By Tim Hornbaker
For the better part of 100 years, professional wrestling
in New York City has thrived. The sport has had its
highs and lows, and a gauge of the overall popularity
of the sport can usually be tested by looking at the
audiences in the “Big Apple.” Beginning even as early
as 1850, wrestlers Louis Ainsworth, James McLaughlin,
Homer Lane, John McMahon, James E. Owens,
Thiebaud Bauer, William Miller, Ernest Treber, Edwin
Bibby, Joe Acton, Clarence Whistler, Ernest Roeber,
and, of course, William Muldoon, have enthralled local
crowds with their skill.
Slowly, wrestling evolved from casual shows at city assembly rooms or music halls to the
adaptation of Madison Square Garden as the center of the sport’s focus. It also saw
promoters ruthlessly compete, trying everything possible to edge their competitors out of
the business. After unions were destroyed by double-crosses, common backstabbing,
and wrestlers doing everything possible to shine, promoters had only one thing to focus
on, and that was the thing they always focused on: money. The most shrewd
businessmen in wrestling somehow made their way to New York, and on the grandest
stage, they either survived or didn’t.
There were many different styles of wrestling from a variety of international points, each
with its own, individual rules, and many competitors were limited to only one style.
Among them were Greco-Roman, Cornish, side hold, Jiu-jitsu, Cumberland, and catch-as-
catch-can. With championships for each style, and for numerous countries, champions
began to appear with some regularity in the United States, all claiming to be the best.
Even back then, the bombastic attitudes of wrestlers often outshadowed their talents. It
soon became more favorable for “mixed” matches to be held, with a different style for
each specific fall, and matches often ran with the best three-of-five falls rules.
William Muldoon was a respected leader of wrestling in New York, and certainly one of
the most popular grapplers of the 19th Century. Born in Allegany County to Irish
parents, Patrick and Maria, William had eight siblings. His date of birth is often
accounted to be May 25, but the year is in dispute between 1845 and 1853. The New
York Times reported that he was born in 1845 at Belfast in his June 4, 1933 obituary.
The 1845 birth year seems more plausible for Muldoon since it has been said that he
was a member of the Union Army, as a drummer in a marching unit, during the Civil War
(1861-’65) at the age of 16. While in the military, he engaged in combat bouts with his
peers, both boxing and wrestling. After the war, William returned to the town of
Caneadea and continued to help his father on the family farm.
By the late 1870s, Muldoon had relocated to New York City and worked as a police
officer, although that too has been drawn into question. He was divorced and had
furthered his pursuit of athletics, competing often against other policemen. He beat
veteran John Gaffney in the Greco-Roman style match for the Police Championship.
When he took World Greco-Roman Heavyweight Champion Professor William Miller as
his mentor, Muldoon’s abilities soared. With his great strength and skill, he was quickly
becoming the most talked about grappler around.
In 1879, there were several men claiming the World Greco-Roman Title, including
Professor Miller, Thiebaud Bauer and even Muldoon himself, stemming from an 1877
victory over Christol. On January 19, 1880, Muldoon beat Bauer at Madison Square
Garden and unified the two claims. He won the first and third falls of their match, also
winning a $200 trophy. After the surprising finish, Muldoon was carried from the carpet
on the shoulders of his friends as an estimated 4,000 people in attendance applauded.
Over the next decade, Muldoon wrestled John Hiram McLaughlin, Edwin Bibby, Clarence
Whistler, Duncan Ross, Matsada K. Sorakichi, Evan “Strangler” Lewis, and Dennis
Gallagher, many of the best grapplers in the sport. His career was winding down by
1887, and after befriending the famous bare-knuckle boxer and champion, “Boston
Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan ( , Muldoon became one of his trainers. In preparation for
his fight with Jake Kilrain in Richburg, Mississippi, Sullivan trained at William’s gym in
Belfast, New York. The legendary and controversial fight went 75 rounds, with Sullivan
finally winning by knockout.
Muldoon and Sullivan even engaged each other in several wrestling exhibitions, once on
May 28, 1889 in Cincinnati, which saw 10 rounds split ending in a draw, and again on
August 2, 1889 in New York City. William also trained Kid McCoy, Jack Dempsey and
Ernest Roeber, owned a saloon in New York City and, in 1921, became the first ever
chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. He would remain a member of the
commission until his death on June 3, 1933. He passed away at the age of 88 at his
home in Purchase, New York. “Iron Duke,” Muldoon’s nickname, was inducted into the
International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1996 and the George Tragos/ Lou Thesz
Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum
on June 16, 2001 in Newton, Iowa.
Jack Curley, who would reign as the leading New York promoter between 1915-’37, said
the following about Muldoon after his death: “Mr. Muldoon was the greatest sports
representative that ever lived. He was always an authority and always the boss. He
lived a fine, useful life and his death will be a great loss to sports.”
George Bothner, one of the most famous lightweight wrestlers in history, was born on
June 5, 1867 in Manhattan to German parents, Charles and Charlotte Kleinhans
Bothner, and began wrestling early on in life. While training at the Pastime Athletic Club,
he became proficient in a number of different styles including jiu-jitsu, catch-as-catch-
can and Greco-Roman. Legend has it that Bothner turned professional as early as
1880, but he was competing as an amateur in tournaments as late as 1893-’94,
representing Pastime. He won several AAU Titles at 125 pounds, and proved his
fearlessness while targeting heavier weight classes.
