By Tim Hornbaker
When reviewing the World Heavyweight champion wrestlers of the 1930s, one name that definitely
doesn’t stand out is Jim Browning. It is a name that sorta fades into the background and is often
discounted as being a central player during an important transitional period for the sport. Little is
known about Browning in the mainstream, and until he is fully recognized for his amazing skill and
achievements, his dismissal will continue to be one of the biggest oversights in wrestling.
Most researchers have grown to understand Browning’s integral place in the saga of professional
wrestling. He is much more than a name on a championship history listing. In fact, the celebrated
Lou Thesz named him the number four wrestler of all-time in his autobiography, after Ed
“Strangler” Lewis, Joe Stecher, and Frank Gotch, only three of the biggest names that ever
participated in the business. That kind of endorsement is not an easy thing to achieve, and
Browning earned it in a number of ways. Thesz stated that he was a “legend in the gyms and
locker rooms,” and held the immense respect of the great “Strangler” Lewis. Through that, Thesz
had gained his high admiration.
It all comes down to the fact that Browning was respected for being a true shooter, a man capable
of wrestling legitimately against anyone in the world. Standing more than 6’2” and weighing
upwards of 225 pounds, Jim was a massive figure, and to have the knowledge, strength, stamina,
and resilience to rise above his peers, he proved to be a phenomenon on all accounts. That is –
among those in the wrestling industry and the fans he entertained. Today, he is just another
James Orville Browning was the second child born to James Madison (1864-1917) and Anna
Letterman Browning (1880-1947) on March 31, 1903 in Lawrence County, Missouri. Despite the
press reports that claimed that he was a well educated man from Verona High and Drury College,
his mother told the United Press in 1933 that her son left school at age 12 and was employed
shortly after his father died of pneumonia in January 1917. In fact, Jim was the oldest son with
three younger sisters, and one brother who was born shortly after his father died. He was relied
upon to make ends meat, and Jim rose to the occasion, stepping out of his childhood to become a
carpenter, and labored on the Frisco Railroad.
In 1933, Verona barber Jacob Hiebert, known as “Old Jake,” told United Press Staff
Correspondent Tom Mahoney that he was Browning’s first wrestling manager. He explained that
Jim “worked on the farm, too, during harvest time. But all the time he was making muscles,
training before and after doing a hard day’s work. At the age of 16, Jim went into the ring as
‘Young Stecher.’ His first matches were with carnival wrestlers. He would get $5 or $10 which
seemed like a small fortune. All the time he continued training. He squeezed heavy box springs
attached to some pine boards. He developed a scissor hold, his airplane spin, he defeated
Strangler Lewis in New York recently. When Jim was only 17, he wrestled Sailor Jack Rollin, Chet
Sailer and Jack Lewis.”
Around 1920, Jim followed up on an opportunity to go to Augusta, Kansas with his uncle to work
on an oil field, hoping to make some serious money. While there, as fate would have it, he
encountered a part-time wrestler and promoter named Leo Dysart, who was billed as the
“champion of the South” in Kansas City publicity pieces. Dysart trained Browning for a short time,
helping his proficiency and confidence as he continued to pursue the craft. There was another
man who was also given credit for discovering Browning. He was Oscar “Hoss” Kimmons (1885-
1938) of Lawrenceburg, Missouri.
It is clear that while both Dysart and Kimmons likely had an influence on the early career of Jim
Browning, the former farmer’s size and ability successfully carried him through many small towns
and carnival appearances, landing him in the wrestling-friendly town of Wichita. Veteran promoter
Tom Law took an immediate liking to Browning, and watched him blossom further under his watch.
By 1925, Browning had made his mark in Wichita that was going to carry him from coast-to-coast.
Through his willingness to stand up to any of his more established ring rivals on the mat and off,
he was earning a fierce reputation that quickly bounded from one end of the spectrum to the
other. It reached important people in major cities like Atlanta, Memphis, and Los Angeles, who
would pay handsomely for a wrestler of his stature. That meant that Jim could leave the Central
States behind and still ably cover the bills for his family, which was, after all, the most important
thing. The pressure of barely scraping by dwindled as his pay increased along the wrestling
circuit. He left a resounding impression in matches, albeit losses or draws, against the likes of
Joe Stecher, Ray Steele, Jim Londos, Dick Daviscourt, John Pesek, and Paul Jones.
