By Tim Hornbaker
“Dynamite” Gus Sonnenberg is fondly remembered as the man who revitalized
professional wrestling with colorful maneuvers and impressive ring speed. He was an All-
American football player and an NFL star in Providence when he broke into the business in
1928. At that time, he could’ve tried to play it straight and worked the same, tired system of
excessive stalling and immobilizing holds that did nothing for audiences but waste time.
Instead, he exploded on the ring like a bomb, racing from one corner the next, and
aggressively pummeling his foes with an enthusiasm never before seen.
Sonnenberg then demonstrated one of his greatest gifts to the sport, and of course to the
fans who loved it, the legendary flying tackle – a move he flawlessly performed by launching
himself forward into the stomach or chest of his rivals. It was the most exciting maneuver
spectators had ever seen in pro wrestling, and it forever changed the mindset of promoters in
the way they booked matches. It was the launching pad for all in-ring changes, and boosted
wrestling’s popularity into the stratosphere when the sport really needed it.
Offering a little background, professional wrestling was in tough shape going into the latter
part of the 1920s. For years, the sport had been consumed by painful promotional
differences, accusations of crookedness, and a souring of the overall product. In many
cities, there were temporary glimpses of a rebound with improved crowd numbers, but it wasn’
t sustained, and it seemed that one more major public controversy was going to sink the ship
entirely. Mainstream sportswriters littered their columns with cynical commentary and the
underhanded statements were an absolute detriment to wrestling’s popularity.
Promoters were dealing with the backlash and did everything in their power to portray
wrestling as a genuine form of athletic competition, essentially working to keep the belief that
matches were legitimate. But the public consciousness was already in transition from the
conviction that pro wrestling was on the level to the acceptance that it was just another form
of performance. Even the most talented wrestling orators couldn’t halt the shift, but as time
went by, there was a fine balance between the comments of wrestlers and promoters in
newspapers who proclaimed wrestling’s authenticity, the skeptical columnists, and the
general public, many of whom were able to suspend their disbelief for the sake of athletic
Wrestling was still a draw. There were unique personalities, talented sportsmen, and a
growing sense of drama between a heroic wrestler and a villain. This basic blueprint of good
versus evil played out in every area of life, and it was just a matter of time before promoters
realized that it sold well in their arena as well. The concept was strengthened in the 1920s as
“Strangler” Lewis portrayed the dominant heavyweight champion with the crushing headlock
stranglehold. He would bulldoze from town-to-town, putting foes out with his finisher, and
garnering the reputation as an unsportsmanlike competitor. Audiences quickly turned
against him, and yearned to see him defeated.
From 1922 to ’25, Lewis reigned supreme as the heavyweight kingpin, ruling a specifically
designed circuit that was tailored to best benefit his finances. With his manager Billy
Sandow, he concentrated on cities like Tulsa, Kansas City, and Chicago, and with affiliated
promoters handling things locally, challengers were manufactured through a series of
elimination matches. The system of building up competition prior to Lewis’s arrival did
wonders for the box office, and in every title match, a unique story was being played out,
especially if fans were behind the underdog challenger. The Lewis circuit was a tight-knit
operation that wasn’t exactly welcoming to every promoter in the nation. In fact, some major
league wrestling impresarios were completely shunned, including the influential Jack Curley in
New York City.
Lewis and Sandow came up with a brilliant idea. They were facing the potential of burning
their cities out with an oversaturation of the “Strangler” as titleholder, and felt that a
newcomer would help spike attendance. Their hand-picked choice was football player,
Wayne Munn, a 6’6”, 260-pound athlete with amazing brute strength. Munn was initially
scouted as a boxer, but possessed a glass jaw. His incredible size made him a natural
behemoth of the wrestling mat and his football-like methods were expected to break the
monotony of catch-as-catch-can grappling. Lewis and Sandow couldn’t fathom anything less
Munn, in January 1925, upset Lewis for the World championship in Kansas City, and, as
expected, lit a fuse that sparked interest in wrestling. He was impressively strong, but his size
limited his fluid movement in the ring. Another critical factor was his inexperience. Munn
trained with Lewis, Joe “Toots” Mondt, and others, but still lacked the practical knowledge that
was needed to protect himself during matches. Lewis and Sandow safeguarded their
valuable championship by only booking Munn against guys they trusted, but Stanislaus
Zbyszko turned the tables on Munn in Philadelphia on April 15, 1925, and double-crossed
him out of the title. The football experiment in professional wrestling ended on a terrible note
and the sport, because of the double-cross and controversy, was worse off than it had been
before Munn arrived on the scene.
Over the next couple years, Zbyszko lost his title to Joe Stecher, who, in 1928, dropped the
championship back to Ed Lewis in St. Louis. For former wrestler turned promoter Paul
Bowser of Boston, this was a pivotal time of soul searching. Cunning to the core, Bowser
watched the Lewis-Stecher-Curley developments from the sidelines, regulated to the
backseat of wrestling’s powerbrokers. Needless to say, he was far from satisfied with his role,
and envisioned gripping the sport by the neck and dictating its future course. His innovative
concepts and original booking style made his dream a possible reality, and Bowser wasn’t the
type of man to sit back and boast. He was a promoter who took action to get what he wanted.