Like Muldoon, Bothner toured with the great John L. Sullivan and wrestled throughout
the country, taking on anybody who would meet him. George entered a long-running
feud with Brockton, Massachusetts, lightweight star Harvey Parker after making the leap
into the side of the sport that earned cash. He suffered a big loss to Parker on April 27,
1899 in Waterbury, Connecticut. On Friday night, December 21, 1900 at the Grand
Central Palace in New York City, Bothner wrestled Parker again in what was billed as
being for the lightweight championship. Representing the Pastime Athletic Club, Bothner
wrestled Harvey for 20 minutes, then 10 minutes without a fall. The referee declared
Parker the victor by decision.
Bothner wrestled Parker again on December 2, 1901 at the Lenox Lyceum in
Manhattan. The contest was a special handicap bout with the latter having to throw his
opponent twice in 60 minutes. Parker lost the bout and failed to gain even a single fall.
Subsequently, Bothner took a claim to the World Lightweight Title. On March 22, 1902 in
Manhattan, Bothner and Parker drew in 80 minutes, the bout stopped at 11:50 by a local
police captain. No falls were scored.
He battled American Heavyweight Champion Tom Jenkins, a man with a distinct weight
advantage, in a handicap bout on December 22, 1902 at Manhattan’s Grand Central
Palace. Jenkins, according to pre-match stipulations, had to throw Bothner four times in
60 minutes to gain a victory. Jenkins won at 27:37, 15:05 and 13:10, but was unable to
win a fourth consecutive fall, and lost the bout. After the match, seconds for Bothner got
into it with referee, and boxing legend, Tom Sharkey.
As George’s professional career began to obtain legendary status, he tutored numerous
athletes while instructor at the Knickerbocker and New York Athletic Clubs and later for
Princeton University. He also worked regularly as a referee and a local New York City
promoter. On April 2, 1903, he won a further claim to the World Lightweight Title, the
Richard K. Fox championship belt and $500 with a victory over Tom Riley of England.
George won the match in two straight falls, 3:39 and 8:52 respectively, at the New Polo
Athletic Club gymnasium in Manhattan before an estimated 800 fans.
On April 6, 1905, he furthered his international fame by defeating jiu-jitsu star
Katsuguma Higashi in three straight falls at the Grand Central Palace in New York City.
George battled Dennis Gallagher in what was billed as his last professional match on
January 11, 1907 at the Yorkville Casino in New York City and prevented the latter from
scoring one fall against him. Gallagher said he was going to beat the lightweight
champion twice in 90 minutes. The time limit was exceeded, and Bothner was declared
the winner. Bothner was reported to have passed an examination to become a milk
inspector and was also going to give up his position as wrestling coach at Princeton.
Needless to say, he did not retire from wrestling.
At Montreal’s Sohmer Park on April 5, 1907, Bothner dropped two-of-three-falls to
Eugene Tremblay and lost his claim to the World Lightweight Title. Tremblay opened up
the match with the first fall, George tied things up in the second, and the challenger won
the finale. Bothner suffered a fractured leg in the contest, which hindered his ability to
fight off his opponent’s aggressiveness.
Promoters in New York wanted the rematch, and Bothner was billed as the American
Champion, while Tremblay was billed as the champion of both Canada and France. The
match took place on Friday, November 27, 1908 at Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, New York.
Once again, Tremblay won, securing his place as the World Lightweight Titleholder. He
took the first and third falls to capture the bout.
Bothner wrestled off and on, making seemingly more appearances as a referee and
promoter for the Star Theatre in New York City. He was the main referee for the two
International Wrestling Tournaments in Manhattan at the Opera House in 1915,
occasionally competing. On December 23, he took on Pierre LeColosse, who
outweighed him by up to 240 pounds, and beat him decisively in 18:43.
Between World War I and the late 1930s, Bothner refereed nearly every major wrestling
match in New York City from Stecher-Lewis and Stecher-Caddock to O’Mahoney-Shikat.
His wrestling career came to an end with a March 18, 1918 bout in Atlantic City versus
Frank Rice. Bothner suffered a vicious broken leg after having it caught under his
opponent’s body. That entire Atlantic City show was a disaster as, in another bout,
Pinkey Gardner was nearly killed after landing on his head after being thrown over the
topes and onto his head by World Middleweight Champion Mike Yokel.
He trained thousands of individuals at his famous gym (250 West 42nd Street) in
Manhattan, many of them future legends. While Farmer Burns was the top tutor of
wrestling in the Midwest, Bothner was tops in the East. He died on Saturday night,
November 20, 1954 at his home in the Bronx. He was 87 years old.
Another famous New York wrestler and referee was Ernest Roeber Sr. (1863-1944).
