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History 06 - Shoots and Works

Frank Gotch was the professional world heavyweight wrestling champion from 1908 up through his retirement in 1915. He was still considered “the champ” after he retired, up until his untimely death in 1917, at the age of 39. After him came Joe Stecher and Earl Caddock, two more great wrestlers with strong amateur backgrounds.

Stecher lost the title to Caddock in Omaha in 1917, his first defeat in 69 matches. But he won the championship back in 1920, handing Caddock his first loss after 78 consecutive victories! Caddock had suffered lung damage while fighting in France in World War I, and was never quite the same.

The next big name in professional history to become heavyweight champion was Ed “Strangler” Lewis, a bulky, tough athlete from Nekoosa, Wisconsin. Lewis wrestled all over the Midwest in his late teens and early twenties, learning all the tricks of the trade. He also learned how to apply a devastating jaw lock, with his right arm across a foe’s lower face (jaw), holding the foe in a vicious form of headlock. He used it to submit the other fellow, or to choke him out. Because of the hold, he was given the nickname “Strangler” and it followed him all of his life.

Ed "Strangler" Lewis demonstrates the feared double wristlock on a training partner.

At five foot ten inches and 230 pounds, Lewis was a very powerful man. He was a defensive wizard, preferring to wear his foes down with two hours of grueling pushing and shoving, then go to work. He couldn’t whip Stecher early on in his career, and several of their matches lasted over three hours. Once in Omaha, they wrestled for five hours and three minutes, with nearly all the fans gone home by the time the third referee (two other referees had quit from exhaustion) called the match a draw.

 Lewis admitted he was on the defensive the entire time, because he simply wasn’t as good a pure wrestler as Joe. His goal was to wear Joe out and frustrate him.

On December 13, 1920, Lewis finally defeated Stecher and became the heavyweight champion of the world. His emergence as the top man changed the sport forever.

WHY? because Lewis was the first champion to agree to give up his title for money and, thus, started the “working” style of title switches. Lewis could defeat anyone if there was no time limit. He simply bulled them around, wore them down and outlasted them. However, his style of defensive wrestling was hardly a fan attraction. Though he was a huge star in his era, it was also the Roarin’ Twenties, and America was on a roll after emerging victorious from World War I. It was the era of the flapper and prohibition, of the jitterbug and jazz, of wild and exciting times. Movie theaters were sprouting up all over America as the nation went crazy for the new entertainment source.

Sports had exciting heroes like Jack Dempsey, whose non-stop punching created sensational knockouts, and Babe Ruth, setting home run records like crazy. There was Johnny Weissmuller, called the Human Fish, and Man O’ War, the greatest racehorse of all time (at least until Secretariat arrived on the scene). Running back Red Grange was turning pro football into a huge attraction, with crowds going from 5,000 to 70,000 to see the famed Galloping Ghost.

The two-hour long matches of Ed Lewis were boring to the general public. Very boring. Crowds were no longer interested in seeing two men pushing each other around the ring, or riding one another for long periods on the mat. Crowds wanted excitement ― just like they were getting in other sports! They wanted new and difficult maneuvers; whether the moves were real or not didn’t seem to matter.

“At that time, professional wrestling was simply trying to find a way to survive,” wrote Lou Thesz, the last of the truly great professional champions from the past, in his book Hooker, in 2000. “What they (the promoters) did was simply get rid of pure competitive wrestling at the professional level.  The fans craved excitement and dramatic action, so the promoters decided to give it to them by performing matches.”

 A group of promoters out of New York saw how popular college football was becoming and decided what their sport needed most of all was a college star. They found just the guy in Wayne “Big” Munn, a University of Nebraska football hero. At 6-6 and around 280 pounds, Munn was huge (hence the nickname) for the era, but he couldn’t wrestle a lick.