Interestingly, Bowser’s ticket to the top came to him instead of vice-versa. Gustave Adolph
Sonnenberg was born on March 6, 1898 in Ewen, Michigan, part of the Upper Peninsula, and
was the third child of Fred and Caroline Sonnenberg, German settlers in the region. His
family owned a farm near Green Garden, but by 1910, had relocated to Marquette on Lake
Superior. At the time, Gus was the oldest son of four, and a spirited young athlete. He
excelled in basketball and football at Marquette High School, then joined Dartmouth College,
in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1916. Sonnenberg was a member of the freshman football
squad, but his heart was back in Michigan. Instead of returning to New England, he remained
home for the 1917 and 1918 school years at Northern State Normal (Northern State
Teachers College) in Marquette.
Although the Upper Peninsula football schedule was limited, with its biggest games against
Ironwood and Calumet, Sonnenberg distinguished himself on the field. He briefly worked as a
teacher in Escanaba, and returned to Dartmouth in 1919, where he displayed his maturity
and finely tuned athleticism. As a tackle and place kicker, he nearly achieved All-American
honors, but didn’t win the award until November 1920, when he was named to the First
Team. Determined to get his education, he worked long hours to pay his tuition, including
scrubbing floors and other physical labor. An opportunity presented itself that allowed him to
teach while still attending school, he transferred to the University of Detroit, where he
continued to play football, and finished his schooling in 1923 with a degree in law.
Standing only 5’7 ½”, Sonnenberg’s intellect helped him measurably on the field, and he
was the kind of guy others looked up to and expected to lead. Interested in continuing his
sports career, he joined the Columbus Tigers of the National Football League in 1923, the
Detroit Panthers in 1925, and finally, the Providence Steam Rollers in 1927. He also played
a season in the Pennsylvania mining league, for the Pottsville Maroons (1924). Sonnenberg
was coached by Jimmy Conzelman in both Detroit and Providence, and the latter squad won
the NFL World championship in 1928 with an 8-1 record. During his first year with
Providence, he became close friends with a former amateur champion of note, John Spellman
of Connecticut, and Spellman was responsible for not only peaking Sonnenberg’s interest but
introducing him to Bowser.
If one wanted to increase their knowledge of wrestling, Spellman was an incredible mentor.
In fact, he won gold at the 1924 Olympics in freestyle wrestling, and had been a professional
for several years, working throughout the New England states on the Bowser circuit.
Spellman taught Sonnenberg the rudiments of pro wrestling and despite the grueling training,
Gus was far from discouraged. He was eager to meet Bowser and figure out a way to
supplement his income by wrestling during the off season. Upon meeting Sonnenberg,
Bowser quickly devised a larger scale plan for the wrestler, and it was a scheme that would
change both of their lives.
Based on his football credentials, Sonnenberg was already popular throughout the
northeast. A well executed push would catapult him right to the top, Bowser presumed, and
Sonnenberg made his wrestling debut on January 24, 1928 in Providence with a victory over
Ivan Ludlow in 1-minute and 30-seconds. It became apparent right away that he was
something special. There were signs of Spellman’s teachings, the basics of catch wrestling,
plus submission holds, but there was a little more uniqueness to his style. Sonnenberg
brought a new, inventive wrestling finisher to the sport: The flying tackle. Standing across
the ring from an opponent, he rushed forward, propelling himself in a spear-like fashion,
tackling the rival with all of his speed and strength. It was devastating and flatly transformed
the entire sport.
Sonnenberg mixed in other football maneuvers, and was adept to legitimate, scientific
wrestling holds like the wrist lock and scissors, but the flying tackle was his major selling
point. Fans loved it through and through. The Boston Herald, on June 14, 1928, confirmed
his achievement, stating that he’d “revolutionized the wrestling game here.” His influence didn’
t remain local for long, as professional wrestlers across the nation heard about his success
and mimicked him by implementing flying tackles of their own. The public almost demanded it
from all grapplers because of the excitement it carried with it. One wrong move and the flying
tackle could send the wrestler from the ring – almost guaranteeing injury. But when
Sonnenberg executed the maneuver perfectly, it was brutally crushing, and fans cheered
their new hero as loud as they could.
After his pro debut, he scored win after win, and was victorious in his first six matches in
under a combined 18-minutes. He also defeated the likes of Harry Coleman, George Walker,
Fred Bruno, Jack Ganson, and John Freberg. He quickly was headlining all over New
England to include Boston’s Grand Opera House and Bowser’s main venue, the Boston
Arena. On May 10, 1928, he came face-to-face with the football player who predated him
and rose to the world’s championship, Wayne Munn. It was a match between a “Goliath”-type
grappler on the downside of his run, and “David,” who was reaching for the stars, and just
about to reach the top. Sonnenberg was Munn’s master that night at the Arena, winning the
first fall in 1-minute, 19-seconds, and the second in exactly 25 seconds. The match was over
in less than two-minutes, and Sonnenberg cemented his place among the heavyweight elite.
David F. Egan of the Boston Globe (5/11/28) affirmed the elevation of Sonnenberg, writing
that his match versus Munn was "one of the most amazing matches in the modern history of
wrestling," and Sonnenberg's "cyclonic victory over the former champion of the world
elevates him overnight to a place among the leaders in the wrestling sport." And his win made
him a "dangerous contender for championship honors."
After 39-straight wins, and a victory over Charles Hansen that earned him the bout,
Sonnenberg received a title shot against Ed “Strangler” Lewis at the Boston Arena on June
29, 1928. Earlier in the month, Lewis was quoted in the Portland Oregonian (6/7/28) as
saying: “Then there is Gus Sonnenberg of Dartmouth. I wrestle him in Boston June 29, and
fully expect that it will be to a $75,000 house. Sonnenberg is 29 years old and the figure ‘9’
also enters into his career in another respect – he has won his last 39 matches (sic) (he hadn’
t yet won that many at the time of this interview), every one of them sensationally, every one
within 10 minutes. That is phenomenal. He rushes in and by his great speed and strength,
overwhelms his opponents. Sonnenberg is a most dangerous opponent.”