Roeber was a pupil of Muldoon and a talented Greco-Roman grappler, even holding the
coveted World Championship, won on July 25, 1892 with a victory over Apollon in two-of-
three-falls. He also had a Greco-Roman style victory over the famous Terrible Turk on
March 7, 1899 in Boston. Upon retirement, he managed the career of Charlie Cutler,
owned a saloon at 966 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and later joined promoter Jack Curley’
s organization as a referee.
Richard Kyle Fox was a significant sports personality in New York, and his influence
through the Police Gazette magazine, published (Richard K. Fox Publication Company)
between 1875 and 1922, was felt internationally. Fox was born in Belfast, Ireland, in
1846, and after altering the focus of the Police Gazette from crime to sports, the
magazine became the first recognized “body” to sponsor wrestling champions. Initially, it
was the “Richard K. Fox” Medal, which was won in mat contests and held by the likes of
Duncan C. Ross and Captain James C. Daly in the 1880s. Later, the recognition by the
Police Gazette offered a symbol of distinction that was found no where else. Those who
were accepted as the titleholder by that magazine were believed to be the top of the
heap. Among those to hold coveted Police Gazette recognition, at various weights, were
Joe Turner, Paul Bowser, Alex Swanson, Mike Yokel, and Eugene Tremblay. Fox died
on November 14, 1922 in Red Bank, New Jersey.
One of the most important wrestling superstars of this era was none other than Thomas
Jenkins. He was born on August 3, 1872 in Bedford, Ohio, he was the son of Thomas
and Mary Williams Jenkins of Wales. Around eight years of age, he lost the use of his
right eye in an explosion from a home-produced cannon, as well as suffering other facial
After having trouble with the law as a youth, Tom joined his brothers Abraham and John
in local Cuyahoga County mills, and his strength grew. Reports are that he made his
professional debut at the age of 20, facing veteran Al Woods and earning a draw. In
1895, he took reputed manager George V. Tuohey of Massachusetts as his second.
Fishing for better opponents, Tuohey pushed buttons and put Jenkins’s name out there
for potential challenges. Standing 5’9 ½”, Tom was a true catch-as-catch-can master,
yet could wrestle all styles and was a standout in mixed bouts.
At the time, there were several great catch wrestlers in America, and in 1895, Farmer
Martin Burns cemented his place as World Champion with a defeat of Evan Lewis in
Chicago. Jenkins focused on Burns, and less than a month after Burns had lost the
catch-as-catch-can World Title to Dan McLeod, Jenkins wrestled the “Farmer” in the
same city, Indianapolis. The two competed on November 17, 1897 at the Grand Opera
House. Combining strength with his dominant weight advantage, Tom won in two-straight
falls, winning the first in 29 minutes and the second in 34 minutes.
Jenkins’s place as the number-one challenger to McLeod’s championship was further
sealed with a rematch win over Burns and two victories over Ernest Roeber, and by April
1901, he was recognized in some circles as the World Champion of the catch style.
Finally, on November 7, 1901 in Cleveland, he matched up with McLeod, his longtime
rival from afar. Charles Wittmer of Cincinnati, who had wins over both men in Greco-
Roman matches and losses to both in mixed bouts, was the referee. Jenkins beat
McLeod in two straight falls, capturing undisputed claims to the World Heavyweight Title
of the catch-as-catch-can style. In other circles, he had only won undisputed rights to
the American Title.
In Worcester, Massachusetts, on December 25, 1902, McLeod regained the
championship, winning the second and third falls straight after losing the opening. He
also cleaned up $1,500. Jenkins bounced back and won a rematch at the 65th
Regiment Armory in Buffalo on April 3, 1903 before a large audience. Tom won two
straight falls and took back his title claim.
Jenkins worked with the Farmer Burns “troupe,” or the principals behind the booking of
certain wrestlers and even championships. On January 27, 1904, Jenkins dropped his
title to young Frank Gotch of Humboldt, Iowa, Burns’ pupil, in Bellingham, Washington, at
Beck’s Theatre. He lost two straight falls, the second by disqualification. That summer,
he ventured to the United Kingdom and wrestled the famed “Russian Lion” George
Hackenschmidt in a Greco-Roman style match. Although he had originally wanted a
mixed-style contest, Tom was willing to give the match a go. On July 2, “Hack” beat
Jenkins in two successive falls at Albert Hall in London.
Jenkins and Gotch were matched for Madison Square Garden in New York City on
Wednesday, March 15, 1905, and the latter regained the American Title with two-of-
three-falls. Tom won the first fall in 19:34, lost the second in 6:47 and then took the
finale in 10:11, and was accompanied to the mat by George Bothner.
After the match, the new champion made it clear that he wanted to wrestle
Hackenschmidt in a return bout. He now wanted a match under catch rules, the style he
was most familiar in. He believed that he had already bent to Hack’s style while in
England and was not going to do it again. After Hackenschmidt arrived in New York, the
match was signed for May 4 at Madison Square Garden. The match itself would
determine the first universally accepted catch-as-catch-can World Champion, and both
men had their careers riding on the match. A ring was constructed for the contest, and
Tim Hurst was named referee. Hackenschmidt won the first fall in 31:15 and then the
second in 22:04, winning the match in straight falls.
