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History 03 - Earl Caddock Makes the Transition

Many boxing experts consider Nat Fleischer to be the top historian in the entire sport. He wrote dozens of books and was publisher of the legendary The Ring magazine, which began publication in the 1920s.

Fleischer was also a top authority on wrestling. In his book From Milo to Londos, published in 1936, he traces the early history of wrestling around the world and in America. In the book, he credits Frank Gotch, generally considered the greatest professional wrestler of all time, with being responsible for the boom in popularity of wrestling in colleges.

“…We must admit that Gotch did for modern wrestling what John L. Sullivan accomplished for boxing in the old days. It was Gotch’s victories over the hitherto invincible Hackenschmidt that made him the mist popular mat star in American and started a movement among college men to take up wrestling.”

Gotch’s popularity also played a key role in the sport taking off in Iowa and the Midwest. For decades, young Iowa farm boys grew up with dreams of becoming the most famous athlete in America, just as Gotch was from 1908 through his death in 1917, at the age of 39.

How popular was Gotch at his peak? Here’s what author Mac Davis had to say in the book 100 Greatest Sports Heroes:

“As the idol of millions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Gotch made wrestling a big-time sport in his day. He drew larger crowds than did the heavyweight champion of boxing when defending his crown. Babies had been named in his honor, as had buildings, toys, farm implements and a hundred other things. The word ‘Gotch’ was a synonym for quality and strength.”

Gotch also starred in a very successful play that toured the nation in the 1910 era and was invited to the White House by Teddy Roosevelt, where he defeated a jiu jitsu expert in a match held in the East Hall. He was even in Hollywood in 1916 looking into a film career when he got sick and returned home to Humboldt, Iowa. His death in 1917 was front-page news all over the nation.

ONE OF THOSE most impacted by the career of Gotch was another Iowa farm boy named Earl Caddock. He is also the first great amateur champion to make the transition to professional wrestling. He was the type of man who Pat Tillman, the NFL player who died in Afghanistan this year, would have respected a great deal.

Caddock was born on a small farm near Huron, South Dakota, but his family moved to Chicago when he was a youngster. His dad worked as a fireman and met a strange and tragic fate: while walking down the street he fell into an open manhole that was covered only by a trap. Earl was sent to live with his uncle on a farm near Anita, Iowa. He loved the invigorating farm life and worked hard and long. He engaged in various forms of athletics, but his best sport was wrestling.

Earl Caddock

Young Earl wrestled all the local farm boys and moved back to Chicago at age 18. There, he worked at odd jobs to help support his mother and siblings. In the evenings, he began wrestling for an organization known as the Hebrew Institute. He won several regional titles and then entered the national AAU championships. In 1914, he won the 175-pound AAU national title and then the San Francisco Exposition title. In 1916, he won both the 175-pound and heavy-weight AAU national title. He was the favorite to make the 1916 Olympic team, but the Games were cancelled by World War I.

He never lost as an amateur, winning all 53 of his matches. His reputation for skilled wrestling was such that he was nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Holds.”

When Gotch was touring the Midwest taking on all comers with a circus group, along with boxing heavyweight champion Jess Willard, he employed several young matmen for workouts. Caddock trained with Gotch for a brief period and was influenced by Gotch to try the professional game.

“Realizing his possibilities, Gotch undertook to train Caddock and, under Gotch’s tutelage, Earl improved rapidly and became a master in the sport,” wrote Fleischer in his book.

Gotch had retired as world champion in 1915 and the Joe Stecher was world champion in late 1917. Stecher grew up in tiny Dodge, Nebraska, and was a genius at mat wrestling. He won the world title at age 21 and was considered by some to be almost as good as Gotch. By the way, Stecher’s oldest brother, Louis, was a champion wrestler at the Naval Academy in Annapolis for two years and was an officer in the Navy when Joe won the world title.

Joe Stecher

CADDOCK MADE a smooth transition from the amateur world to the professional world. The styles of wrestling were very similar, with double-leg takedowns, leg sweeps and even heel picks. Riding time was used to enable the man on top to wear down his foe so he could either turn him for a pin or slap on a submission lock.
The Iowan had rolled up 25 consecutive victories as a professional and, combined with his 53-0 mark as an amateur, was 78-0 when he met Stecher on April 9, 1917. Since Stecher was 62-0-1 as a professional (his amateur record is unknown but it is said he never lost), the two wrestlers had a stunning combined mark of 140-0-1.

Caddock weighed just 187 pounds and stayed in great shape by running. The champion Stecher checked in at 210 pounds. The match was set for the Omaha Auditorium and was billed as “Nebraska versus Iowa for athletic supremacy.” The arena seated only five thousand and it quickly sold out. When it was announced that the great Gotch would appear in the ring with the two warriors prior to the match, interest reached a fever pitch.

It turned out to be an epic and grueling match — one of the very best tussles in the entire history of professional wrestling. Stecher won the first fall in 82 minutes, giving Caddock the loss of his career, in any form of wrestling. But Caddock fought back to win the second fall after another hour and 40 minutes of bruising wrestling. After a 20-minute intermission, the two men were called back to the ring for the deciding fall, but Stecher was too exhausted to continue, and forfeited the match and his championship.

Caddock was an immensely popular world champion. Handsome and a devout Christian, he was friendly and outgoing. He married a young school teacher and they set up home in Walnut, Iowa, a little community just thirty miles east of Omaha. He ran a little automobile repair shop on the side and they eventually had four children, including three boys who all played sports at either Iowa State University of the University of Iowa.

But before Caddock could do much with his world title, World War I erupted in Europe and this clean-cut young wrestling champion set the example for all other professional athletes of the day. Earl Caddock signed up for the Army and turned down all offers to become an officer.

“I’m no different than any other young soldier,” he said. “I’ll be proud to be a private and fight in the ranks just like everyone else.”

Does that remind any of us today of the noble actions of Pat Tillman? Soon, the heavyweight champion of the wrestling world was in France, fighting for his life in foxholes with the other doughboys!

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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