Ironically, Stanislaus Zbyszko, on June 20, 1928, told an audience at Boston’s Mechanic’s
Building that he could beat Sonnenberg twice in an hour, and was willing to put $5,000 up as
a forfeit. Zbyszko, the man who put Munn out of his misery, was the last man Bowser wanted
to wrestle his undefeated prodigy.
The Lewis match received lots of press, and Sonnenberg was the underdog going into the
affair with little to lose, and everything to gain. He had only been wrestling professionally for
six months, and gave away height and nearly 25 pounds to the champion. Two days before
the match, he appeared on the radio with Richard D. Grant of WBET and his likeable
personality added another dimension to his public persona. An estimated 13,000 fans
packed the Arena on June 29 and cheered him along, and the roof nearly came off the place
when Sonnenberg won the initial fall in 37:30. During the second, he missed his famed flying
tackle, sailed from the ring, and was unable to continue. Lewis won the bout and retained his
crown, while Sonnenberg was taken to Trumbull Hospital in Brookline for medical evaluation.
He reportedly sustained a cracked vertebrae and concussion in the fall.
Egan, at the Globe, who was well known for talking up Sonnenberg and Bowser's
operations, wrote that Sonnenberg displayed the "finest bit of offensive" wrestling a Boston
mat had seen in years, and that it appeared throughout the opening stanza that Gus was
on his way to capturing the title. Egan expressed that if anything, Sonnenberg achieved a
"moral victory" over Lewis, and was destined to eventually win the heavyweight
championship. Sonnenberg was defeated, not because of Lewis's superior grappling, but
because of an error in his flying tackle calculations. His momentum was still strong, and
national reports of his daring challenge of Lewis increased his notoriety.
The layoff from wrestling was timed perfectly for his return to the Providence Steam Rollers
football team in September 1928 and to play out the season. Bowser, in the meantime, went
to work concocting a massive plan that would have far reaching implications. In conference
with Lewis and manager Sandow, Bowser made an offer to purchase the world heavyweight
title for an enormous amount of money. Marcus Griffin, in his 1937 book Fall Guys: The
Barnums of Bounce, believed it was as much as $70,000, and the contract included a
stipulation that when Sonnenberg was ready to lose the championship, he’d drop it back to
Lewis. Considering the collective egos of Lewis and Sandow, who coveted the top prize,
such a condition was not surprising. They were basically loaning the title to Bowser in his
push of Sonnenberg, and expected to retain control of the championship into the future.
In the moment, Bowser was fine with the prerequisite for the deal, and on December 18,
1928, the title match was announced for January 4 at the newly constructed Boston Garden.
The Boston Globe reported that Lewis was going to receive a guaranteed $50,000 for the
match and Sonnenberg, 12 ½ per cent of the gate receipts. Bowser predicted a $75,000
gate and felt that shifting the championship to his sensational star was going to be worth
many times that number once Sonnenberg was established nationally. Fans stood shoulder-
to-shoulder in the crowded Toland’s Gym to see both wrestlers work out, and Sonnenberg
trained with veteran Dan Koloff. At one point, the former Dartmouth athlete posed for a
photo opportunity with Lewis and boxer Jack Sharkey.
Battling off a cold, Sonnenberg was riding a high into the biggest match of his career, and,
of all the sporting events he’d taken part in since he was a teenager, this was by far the most
important. He was in condition for the January 4, 1929 bout and was cheered by the crowd
as he made his way to the ring. Lewis, on the contrary, was heavily booed by spectators, but
was considered the favorite to win based on his experience. Sonnenberg stuck to his game
plan during the first fall, remaining aggressive, and kept Lewis unhinged. Both wrestlers
relied on their preferred maneuvers, Sonnenberg the flying tackle and Lewis the headlock,
and it remained dramatically even for the most part until after the 30th minute when the
challenger unleashed his most potent tackle of the match. He landed successfully, then
pinned Lewis at the 30:46 mark.
The second fall lasted only 8:20 and ended with Lewis outside the ring ropes, and counted
out by Leon Burbank after Sonnenberg struck with several more powerful tackles. The
20,000 fans, who paid $70,000, erupted in shared glee, and watched their idol assume
control of the prestigious heavyweight championship belt. The Boston Herald, prior to the
bout, noted that if Sonnenberg won the title, he was going to be “the most popular champion
since Frank Gotch,” and it was certainly true. He’d come a long way in a year, a meteoric rise
from an up-and-coming rookie to establishing an in-ring standard for all his peers to follow. It
was an exciting time for professional wrestling, and with Sonnenberg at the top of the
business, all eyes were on him to see what he’d do next.
The lessons the entire wrestling world learned from Munn were certainly going to be
heeded by Bowser in the way he booked Sonnenberg, especially for the first few months.
There was too much money on the line to risk anything, and if that meant protecting him by
underhanded tricks, so be it. Sonnenberg was expected to come into his own, but wasn’t a
classically trained wrestler. He needed more time to develop. In the ring, before an
audience, he was a terrific performer, and with the right opponent, he made for great
entertainment. No one expected him to wrestle a catch-as-catch-can display of mastery
anytime soon. But that made it all too important that his in-ring rivals be carefully selected for
the time being.
