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History 08 - Working Matches Become the Norm

With the advent of theatrical moves such as flying tackles, drop kicks and body blocks, professional wrestling turned its back on the sport that it had been in the early 1900s. In addition, pre-arranged matches, called “working matches” or just “works,” took center stage and true contests began to fade from the scene.

The changes came about because promoters were far more interested in drawing fans through exciting (fake) moves rather than turning fans off with long and boring (real) contests. The emphasis had shifted from “who can beat who” to “who can bring in the most fans (money) at the gate.”

The turning point came in 1925 when Ed “Strangler” Lewis “sold” the title to Wayne Munn, a former college football player who could not wrestle a lick.

In the late 1920s and into the 1930s, there were still some legitimate “shooting matches,” but they were fewer and farther between.  Professional wrestling and amateur wrestling were now going completely separate ways. Earlier, in the days of Gotch, Stecher and Caddock, there were some worked matches among the lower-level wrestlers, but the world championship bouts were still real contests, or shoots.

 Working matches had become the norm in the late 1930s. But there were double crosses and “shoots’ going on, despite the promoters’ best efforts to pre-arrange the title matches. There was just too much money and too much pride at stake for some of the really top-notch wrestlers to throw the match, regardless of how much pressure the promoters put on them.

In the 1930s, the professional wrestling world was broken up into territories, with each section of the country controlled by promoters who developed their own stable of wrestlers and their own “world champion.” Professional wrestlers would move from territory to territory, but the top champions usually stayed with the same promoters.

The most powerful promotional group was in New York City and was called “The Trust.” That group had Ed “Strangler” Lewis as its champion and felt it could control the entire wrestling industry through the power of its home base (New York being the biggest city in America) and the ability of its champion to whip anyone else.

But during the same time there was a very small group of wrestlers who couldn’t be bought off. They were called “trust busters.” Foremost among the trustbusters were three very talented and tough wrestlers, Dick Shikat, Jack Sherry and John Pesek.

Shikat came from Germany and was not only a very good wrestler, he was willing to tangle with just about anybody, on or off the mat. He held the world title for a period in the 1930s. He battled The Trust on several occasions, including a legendary brawl in a hotel room where he fought three tough men, and lost.

Sherry is one of the game’s biggest mysteries. There are some who say he was the best of the era, and others who say he was near the very top but not as good as Ed Lewis. Many pros were afraid to even venture into a ring with Sherry unless they were assured he would not injure them. He was uncontrollable for the most part, and never got a chance to win the title. Legend has it that his one match with Lewis was a shoot, but no one knows for sure. Whatever the case, Lewis won the bout.

Pesek lived in a small farming community in Nebraska named Ravena. He has become a mythical character in wrestling circles due to his (1) great hooking ability (remember, a hooker is a wrestler who is very skilled in submission moves) and (2) his love of trust busting.

He was considered world champion by many and most of the top pros were too scared of him to get in a ring and test him. Lewis reportedly offered to shoot with him and the record says they tangled on several occasions, with Lewis winning. But whether they were shoots or Pesek agreed to tow the line is not known.

Pesek reportedly ended the pro career of Nat Pendleton, four-time AAU national champion and 1920 Olympic silver medal winner at heavyweight, by breaking his leg in a match that was considered a shoot. Robin Reed, a 1924 Olympic champion who had a long pro career, was reportedly beaten up by Pesek in a workout.

 Reed ranked Pesek as one of the two greatest wrestlers he ever met. He called Pesek and Farmer Burns “the masters” of wrestling.

Many current wrestling historians, including Matt Furey, who probably knows more about old-time submission wrestling than anyone alive today, consider John Pesek the real deal and one of the greatest submission wrestlers of all time. Furey, who was NCAA Division II champion for Edinboro in 1987, is the guru of “catch” wrestling (which is the old style used by Burns, Gotch and Stecher).

Even though 90 percent of the top heavyweight matches were works, many of the top amateurs of the 1930s were willing to get into the business. They simply wanted to stay with the sport in some fashion once their amateur days were over.

Heading the list was Earl McCready, who was the first three-time NCAA champion ever. A native of Canada, Earl was a star heavyweight at Oklahoma A&M;, never losing during his entire college career. He entered the pro ranks right after the 1932 Olympics and wrestled professional for three decades, mostly in the northwest and Canada. He was widely respected for his wrestling and his character.

Pete Mehringer was NCAA runnerup for the University of Kansas in 1932, and won a gold medal at 190 pounds in the 1932 Olympics. Big and tough, Mehringer tried the pro game for several years and even wrestled Ed Lewis once.

“I did a bit of pro wrestling but I never did think of it as a career,” Mehringer told the authors of the book Tales of Gold in 1986. “I didn’t enjoy it. It was show biz. I did wrestle Strangler Lewis and I think I could have beaten him in a real match.”

Lou Thesz, the greatest professional star of the last half of the 20th Century, knew both men very well, and smiled when he heard that statement. “I have great respect for Pete Mehringer, but I think he was fooling himself if he really said that,” said Thesz.

Another big pro star of the 1940s was Ralph Silverstein, who won the NCAA title at 175 pounds for the University of Illinois in 1935. He took the name Ruffy Silverstein in the pros and was a huge attraction in the Chicago area for over 20 years.

In addition, Wayne Martin, a three-time NCAA champion for the University of Oklahoma in the mid 1930s, and LeRoy McGuirk, NCAA champion for Oklahoma State in 1931, wrestled pro for two decades. Though both were under the 165-pound mark, they had long careers. McGuirk then went on to become a very successful promoter.

Everett Marshall was a native of Colorado who wrestled in 1932 as a freshman at the University of Iowa. He selected Iowa because Mike Howard was the coach, and Marshall waned to learn more about both amateur and pro wrestling. Howard was a professional wrestler in the summers even during his early coaching career, and had been a pro in his native Europe before coming to America.

Marshall only stayed at Iowa for one year, beating the Hawkeye varsity heavyweight in a frosh-varsity meet and winning all of his freshman matches. He became world heavyweight professional champion in 1936 and was a very popular pro for two decades.

Howard was one of the strongest ties between the amateur and professional worlds. He coached at the University of Iowa for 31 years, retiring in 1952. In an interview with an Iowa sports writer in 1942, he said Ed Lewis was the best wrestler he ever faced in a match, but that Farmer Burns was the best wrestler he ever knew. Howard never tangled with Burns in a match but used to work out with him from time to time.

 “Strangler” Lewis wrestled over 6,000 matches and had some top-flight protégés in the pros ranks, including legendary amateur stars Dick Hutton and Dan Hodge. But his No. 1 protégé was Lou Thesz, destined to become one of the greatest professional  champions of all time, and the last of the true hookers.

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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