Saturday Evening Post – December 14, 1935
By Milton MacKaye
The standing of wrestling as a profit-making enterprise has received little attention in the economic journals, and even those publications devoted to the fevers of sport have been niggardly in space and headlines. There has been a general tendency to regard wrestling as a sort of little country cousin of the opulent boxing profession, a rude and primitive trial of strength persisting feebly in the backwoods sections, but destined ultimately to become as extinct as the broadsword. As a public spectacle, it has been rated just ahead of long-distance walking contests and the hop, skip, and jump, and considerably behind the breath-taking thrills and romance of puss-in-the-corner and the potato race.
The fact is that, despite the indifference of the swankier trade, wrestling is now the most solvent of sports. The American public in these difficult times is paying some $5,000,000 a year to see the behemoths tug, haul, pull, shove and hurl each other about. Nightly, in a hundred smoke-filled arenas, the customers gather to witness the dreadful carnage and to push real money through the ticket windows. Any industry that can gross $5,000,000 a year is big business and deserves respectful attention from the realists of finance. No public, whatever the cynics say, has ever paid $5,000,000 to see potato races.
Tex Rickard was the man who put golden handcuffs on pugilism. He created the million-dollar gate, and since his time the legend has persisted that boxing is pure bonanza. As a matter of truth, until the recent bout between Joe Louis and Max Baer there had not been a million-dollar gate since Dempsey fought Tunney at Chicago in 1927. Boxing is in the doldrums. The public, nevertheless, is still inclined to believe, as a result of the publicity which isolated large purses receive, that boxing is the most profitable sport, and that any reasonably good boxer may retire after a few compensatory buffets with a rich and satisfying competence. This is an illusion. For all the rude gibes which have accompanied its recrudescence, wrestling today is the more profitable enterprise, and a share of stock in the syndicate which controls it is worth a dozen shares in the companies which stake their all on the five-ounce gloves.
There has never been a million-dollar gate in wrestling. When Frank Gotch met George Hackenschmidt for the championship of the world, in 1911, the net returns were $95,000 – equal, perhaps, to $450,000 by the standards of today – and when Jim Londos and Ed (Strangler) Lewis wrestled in Chicago in 1934, there were receipts of $207,000. Taxes decreased appreciably the net on the latter match. These two competitions hold the record. But there is a sharp difference between a heavyweight pugilistic champion and the journeyman of wrestling. A Dempsey or Tunney or Baer defends his title once a year. A wrestler is active three, four or five times a week. He is constantly on the move, and though his purses are smaller, they fill his pockets with comfortable frequency.
Londos, the Greek, who began his career as a dishwasher in a San Francisco restaurant, is generally considered to be the biggest money maker in the history of wrestling. He is said to have earned $2,500,000. This is a considerably larger stake than the great Tunney was able to amass in the boom times of boxing – he received $525,000 for the Tom Heeney match alone – and probably is little surpassed by Dempsey’s prodigious returns. Strangler Lewis, mat champion so many times that the statistician becomes dizzy, has earned between $500,000 and $600,000. Gotch made a fortune. Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko both retired rich. Joe Stecher, who in his day could and did flop Londos without trouble, was sufficiently solvent when he retired to pay $100,000 in cash for a single plot of land.
These gentlemen were the performers and not the promoters. When they profited, the promoters profited in an even greater degree. There seems to be no reason to doubt that, despite its wide publicity, boxing has slipped back as a profit-making enterprise, and that wrestling, like a thief in the night, has sneaked up on the box office and stolen the prize.
Wrestling, of course, has seen more glamorous times. Back in the days of the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, when the G.A.R. still controlled elections and the coal-oil lamp was considered the modern miracle of science, the champion of the world was one William Muldoon. In that period, prize fighting was illegal in all except the most loose and licentious localities, while wrestling was considered to be a just and civilized test of skill and strength. Muldoon profited by the outlawing of the brutal boxing game and amassed a fortune at his profession. He died in 1933, full of honors and deep in his eighties, a member of the New York Athletic Commission, the proprietor of a famous health resort for renovating tired tycoons, and immortalized in fiction by Theodore Dreiser as Culhane, the Solid Man. In Muldoon’s day the stage was an additional avenue of profits for a champion. Muldoon made large weekly salaries with vaudeville and variety turns, and turned definitely to art when Modjeska made her triumphal Shakespearean invasion.