Having impressed Al Haft in Columbus, Browning went to Boston in early February 1928 for Haft’s
longtime friend Paul Bowser. Within a month, Jim was a headliner at the Grand Opera House.
Browning was also working main events on the West Coast for Lou Daro at the Olympic
Auditorium, battling Londos, Nick Lutze, and Tom Draak. Although he was a solid performer on
the mat, he was unproven as a draw, and his ability to lure audiences on name recognition alone
was still to be negotiated.
In 1929, Jim went to Australia and wrestled throughout the year against high-class opponents.
The caliber of the wrestlers in the South Pacific during this time-frame can be judged by the
manifest list of the S.S. Aorangi, which sailed from Sydney on November 14, 1929. Besides
Browning, there was John Pesek, Clarence Eklund, and Joseph Zigmund, each reputable
wrestlers with impressive knowledge of shooting. Jim trained extensively with this group and
others like Alan Eustace and Walter Miller, not only in Australia, but on the Aorangi during the 21
day journey to the Port of Vancouver. Needless to say, Browning’s skills and mindset for
professional wrestling were honed and the company he kept only served to elevate his overall
Browning and Pesek traveled to Columbus again in January 1930 and Jim worked with another
top-notch grappler in Fred “Legs” Grobmier. For almost a year and a half, he was booked out of
the Haft headquarters to points throughout Ohio and West Virginia. In May 1931, he returned to
Boston and New York City, but was still not an overwhelming success as a stand-alone entity. He
won a majority of his matches on the Bowser-circuit, however, losing to champion Henri DeGlane
and Nick Lutze, but beating Joe Malcewicz, Lee Wykoff, and Marvin Westenberg. The regular
spots in the New York area indoctrinated local enthusiasts to his style of grapping, and the
Bowser influx into the territory was making a dent in the Curley Empire, especially after Jim
Londos walked out on the latter syndicate.
David F. Egan wrote in the February 3, 1932 edition of the Boston Globe that “Browning has all
the trappings of a coming champion. He is a huge, well-built athlete, perhaps the most powerful in
the rings today. Certainly he has the greatest pair of legs since Joe Stecher made the body
scissors a dreadful weapon. Browning has added a curleycue to the Stecher scissors – a
turnover and slam- that makes his weapon one of the most punishing in the game.”
For months and months, Browning was unable to secure a win over Bowser’s top men, and that
included DeGlane and Gus Sonnenberg. During the push of Lutze in summer of 1932, Jim was
once again ushered into the middle of the pack. Around that same time, Bowser ended his
hostilities with Curley, creating an even larger group of talent that could easily conceal Browning’s
potential. It appeared that was the case when he worked a preliminary contest on the October
10, 1932 spectacle at Madison Square Garden, with Ed “Strangler” Lewis going over Jack Sherry
for the New York “World” championship in the main event.
The expanded Bowser circuit allowed Browning to maintain his headliner position in secondary
towns like Albany, New Haven, Hartford, Lowell, Holyoke, Lewiston, and Lynn. But he was still
under DeGlane, Lutze, Sonnenberg, and Ed Don George, and his place in the pecking order was
clearly established. That was a steady push began during the winter of 1932. On January 9,
1933, he got perhaps the biggest win of his career, to date, when he went over George in Buffalo.
At this point, a special distinction should be made regarding the state of professional wrestling in
the northeast. There were basically two champions fielded by promoters Bowser and Curley.
The former had his “AWA” heavyweight titleholder in the New England and other territories, while
Curley was responsible for the champion supported by the New York State Athletic Commission.
The two wrestling leaders held a a certain amount of interest in both, and their priorities were
fused to earn as much income as possible. Bowser, to a degree, held more power because of the
range of his wrestling syndicate, but Curley was no slouch. He was the kingpin in New York City,
which was the sport’s biggest stage.
