His chiseled physique, which he gained as a champion weightlifter, gained him immense attention from fans, and he became one of Europe’s premier grapplers.
In 1901, Hackenschmidt won the European World Heavyweight Championship, and only a few months later captured the European Greco-Roman Heavyweight Championship. Three years later, he would defeat the American Heavyweight Champion, in a non-title match, while still holding the other European titles. Having defeated the American World Champion, while holding the European World Championship, there was no doubt that he was the first Unified World Champion. In other words, he was the first World Heavyweight Champion, and was recognized as such. Most everyone believed Georg was unbeatable, but not the reigning American Heavyweight Champion, Frank Gotch, who was his only legitimate competition at the time.
Hackenschmidt would face off against Gotch for the first time in 1908, emanating from Chicago. The two dueled it out for two hours, before Gotch was finally able to lock in an ankle lock, and Hackenschmidt was forced to relinquish his title. However, the story goes that Gotch used “certain tactics” to gain an unfair advantage. A rematch took place three years later, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Over 30,000 witnessed the match, bringing in a record gate of over $87,000. Once again,though, Gotch took an unfair advantage, and scored a pin in both the first and second falls of the match. Despite being a foreigner, Hackenschmidt was a huge fan favorite in the United States.
Gotch’s first professional match occurred against a man posing as simply a furniture dealer. The bout lasted almost two hours, during which Gotch held his own, but ultimately lost. Later, Gotch learned that the “furniture dealer” was actually the reigning American Heavyweight Champion, Dan McLeod. Gotch would go on to challenge another former champion, Martin “Farmer” Burns. While he was quickly beaten, he was able to impress Burns, who in turn, decided to train Gotch.
Gotch won his first championship, the American Heavyweight Championship, a title he’d hold three times, from Tom Jenkins in 1905. In 1908 he defeated World Heavyweight Champion Georg Hackenschmidt, to win the title. However, Gotch basically cheated to win, as he gained an unfair advantage over “The Russian Lion” by oiling himself up.This prevented Hackenschmidt from being able to hold on to Frank very well, especially when it came to his finishing move, a modified Bearhug. In their rematch, Gotch would again gain an unfair advantage, this time, by hiring infamous hooker, Ad Santel to “rough up” Hackenschmidt during a training session. Santel ended up severely injuring Georg’s knee.This wasn’t the only time Gotch swindled his way to a win, as in 1910 he would jump Stanislaus Zbyszko during the opening handshake. This enabled him to gain a quick pin for the first fall of the match.
Nonetheless, Frank Gotch is still hailed as a professional wrestling hero and legend. Which is completely deserved, as despite some unsavory tactics he occasionally used, Gotch was truly one the best to ever step foot into the squared-circled. He would hold the World Championship he won from Georg Hackenschmidt in 1908, until 1913 when he retired.
These people, and more Pioneers, deserve the credit they earned. It’s unfortunate that the vast majority of fans don’t even care enough to look into the history of the business we all love on even a minimal basis. The Pioneers deserve to be remembered and celebrated for their accomplishments. Without them, who knows where the professional wrestling business would be today. So, once again, I hope I’ve somewhat sparked you into looking further into this era, but if I haven’t, at least now you can be familiar with just eight of the legendary Pioneers.
Thanks for Reading,