Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune – January 9, 1982
By Dave Engel
Wrestlers are the champions of River City.
Names like Jack Reinwand, Ed Seen, Dave Witt, Mike Webb and Lafe Enkro inspire grammar-school aspirants to the grapplers’ hall of fame.
But more renowned than any interscholastic matman was the notorious Strangler.
Ed (Strangler) Lewis, a Nekoosa native born in 1890, reigned as world champion heavyweight from 1920 until 1932. He held the title five separate times.
According to a 1956 Wood County Centennial edition of the Daily Tribune, “The name of Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis – born Bob Friedrich – has been indelibly carved on the record books along with such great names as Hackenschmidt, Gotch, Stecher, Caddock and Londos.”
Lewis in 44 years of professional wrestling earned somewhere between $3 million and $15 million in some 6,200 matches, of which he lost only 33 (sic). His most famous may have been in Omaha in 1916 against the Scissors King, Joe Stecher.
The match lasted over five hours and resulted in a draw.
Arthur Crowns, 96, 1203 Prospect Ave., Nekoosa, grew up with the boy then known as Bob Friedrich.
“Bob and I were raised together,” said Crowns. “We played baseball, went swimming, all the things kids do.
“I was two years older than him,” he said. “I used to be able to put him on his back more than anyone else. Then all of a sudden it stopped.”
Crowns and Friedrich both played for the Nekoosa city baseball team in 1908. At a baseball game in Pittsville, receipts were so low that Friedrich found himself wrestling the “pride of Pittsville,” a young man named Brown, in order to pay the way home to Nekoosa.
Friedrich picked Brown up off the ground and squeezed him until he turned blue. He used similar tactics against another locally famed wrestler, Dave Sharkey of Rudolph. After beating Sharkey, Friedrich moved in 1910 to Kentucky University at Lexington to play baseball and develop a new identity.
As the Strangler, a name he borrowed from a previous wrestler, “his name was synonymous with the punishing hold,” wrote national sports columnist Ted Carroll after Lewis’ retirement. “With master showman Jack Curley fanning the flames of publicity, Lewis himself flashed an instinct for ballyhoo.”
Over the years, Lewis wrestled in almost every major city of the world and once claimed that there wasn’t a town or city in the entire United States of more than 5,000 population in which he had not appeared.
The Strangler claimed the world title in 1914, at a New York tournament in which he threw all comers. His claim, however, was not recognized until 1920. Through two generations, Lewis would be a dominant figure in world wrestling.
“Bob was not quarrelsome, just athletic,” Crowns said. “He had a peaceful attitude. He was raised in a German family, where Dad was the boss.
Friedrich’s father, Jake, was a Nekoosa policeman. “He was strong,” said Crowns.
The Strangler studied the sensitive nerves of the neck and soon began gaining advantages over opponents by applying pressure to these nerve centers. He practiced the famed headlock on a wooden dummy fitted with strong springs.
“You could see Bob would never get any place playing ball,” said Crowns.
Friedrich worked as a delivery boy for the Guthell Grocery in Nekoosa, where his strength allowed him to move 300-pound kegs. “His value was somewhat lessened,” said the 1956 Daily Tribune, “by a penchant for stopping his horse and buggy delivery wagon anywhere to play ball.”
“Not overly tall, his beefiness was concentrated in his upper body upon comparatively slender legs,” wrote Carroll. But, as Strangler, “he more than compensated for his physical unsightliness with an innate athletic skill surpassing that of most wrestlers.”
A Kansas City Star of 1949 wrote that “Lewis was a dramatic figure, overpowering in his size with his massive chest, thick neck, powerful arms. He walked through the usual capacity crowd at the old Convention Hall to the cacophonies of the almost hysterical spectators, who booed his step and hooted his entrance into the ring.
The Star described a typical strangle:
“The routine seldom deviated. The Strangler would be flung with a terrific crash on the mat; tears would stream from his eyes. His face, screwed-up in pain, presented a rapturous picture to the gloating fan.
“The Strangler, with a mighty burst, would loosen the grasp of his opponent. Lunging toward his foe, he would secure his famous grip, the headlock. Hurled down, the opponent would stagger groggily to his feet. Hurled down again, he had difficulty arising. It was all over.”
The occasion for the Star article was the transformation of the Strangler, now “more vitally concerned with the reformation of the nation’s underprivileged youngsters.”
Having been nearly blinded by trachoma, an infectious disease apparently passed among the eye-gougers, Lewis had turned to the Christian Science religion and had joined the lecture circuit.
“He was generous,” said Crowns. “The people of Nekoosa were proud of him. Kids followed him around. He was a hero.”
Friedrich would never live in Nekoosa again, but he came now and again to visit his mother, sister and old friends.
“He always came back and put on a wrestling bout when any of the kids needed money,” said Crowns.
If the Strangler came back a hero, he also often came back empty-handed.
“Despite his dedication to the art of wrestling,” wrote Carroll, “Strangler Lewis let none of life’s pleasures pass him by. In the modern parlance, he was a ‘swinger,’ check-grabber and good-time Charley.
“If the Strangler’s headlock was viselike, his grip on a dollar was too easily broken and he spent his final years in heart-breaking fashion dependent upon charity and with his eyesight gone.”
“He always wanted $20,” said Crowns. “I couldn’t turn him down, because of our friendship.”
A youngster once asked the Strangler: “Did you ever wrestle Jesus?”
“No, but for 15 years now I have been wrestling on his team,” replied the heavyweight champion.
After he “got religion,” having lost his fortune, Lewis returned to Nekoosa now and then. “The last time I saw him,” said Crowns, “he wanted to borrow $20 from me.
“But I didn’t want him to take another $20. So the last time I saw him, I beat it.”
In 1966, at the age of 76, Robert Friedrich, also known as Strangler Lewis, died of a lingering illness in a Tulsa, Okla., nursing home. He had wrestled with Art Crowns, Wayne “Big” Munn, Alex Garkawienko and Kola Kwariani. He had wrestled for Jesus, he said.
The Strangler, who had won a million with a crushing headlock, and who lost it all. The Strangler, a muscular myth among the lore of River City.