Muldoon toured America with Modjeska as Charles, the wrestler, in As You Like It. So sport discovered Shakespeare long before Gene Tunney went into culture and several decades before Bernard Shaw discovered sport.
As the nineteenth century vanished in a haze of glory and the twentieth appeared with the popping of two-cylinder motorcars, champagne corks and Boer rifles, wrestling still continued to hold its own as an admirable phase of manly endeavor. Youngsters learned the efficacy of the half nelson and the wristlock in a million back yards, and Farmer Burns, a champion himself, found in the unlikely environs of Humboldt, Iowa, the young fellow who was eventually to be the greatest grappler of them all. There is, so far as studious inquiry can determine, no one to challenge the statement that Frank Gotch was the champion of champions. He was trained by Burns, but he himself brought so much science and skill to the game that no one has bothered since to discover anything other than the innovations of showmanship and ballyhoo. As cold art, it was impossible for wrestling to go beyond Gotch, and after his time – and indeed during his time – the sport began a steady and implacable decline. This wasting-away process was largely subterranean and was not evident at all during the first decade of the century. To a considerable section of the population, the invasion of George Hackenschmidt, champion wrestler of Europe, was a weightier event of 1908 than the election of Taft to the presidency or unrest in the Philippines.
Hackenschmidt was an interesting figure. Born a peasant boy in one of Russia’s outer provinces, he became a soldier in the Imperial Guard, and then, because of his phenomenal muscular development, one of the Czar’s personal bodyguards. Hackenschmidt was only 5 feet 9 – inches tall, but he weighed 224 pounds, his chest measured 52 inches around, and his biceps nineteen inches. He attracted the attention of a rich nobleman whose hobby was athletics. The nobleman decided that Hackenschmidt had in him the makings of a champion, and promptly set about grooming him for the job. Through political influence he obtained Hack’s release from the Imperial Guard, and paid his expenses while he was tutored by wrestling instructors and trained to a fine point of physical fettle in St. Petersburg gymnasiums. Hack was not only a wrestler; he was tremendously powerful. Atlas having managed the job of holding the world on his shoulders, there was only one task at which a modern titan could prove his worth at feats of strength – the besting of Sandow the Strong Man.
This was considered – and I am indebted for the details of Hackenschmidt’s history to Jack Curley, who was his impresario in America – a sizable undertaking. Sandow was ready to fight, break bones, or be shot from a cannon. When Hackenschmidt’s patron finally decided that school days were over, the two embarked for London. Sandow was appearing at a music hall, and it was his custom at the end of a theatrical performance to challenge any member of the audience to step forward and equal his feats of strength; he offered an appreciable amount of money if the victim’s arteries and nerve centers survived the test. On a fateful Friday night Hackenschmidt and his patron bought a stage box for the London performance. Sandow went through his usual routine, lifting sausages marked plainly “4000 lbs.,” snapping crowbars with his bare hands, permitting a dozen men to load themselves on a platform balanced on his chest and then lifting platform and all with one puff of his pneumatic lungs. Then came the challenge. At that moment – such was the careful planning – Hackenschmidt dropped his trousers in the darkness of the box, peeled off his shirt and jumped to the stage in full gymnasium costume. The engagement was brief. Hackenschmidt not only managed all the feats of strength but dusted the floor with Sandow’s extremities and then ran him clear into the wings. That finished Sandow and started Hackenschmidt.
Hackenschmidt is now a man in his sixties, and the owner of a physical-culture school in London. He was a man of wealth at the time of his American debut, and though postwar declines cut into his principal, he still is entirely solvent. Hack was probably the first professional athlete to decide that there was something in this stuff about the brain. Following his retirement, he became interested in philosophy and metaphysics, and wrote a book. The fact that it received little critical attention is of no importance – when a wrestler writes a book, that is the ultimate answer to the defeatists. Evolution is a workable hypothesis. From ape to man is a sizable step, but from wrestler to articulateness is a geologic age.