With the two champions came a pair of different, and unique, sets of challengers and feuds that
had to be manipulated with care in their respective areas. Browning was quickly rising up the
ladder on the “New York” side of the fence, getting a shot at champion “Strangler” Lewis at
Madison Square Garden on January 23, 1933. Their bout drew 7,000, and Jim was defeated in
34:52. Despite Browning’s loss, he was involved in a great deal of political wrangling behind-the-
scenes at this point to surely surprise the wrestling audience in the weeks to come.
Curley scheduled another important Garden show for February 20, 1933, and Browning was
given a rematch against the “Strangler.” In the February 19 edition of the New York American,
Sid Mercer wrote “Jack Curley predicts that [Jim] Browning is destined to win the [world
heavyweight] title some day though it may not be until Lewis passes from the picture. Browning is
the most popular wrestler who has appeared here in many a day. His “method [for the airplane
scissors] is to get the leg hold around the body and by sheer strength, he then lifts his man and
rolls, the victim dangling helplessly and being unable to break the force of violent slams to the
floor. For a time, Gus Sonnenberg, who once defeated Lewis for the title, was considered as the
Strangler’s next opponent in the Garden, but a poll of his patrons convinced Curley they
preferred to see Browning get another chance.”
The stars were aligned and wrestling’s underdog was going into what would really be the most
important match of his career. That Monday, February 20, he toppled Lewis for the World
Heavyweight championship in 57:50 after applying his airplane scissor hold. Lewis Burton stated
in the New York American that Lewis “went out proudly, though reminded of his unpopularity,” and
“the change is expected to improve the local state of wrestling.” Burton also wrote that Lewis was
“tubby” and had “obese shoulders.” The 7,000 fans in attendance cheered Browning’s win, and
many hoped, as Burton predicted, that the wrestling scene in New York rose several notches.
Browning, and his backers, wanted the same thing.
No longer rated a secondary heavyweight, Browning was a genuine champion in the “Empire
State.” He had an important task of restoring a level of quality that seemed to disappear when Jim
Londos abandoned the big-time centers of New York City. Although Ed Lewis’s title reign had its
moments, he failed to reinvigorate the populace in the face of declining numbers, leaving the
Curley-Bowser faction in search of someone who could spike attendance. The fear of a double-
cross also remained, and deleting that possibility from the deck of cards was something the
syndicate managers prepared for when they gave Browning the ball to run with. Very few men
could successfully cross him in the ring.
The X-factor remained because no one could predict how Browning would fare at the box office.
While he was established as a headliner in various New York arenas for several years, he hadn’t
been a wrestler that fans consistently saw go over the true top stars. In fact, the singular victories
over Ed Don George and Ed Lewis were isolated for the most part since joining the Bowser
troupe. That’s how the shot-callers wanted it, apparently, but in the flicker of the eye, these same
men decided to give “Gentleman” Jim a run with the heavyweight crown. Jim Browning was relied
on to accomplish a task that probably no one outside of Londos himself could do – and that was
restoring wrestling’s credibility in New York City.
Curley knew it. He understood the star power of Londos in the “Big Apple,” and made the
stressful decision, along with Bowser, that he was optimistic would work on some level. The initial
returns came in, and they were positive.
Eight nights after his victory over the “Strangler,” Browning lured a record 14,000 fans to the New
York Coliseum in the Bronx for a title match against Mike Mazurki. Was this a worked number,
drummed up by Curley’s press agent, to indicate a changing times? Or was Browning the new
superstar his handlers hoped he’d be? Maybe it was a mix of both. Even if the Coliseum held
half the fans the newspaper reported, it was equal to what they had on February 20 at the
Garden. The next evening at the Ridgewood Grove in Brooklyn, Jim drew another packed house,
and beat former trustbuster Marin Plestina in less than 25-minutes.
The recharged Curley claimed his March 6, 1933 effort at the Garden was the greatest bill he’d
ever put together, with Browning and Sammy Stein in the main event. Lewis Burton in the
American wrote that more people were interested in the semi-final bout between Ed Lewis and
Dick Shikat than the championship bout. The latter due drew in an hour and five minutes, while
Browning defeated Stein in 46:48 before 9,000 fans. Browning was reportedly recognized as
titleholder in New York, Illinois, California, Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont,
Massachusetts, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Arizona, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Virginia, Florida,
Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Cuba.