On June 10, 1905 at a private gym in New York City, Jenkins wrestled an unknown
named Fred Beell. Little did any of the 100 people in attendance know that Beell was
one of the best grapplers in the nation. He was slowly building his reputation, and by the
end of the night, Tom Jenkins was one that would never forget him. Weighing 165
pounds to Jenkins’s 190, Beell upset his opponent and won the initial fall. Jenkins
rebounded to win the next two successively, and the match was over after two hours and
47 minutes of grappling. Later in the year, President Theodore Roosevelt named
Jenkins boxing and wrestling instructor of the West Post Military Academy. He was the
first ever named to such a post, and Tom had been recommended widely.
A definitive new era began on May 23, 1906 in Kansas City when Gotch beat Jenkins for
the American Championship for the final time. Tom returned to his position as trainer of
future military officers. In mid-January 1914, Jenkins was announced as an entry in an
international wrestling tournament to be held at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The winner would have a chance to wrestle Frank Gotch for the World Title, but later in
the month, the champion announced his retirement. The retirement news was nothing
new, but for Jenkins, a shot at the Iowan was enough to keep him interested in
competing. On March 10, Jenkins wrestled Wladek Zbyszko and was defeated. The 42-
year-old wonder put up a good fight, but lost in the end to the younger grappler. In
1918, Jenkins was joined by Billy Cavanagh, who would take the boxing aspect of
training, at West Point. Over a 37-year period, Tom, known as “Pop,” trained more than
13,000 cadets. He retired in 1942 and settled down with his wife Lavinia. Tom Jenkins
died on June 19, 1957 at the age of 85 in Norwalk, Connecticut.
In 1908 at Chicago, Frank Gotch beat George Hackenschmidt to capture the World
Heavyweight Title in the catch-as-catch-can style, and would become an American
celebrity. In the years that followed, he did travel to certain locations throughout North
America, but seemed to avoid a hefty paying match in New York City. It wasn’t Gotch
who kept wrestling alive locally, but a Polish grappler named Stanislaus Zbyszko.
Seven months prior to losing a rematch to Gotch in Chicago, Hackenschmidt, now
managed by Jack Curley, appeared in Manhattan to wrestle Zbyszko in a handicap
match. The date was Thursday, February 9, 1911, and the site was Madison Square
Garden. Hackenschmidt had to beat Stanislaus twice in 90 minutes, but failed to secure
a single fall. The accomplishment added to Zbyszko’s fame, and although he didn’t beat
the Russian, it seemed obvious that he was the number-one contender to Gotch’s title.
For the remainder of Gotch’s career, he avoided a ring bout with his rival.
Stanislaus Zbyszko battled Giovanni Raicevich at Madison Square Garden in late
December 1911, and it was said that Gotch would come in and face the winner in
By 1914, promoters were getting eager to get the champion back in New York City and
devised a special international tournament with up to 19 competitors to determine a
challenger for Gotch. The winner would also receive $5,000. The tournament would
begin on Wednesday, January 14, 1914 at Madison Square Garden with the likes of
Wladek Zbyszko, Stanislaus’s young brother, Alexander Aberg, George Lurich and Mort
Henderson. When Gotch refused a three-match deal for $25,000, promoters had to do
Promoter Samuel Rachmann announced the second Greco-Roman international
wrestling tournament to begin on Wednesday, May 19, 1915 from the Manhattan Opera
House and that 50 wrestlers from 25 different countries would participate. With the
winner receiving $10,000 this time, the best from throughout the world were in town
attempting to claim superiority. The initial night saw more than 6,000 fans show up, and
Rachmann had enlisted Bothner to be his referee and Joe Humphries to be the
announcer. Needless to say, the second attempt at a tournament was more successful
than the first and with Gotch turning down the possibility to meet the winner, any
candidates saw a tourney win as being a huge career jump.
Having already made his mark in wrestling promotions, and having recently been the
guide behind boxer Jim Flynn, Jack Curley ventured into New York City and established
his presence. Jack’s influence added spice to the series of programs, as he managed
three of the tournament’s competitors, Wladek Zbyszko, George Lurich and Dr. Roller,
and the course of New York wrestling history altered. Among the others to compete were
Aberg, Charles Olson, Tom Draak, and Ivan Linow. Another recent newcomer in
America and wrestling prodigy was Renato Gardini (1889-1940), an Olympian Greco-
Roman star for Italy in 1912. Gardini, from Bologna, Italy, arrived in the United States in
December 1914, and would have a long, prosperous career.
Curley was born Jacques Armand Schuel on July 4, 1876 in San Francisco, California.
He adopted the name “Curley” from a childhood nickname. While working in St. Louis at
around 18 years of age, he was lured into the world of sports after befriending boxer
Frankie Noel, who as an amateur at the time. Curley trained with Noel, and soon
thereafter became his manager once Frankie turned professional. A trip to Chicago with
Noel and Bud Lally under his management got Curley into the organization of Chicago
matchmaker Paddy Carroll. Once Curley got a taste of boxing and wrestling promotions,
and never looked back, traveling extensively from Iowa City, Iowa, to Oshkosh,
Wisconsin, to Chicago, New York, Vienna, London, and Germany. Prior to 1910, he
worked for the Casino Athletic Club in Tonopah, Nevada, and the Illinois Athletic Club out
of Chicago. Curley would begin building his stable of grapplers, with Dr. B.F. Roller
being one of the first.