Hatred of foreign invasion was responsible for the massacres of the Boxer Rebellion and the cash returns of Hackenschmidt’s tour of America. Hack met Gotch in 1908 and retired, after one fall, with what he described as an injured ankle. He had also lost his championship. This added to a native belief that one American could lick a dozen foreigners, but not sufficiently to curb Hack’s talents as a public attraction. When he returned to this country again, he packed the auditoriums and managed to throw all the opponents who faced him. Gotch in the meantime had begun to retire. This was a procedure which took four years to come to real fruition. Gotch’s retirements were never taken too seriously, and in 1912 he defended his title against Mahmout the Terrible Turk. This was not difficult, and he bought himself another section of Iowa land.
It would be pleasant here to report that Gotch was a kindly and equable gentleman who held his own ability in intellectual contempt. The fact is that he was short-tempered, and as irritable as a hibernating bear. He considered himself as important as a United States senator and his manners were very little better. He developed a very personal dislike for Hackenschmidt, and once described him as a “money-hungry greaseball.” Gotch was convinced that Hack had quit cold in their 1908 engagement, and missed few public opportunities to say so. A large section of the sporting group agreed with Gotch’s diagnosis of Hack’s competitive temperament, and Curley, then managing the Russian’s tour, and never one to neglect public disgust, decided that Gotch’s anger might pay dividends. His manner of making it do so is an almost historic example of the guile and duplicity that go into successful sports promotions and the negotiating of international armament pacts.
Gotch was determined that he would never wrestle Hack again, because he believed his own prestige would bring thousands to the arena and allow the Russian to split a munificent purse. Gotch didn’t want Hackenschmidt to make money. Curley played his cards carefully. Gotch, a prosperous farmer, was sure to attend the yearly stock show in Chicago. Hack was scheduled to wrestle Jess Westergaard in Chicago at the same time. Curley sent Gotch complimentary tickets for a box seat and then laid a nefarious trap. When Gotch entered the Coliseum and took his seat, a spotlight played on him. Hackenschmidt, in the ring, rose to his feet and praised his old adversary as the champion of champions. That put Gotch in a spot, and immediately Curley henchmen, planted in the aisles, began a demand that he get up in the ring. Gotch reluctantly went forward and was introduced. Then the legion of Curley hecklers changed tune and demanded to know why he wouldn’t wrestle Hack. Was he afraid? Said Gotch, sweating in torment under the floodlights:
“Well, I’ll tell you fellows. No dirty foreigner is going to make money out of my reputation. I’m not afraid of Hackenschmidt and I’ll wrestle him for a $20,000 guaranty. No promoter can pay that and make any money for himself and Hackenschmidt.”
“I’ll pay it,” said the Machiavellian Mr. Curley, now putting in a public appearance for the first time. There under the floodlights he calmly wrote out a check for $20,000.
“And a thousand dollars for training expenses,” Gotch said weakly.
“And a thousand dollars for expenses,” said Curley.
“Put it to my account in the Peoples Bank at Humboldt,” said Gotch.
“It’s done,” said Curley.
Gotch wrestled Hackenschmidt again, and before the largest crowd in history. Gotch won. The crowd not only paid his guaranty but a $13,500 purse to the Russian and a much more generous profit to Mr. Curley, who thought it all up after all.
Dr. Ben Roller, a Seattle physician, was Gotch’s favorite claimant for his own title. Roller was a very skillful athlete, versed in all the cunning of his trade, but he lacked the poundage necessary for the exigencies of championship matters. In 1910 he and Gotch had toured the country for four months, meeting all comers. Doctor Roller then was fifty years of age, but he wrestled 191 men, threw each of them within fifteen minutes, and won the $250 stake offered for each contest. In the same year, Doctor Roller wrestled Stanislaus Zbyszko in Vienna and was pinned to the mat. During his training period, however, Doctor Roller managed to find time to study under Professor Ehrlich at Frankfort. He returned to America without victory, but with his scientific knowledge increased.
Doctor Roller was always an enigma to his managers and opponents; he regarded wrestling with a lukewarm eye and would wander away from the railway station in any tank town to argue with the village doctor about infections and contagious diseases. After Gotch’s definite retirement, Roller won the American championship in 1912 by defeating Charley Cutler. In 1915, when Roller was fifty-five, Ed (Strangler) Lewis took his title away and the good doctor returned to medicine.
