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History 05 - Why Pro Wrestling Changed

As world heavyweight professional wrestling champions between 1917 and 1925, Joe Stecher and Earl Caddock were superb heirs to the throne of Frank Gotch, true athletes with enormous skills, heart and desire.                  

Gotch had made pro wrestling more popular than pro boxing and was the best-known athlete in America during the 1910-1917 era. But his death in 1917, at the age of 39, changed things forever. The promoters in charge of the sport had never been able to control Gotch because he was just too powerful a presence and wouldn’t move from his Iowa farm to either Chicago or New York to work with the promoters.  He was his own man.

Once he was gone from the scene, however, the promoters were able to take more control of the sport. To draw huge crowds, they needed the world heavyweight champion to show up on their cards. But in order for a champion to compete as much as the promoters demanded — several times a week — and in order to keep the matches much shorter, pre-arranged matches were needed.

Though basically just a couple of Midwest farm boys, the promoters back East saw tremendous potential in Caddock and Stecher. They were both handsome, well-mannered and well built young men with tremendous gate appeal, and patriots as they had served their country in World War I. After their sensational 1920 match in Madison Square Garden, the promoters felt they could have worked the nation’s fans for a series of matches that would have made all of them — wrestlers and promoters alike — very wealthy.

But the same Midwestern farm values that drove Farmer Burns and Gotch to the top were also at work with Joe and Earl.

   “My dad told us the story,” said Bob Caddock in his quiet manner, in 1998. After this great match with Joe, they were even at one win each. The promoters called them into their offices and laid out a plan where they would barnstorm the nation, going back and forth with wins.

“Dad looked at the promoters and said, ‘You mean fake matches?’

“After the meeting, Dad and Joe went for a long walk together in the streets of New York. My dad said, ‘Joe, we’re just a couple of farm kids. We can’t do something like that.’ He said that Joe agreed. They shook hands and walked away.’

Despite the tremendous excitement created by the Madison Square Garden match of January 20, 1920, Joe Stecher and Earl Caddock never met on a wrestling mat again.

That alone tells a powerful story about how common fixed matches were at the highest level at the time. The promoters could not entice Earl Caddock and Joe Stecher into the fold, just like they could not woo Gotch into it. These men were competing for something besides money — they had too much pride and self respect to work the public.

A similar version of the story came out in an Omaha newspaper in the 1950s, shortly after Caddock’s death of cancer in 1950, at the age of sixty.

“It might have created a sports page sensation, back in the1920s, (but) now it’s an interesting footnote for sports historians who have always wondered why Earl Caddock quit wrestling while still in prime condition".

Carl Linn, a longtime friend of Caddock, blames gambling interests. "They made it difficult for the onetime world heavyweight champion to remain an honest wrestler", according to Linn.

“ ‘Earl was the Joe Palooka of wrestling,’ Linn said. ‘He was thoroughly honest and everyone admired him. He told me that shortly before he quit he was approached by gamblers …. and they offered him $100,000 to throw a big match. He said he walked the streets all night worrying about it. He won the match but he was afraid of the gamblers, and he made up his mind it was time to get out.”

IN TRUTH, there was another factor weighing on Caddock’s decision to retire at a relatively young age. He wrestled for two more years after his second match with Stecher but was never really the same as he was prior to the Great War. He had indeed suffered lung damage from mustard gas attacks in World War I and could never regain his once-superb endurance. He retired to run his small automobile business in Walnut, Iowa.

Earl and his wife, Grace, a local school teacher, raised four children. He became a state icon and was sought after for banquet speeches. Proud of his great amateur record, he often was called upon to speak at groups of amateur wrestlers and coaches. Earl went on to establish a tremendous oil business in Omaha and became a wealthy man. His death on August 25, 1950, was front-page news all over the state of Iowa, and across much of the nation.

Today, he lies buried at the top of a small hill in the rural cemetery on the south edge of Walnut. Three of the boys played football at state universities.  Earl Jr., died from injuries suffered in World War II.

“My dad was proud of the fact that he was a champion wrestler, but he seldom talked about it,” said Bob Caddock. “What he was really proud of was his Christian faith and his family. He was a devout Christian and loved to talk about that.”

Stecher lived many years beyond Caddock. Suffering from what today might be diagnosed as depression, he was placed in a home for the mentally depressed and lived there until dying on March 29, 1974. He used to sit on the back porch playing checkers. Several times, Earl Caddock drove up from his home in Walnut to reminisce with Joe, and play checkers with him. The two old warriors had a mutual respect for one another that lasted their entire lifetimes.

But professional wrestling had made the transition from true sport to pre-arranged matches. The promoters insisted on faster matches with more action, trying to eliminate mat work. Fans wanted to see the athletes on their feet, flying around the ring. In order for that to happen, matches had to be pre-arranged.

By the mid 1920s, the era of Frank Gotch, Earl Caddock and Joe Stecher was over. However, there were still plenty of true battles behind the scenes over the next forty years. These became known as “shoots.”

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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