Both Curley and Roller traveled to Europe, where Jack helped promote a match between
his fighting physician and the Indian Champion, Great Gama on August 8, 1910 in
London at the Music Hall. Gama had his way with Roller and won two straight falls in 1:
40 and 9:09, respectively. Roller suffered two or three broken ribs in the bout, and
according to legend, while both the Doctor and Curley were in the hospital, they were
visited by Hackenschmidt. Subsequent meetings between Curley and “Hack” saw the two
sign a managerial contract, and any future plans for the latter to travel to America would
be scheduled by Jack. During the summer of 1911, both Roller and Curley again
ventured to Europe, this time to finalize the deal that brought Hackenschmidt to Chicago
for his rematch with Frank Gotch.
Prior to settling in New York, Curley promoted the controversial and successful April 5,
1915 boxing match between World Champion Jack Johnson and Jess Willard of Kansas
in Havana, Cuba’s Oriental Park. A reported 15,000 fans saw Willard knock the
champion out in the 26th round with a right to capture the title.
The Curley-Rachmann combination was powerful, and their two tournaments rattled the
wrestling world in 1915-’16. The winter tourney saw a mixture of Greco-Roman and
catch-as-catch-can grappling, and starred many of the regulars including Aberg, Roller,
Lurich, Wladek Zbyszko, Linow, Gardini and introduced the likes of Charlie Cutler and Ed
“Strangler” Lewis. Lewis, with manager Billy Sandow, first appeared on Monday,
November 22, 1915 and beat Lorenz Christiansen in 1:10.
The introduction of a masked wrestler was hugely popular with New York fans. Hailing
from the unknown, and the concept designed by Curley and Charlie Cutler, the Masked
Marvel debuted on December 9, 1915 at the Manhattan Opera House and defeated
Wilhelm Berner in 12:40. The Marvel was none other than Mort Henderson, a well-
traveled grappler from Rochester, and was under contract exclusively to Rachmann. In
the following weeks, Henderson had wins over Pierre Colosse and George Lurich, and
drew with Wladek Zbyszko in nearly two hours before finally being crushed by “Strangler”
Lewis on December 20 in 11:50 in what could have been a shoot match. The fact that
Sandow’s charge proved that the masked wonder wasn’t as good as he was leading
everyone to believe seemed out of place at that time in the tournament. Two nights
later, Lewis and Marvel drew in one hour, 59 minutes.
The Marvel continued to astonish New York audiences, and on December 27, 1915, he
held the Greco-Roman World Champion, Alex Aberg to a draw in two hours, 21 minutes.
Not only was the masked man proficient in the catch style, he was a on par with the best
in the world in the Greco-Roman style. Hard to believe from someone who was getting
thrown all over the Midwest and the fact that on January 14, 1914 at Madison Square
Garden, it took Aberg only 21 minutes to beat him. The wisdom of Rachmann and
Curley to book Henderson in such a way created a mystical character never before seen
Where it seemed that Curley and Rachmann were getting along behind the scenes
working the make the second tournament a success, it was quickly apparent that it was
every man for himself. The initial plan was to get Frank Gotch to wrestle Joe Stecher for
the undisputed World Title, but in January 1916, the former turned down the deal.
Instead, Curley went behind Rachmann’s back to work with Harry Morgan Pollok (1874-
1933) and Madison Square Garden manager William H. Wellman to sign Stecher for a
Thursday, January 27, 1916 match at the Garden. Rachmann wasn’t edged out of the
potential payday altogether because he had, by this time, Zbyszko, the Masked Marvel,
and numerous tournament competitors under contract. Finally, on January 26,
Rachmann agreed to send the Marvel into the ring with the catch-as-catch-can World
Champion the next day. Curley’s move was a strong one, and his thinking ahead to get
control of the Garden was what put him in full control of the New York wrestling scene.
The Garden was where the most money would be made.
The catch-as-catch-can World Champion Joe Stecher beat The Masked Marvel in two
straight falls, and a large crowd witnessed the affair. Winning the tournament was Alex
Aberg, and he was presented with $5,000 on the final night, Saturday, January 29, 1916.
Comfortable in New York City and with the strong contacts he had locally, Curley
established permanent residence. Seeing that the Marvel’s run at the top was over,
Curley brought Ed Lewis back to Manhattan. Initially, without a tournament going, Curley
decided to arrange a quicker way to build him into an unstoppable wrestling
powerhouse. On Monday, March 6, 1916 at Madison Square Garden, Lewis beat seven
men (Hans Fuerst, The Great Daro, Albert Muller, Karl Vogel, Olaf Nelson, Herman
Schilling, and Farmer Bayley) in less than 20 minutes.