Wrestling had a few moments of autumnal glory just after the war. The rise of two young athletes in the Middle West created a profitable patriotic fervor in the embattled farm region. These young men – Earl Caddock, of Iowa, and Joe Stecher, of Nebraska – were clean upstanding citizens, free of the poolroom taint and endowed with great natural skill at their art. Caddock’s most spectacular maneuver was the toehold, an ingenious method of inflicting sufficient pain to cause an adversary to surrender or turn on his back. Stecher’s fame rested on the scissors – a hold which consists in locking the legs around an opponent’s midriff and squeezing until a series of gentle crackles announces that his ribs are no longer in one piece.
Stecher and Caddock played to full houses. Their most frequent adversaries were the two Zbyszko brothers, Stanislaus and the younger Wladek, and the bull-necked Strangler Lewis. The Zbyszko brothers were foreigners, and thus represented the menace of king-ridden Europe; Lewis, born in Kentucky (sic), was famous for his headlock, a very brutal treatment of the human skull which was generally reported to result in fractures, concussions, brain lesions and small padded rooms in private sanitariums. When Lewis wrestled, thousands of advocates of fair play could be counted upon to pay their way to the ringside to express their disapproval of his methods.
Eventually the first enthusiasm for this five-cornered competition began to take tucks in itself. There was some criticism of the manner in which Caddock, Stecher, the Zbyszkos and Lewis seasonally traded the title among themselves.
There were even base attacks upon the sincerity of the athletes themselves, and suggestions that their rivalry was not so bitter and antipathetic as the philippics of their press agents made out. Athletes standing with envious eyes outside the charmed circle charged that a wrestling trust existed, and that the ballyhooed battles of the titans were merely family theatricals.
This abating of public confidence probably was only a minor factor in the collapse of wrestling as a drawing card. Its essential weakness as a public spectacle was its dullness. A few men, fortified with a knowledge of the intricate technique of the mat and gathered three-deep around a roped arena, could enjoy the muscular chess playing of the adversaries, admire the deft bridging and swift shifts of posture which countered an offensive. But for a crowd of eight or ten thousand people, hung along the rafters in giant coliseums, it was quite another matter. From the top balconies of the Metropolitan Opera House the singers on the stage may be visible only with spyglass and binoculars, but at least their voices can be heard, and people go there to hear singing. People do not go to wrestling matches to hear singing. The excellent acoustics of any particular auditorium will rarely mollify the gentleman who paid cash money for his ticket and is unable to tell with the naked eye whether Big Boy Benzine or whether the Bonebreaker has gone back on his pledge to give in.
The truth is that wrestling is a sport not cut out for stadiums and bizarre spectacles. Those who have attended championship prize fights and purchased what are laughingly called ringside seats know how difficult it is, even in boxing, to follow from astronomical distances just what is going on down there under the floodlights. But in a boxing match two men are on their feet and moving around the arena. Wrestlers who are fanatically in earnest spend most of their time in a reclining posture, tangled up together like swamp trees and so intermingled that it is impossible to determine, without tattoo marks or some definitely distinguishable mutilation, whose arm is whose, and whose tibia has been twisted into the shape of a wishing ring. They may even, on occasion, lie almost inert for periods ranging from two hours to two days. This is a remarkable proof of their tenacity and endurance, but it is not calculated to raise a fever in the spectator who can barely glimpse them from afar.
There were sad days for wrestling during the early 1920s. Caddock, whose expertness was never equaled by his weight or stamina, was retired by a tonsil operation from which he never entirely recovered. Stecher, Lewis, the aged Zbyszkos, continued on the prowl, but their royalty had become a little faded. In smaller localities the sport managed to exist, but the big cities were indifferent and the sports sections of the newspapers – often a reasonable mirror of public interest – reported matches with sparse lines of fine type or not at all. Such promoters as Jack Curley, of New York, Paul Bowser, of Boston, and others knew that wrestling was sick. It took some time to find the cure.