As an added measure of security, Bowser’s own referee traveled with Sonnenberg at all
times, and worked the champion’s matches. That way, the official would be the last line of
defense against a double-cross, and protect the costly championship from rogue grapplers.
Bowser had a pretty good roster of wrestlers to pick from, and Sonnenberg defended the
championship against Joe Malcewicz, Marin Plestina, Joe DeVito, and Stan Stasiak. It was
clear to promoters from the beginning of his reign that they wouldn’t have a say in selecting
his opponents, an undesirable situation, particularly when in many cities were there were
already popular workers who could draw sizable numbers against the titleholder. In February
1929, the vigilant Illinois State Athletic Commission considered banning the flying tackle,
which would have been box office poison, but reconsidered after seeing Sonnenberg himself
perform the move.
One place where Sonnenberg’s act was never going to catch on was New York City. Local
promoter Jack Curley attended the Lewis-Sonnenberg title switch in Boston and, like
everything else, was caught up in the hype of the new champion. He arranged for a Madison
Square Garden date on February 4, 1929, but only 3,500 saw Sonnenberg beat Howard
Cantonwine. The next night in Brooklyn, he drew 4,500, but still, there was an
underwhelming sense about the ex-football player. It was almost as if all of the reasons that
made him a popular superstar elsewhere, were void in New York. Apparently, fans there
sought some other characteristics in their wrestling champion.
Curley went with all the backlash against Sonnenberg, and resumed his longtime
promotional war against Bowser. When, in May 1929, the Pennsylvania State Athletic
Commission suspended Sonnenberg for failing to wrestle worthy contenders, Curley pressed
the New York Athletic Commission to follow suit – which it did in August. The battle lines were
defined as Bowser faced off against a contingent of heavyweight promoters to include Curley,
Joe “Toots” Mondt, Ray Fabiani in Philadelphia, and Tom Packs of St. Louis. The latter
group’s championship selection was Dick Shikat, but they also had a contender named Jim
Londos whose popularity would eventually rival that of Sonnenberg.
Despite the efforts to discredit him, Sonnenberg’s popularity remained steady, and grew in
many places, as he toured around North America. Attendance increased in many places that
were on the cusp of becoming thriving wrestling cities, like Toronto and Montreal, and
Sonnenberg helped legitimize their growth. People were eager to see the man they’d read so
much about in newspapers, and Sonnenberg lived up to all expectations. Although it would
have been difficult to say for sure, the Riverside Daily Press (2/27/29) hinted that he was
making as much as $30,000 a month while touring. His success during this time-frame was
uncanny, and his reputation preceded him everywhere he went.
Additional negativity slammed Sonnenberg when reports circulated that he had been
wrestling the same man over and over on the circuit, and that Dan Koloff was appearing
under a number of fake names as a challenger. Koloff was said to have used the names
“Shannon,” “Kolman,” “Petroff,” and “Fred Gotch,” in addition to his real identity, and was
defeated each time by the champion. On June 13, 1929, the Boston Herald, on its front
page, recommended that Bowser get the four men to wrestle in an elimination tournament,
then revealed that they were all the same man, stating that because of improved
communication, the days of barnstorming under aliases had become obsolete. It was a
terrible reflection on Sonnenberg’s reign as champion, and he needed to do something
quickly to improve his reputation.
The next night, he appeared on WNAC radio in Boston in effort to quash the rumors and
innuendos. He said, quoted from the report in the Boston Herald (6/15/29): “My success with
my flying tackle and football rushes has created considerable jealousy among other
wrestlers. This jealousy has been followed by a deep-rooted hatred. They have resorted to
all kinds of illegal tactics and evil propaganda in an effort to injure me. Their efforts have
failed because when I have had the opportunity I have taken them on in the ring, one after
the other, and my flying tackle has always given me the victory.
“Since I won the championship, I have met and defeated the best men the world has
produced, and the hundreds of thousands who witnessed the contests I have fought, know
full well that I have been always honest, open and above-board. After I defeated Lewis, I
defeated Malcewicz at the Boston Garden, and more recently I defeated Plestina, the so-
called ‘man-mountain’ at the Boston Arena. Other champions had refused to meet him.
“Through the efforts of Billy Sandow, manager of Strangler Lewis, I have been barred by
the athletic commissions in Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. Sandow openly admits he
has a fund of $25,000 which his paid agents are spending in a national publicity campaign to
Sonnenberg was smart to blame Sandow for the negative reports, although the latter had
nothing to do with them. He used the erroneous claim to emphasize his own agenda, stating
that he would wrestle Ed Lewis on July 9 at Fenway Park, two-of-three-falls, and that Sandow,
instead of spending the money on a smear campaign, should use the cash to get the
“Strangler” into shape for the important bout. It was a nice way to recapture the trust of
wrestling fans, and to once again demonstrate his worth against a leading opponent. Also, it
proved that he wasn’t hiding from top wrestlers and willing to put his championship on the line
against a worthy contender. But little did most people realize that Lewis was part of the
syndicate, and this was all scripted by Bowser, Lewis and Sandow.