At that same time, Londos was in town wrestling at his syndicate’s clubs. Curley saw the
opportunity to throw out a $5,000 forfeit to secure a match between Londos and the winner of his
upcoming Browning-Lewis affair at the Garden. He wanted to make the Greek athlete appear
weak by running out on a potential big-money contest to straighten out the heavyweight division.
Then, he got his friends in the New York American to bill Londos as the “former world’s
heavyweight champion.” Curley’s slick maneuvering was tough to beat, but Londos was still the
According to the storyline, Browning had to be persuaded to wrestle Lewis again by Curley, and
was content with his singular victory. Lewis went into hard training at Bothner’s gymnasium and
an advertisement in the American stated that this was the “most important return match in
wrestling since the second Frank Gotch-George Hackenschmidt battle back in 1911.” An
audience of 12,000 were drawn into the hype, and saw, after nearly an hour of wrestling,
Browning win with his turnover “pinwheel” leg scissors. It was obvious that with the right kind of
challenger and marketing, Browning was selling as a major headliner.
But how would he fair in the long run? In the following months, thousands witnessed their local
champion beat Sam Cordovano, Rudy Dusek, Nick Lutze, and Sammy Stein before Curley set-up
the next big event, again – the biggest show of his career – on June 12, 1933 at Yankee
Stadium. Browning was going to tackle the rising star, Joe Savoldi, who only two months earlier
got a sneaky win over Londos in Chicago, in a benefit for the Free Milk Fund. A mammoth
turnout was expected, but when bad weather crossed the ball field, and rain toppled to the mat,
the 6-7,000 fans in attendance scurried for cover. The disappointed promoter, Curley, watched
as Browning lifted Savoldi’s title after 1-hour, 58-minutes of grappling, taking the bout by
decision. The audience booed when Browning was named the winner, thinking that the two men
were evenly matched – and it should have been a draw.
In Los Angeles, Browning had two important victories over Sonnenberg and Charley Santen at the
Olympic Auditorium prior to his August 28, 1933 appearance at Wrigley Field against Sammy
Stein. In three-falls, he retained his championship before 14,000 fans, and promoter Lou Daro
claimed that another 10,000 purchased tickets, but “failed to show up.”
Browning demonstrated that he was able to pivot from popular hero to heel depending on the
night’s task. During a match against Bob Kruse in Colorado Springs on September 4, 1933, he
was consistently booed “as he scrambled for the ropes…to escape punishing toe holds.” He was
establishing himself as a terrific performer, and would pull out of a tough beating to rebound and
score the win in dramatic fashion. Any belief that he was a stoic and completely unentertaining
grappler was incorrect.
The rematch between the New York champion and Savoldi was booked for October 2, 1933 at
Madison Square Garden, and Curley’s predictions were more accurate this time around. Of
course, weather could not be blamed this time around if sales were dismal. 10,000 fans saw
Browning pin Savoldi in 36:59 after the ex-footballer knocked himself out following a dropkick.
Later in the month, the same sized audience witnessed his win over Sandor Szabo in 50:56.
November was a memorable month for professional wrestling, and the formation of the “Trust”
ended the hostilities amongst the syndicates. This not only gave Browning an exciting list of new
challengers, but could potentially lead toward unifying the different strands of the championship.
Behind-the-scenes, there was already political maneuvering going on, and preliminary talk of a
series bringing the titleholders together. Curley was going to, possibly, still get Browning and
Londos into the ring together.
27,000 fans, in total, saw the three programs at the Garden between November 20 and the end of
1933, and Browning went over Sonnenberg and Stein. The third bout was a curfew draw with
AWA World Heavyweight Champion Ed Don George after 1-hour and 40-minutes. The gate for
the latter bout was $16,651. The Savoldi feud carried into other territories, and hours after a
successful house in Toronto in which 11,000 turned out to see Browning and his athletic
opponent go 60-minutes to a draw, Jim’s trustworthy manager Frank Smith suddenly died. Smith
was squaring away the monetary figures with officials in the wrestling office when the 53 year old
suffered a heart attack. The loss of his traveling partner and friend was immense, and Jim
accompanied the body to Chicago for burial.