The ultimate solution is now history. The promoters took a leaf from the book of football. In the early days of football, ground gaining was principally tug and haul. Two teams were closely engaged in the manner of two locomotives trying to push each other off the track. Games so often ended in 0-0 ties that the only proof of superiority was to do bookkeeping on the number of broken bones and hand the laurel to the eleven which finally managed a murder. This was great fun for the football teams, the student managers and the hospital interns, but it did not build million-dollar stadiums. Football paid off the college mortgage only when close formations were abandoned. Broken-field running, the forward and lateral pass, the shift, made football a dramatic show for the man in the stands. He got action and thrills. He could see what was happening. In short, the open game was responsible for that overemphasis which disgusted the educators, pleased the alumni, and made it possible for even the humble iron puddler to get a college education and support the old folks at home in considerable ease.
The promoters opened up wrestling. The accident which gave them new vision was the violent advent of Gus Sonnenberg into the field of competition. Sonnenberg ws an All-American football player who had desolated the gridirons of New England was a member of the Dartmouth eleven. Sonnenberg didn’t know much about wrestling, but he had stature, bounce and, as the linguists say, plenty of moxie. In his first match he almost started a riot. Instead of engaging in the usual preliminary sparring about, he leaped from his corner, dived halfway across the ring, and hit his amazed opponent with a flying tackle. The opponent, being a man of no particular educational attainments, had never heard of the stiff arm as a defense against tacklers, and promptly subsided into such a deep silence that he was carried out of the arena by four awe-struck attendants.
Sonnenberg’s flying tackle took the customers by storm. It guaranteed action, drama and the thunderous collision of bodies. When, a very short time after he begun his career, Sonnenberg wrestled Strangler Lewis in Boston in what was advertised as a championship match, a counting of the gate receipts showed that a new success formula had been found. The long tussle upon the mat, the protracted inertia at full length, passed out of style. Wrestlers began hurling one another out of the ring, slapping one another’s faces, butting heads, kicking, scratching and gouging. They roared imprecations, screamed with pain, bared their teeth in fearful snarls, and on occasion aimed wild swings at the referee. It wasn’t wrestling, but no one cared about that; the departure of refinement signaled the return of prosperity.
The success of wrestling as a theatrical enterprise requires a constant supply of new blood. When Sonnenberg’s success coined money for promoter Bowser in Boston, rival promoters went out and dug up football players of their own. Jim McMillen, of the University of Illinois, was soon tangling with Jim Londos for promoter Curley in New York; Ed Don George was recruited to dispose of Sonnenberg; Jumping Joe Savoldi, of Notre Dame, became a sensation in Chicago. Various others had a fling at the game – Sam Stein; Len Macaluso, of Colgate; Mike Mazurki, of Manhattan College; Jim Bausch, of Kansas; Tony Siano, of Fordham, and a dozen more. Joe Savoldi’s tour de force was known as the “flying drop kick.” He leaped high in the air, propelled himself forward and let his opponent have both feet squarely in the mouth. This rarely left the opponent with a friendly feeling, and so annoyed Jim Londos that he refused, after meeting Savoldi, to believe the fanciful story that he, Londos, had lost the match and blithely continued to call himself the champion of the world.
Even before the advent of the football players, the indiscriminate importation of boatloads of foreign talent had been begun. Jack Pfefer, a small, agile gentleman with a deep-purple accent, a cane and a very confident manner, was one of the first impresarios of what has come to be known as “freak talent.” Mr. Pfefer, who prefers to speak of himself as the “Little Napoleon,” came to this country from Russia, where he had managed grand-opera troupes wandering through the lesser cities of Europe and Asia. He knew nothing whatever about wrestling, but he did know about showmanship and color. One of his first importations – it was back in 1923 – was Ivan Poddubny, known variously as Ivan the Terrible, the Cruel Cossack, and, because of the proportions of his great mustaches, Old Handlebars. Poddubny had indeed once been champion of Europe, but when Pfefer rediscovered him he was sixty years of age. His mustaches, however, were still stiff and luxuriant, he had a chest full of medals and he made a country-wide tour in triumph, tossing all opponents on his route. Eventually Poddubny entered New York with a full-blown reputation as a wonder man, and met Joe Stecher at the Seventy-First Regiment Armory in a match for the world championship. Stecher was one hour and forty minutes in throwing Poddubny. There is a curious sequel. A few weeks after the rich championship match, the Cruel Cossack wrestled Tom Draak, a third-rater, in Newark. Draak pinned his shoulders in twelve minutes. Poddubny went back to Europe to spend his old age at the spas.