At the Municipal Auditorium in Omaha, amateur great Earl Caddock, accompanied by
Frank Gotch, dethroned Stecher for the World Heavyweight Title on April 9, 1917, taking
the second fall and then the third by default. Less than a month later on May 2 at the
Chicago Coliseum, Gotch was the referee for a match between Lewis and John Olin for
the latter’s disputed claim to the World Title. The latter claim to the title became the one
recognized by the Curley troupe and on June 5 in San Francisco, Jack accompanied his
star wrestler Wladek Zbyskzo into a ring in San Francisco for a challenge bout against
Lewis. Wladek won the only fall of the match in one hour and 12 minutes. When the
match was called after two hours and 30 minutes, Zbyszko was declared the new World
Champion. On July 4, Lewis regained the title in Boston.
In December 1917, Curley staged a catch-as-catch-can tournament at the Lexington
Theater in Manhattan featuring Lewis, Wladek, Roller, Tom Draak, Demetrius Tofalos,
Ivan Linow, Yussif Hussane, Sulo Hevonpaa, Joe Rogers, Americus, Frank Leavitt (Man
Mountain Dean), and a young Joe Malcewicz. One of the highlights were the two
appearances by World Title claimant Caddock, who, by this time, was a soldier in the
United States Army and preparing to travel to Europe to fight in World War I. Caddock
appeared on December 14, drew the largest crowd of the tournament, and defeated
Roller in 40:59. The next night, he beat John Freberg in 45:15.
Lewis had great success, beating Leavitt, Hevonpaa, Linow, Draak, Tofalos, Roller, and
Zbyszko. In the tournament final, Wladek revenged his earlier loss and beat Lewis to
capture the World Title on December 22, winning one fall in 1:47:37. Finally, on
February 8, 1918 in Des Moines, Caddock beat Zbyszko to unify the two split claims,
taking the decision after the bout was stopped at 1:00 a.m.
The “Trust” that controlled much of the top heavyweight wrestling in the United States
was controlled by Curley through World War I and into 1920, although he had strong
allies in Billy Sandow, Oscar Thorson, and Tony Stecher. These partnerships allowed
the promotion of matches wrestling fans wanted see, and New York City received two
sets of Lewis-Zbyszko, Lewis-Stecher, Stecher-Zbyszko matches. Curley did his part
during the war by selling bonds and programs, attempting to keep the morale as high as
possible. A series of elimination matches broke down the list of challengers, settling on a
Stecher-Caddock World Title unification match for Friday, January 30, 1920 at Madison
An estimated 10,000 paid anywhere between $70-80,000 to see World Title claimants
Caddock and Stecher battle in what has been considered, on many levels, to have been
a full-blown shoot. The match at the Garden was a classic, and went more than two
hours before Stecher used his famous scissors hold to score a pinfall. The bout was
captured by cameras, and celebrated in the moment as being something special. New
York newspapers praised the match, and Curley looked like a promotional mastermind
who could do no wrong. The string of successful contests at the Garden continued for
Curley, and he staged two additional title changes, December 13, 1920 when Lewis beat
Stecher and May 6, 1921 when Stanislaus Zbyszko won from Lewis.
During the summer of 1921, George Lewis “Tex” Rickard (1871-1929) decided to push
Curley out and take control of wrestling at Madison Square Garden. The bold move
edged Curley completely out of the picture, and not only forceably took away his
business, but left a strong personal grudge. Backed by New York’s elite, Rickard staged
the November 14, 1921 bout between Marin Plestina and John Pesek at the Garden.
The night of the match, Plestina and Pesek went to ring and matched off in what would
become a violent struggle between one man’s attempt to blind and injure his opponent,
and one man who was just trying to remain upright with all limbs intact. Pesek was
disquaflied in 11:19 and again after 24:04 for fouling, and officials allowed the match to
continue, hoping that the contest would turn into an actual wrestling match. It didn’t, and
Pesek was disqualified a third time in 7:05, giving Plestina the bout.
Curley had interjected his vindetta into the wrestling promotional aspirations of Rickard,
arranging for Pesek to go after Plestina with flagrent tactics he knew would damage Tex’
s operations. When the show was over, he was the only person laughing. Rickard and
definitely the New York State Athletic Commission weren’t. Larney Lichtenstein and Joe
Marsh, who may have been completely innocent going in, became casualities. The two
individuals were the managers of Pesek and Plestina, respectively, and both had their
licenses suspended, as did the “Tigerman.” The New York Times reported that it was
“the most unsatisfactory [match] in the history of local wrestling.” When the heat came
down, Rickard was both furious and embarrased. The small attendance was attributed
to the fact that it was leaked prior to the bout that one of the main event grapplers was
injured. Tex knew who was at blame, and he initially refused to bow out of promoting
wrestling because the fire was getting hot.
Tex Rickard’s second promotional event at Madison Square Garden occurred on
November 28, 1921, offering up a $5,000 diamond-studded championship belt to the
winner of the Stanislaus Zbyszko-Ed Lewis contest. Zbyszko was already regarded as
the World Champion, but Rickard’s gift was his way of finally symbolizing the undisputed
titleholder. The winning individual had to win the belt three times before he actually
owned it. Zbyszko beat Lewis in two of three falls before an estimated 7,000 fans, thus
taking Rickard’s belt into his possession.