On January 8, 1934, Browning met the former Londos-policeman, Ray Steele at the Garden, and
won in 1-hour, 4-minutes before another 8,000 fans. This one was a big marker for fans, who
were not privy to the fact that the “Trust” had erased boundaries, that wrestlers were going into
the camps of rivals, and wrestling possible shoot matches. Steele was known for this type of
thing, wrestling “Strangler” Lewis in December 1932 in what was known as a shoot bout between
adversaries. Fans were now getting the matches that once seemed improbable because of the
different factions, and it really didn’t matter how it came about – just that it had come about. The
industry was rebounding.
With victories over Dick Shikat, Paul Jones, George Zaharias, Rudy Dusek, Gino Garibaldi, Hans
Kampfer, Earl McCready, Jim McMillen, Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Joe Stecher under his belt, and
recognition as titleholder in more than 20 states, Browning was named the top wrestler by Ring
Magazine, over both Londos and George. Curley also came out with a skewed rating’s list from
his camp, putting Browning number one, and dropping Londos to number six.
By the Spring of 1934, things took an apparent turn when only 3,000 enthusiasts appeared to see
Browning defend his championship against Steele at the Garden on April 30, 1934. The New
York Times stated that Steele gave Browning a run for his money, but the bigger champion edged
out a win at the 36:22 mark, using an arm and body hold to score the pin. Were fans burnt out on
the turnover leg scissors king and ready for the match of the year?
Curley knew he had to strike while the iron was hot, and not let things diminish too far before
pulling out his major moneymaker. On May 31, 1934, he had the distinct honor of announcing
that he’d signed Londos to a contract to wrestle Browning for the heavyweight championship of
the world. The New York State Athletic Commission then gave Browning a deadline of June 6 to
sign, and he agreed to the terms. The bout was going to happen on June 25, 1934 at the
Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, New York. Curley firmly expected a gate more
than $75,000 paid by upwards for 30,000 people.
The amazing range of promotional outlets owned by Curley and Londos’s backers put their
wheels in motion, endlessly hyping the contest. Londos was considered the favorite, in some
respects, because of his experience, while Browning’s youth and strength was looked upon as a
great equalizer. Both title claims would be on the line, and the winner would leave the ring
recognized as titleholder in more than two-thirds of the United States. Insiders already knew what
was going to happen, and believed as Curley did, that with the colorful “Golden Greek” as the
unified champion, the wrestling world would be electrified.
20,000 fans paid their way into the Garden Bowl on June 25, sending about $40,000 into the till,
and watched Londos triumph over his ring rival in what the New York Times called a “thrilling
bout.” After leading the match most of the way, Browning the recipient of a series of body slams,
suffering a back injury, and was then pinned after 1-hour, 10-minutes. The Browning era ended.
Shortly after the loss, Jim ventured to Southern California, where he obtained “Toots” Mondt as
his manager, and went over both George Zaharias and Ray Steele before working into a rematch
with Londos at the Olympic Auditorium on August 22, 1934. Their three-fall contest went more
than an hour, and Londos retained his championship. From there, Browning built an impressive
record. He took wins from Hans Steinke, Sandor Szabo, Ernie Dusek, Rudy Dusek, and Joe
Savoldi, but lost a number of times to Londos and Ed Don George.
By the end of 1934, he was suffering dearly from an eye disease, trachoma, which he had
contracted during one of his earliest Pacific Coast tours. The disease was commonly passed
from athlete-to-athlete, and competing on dirty mats was a contributing factor. Experiencing the
full range of effects, Browning was forced to scale back his wrestling schedule, and throughout
1935, exhibited his willingness to put others over. He was not compelled by ego to keep himself in
the limelight, and lost matches to Ernie Dusek, Man Mountain Dean, Chief Little Wolf, Dean
Detton, Vincent Lopez, and Danno O’Mahoney. Being a former champion with name recognition,
Browning suffering a loss to any of the latter grouping was considered big in the mind of the
wrestling public, and helped many promoters.
Browning quietly retired from professional wrestling in February 1936. Still haunted by the curse
of trachoma, he was admitted to Freeman Hospital in Joplin on May 9 for an “ulcerated stomach”
and a “liver ailment.” He lost about 70 pounds, and on June 6, was taken by ambulance to the
Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota for surgery.