Jack Pfefer at that time was an associate of Curley in promotion, and they continued their importations. There was, for instance, Fritz Kley, the German, a massive contortionist; Leo Pinetzki, the long-armed giant from Poland; the immense and billowing Sandor Szabo; Serge Kalmikoff, the Cossack; and Ferenc Holuban, the odd Hungarian, advertised as “The Man Without a Neck.” All these aliens were heralded upon arrival as bone crushers, savage mercenaries and gorilla men. Pinetzki had an arm reach of eighty-one inches and very little else in the matter of talent. The brief interval between Holuban’s chin and shoulders measured twenty-one inches around. Kalmikoff’s claim to a footnote in the history of the ring was that he introduced the beard to the American sporting public. It was Kalmikoff’s habit to roar like a lion in the ring and to stand twirling his whiskers as his opponent charged. Since that time beards have become almost standard equipment. No show now is complete without at least one set of Dundrearies or a challengingly neat Vandyke.
Kalmikoff talked very little English, but he knew well the crowd-pulling value of his beard. After his first tour here, he became engaged in a quarrel with the hot-headed Toots Mondt, one of the Curley partners. Mr. Moots Mondt, a former wrestler himself, is now a promoter on the Pacific Coast. During his angry conversation with Kalmikoff, ignorant of the fact that Curley had signed a contract to bring back the Cossack the following season, Mondt outlined succinctly what he considered to be Kalmikoff’s weaknesses as a wrestler and as an individual. The Cossack walked out in a fury. Forty-five minutes later he returned. He kicked open the door to Mondt’s office. Kalmikoff’s lace curtains were gone; that bountiful harvest of crisp black foliage had been denuded and there was only a powdered, shorn chin to show for years of careful culture. Kalmikoff enjoyed Mondt’s horrified glance a moment. Then he spoke.
“Ya-a-a-a-a-h,” he said derisively, and dashed for the boat for Europe.
Promoters have that kind of difficulty. Holuban, the man without a neck, was another problem child. He spoke no English and he was entrusted to the care of a Hungarian journalist, who brought him through the customs and established him in a boarding house. Curley had arranged, for seven o’clock the following evening, a dinner of welcome, one of those hands-across-the-seas affairs at which the Hungarian consul, newspapermen and as many celebrities as could be conveniently corralled were to be guests. Unknown to Curley, the Hungarian journalist went through Holuban’s wardrobe the day of the dinner and discovered that the wrestler had no dinner jacket. Indeed, he discovered that Holuban had only one suit to his name, a light-brown affair that seemed in doubtful taste. This dismayed the journalist; he told Holuban that the American custom demanded that, in the absence of dinner clothes, he must at least provide himself with a dark suit. This was an apparently insuperable difficulty. It was quite impossible to fit Holuban, who weighed several hundred pounds more than he had any right to, in a ready-made suit. The journalist finally hit upon a solution – the brown suit could be dyed. The dinner guests convened that evening at seven. At 7:30 Holuban had not yet arrived. At 8:15 Curley ordered the dinner served and sent couriers to find the guest of honor. They found him at his boarding house, shaved and pomaded – and in his underwear. His brown suit was still at the dyers; the color had been changed, but the garment stubbornly refused to dry.
One of the couriers rushed to the tailor shop, snatched the suit from the drying room, took out the dampness with a borrowed electric iron. Three hours later Holuban arrived at his dinner, conservatively clad in black.