Los Angeles was Sonnenberg’s second best drawing city behind Boston. The Olympic
Auditorium was sold out for his July 24, 1929 victory over Joe Malcewicz, and the crowd paid
a local record of $30,392. That gate was topped on September 18 when he battled the
legendary Joe Stecher, an important new member of the Bowser syndicate. 10,400 paid
$35,000 to see Sonnenberg win two-of-three-falls and retain his championship. Indicative of
the large bull’s-eye on his chest, the champion was confronted by a light heavyweight friend
of Jim Londos, a rival, on the streets of Los Angeles on October 22. The aggressor, Pete
Ladjimi, hounded him for a match, then suddenly head butted him. Sonnenberg fell
backward, smashing his head on the ground, and bled from his wounds. The story made
national news and the story of the world’s champion being battered around by a third-rate
wrestler was not good for his reputation.
But Sonnenberg wasn’t looking for a fight and had been attacked in a sneaky manner
intended to hurt his standing with the wrestling public. The next night at the Olympic
Auditorium, the champion fulfilled his duties against “Strangler” Lewis and won in two-of-three-
falls before another sold-out audience. Before the end of 1929, he appeared twice more in
Los Angeles, defeating Lewis and Stecher again, and affirming his place at the top of the
wrestling ranks. Despite the various calamities, Sonnenberg was holding things together,
and still drawing large crowds throughout the nation.
There was a new force trying to take responsibility for straightening pro wrestling out in
1930, and that was the National Boxing Association. Officials proposed an elimination
tournament in efforts to finally settle the disputes in the heavyweight division, turning up the
heat on the reigning champions. Neither of the major claimants, Sonnenberg or Shikat, made
any attempt to participate in such an event, and only Jim Londos and John Pesek posted
forfeits. Because of their inaction, the NBA indefinitely suspended both champions in early
February. A few days later, Sonnenberg was said to be in critical condition in Providence
with blood poisoning. Early reports claimed that he’d be out of action for 3-4 months. The
timing of his illness was suspicious, and some wondered whether it was a ploy to give him a
reasoning for not participating in the NBA tournament.
Since Sonnenberg was back on the mat by February 19, 1930, it was apparent that none
of it really mattered. He appeared in Coral Gables, FL on that date and attracted an
estimated 10,000 fans, more than Shikat drew the day before in nearby Miami. The two were
fighting for the hearts and minds of fans in a valuable, fresh territory, and the timing of their
appearances, plus the proximity, showed the intensity of the promotional war. Neither side
wanted the other to gain an inch. Despite the suspension by the NBA, Sonnenberg
completed his tour through Florida, then went to Texas. His March 20, 1930 win against
Henri DeGlane and his April 24, 1930 victory over “Count” George Zarynoff scored big at the
box office in Boston. The latter show, at the Garden, drew 15,000 people.
In Los Angeles, a challenger from Colorado was being manufactured for Sonnenberg, and
it was going to pay huge dividends. Everette Marshall, a skilled 24-year-old, was given a
superlative push, going over Joe Malcewicz, Stan Stasiak, Karl Sarpolis, and Nick Lutze. An
angle was arranged where Marshall wanted a title shot, but Sonnenberg denied him,
explaining that he had to beat either Stecher or Lewis first. On April 16, 1930, Marshall
continued his winning ways, going over Lewis, then challenged Sonnenberg on May 5, 1930
at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field. 17,580 fans paid $69,745.50 to see the exciting three-fall
match, which had Marshall capturing the initial stanza, but the champion taking the second
and third to retain.
Sonnenberg, a bright man, was realistic about his time in pro wrestling and his future.
During an interview with Jan Isbelle Fortune, printed in the May 25, 1930 edition of the Dallas
Morning News, he explained that he got sick and disgusted with the grappling business. He
said: “I get positively nauseated. I have hated myself and everybody else connected with the
sport, many a time. But after all, I make a lot of money, and I’d be a fool not to make it while I
can. Wrestlers don’t last very long, you know, and when you’re through being famous, they’
re still just wrestlers, and there isn’t any place for them in the scheme of things. I’m going to
ride on the wave of popularity and rake in the money while I can.”
“I won’t last so long at it. I’m high-strung and full of nerves – I’ll burn out soon. They all do
unless they’re like animals – no feeling. So I’m making my money now, and I’m saving it. And
when I leave the game, I’m going to build me a home for broken-down wrestlers and sit
around in the evenings and read.”
In another interview with syndicated writer Westbrook Pegler, printed around the same
time, he said: “I am not worried about Shikat or anyone else claiming to be champion. I don’t
go around yelling for matches with any of those fellows. But they all want to wrestle me for
the championship, at the same time insisting that I am not the champion. Why don’t they get
out and hustle as I am doing? I’m earning all I get and never any more will you see Gus
Sonnenberg down on his knees, scrubbing floors for 20 cents an hour.”
Compared to a lot of others, Sonnenberg’s perspective about wrestling was much more
laid back, and he had a clear sense of what was important in the moment – and that was
continuing to do what he was good at in the ring. He was a stellar performer, yet his ego
wasn’t in his way when it came to wrestling legitimacy, calling out other wrestlers or putting his
peers down. He was much more reserved and concentrated on doing his job well, and, of
course, being paid for it. When asked whether he liked football or wrestling more, he
unequivocally answered football, and it is likely that the ugly side of promotional wars and
possible double-crosses were weighing heavily on his mind when he responded. For a year
and a half, he’d been the most targeted wrestler in the business, and while he still was one of
the top draws in grappling, all good things had to come to an end.