Trying to remain above water, and to seal up his business relations with others in both
New York and in the sports community, Curley joined two newly organized groups, the
Boxers Protective Association and the National Sports Alliance, in November and
December 1921. The latter organization, which had plans to provide rule to all pro
sports, included William Wellman, Ed Meade, Daniel Morgan, Dan McKetrick, and Leo
Flynn. The merger of these boxing and wrestling figures was seen as a volatile gesture
in the direction of Rickard, especially with the inclusion of Tex’s former Garden
matchmaker, Flynn. The combination of managers and promoters formed a monopoly,
closing out rivals, and sending talent to only like-minded partners. Rickard was
blackballed in many ways, and Curley’s influence, even without a working promotion, was
Despite the mergers, there was speculation that Curley had retired from wrestling
promotions entirely because he couldn’t get an arena to promote large-scale matches
anywhere in the city, thanks to Rickard. Tex distanced himself from wrestling,
disillusioned with the entire sport, and while Curley couldn’t get sole promotional rights to
the Garden, his NSA pal Bill Wellman could and did. With Wellman in the drivers seat,
Curley acted as his matchmaker, reentering the wrestling business.
The New York State Athletic Commission threatened to suspend the license of the
Madison Square Garden boxing club if it didn't observe the no smoking rule, according to
chairman William Muldoon on February 18, 1928.
During a meeting of the New York State Athletic Commission on April 2, 1929, the body
refused to reinstate Ed "Strangler" Lewis, but would allow him to appear in person to
submit his application.
On Friday, April 5, 1929, Lewis appeared before the Athletic Commission and asked for
reinstatement. Commissioner William Muldoon approved the reinstatement, allowing
Lewis to appear for promoter Jack Curley on April 8.
Dick Shikat's victory over Jim Londos earned him recognition by the New York State
Athletic Commission as World Heavyweight Champion on August 27, 1929, following the
announcement of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission.
In early 1932, the New York Athletic Commission stated that boxing receipts "fell off" in
1931 according to the commission's annual report, but "wrestling was responsible for
keeping up the total receipts to the figure of the previous year," the New York Times, on
January 7, 1932, reported. The Commission suspended 357 boxers and 21 wrestlers
during the period. In total, licenses were issued to 306 grapplers and more than 1,400
The double-cross by Dick Shikat on Danno O'Mahoney in early March 1936 left many
promoters in distress. In fact, the wrestling scene, while still chaotic at times, had been
mostly serene amongst the major syndicate operators. This one event caused a
collapse in the seemingly unbreakable armor of the "Trust," and everyone was
scrambling to stabilize their businesses in spite of what had occurred. In New York, Jack
Curley had big problems because the double-cross had occurred on his main stage - in
the middle of the ring at Madison Square Garden.
Figuring out a battle plan in the aftermath was key. People who watch modern wrestling
tend to discount "titles" as being props, but in the 1930s, wrestling championships were
valuable monetarily and vitally important to bigwig promoters who sponsored them. The
members of the "Trust" put a lot of money behind O'Mahoney as the heavyweight
champion, building him up and getting him over. The lineage of his championship was
worth tens of thousands of dollars, and to have it ripped out from under the "Trust" was
one of the most spectacular incidents in wrestling history.
To put things in perspective, O'Mahoney went over both Jim Londos and Ed Don
George, unifying two major strands of the heavyweight championship. Londos was said
to have received perhaps as much as $50,000 for losing the title in 1934, giving up his
undefeated run, and his celebrated title to the Trust's guy. O'Mahoney was carrying the
weight of the world on his shoulders, and it was stripped away by Shikat - all because
O'Mahoney was not a shooter capable of defending himself against a double cross.
Life went on in New York City, and Curley planned a Garden show on March 16, 1936
headlined by Ernie Dusek and Yvon Robert, two logical successors to O'Mahoney.
However, after printing tickets and preparing the card, Curley realized the facility was
booked for another event, so he had to shift to the 71st Regiment Armory. In addition to
Dusek and Robert, the Curley-Bowser group had Ed George and Dean Detton, two other
capable and youthful grapplers.
But Shikat still held all the cards when it came to the main line of the heavyweight
championship. According to the March 13, 1936 edition of the New York American,
Shikat wanted a "cash guarantee of $50,000" before he'll wrestle a representative of the
"Trust." To produce a contender for Shikat's title, Ernie Dusek and Robert battled at the
Armory on March 16 and Robert went over in 57:07 before 5,000 approving fans.
The publicity for the March 16 show was very unique. The New York American stated
that the Dusek-Robert affair began the "championless era." Lewis Burton in the March
15, 1936 edition of the American explained that Shikat had a fight with his manager,
"Toots" Mondt and "Toots" "wiped the floor with Shikat, making Shikat quite angry at the
rassling trust." Then Shikat took the title from O'Mahoney after "silently nursing a gripe"
for some time. Burton wrote that Shikat now "suspects everyone." Although he has
confidence in himself as a shooter, he doesn't have confidence in the referee. Meaning,
he believed that the referee would double-cross him out of the title instead of a wrestler
forcing him to lose by submission.
That was the reasoning behind the $50,000 guarantee demanded by Shikat, "evidently
in the belief that he will be selling out his title for that amount," Burton wrote.