Several elements have permitted wrestling to outstrip boxing as a money-making enterprise during the last few years. One is an epidemic of dull and pacific boxing matches. Another is the lower price scale for mat shows. Still another is the efficient way in which the wrestling industry has been organized. Roughly, the promoters divide the country into seven geographical sections – the areas of Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. In each of these cities there is a boss entrepreneur who owns a stable of wrestlers. These gentlemen finance and produce the shows in their own cities, but they also operate booking offices which provide talent for smaller towns and keep their athletes at work. The wrestling circuits, in fact, closely resemble vaudeville circuits, and they function much the same. The athletes who perform in Camden on Tuesday night play Trenton on Wednesday. Camden is capable of producing a $9000 house. Fifty per cent of that goes to the local promoter who rented the auditorium and stands the incidental expense. He pays $4500 to the booking office, which, in turn, rewards his talent.
The secret of the success of the circuits is that they do not permit the local impresario to lose money. A well-known promoter thus described the operations of his booking office to me: “Let’s say that a fellow comes in from Zenithville and tells me that he wants some talent for a show. Well, a thousand dollar house is about as small as you can fool with. I tell the fellow that my talent will cost $500. For that I send him a complete card. The boys split $400 between themselves and my office gets $100. The local promoter gets $500. His expenses are, say, $200. At that rate he can make $15,000 or $20,000 a year. Where else can he make it? And he takes no gamble. If the first show is a flop, we cut our price or give him the talent for only their railroad expenses. The talent is willing. That’s where wrestlers are wiser than fighters. They waive their purse when the promoter takes it on the chin. They lose money that night, but they’ve made a friend, who will book them again.”
Each promoter is encouraged to develop local talent. Often a popular following can be had for a muscular butcher, a home-town policeman for a tough guy from over the tracks. He meets one of the lesser members of the traveling troupe in a preliminary to the main event. He is quite likely to win. After a series of victories, he may even be matched in a main event, and then scheduled in nearby cities. If the home-town boy has real ability, he will get a job on the traveling circuit. That’s rather infrequent.
The Zenithvilles, theQuincys and Shamokins do not turn in million dollar gates, but they all add up. They add up to an approximate $5,000,000 a year. In the major cities alone the grosses total $1,500,000. Here they are, and very conservatively estimated: New York, $200,000; Chicago, $200,000; Boston, $400,000; Los Angeles, $400,000; St. Louis, $150,000; Philadelphia, $150,000. And these are only six cities. Big matches swell the totals. A few grosses over a period of years: In New York, Caddock-Stecher, $85,000; Londos-McMillen, $56,000; Londos-Garibaldi, $38,000; Londos-Stein, $44,000; Shikat-Holuban, $35,000; Londos-Holuban, $48,000; in Boston, Sonnenberg-Lewis, $75,000; Sonnenberg-Lewis, return engagement, $68,000; Sonnenberg-George, $62,000. In Los Angeles, a year or so ago, a Brooklyn boy named Frank Leavitt grossed $500,000 for the matches in which he was engaged. He had grown a beard after leaving Brooklyn, and was known on the Coast as Man Mountain Dean. Leavitt, who weighed about 300 pounds, bowled over opponents until Londos came out to meet him. Some 38,000 paid $38,000 to see the match. Leavitt lost. It is only fair to say that this was no surprise to the people who had known him before he grew the beard.
One of the regrettable things about the boxing profession is that many of the most promising candidates for laurels are detoured by adulation and the bright lights. This does not hold true in wrestling. A heavyweight boxing champion fights, at most, twice a year. A heavyweight wrestling champion – and only the heavyweights seem to have box-office value – is engaged at least once a week, and usually oftener.
Wrestlers don’t have time for the bright lights; they are always on the road. A few have been spoiled by public attention, but most of them are too busy saving money and working to bother about swank and effect. A boxer stays at a good hotel; a wrestler stays in a boarding house. This, perhaps, is the explanation of the statement of Jack Curley, forty years a promoter, that he had never been panhandled by any aging wrestler who was once in his employ. The career of a boxer is necessarily brief; few of them stay in the top flight after the age of thirty-two. Wrestlers go on forever. Londos was wrestling in 1915; he has not yet retired. Strangler Lewis defeated Doctor Roller in 1915, and he still is too much for the football talent. Stan Zbyszko is well past sixty and thinks he could scrimmage a little bit if the purse were large enough. The average wrestler of non-championship caliber makes $20 to $100 a night on the circuits and is engaged five nights a week. That, estimating the indoor season at 170 nights a year, is a very comfortable income. Especially, as one impresario remarked, when you think of what they would make as motormen.