For the time being, Sonnenberg remained the champion of the Paul Bowser troupe. The
wrestling landscape evolved during the summer of 1930 when Jim Londos beat Dick Shikat
for the World Heavyweight Title of the Curley syndicate. Londos was fast becoming the
crown jewel of the sport, and no one was going to have as much success as him over the
next five years. Curley’s maneuvering also had Bowser thinking, and the Boston promoter’s
talented former Olympian Ed Don George was seen as a potential replacement for
Sonnenberg. George was a well versed shooter, and had the genuine wrestling knowledge
to boast and back up his claims. These were traits that Sonnenberg did not have, nor
Sonnenberg was not done yet. Outside of New England, houses were still respectable. He
drew with Lewis at Seattle under Australian rules on July 7 before 6,800 ($16,110), beat Joe
DeVito the next day in San Francisco in front of 7,000, and pulled in another 7,000 for his
bout with Stan Stasiak in Dallas on July 14. Over 10,000 were witness to his match against
Marshall in Los Angeles. By the end of October, newspapers were crediting 308 victories to
the champ since he’d assumed the mantle of world titleholder. However, there was a sign in
Boston on November 13, 1930 that had to make people take notice. After a controversial
finish against Jack Sherry at the Arena, part of the 7,500 in attendance booed Sonnenberg’s
victory and cheered Sherry.
The 23 month run of Sonnenberg was about to come to an end, and his successor was Ed
Don George, Bowser’s new prodigy. On December 10, 1930 at the Olympic Auditorium in
Los Angeles, George won the second and third falls, the final with a Japanese armlock, and
won the championship belt. The 10,000 in attendance went “wild in their enthusiasm,”
according to the Los Angeles Times. Sonnenberg quietly stepped aside, and there was a
renewed energy in the wrestling world to the title switch. It wasn’t that people were fed up
with Sonnenberg because it really wasn’t about him in the moment, it was about a new face,
with a strikingly different in-ring style than his predecessor. Sportswriters seemed to relish in
the idea that former Olympian from the University of Michigan was now a title claimant.
Sonnenberg was rumored to be taking a long vacation from wrestling, maybe even retire,
but they were all empty words. He was still a major headliner and was going to be a good
worker for the Bowser syndicate going into the future. He could be worked through a system
of matches in different cities, and built up into a challenger for George when the time was
right. Over the next two years, he rarely lost, and when he did, it was to a top tier opponent
like Joe Malcewicz, Henri DeGlane, or Dick Shikat. Bowser’s group, ironically, was double-
crossed out of the world title in April 1931 when Ed Lewis forcibly beat George in Los
Angeles. The reasoning was that Bowser failed to live up to his agreement with Lewis and
Sandow from January 1929, and give the championship back to him once Sonnenberg was
finished as champion.
This was met with yet another double-cross by DeGlane over Lewis in Montreal in May
1931. It was an ugly situation, and the tranquil days of Sonnenberg as titleholder were
almost yearned for. Meanwhile, Sonnenberg dabbled in film, got married, and toured all over
the map. As an influence, he was credited with sparking the collegiate push in professional
wrestling. Guys like Joe Savoldi were among the crop of talented newcomers, and
Sonnenberg’s methods were the blueprint to success for ex-football players turned grapplers.
Out of the ring, 1932 was a tough year for Sonnenberg. In April, his young wife was
injured in a car accident in their hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts. A few months later,
on July 18, Sonnenberg appeared at a show in Haverhill, then went out for drinks with two
friends at the Elks Club. Into the early morning hours of July 19, Sonnenberg was said to
have enjoyed a night out, calling it quits around 3:00 or so. He headed home, and was
involved in a serious accident in North Andover, near the Lawrence city line. Both
Sonnenberg, and the other driver, patrolman Richard L. Morrissey, were injured and taken to
local hospitals. A few days later, Morrissey died and Sonnenberg was leveled with three
charges: manslaughter, driving under the influence, and endangering the lives and safety of
Bowser paid his $2,000 bail and Sonnenberg went free. On August 2, the wrestler was
acquitted of manslaughter, but sentenced to three months in jail and fined $100 for the other
two charges. He appealed and was later determined to be not guilty in a trial ending on
March 2, 1933. The case was full of twists and turns, and at one point, it wasn’t Sonnenberg
whose alcohol intake was being questioned, but Morrissey’s. Witnesses testified for each
side, and a bartender even claimed that he served Sonnenberg four pitchers of beer. But
everything was up for question, and ultimately dismissed.
Sonnenberg was embroiled in yet another significant court case with his $1 million libel suit
against the Boston Herald-Traveler Corporation for articles printed in 1929. The articles
called into question the legitimacy of his wrestling ability, particularly when it came facing the
same men over and over under assumed names. At length, Sonnenberg, Bowser and others
testified about their income, the inner workings of pro wrestling, and basically everything else
under the sun. It was revealed that between 1929 and ’32, Sonnenberg was paid
$172,997.78, and his best year had been 1930 when he made $66,205.65, which, according
to an online inflation calculator, equates to more than $908,000 today. This wasn’t a
guaranteed contract guy for a major promotion like the WWE, but a wrestler scuffling on the
circuit for every penny.
He was a true workhorse, and the figures demonstrated that. On April 7, 1933, he proved
that he remained a fan favorite when 8,000 cheered his Boston Garden victory over Man
Mountain Dean when the latter was unable to continue after the second fall of an even
match. Six days later, the libel suit jury failed to agree on a verdict after 12 hours of
deliberation, and the case was shelved.
With the court cases and abundance of behind-the-scenes wrestling shenanigans floating
around in the press, the aspects that made Sonnenberg famous in the ring were being
completely overlooked. In November 1933, the “Trust” was formed by the sport’s most
influential promoters, and the syndicate lines were eradicated. That opened the door for
potential match-ups that were previously impossible, including Sonnenberg versus Londos.
