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History 07 - Olympic Stars Turned Pro

In the early 1920s, many Olympic champions and medal winners tried their hand at professional wrestling, bringing the amateur and the pro sports closer together once again.

At the time, the kingpin of the professional world was Ed “Strangler” Lewis, a rough and ready grappler who weighed close to 250 pounds in his prime years and was a defensive whiz. Though “The Strangler” had a huge reputation and was widely respected in and out of the ring, his style was boring and did not help attract fans like former champions Frank Gotch, Earl Caddock and Joe Stecher, all three of whom could really move in the ring and were offensive wrestlers.

The promoters were interested in packing the arenas and making money, not in real wrestling contests. In a desperate attempt to bring back the crowds of the Gotch era, they introduced pre-arranged matches that would include fancy maneuvers that were impossible to do in real matches.

For a sum of money, Lewis agreed to give his title to Wayne “Big” Munn, a former Nebraska football star. And all hell broke lose in the world of professional wrestling!

Munn was a make-believe champion and couldn’t protect his title in the ring. He promptly lost it to an old warhorse named Stanislaus Zbyszko, who had been a great amateur and pro wrestler in Europe before coming to America in 1908.

From that point on, double crosses and working matches were common in pro wrestling. The new emphasis was on entertainment, not competitive matches. However, there would still continue to be shoots for several more decades (more on that later).

“Give the fans excitement and drama, and the heck with real wrestling,” became the cry of the promoters. Other college football stars jumped into pro wrestling and after a short day spell in the mid 1920s, professional wrestling began to take off again in popularity.

Some top amateur wrestlers decided they wanted a crack at the money, too. Among the Olympians trying the pro sport were:

  • Dr. Fred Myers of Chicago won four national AAU titles and placed third in the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, at 176-plus pounds;
  • Nat Pendleton was a native of Iowa who learned to wrestle from a Farmer Burns mail order course. He was unbeaten during his college career at Columbia University in New York, won four national AAU titles and captured a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics at 176-plus pounds;
  • Robin Reed was a native of Portland, Oregon, who was one of the biggest amateur stars of all time. He never lost an amateur match any time, any place. He won four weight divisions at the Northwest Olympic Trials of 1924 and then breezed to a gold medal at 134 pounds at the Paris Olympics. He also won three national AAU titles;
  • Russell Vis also came from Oregon and lost only once in ten years of amateur wrestling. He won four national titles and a gold medal at 145 pounds in the 1924 Olympics in Paris;
  • Ed Don George was a college star at Michigan and two-time AAU national champion. He placed fourth at heavyweight at the Olympics Games of 1928, held in Amsterdam;
  • Henri DeGlane of France was Olympic champion in Greco-Roman wrestling in the heavyweight division in 1924;
  • Bobby Pearce of Oklahoma was an NCAA and AAU champion, and won a gold medal in the 1932 Olympics at 132 pounds
  • Pete Mehringer of Kansas was a NCAA runnerup and AAU champion and won a gold medal at 191.5 pounds in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles;
  • Jack Van Bebber was an undefeated three-time NCAA champion at Oklahoma State, won four AUU national titles and a gold medal in the 158.5-pound class at the 1936 Olympics.

They had varied pro careers. Myers wrestled professionally for nearly twenty years, and was a big attraction in the East, though he never quite made it to the top level of the pro game.

Pendleton was being touted as a super star in the mid 1920s and rolled up a string of impressive victories. But he soon lost interest in pro wrestling and moved to California, where he became very successful in the movies. He appeared in over 60 films and even wrote a couple of them.

Reed earned a reputation as a vicious wrestler, feared for his double wristlock, which would force a man to go to his back or have his elbow broken. He wrestled pro for over a decade and won the world’s lightweight title. As tough as was Reed, he admitted years later that he was no match for pro wrestling legends John Pesek and Farmer Burns. He worked out with them both during his pro career and was manhandled by both, with ease.

Vis wrestled professional for just a year and, like Reed, thought Farmer Burns was the master of the sport. But Vis said he didn’t like having to lose to men he could beat easily, and quit the sport.

Pearce, Mehringer and Van Bebber all had brief flings with the pros, but none of them liked the experience and moved on. Two amateur stars, Ed Don George and Henri DeGlane, had very sizeable impacts and both became world heavyweight champions.

 GUS SONNENBERG, former college football star at Dartmouth, was the heavyweight champion in 1929-31, having taken the title from good old Ed Lewis in a payoff match. Gus had a nice run as champion, but a humiliating experience in Los Angeles ruined his career. A nice guy out of the ring and not very tough, Sonnnenberg was approached by a much smaller wrestler who was a street fighter and was beaten up in front of eyewitnesses.

When the public learned that the world heavyweight wrestling champion couldn’t defend himself in the street, Sonnenberg’s appeal plummeted like a rock, and so did the crowds. He was matched with Ed Don George in 1931 and George easily outwrestled him to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

 George, good looking, big and rough (and a real wrestler, to boot) was just what the sport needed after the Sonnenberg mess. One of George’s teammates on the 1928 Olympic team was Lloyd Appleton, who won a silver medal at 158 pounds.

“Ed was a very good wrestler,” said Appleton a decade ago. “In addition, he was a big, good looking guy. He was perfect for the pros back then.”

George’s popularity, combined with the new style of wrestling, helped draw the fans back in large numbers. There were flying dropkicks, flying mares, flying body blocks made popular by football players like Munn, and punching and kicking started to show up, as well.

All of that was choreographed, of course. The real wrestling was done in gyms, with only the other wrestlers there to witness it, or in shoots.

George could have enjoyed a long run as champion, had not Ed Lewis decided he wanted the title back again. Just several months later, Lewis climbed into the ring as challenger to meet the new champion, and as they were being introduced to the crowd, Lewis smiled at George and reportedly said, “Ed, we can do this one of two ways. We can work together and put on a great show… or we can wrestle and I take the title  anyway.”

As good as he was, George knew he couldn’t beat Lewis. And so he worked the match, and gave Lewis the title. George stayed in the game for many years, both as a wrestler and as a promoter. He was a very wealthy man by the time he died.

DeGlane had an even better amateur background than George. Wrestling for France, he won the Olympic Greco-Roman title in 1924 then moved to America and took up pro wrestling. He had a very successful run, and in 1931 was given the world professional title by, who else?, Ed Lewis. With that victory, DeGlane earned the honor of being the first amateur world champion to become professional world champion.

 His reputation back in Europe was such that a huge international tournament was  named in his honor. Today, top amateurs from the United States and from all over the world travel to Nice, France, to compete in the Henri DeGlane Open.

 Ed Don George and Henri DeGlane have earned spots alongside the great Earl Caddock as top amateurs who became professional heavyweight champions, as well.

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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