Since wrestling is now an industry, it is probably futile to criticize its theatricals on the basis of sport or to debate about championships. There are no record books, as in boxing, to register the changes of title, and indeed for several years there were a number of simultaneous world champions. At the present time the major promoters are at peace and agreed upon a titleholder. This is an unusual situation and may be changed tomorrow. Since Gotch there has been no king of wrestling recognized by the true connoisseurs of the game. Caddock came nearest to their acclaim, but he only weighed at his weightiest some 168 pounds. There is a general agreement among the students of the game, however, that in a non-theatrical enterprise Caddock, Stecher, the Zbyszkos, and Lewis, in his prime, could have tossed fourteen football players, a boatload of Holubans, and at least two Jim Londoses in an hour’s interval. Possibly, George Bothner, lightweight champion from 1898 to 1917, and now a wrestling coach, could have thrown them all. An interesting fact in the consideration of Londos, champion in some circles from 1929 until a few months ago, is that he was thrown a dozen times by Lewis before he conquered the old Strangler before that record-breaking crowd in Chicago.
This, however, is all academic. Wrestling has been opened up and fouls outlawed. The crowd likes the slaughterhouse atmosphere and the cynics go for amusement. It isn’t wrestling and it isn’t fighting, but the mayhem and rowdiness provide a lot of fun. The crowds have action. During the late ‘20s and the early ‘30s your guess was as good as mine about the championship. Mr. Curley and Mr. Bowser, for example, had their own titleholders, and the titleholders never met. The whole affair, what with Lewis and Londos refusing to give up titles after defeat, and with Dick Shikat recognized by the athletic commission of one state, and Ed Don George or Jim Browning by another, became too difficult to follow through to any conclusion. At one time there were five world champions touring the country simultaneously. And when the warring promoters eventually made peace and the championship was located in one man, the enemies of wrestling said that competition had been stifled. They may, of course, have been right.
Danno O’Mahoney, a broth of a boy from the Free State, is now the champion of the world everywhere except in Colorado. There, by a ruling of the state commission, a certain Everett Marshall holds the title, and he was given a belt by the governor to prove it. O’Mahoney may, himself, have become champion by fortuitous choice. There is a story that Mr. Paul Bowser, of Boston, a heavily Irish town, sent scouts to Ireland to sign upl Doctor Callaghan, the Olympic weight thrower. Doctor Callaghan, a practicing physician, had no interest in championships or American gold. Gossip has it that the scouts wired back that although Doctor Callaghan was indifferent, they had seen a fine broth of a boy in the Irish National Army. “Sign him up,” Colonel Bowser is reported to have replied. O’Mahoney resigned from the army, emigrated and immediately began winning sensational victories in Boston. His favorite hold has been described by the press agents as the “Irish whip.” Since no one knows the peculiar magic of this hold, it is generally and probably safely assumed that it has the same authenticity as the other holds invented by press agents – the “Indian death grip,” the “airplane spin,” and half a dozen others. The fact is that there have been few holds invented in wrestling during the 5,000 known years of its history. On the temple tombs of Beni Hasan near the Nile are sculptured hundreds of scenes from wrestling matches, depicting practically all the known muscular hazards utilized today. So far as can be determined, the Irish whip, the airplane spin and many other publicized maneuvers are nothing else than the old-fashioned jugglings of balance and strength that were used when the Pyramids still were young.
Eventually, with promoters at peace, the Irish Mr. O’Mahoney managed to clear up disputes over title.
In Boston, he threw Ed Don George. He also threw Jim Londos, the only other major claimant of the championship. Since that time he has never met defeat, but there are reports that there will be another champion soon.
Every now and then, no matter how the question is dogged, the inquiry arises as to whether wrestling is on the square. This inquiry rarely takes into consideration the fact that wrestlers travel as troupes, one member grappling with his teammate every other night for title and honor. The New York Athletic Commission probably is the best guide in these matters. Under the New York rules, a wrestling engagement must always be advertised as a “wrestling exhibition,” and not as a “wrestling match.”
Well, that gives you a rough idea, and anyhow the industry doesn’t mind.