Many enthusiasts were unaware of the new promotional alliance, and felt that wrestling had
turned a corner by offering various cross-promotional matches. In St. Louis, that was
assumed when Sonnenberg wrestled Ray Steele on January 10, 1934. Before 6,500-plus
fans, Sonnenberg was victorious by countout, and beat George Zaharias a little more than a
week later, continuing his match toward a bout with Londos.
Fans were much more excited than usual going into the February 2, 1934 Sonnenberg-
Londos bout at the St. Louis Arena, and expected a match for the ages. A record crowd of
15,666 were worked up to a fever pitch, which climaxed when Sonnenberg missed a flying
tackle and fell from the ring. He staggered back to the ring, was slammed by the champion,
and pinned at the 38:10 mark. An injury forced him back into the hospital and the
cancellation of matches throughout the next couple weeks. Promoters tried to get more
millage out of the Londos-Sonnenberg feud in Philadelphia, and built the latter up in April
1934 with victories over Steele and Hans Kampfer. On April 27, Sonnenberg was disqualified
against Londos when he used his flying tackle, a move banned by the Pennsylvania State
In the following few weeks, he took a win from Everette Marshall, drew with Henri DeGlane
in 90-minutes at Montreal, and lost a rematch against Londos in Philadelphia, replaying their
earlier finish in St. Louis with Sonnenberg missing a flying tackle. His personal life was again
in the news in 1934 when he married Mildred Micelli in Middletown, Connecticut on May 5.
The September before, he divorced Marie Elliott, a Boston social climber turned actress, and
as Elliott entered Hollywood in 1933, she kept her marriage to the wrestler completely quiet.
She even changed her name, which was a common practice, to “Judith Allen.” Allen, between
1933 and ’52, appeared in more than 35 films. Interestingly, around the time of his divorce to
Allen, there were reports that heart trouble gave Sonnenberg only six months to live, which, a
half-year later, was proved false.
In August 1934, he ventured to Australia and spent part of his time wrestling, and the other
honeymooning with his wife. When he debut at the Sydney Stadium on August 25, 10,000
packed the venue and saw his flying tackle flatten Wong Bock Cheung of China. He also
beat the likes of Oki Shikina, Harry Mamos, Tony Felice, Ali Bey, and Dr. Fred Meyers, while
losing to Tom Lurich and Jack Clark. It was claimed that he earned as much as $27,500 for
his successful tour of Australia and New Zealand, lasting through late December 1934. He
sailed to Honolulu and enjoyed more time off, then returned to California on February 7,
Los Angeles fans hadn’t forgotten Sonnenberg’s thrilling athleticism, and packed the
Olympic Auditorium several times to see him wrestle Chief Little Wolf in February and March
1935. By this point in his career, Sonnenberg was complaining about the roughhouse tactics
that were once again causing the sport to evolve, and said that wrestlers were forced to
nearly kill each other in the ring to “satisfy the public.” There were more rumors that he
planned to retire and sell cars, but he never completely walked away. He did take time off
when he wanted, and accepted a role, promoters felt, better suited him. And that was, as a
wrestler of much repute, putting over younger talent. He lost bouts to Joe Savoldi, Sandor
Szabo, Hank Barber, Gino Garibaldi, Bill Longson, and others.
Paul Bowser also wanted him to put over his new heavyweight star, Danno O’Mahoney.
From 1935 to ’36, Sonnenberg wrestled O’Mahoney all over the map, and made the latter
look like gold in the ring. On May 24, 1935 at Boston Garden, 18,000 fans saw O’Mahoney
beat him in two-straight falls, and the Herald explained that the crowd reaction was split in half
– for the first time O’Mahoney’s opponent received as much applause as he had.
Sonnenberg lost to O’Mahoney in Philadelphia, Providence, Dallas, Memphis, Albany, and
Chicago. In Los Angeles on October 2, 1935, a crowd of 10,000 saw him defeated by
Vincent Lopez, and another 9,000 for a bout against Man Mountain Dean.
One of Sonnenberg’s biggest gimmicks was getting injured in matches. When he missed
the flying tackle, he dove headfirst into press reporters, doctors, and anyone else standing at
ringside. Other times, he’d fall straight onto the floor. It was a dangerous move, and no
doubt some of his injuries were legit, but the missed flying tackle played right into the match’s
script. He faked broken ribs, a cracked hip, leg injuries, concussions, and was sometimes
even knocked out completely. This allowed his opponent to capitalize and beat him, or win
when Sonnenberg was unable to continue. Aside from his legitimate heart issues, he battled
trachoma, a common eye disease contracted by wrestlers competing on dirty mats,
throughout his career.
Wrestling’s attendance crashed in 1936 and the big gates of previous years were no
longer guaranteed. Sonnenberg was a steady headliner, but dropped most of his big-time
matches against more popular opponents. During the summer in Northern California,
wrestler and future legend Lou Thesz acted as his driver, and got a first-hand look at
Sonnenberg’s lifestyle, a lifestyle that included heavy alcohol abuse. His out-of-control
behavior wasn’t the type of thing written about in newspapers, and only insiders really knew
the extent of his problems. His drinking caused him to miss bookings and likely contributed
heavily to his steady stream of health problems.