Within days, he was recuperating, but still not completely out of the water. His wife Mary Lovaun
returned to their Southwestern Missouri home believing that Jim was on the right track. She
reportedly went into a Western Union office to send him a telegram when she was given one
herself. The news stated that Jim Browning passed away during the afternoon of June 19 from a
pulmonary embolism. He was 33 years of age.
On Monday, June 22, 1936, Browning was laid to rest at the Spring Valley Cemetery at Verona,
Missouri, and members of the local Masonic Lodge were pallbearers. More than 500 people
packed the Verona Presbyterian Church for the services, paying their respects to their most
An extraordinary talent, Browning wasn’t an egomaniac or a manipulator striving for points behind-
the-scenes, and maybe that’s another reason why his story has been overlooked for so long.
Perhaps it is the fact that he died so young, while wrestlers like Londos and Lewis wrestled into
their 50s. Another main factor is that compared to some of the other top heavyweights like
Londos or Savoldi, Browning was not an overly boisterous individual. He was low-key and allowed
his abilities as a well-rounded performer to speak for themselves. It was enough to carry him to
the top of the throne, and earn the utter respect of his peers.
Browning’s development from a small-town light heavyweight to a national headliner was
remarkable. He grew into his position and worked hard in gymnasiums to sharpen his tactics,
both on the offensive and defensive side of wrestling. As champion in New York City, Browning
carried the mantle as the sport evolved from chaos and battles, to a period of harmony. The
alliance of promoters in November 1933 eliminated the different factions, and Jim stood on the top
of one plateau – prepared to wrestle a host of newcomers who formerly stood on opposite sides
of the barrier. Curley couldn’t have a better man in that position, one who could protect his
interests if a rogue grappler tried to pull a double-cross.
“Gentleman” Jim was a family man, and took care of his mother and siblings for years. His famous
turnover leg scissors, which had been developed on the family farm, was introduced to the
industry’s lexicon, and many of his wins were obtained by that maneuver. Despite his shortened
career, his impact on the business was memorable, and achievements great. When he passed
away, the wrestling world lost a true hero of the mat, one who had the potential to continue his
influence on the sport, either by wrestling or coaching others. As far as I’m concerned, his legacy
is as strong today as it was on February 20, 1933, when he knocked off Ed “Strangler” Lewis and
became the heavyweight champion of the world. I have great optimism that in time, others will
learn to respect this legend of the mat.
1. Browning’s hometown of Verona had a population of 400, reportedly, during his childhood.
2. Some years after the death of her husband, Jim’s mother Anna remarried William Henry
Batesel. She died on October 7, 1947.
3. Jim married Mary Lovaun Edwards on October 6, 1924 in Verona, Missouri. She was known
4. Jim and Mary Lovaun had their first child, Billy Bruce Browning on February 6, 1927. Billy
passed away on July 7, 1927 and was buried at Spring River Cemetery.
5. Jim and Mary Lovaun had their second child, James O. Browning Jr. on February 20, 1935 in
New York City. James Jr. went on to become a computer consultant.
6. Jim reportedly stood 6’ and weighed 170 pounds by 13 years of age.
7. “Old Jake,” Jacob Hiebert, Browning’s first manager, died in October 1973 at Verona, MO.
8. Jim’s brother Joseph Raymond Browning once told a UP correspondent that he wanted to be a
professional wrestler as well, served in the Navy during the 1930s.
9. The crowd size for the infamous rain-soaked match at Yankee Stadium in June 1933 has been
reported as high as 9,000. Most say between 6-7,000 fans.
10. Browning didn’t live extravagantly, instead invested his money into farms and land in
Southwestern Missouri. He was said to have lived 12 miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri from
11. Jim trained Detroit wrestler Bert Rubi, who also used a turnover scissors leghold.
12. Promoters bolstered Browning’s amateur credentials by saying that he was a wrestler in high
school and college, which was important in certain areas of the country. These statements were
13. In the June 1934 match with Londos, Browning portrayed the villain, giving Londos the
underdog status as the popular Greek fought a giant. Browning dominated the bout, then Londos
turned the tables, building toward a climactic win.
|The Unknown Heavyweight Champion of the World - The Turnover
Scissors King – Jim Browning
Legends of Pro Wrestling