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History 02 - Long matches change sport

While professional wrestling and amateur wrestling went their separate ways in the late 1800s, there was still a considerable amount of overlap in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Many top-flight amateur stars looked to the professional arena as a means of continuing their love of the sport. They learned the basics in amateur matches and then felt prepared to move on to the next level as they entered their twenties.

Frank Gotch in action

Conversely, the leading college coach of the early 1900s reportedly spent considerable time in Vermont during the summers, learning the techniques of the great professional wrestlers like Ed Decker and John McMahon. According to Charles Morrow Wilson in his book, The Magnificent Scufflers, Ed Gallagher brought those methods back to Stillwater, Oklahoma and developed the first truly great sports dynasty in any sport.

At Oklahoma A&M; College (now Oklahoma State University), Gallagher built a stunning record. During his coaching career, from 1911 through 1940, his teams compiled a dual meet record of 138-5-4 and enjoyed 19 undefeated seasons. They won seven of the first eight official NCAA team Championships. At the time of his death in 1940, Gallagher was considered the greatest collegiate wrestling coach up to that time… and much of what he learned apparently came from old Vermont professionals.

There is yet another strong link between the professional and amateur wrestling worlds. In his book From Milo to Londos, Nat Fleischer 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.”

Frank Gotch

SO WHEN DID professional wrestling first branch off from the amateur sport? It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date, but by the 1880s there was plenty of professional wrestling going on, The first national amateur tournament was held in 1887, and a special provision was put in place primarily to keep the pros away: There was only one weight class, and that was under 158 pounds. Since most of the professionals weighed far more than that, the weight restriction was successful in limiting them from entering.

In 1881, there were four weight classes contested in the national AAU tournament. A class called heavyweight was added in 1893 and the 175-pound class was added in 1913. Among the early amateur champions were men who eventually became professional stars — including Earl Caddock, Nat Pendleton, Fred Meyers and Ed Don George.

One of the surest ways to get a true amateur wrestling fan into the discussion about the realities of professional wrestling back in the early 1900s is to discuss the length of some of the most famous matches. When an amateur purist hears that Gotch and Hackenschmidt went two hours and three minutes in the first of their two matches, in Chicago in 1908, they are immediately skeptical that the match was real.

“No one can wrestle that long,” said former Iowa State Teachers College star Bill Nelson, who won three NCAA titles, the third coming in 1950. “No way. The matches had to be fake.”

Certainly, no one could wrestle for two hours with the pace of a top-flight amateur wrestler that we see in a six-minute high school match or a nine-minute college match. But that is not the way professional matches were contested. Most of the time, the real work took place on the mat. One wrestler would eventually take the other down and work for twenty, thirty minutes or longer trying to slap on his finishing hold. The man on the bottom spent his time trying to fend off the submission holds and avoid being turned to his back for a true pin.

The matches often turned into long, drawn out and boring affairs where long periods of time were spent on the mat with little going on that the average fan could see. That is what eventually caused the end of “true” professional matches, and led to the introduction of flashy moves like drop kicks, flying mares and airplane spins. All of those moves had one intent and one intent only ― to entertain the fans. Their practical use was nil.

And there is plenty of evidence around today that proves long matches were held throughout the decades, in a variety of fashions.

According to Ripley’s popular “Believe It Or Not” series, an Englishman named Alf Davey and an American named John Shea wrestled for eleven and a half hours before a fall was scored. The match was under amateur rules and was held in Michigan in 1908.

The longest Olympic match on record took place in 1912 between Martin Klein of Estonia and Alfred Asikainen of Finland. The match lasted for 11 hours before Klein scored a pin. But he was too exhausted to compete in the finals, and so Claes Johanson of Sweden won the gold medal by forfeit.

A match in the 1950s that lasted for several hours is a key part of mixed martial arts legend. It involved Helio Gracie, the founder of the legendary Gracie Jiu Jitsu system, against a former student, Waldemar Santana. They engaged in a grudge match on May 24, 1955, that lasted three hours and forty-three minutes and was witnessed by hundreds of spectators.

“….Helio Gracie and Waldemar Santana refused to yield for an unbelievable three hours and forty-three minutes ― without interruption,” wrote Kid Peligro in Grappler magazine. “Not even in the animal kingdom have beasts fought for this long.” (3)

That may be because beasts have not learned how to pace themselves, and wrestlers and mixed martial artists have. In a contest where two warriors are evenly matched, it can take hours to determine which man is the better wrestler, and that result is almost always decided on the mat.

There are records of many long and grueling matches between pros, often lasting two or three hours. Five of the best contests are the following:

  • In January of 1880, William Muldoon, claiming the world heavyweight championship, and Clarence Whistler tangled for the title. Muldoon said he did not train for the match and added that Whistler was a “powerful, vicious wrestler.” The match reportedly lasted six and a half hours and was called a draw.
  • On April 3, 1908, world heavyweight champion George Hackenschmidt put his title on the line against the American champion, Frank Gotch. The bout was held in the Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago and lasted two hours and three minutes. Exhausted at the end, the Russian Lion surrendered his title to Gotch.
  • On September 10, 1910, Stanislaus Zbyszko and the Great Gama fought to a draw in a contest that lasted three hours and 47 minutes. It was held in Sheppard’s Bush in London.
  • The granddaddy of all matches came on July 4, 1916, Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher wrestled for five hours and thirty minutes. Two referees collapsed from exhaustion and heat and many fans left the arena before time was called at 2 in the morning.
  • On January 13, 1920, world heavyweight champion Earl Caddock and former champion Joe Stecher wrestled for two hours and three minutes in Madison Square Garden, in front of 14,000 fans, a sellout. Stecher won the one-fall match with a pin. About ten minutes of the match is still available on video, and shows the two warriors wrestling a calculated but highly-competitive match that looks very similar to a good college match today.

While some amateurs say such matches must have been works where the two agreed to go for a long time, the length of the matches actually proves just the opposite. Surely no athletes planning a “fake” match would have it last two, three and four hours and come to a boring end when they could plan an exciting, action-packed match that would end in far less time. The latter version would save wear and tear on their bodies, excited the fans and please the promoters. No one likes to watch four hours of very little activity.

In fact, it was the long, boring matches in the late teens and early 1920s that led to the addition of theatrics to wrestling, changing it forever from a legitimate contest between two athletes to a staged performance. The goal eventually changed from seeing who was the best man to entertaining the fans and, hence, reaping a financial reward.

Once the majority of matches became pre-arranged, it also meant that the length of the matches could be controlled. The two-hour matches quickly disappeared from the pro scene forever.


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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