There were other sides of Sonnenberg that few knew as well. Dink Carroll of the Montreal
Gazette wrote a startling 1944 article about the wrestler that was full of insight into his
problematic behavior. Carroll explained that his doomed relationship with actress Judith Allen
and the fact that many of his so-called friends constantly chiseled away at the money he
made, caused him to be in a regular state of depression. Sonnenberg was “moody and
unpredictable,” sometimes out on the town with no cares in the world, and others, he’d
remain locked up in a hotel for days on end. When boxer Jack Sharkey saw Sonnenberg
gregariously wandering through his Boston bar, he made sure to lock himself in his office to
avoid him. Sonnenberg would occasionally pay for a drink with a $20 bill and then
purposefully leave the change on the bar as he sat at a nearby table. It was said he watched
carefully, silently hoping that someone would pick it up so he could start a fight.
Sonnenberg was still a valuable name as a draw, but box office attendance took a major hit
between 1937 and ’39. Few wrestlers were commanding huge audiences on a regular basis
anymore, and the world was quickly approaching an all-consuming state of war. In 1939, he
made a comeback and regained the AWA World Heavyweight championship with a three-fall
win over the Masked Shadow at the Boston Garden on March 16. 8,000 were in attendance
as he lost the first fall, scored the second, and then took the third with a tackle. On March
29, he battled “Crusher” Steve Casey, who outweighed him by 25 pounds, and was defeated
after 33:30. Sonnenberg was slammed to the mat, hit his head, and knocked out during the
first fall. He was carried from the ring and unable to continue. In the following weeks and
months, he beat Yvon Robert and Leo Numa, but he seemed to fluctuate in and out of semi-
Promoters Bowser and Eddie Quinn of Montreal were unwaveringly loyal to him. As
athletic commissions in Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York became weary of him
wrestling further in their states because of a heart murmur, he could always find matches in
Boston and Montreal. He toured the Midwest and the Central States while making his home
in Belvidere, Illinois with his brother Rudy, and lost notable matches to Orville Brown and
“The Angel” Maurice Tillet. Perhaps his final bout of any importance occurred on June 10,
1942, when he was defeated by Yvon Robert at the Montreal Forum before 4,000 fans.
In September 1942, Sonnenberg indicated that he wanted join the elite Army Rangers, but,
needless to say, his health was a concern and he joined the Navy a month later as a Chief
Specialist in the Athletic branch. He was stationed at Norfolk, Virginia and trained sailors in
hand-to-hand combat. During the following winter, he contracted pneumonia and his weight
dropped to 160 pounds. He fought his way back by the summer of 1943, but he was found to
have a “mystery illness” of the bloodstream, and spent months at Bainbridge, Maryland Naval
Training Station’s hospital. In December 1943, he took leave to visit his family in Belvidere,
IL, but became sick again, and entered the Great Lakes Naval Hospital on December 26.
Sonnenberg continued to fight his illness, and told doctors he was willing to donate his body
to science to figure out what was wrong.
The Associated Press, in February 1944, took a Sonnenberg in the hospital, printed in
many papers, and said that he was recovering. But by the summer, he was again in dire
shape. He was moved back east to Bethesda Naval hospital, where he passed away on
September 12, 1944 at the age of 44. His cause of death was listed as leukemia, but some
sportswriters seemed to believe it was really some mysterious disease brought back from
returning military men.
Called “Gus the Goat,” Sonnenberg’s flying tackle and his methods of butting rivals in the
stomach were hard hitting and exciting to wrestling fans all over the world. Because of his
outstanding offensive attack, he was known as an innovator and never once did anyone
claim otherwise. Even old-school mat tacticians had to alter their style to more closely follow
Sonnenberg’s actions because the public demanded it. Fans no longer wanted tired holds.
They wanted drama. They wanted to see whether or not a wrestler would hit or miss a
running tackle, and then collectively gasp if the latter happened and the grappler dove head
first through the ropes onto the floor. Promoters specifically sought collegiate athletes,
especially former football players, because of Sonnenberg’s success. For guys like Joe
Savoldi and Bronko Nagurski, there was no bigger influence than Gus Sonnenberg.
Another critical factor of his success was growth of Paul Bowser’s national empire during
his reign. Sonnenberg worked immensely hard as champion in 1929-’30, drawing as much
as $5 million during that time-frame. The touring helped establish a firm circuit for Bowser’s
talent from Boston to Los Angeles, and this syndicate not only remained in place after
Sonnenberg dropped the title, but cemented Bowser’s place as a national wrestling
figurehead. Bowser’s formation of the American Wrestling Association and the recognition of
a credible heavyweight champion remained in place for the next two decades – until he joined
the National Wrestling Alliance.
Looking at his life, his success and his demons, it is hard to know whether or not his
journey into professional wrestling was a benefit or a curse. He didn’t go into the sport to be
a revolutionary, but it came naturally, and he reaped the rewards that came with being an
innovator. The personal trials that followed were painful, and resulted in an addiction that
only he could attempt to figure out. But when he was on the top of his game, there were no
equal performers, and wrestling fans, who’d seen everything to that point, knew he was
something special at first sight. He was rewarded with the utmost support, and his Hall of
Fame career was written in stone. Gus Sonnenberg may have loved football more than
wrestling, but wrestling made him an international hero and trendsetter, and his actions on
the mat changed the sport forever.
Thanks to historians Steve Yohe and Don Luce.
By Tim Hornbaker, author of Legends of Pro Wrestling: 150 Years of Headlocks, Body
Slams, and Piledrivers
|Gus Sonnenberg Biography