Curley came out and said: "I don't care if I never promote a show with a wrestling
champion again. Instead of paying a champion's percentage we can have a good
balanced card that will attract the customers just as well. Champions aren't recognized
in this state anyhow. Of course, if O'Mahoney was champion, so is Shikat. But he can
have the title. I don't want any part of it."
One way or another, champions had always been the cornerstone of Curley's
promotions in the 1930s.
The Long Island Daily Press (11/13/1941) reported that PR agent Meyer Ackerman was
out at the Ridgewood Grove venue. Taking over the duties was Irv Rudd, then Maurie
Waxman was going to move in permanently.
The December 3, 1942 edition of the Long Island Daily Press reported that wrestling may
return to the Jamaica Arena in Queens under the auspices of Rudy Dusek's booking
office. Mike Lee, in his column "Reports the Sports," wrote that "wrestling used to do well
at the Arena," but that "instead of staging it as a spectacle and a show, the promoters
tried to peddle a phony bill of goods about 'shooting matches' and the like and the
exhibitions deteriorated." Lee continued by saying that the "wrestling picture is different
today," and that there was an increased attendance around the country because of a
"strict adherence to the theatrical technique." Sam Weiss ran the facility and planned to
feature basketball as well.
Interestingly, Weiss had previously run bingo games at the Arena, but there was
reportedly a ban on bingo by New York City Mayor LaGuardia. By December 1942,
$362,000 in war bonds had been sold to date at the Jamaica Arena.
In 1946, business from wrestling and boxing in New York State improved greatly over the
take from 1945. On Wednesday, January 15, 1947, New York State Athletic Commission
Chairman Eddie Eagan presented a financial report showing that 892 wrestling and
boxing shows in 1946 earned gross receipts of $7,771,031.45. According to the
Associated Press (1/16/47, Des Moines Register), in 1945, there were 673 boxing and
wrestling shows in New York State producing $245,321.65. Needless to say, this was a
considerable post-war boom for both sports in the state.
On March 4, 1947, a bill passed the New York State Senate that would force all
participants of professional wrestling and boxing matches to have a license beforehand.
It was already a requirement of the New York State Athletic Commission, but this law
would make it a misdemeanor if broken. It was sponsored by Republican Senator Irwin
Pakula of Queens and signed into law by Governor Dewey on April 14. The law would
affect wrestlers, boxers, managers, trainers, seconds, matchmakers, judges,
announcers, treasurers, referees, special policemen, and box-office employees,
according to the Associated Press. Pakula explained that the law was pointed at
In May 1949, Rudy Dusek and Joe "Toots" Mondt were the main suppliers of talent in the
northeast. Bill Johnston "Junior" had an important wrestling show on television at the St.
Nichols Arena and rival shows broadcast from Ridgewood Grove and the Eastern
Parkway Arena. Johnston told the press that "television has helped wrestling at least 50
per cent in the east." He staged nine shows a week, including seven in New York, plus
one in Asbury Park and another in New Brunswick. New York broadcast three shows a
week on TV, same as Chicago. Antonino Rocca and Gene Stanlee were two of the top
stars at the time in New York. Bill "Junior" wsa the son of Jimmy Johnston, the legendary
An article on referee Johnny Garan Jr. was featured in the April 1951 edition of Official
wrestling and written by C.B. Colby. Garan had been a licensed referee by the New York
State Athletic Commission for five years and prior to that, he was an "internationally
known weight lifter." He was 41 years of age and born in New York. He trained people
for the police examination at the Westchester Civil Service School. He had four
daughters. Garan was no pushover in the ring and wrestlers knew that "they must stick
pretty close to the rules...or else."
A bill was proposed on January 16, 1952 that would outlaw both professional boxing and
wrestling in the state. Queens Democrat James Fitzgerald presented the bill that would
strike against the hoodlums running both sports. The recent problem at the Garden
between Rocky Castellani and Ernie Durando was mentioned as one of the reasons why
boxing was corrupt as a referee had been attacked as well as promoter Al Weill,
according to a New York Times report (1/17/52).
The State of New York Department of State - Division of State Athletic Commission (226
West 47th Street), in its Daily Notice of Suspensions on February 3, 1953, announced
the suspensions of wrestlers Jesus Ortega and Primo Carnera. Ortega weighed 305
pounds and was booked from 351 West 42nd Street, and was suspended indefinitely for
acts detrimental to the best interest of wrestling effective January 30, 1953. Carnera
was banned indefinitely for the same reason effective the same day.
Angelo Pucci was a New York area fight promoter, and assistant matchmaker at St.
Nichols Arena. Pucci also worked in pro wrestling, and in 1959, he worked with Paul
Bowser to stage shows in Newport, Rhode Island.
The final boxing show at the famed St. Nicholas Arena was staged on Monday, May 28,
1962, and it was to be torn down to construct a 40-story building on 66th Street off
Broadway. Over 56 years, an estimated 15,000 fights had been staged there, as well as
thousands of professional wrestling matches. All the top names in the wrestling business
appeared there during its heyday.
Research by Tim Hornbaker
|New York City Wrestling Territory
James J. Walker