The promoters had a plan that would bypass Munn’s lack of wrestling ability: have him win a long series of pre-arranged matches to build his reputation with the fans, and become the top contender for Ed Lewis’ title. The public would love it, a young college football hero taking on the tough, grizzled pro champ.

Of course, they knew that Lewis would destroy Munn in a matter of minutes if he were so inclined. But the promoters wanted Munn to be the champion. All they had to do was make it worth Ed’s time to let Wayne have the title. On January 8, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, Ed Lewis sold out and gave his title to a man he could have whipped in a few minutes with no trouble at all. It is the first fully-recognized title “switch,” or fake title match.

Ed was rewarded with a nice stash of money that he could put away in the bank, and wait for his next opportunity to win “his” title back. And what’s more, all of the “real” wrestlers in the business knew what had happened, and so Lewis’s reputation with those that mattered, his peers, was not damaged.

If Lewis wanted his title back, he could take it any time he got in the ring with Munn. Everyone but the fans knew that was the case. But old Ed was in no hurry to take the title back. He went to Europe and played gin rummy and chased women. He was a celebrity all around the world and rich people, beautiful women and nobility all wanted to hang out with him.

After Lewis gave the title up to Munn, there were two types of championship matches from then on, works and shoots. A work was when two wrestlers agreed to a pre-determined finish. A shoot was when they battled it out for real to see who would win. Of course, the two forms had already been around for decades, but seldom had they been a part of the championship matches.

After Lewis-Munn, worked matches became far more common for two primary reasons:

  • real wrestling was too boring to attract fans anymore, and
  •  real wrestling would lead to injuries that could keep a man out of the ring for weeks, taking away his ability to earn a living; most pro wrestlers tried to work three or four nights a week and real matches wouldn’t allow for that.

     Shoots were held from time to time when a wrestler who wasn’t the champ decided that:

  • he wanted the spotlight and the big money;
  • he waned to show he was the best man, and/or
  • petty jealousies erupted between the top wrestlers;

Shoots occurred either in the gym with just a few onlookers (the promoters and other top wrestlers), or in the ring, when the challenger decided he wanted the title and would try and take it without letting anyone know so they could prevent it.

Shoots became a very important (and little known) aspect of the professional wrestling culture. Ed Lewis controlled the sport for nearly 20 years by deciding who he would let have the title (for a nice fee) and when he would take it back. However, some of the “champions” became skilled in running from “The Strangler” and not giving him a return bout.

If the new champion decided to run, a shoot could develop, most often in the ring when a challenger would come after an unsuspecting champion. Shortly after Munn “took” the title from Lewis, an old, tough pro named Stanislaus Zbyszko saw his opportunity. He was scheduled to work a match with Munn but when they climbed in the ring, Zbyszko told Munn this time it was for real, a shoot.

Zbyszko had once won 900 straight matches in Europe and had challenged Gotch for his world title in 1909, getting beaten badly. In 1925, he was nearing 50 but was still a very tough and talented wrestler. He had no trouble in taking the title from Munn. The promoters, knowing that Zbyszko could not draw big crowds, were furious. So they sent for Lewis to come back and reclaim his title, which he eventually did.

From then on, double crosses and fixed title matches became common in pro wrestling. And the style of pro wrestling had also changed from pure contests to see who was the best man to staged events designed to excite the fans and keep them coming back for more. A wrestler’s ability to draw fans became more important to the promoters than how good a wrestler he was. But the danger of a shoot always lingered in the background making the “fake” champions and promoters very nervous.

After a short dry spell in the mid 1920s, professional wrestling began to take off again in popularity. And many amateur stars were willing to give the pro game a try, hoping their strong wrestling backgrounds would enable them to earn a living doing what they loved most in life, wrestling. Some met with success, and others did not.

For a wide range of gift shops items  — including books, posters, videos and trading cards for wrestling  — be sure and check the web site of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (641-791-1517) in Newton, Iowa. The web site is: www.wrestlingmuseum.org

Story By Mike Chapman, Newton Iowa

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