Nickname: The Scissors King Born: April 4, 1893 Died: March 29, 1974 (Age 80) Height: 6’ 1 ½” Weight: 210 lbs.
Signature Holds: The Body Scissors
Titles: *) Three time World Champion (Once Undisputed) *) Twice World Champion in the Olin Title Line (A disputed title)
Awards: *) WON Hall of Fame *) International Wrestling Institute and Museum Hall of Fame
BIO: Joe Stecher, the dominant wrestler of the late teens, was born April 4, 1893 on a 400-acre farm near Dodge, Nebraska. His father, a well to do Bohemian immigrant, fathered 8 children: 5 girls & 3 boys. All of the children were athletic.
The oldest brother, Lewis J. Stecher, wasn’t the best athlete on the farm but was responsible enough to earn a commission to Annapolis. He served as a captain on a submarine during WWI and later becoming a commander in the U.S. Navy and was the superior officer of the U, S. S. Melville by 1941. Lewis was too busy running the farm to have spent much time training with his brothers, but once at Annapolis he joined the Navel wrestling team, winning the national intercollegiate championship in the light heavyweight class in 1915 and the national intercollegiate heavyweight title in 1916. He also could claim a win over the great Nat Pendleton. His two sons, Robert and Lewis Jr, both graduated from Annapolis in the early 1940’s.
The five Stecher girls, Mary, Bessie, Blasta, Anna, and Elsie, were good basketball players that formed the best female team in the Dodge area.
Joe, as the youngest of the family, was closest to his other brother Anton (Tony) who was his trainer and later became his manager. After developing his body working on the family farm Joe became a major athlete at his high school in Fremont, Neb. He was an excellent swimmer, a fine golfer & tennis player, and the best baseball player in school. Baseball was his favorite sport and major league scouts considered him a minor prospect. Tony loved wrestling and Joe followed his older brother’s example. Joe excelled as a wrestler while in high school. With his strong body and long limbs, he was a natural talent. Early in life the boys watched the great Dr. Ben Roller wrestle in Dodge and that influenced both to think of a pro career.
At some point, the father moved into town to be near business, leaving the sons with the hirer help to run the farm. Joe and Tony seemed to spend most of there hours working out. This allowed Stecher to develop his legs and feared scissors hold on the farm, squeezing 100 lb. sacks of grain until they burst. It’s also claimed he wasn’t so popular with some of the farm animals. In 1911, the two boys wrestled in a finish battle behind the barn. The larger Joe defeated Tony after ninety minutes. This result force Tony into the realization that the major wrestling career was Joe’s and he was better suited to serve as his larger brother’s trainer.
The two also took trips to the Fremont YMCA for formal wrestling training. In impromptu matches, the two brothers fought off all challengers. The local Pro champ was a Frank Butler. He offered Tony a match, but found himself upset by the then ex-amateur.
Tony turning professional upset the boy’s father. The resulting arguments cause both to move out and they took jobs working for a farmer near Atlantic, Iowa. The top local wrestler was one of the best amateurs in the country, Earl Caddock. Caddock, a year older than Tony, worked days delivering meat for the Atlantic butcher and at night took on all comers in a livery stable. The three wrestlers became friends. Local farmers at Barea, Iowa arranged a match between the two future world champions in April 1912. They wrestled in a local barn in front of 38 people and Stecher won two out of three falls. Caddock wanted to remain an amateur, so Stecher kept the whole purse of $3.80.
After six months, the two returned, with major wrestling reputations, back to Dodge and were met by a forgiving father. Joe then with stood the objections of his parents and turned pro. His first formal pro match was on Nov. 23, 1912 versus Warren Miller in Sioux City Iowa. On Feb. 28, 1913, he easily defeated Bill Hokief at Dodge, Neb. to earn a purse of $26. Having trouble getting matches Tony recruited the postmaster of Dodge, Joe Hetmanek, to be their manager. None realized the potential of Joe until Farmer Burns (famed trainer of world champ Frank Gotch), planning to sucker the local gamblers, brought an unknown to Dodge for a match with the young athlete on June 17, 1913. After 45 minutes the outsider gave up and bit Stecher on the leg to get himself DQed. The ringer turned out to be the great wrestler Yussiff Hussane.
Joe Stecher then became the sensation of the wrestling world and took on a reputation as a safe bet by the gambling farmers of Nebraska. A string of victories followed over most of Farmer Burn’s best students and major pro wrestlers such as Jess Westergaard, Marin Plestina, Ad Santel and Bob Managoff. All, except for one George Turner (who had two long draws with Stecher, before being defeated in a short match, like the others, on Jan. 1, 1915.) in 2 straight falls and in short time. The wrestling powers recognized Stecher as the first great wrestler to follow Frank Gotch.
The off and on retirement of Gotch, one of the greatest sports figure in U.S. history, had created a business depression and everyone saw in Stecher a new champion in the ring and at the box office. Promoter also knew a Stecher/Gotch match would rival the money of Gotch/Hackenschmidt if handled right. Recreating the Jack Johnson/Jim Jeffries boxing angle of 1910, it was decided that Joe would establish himself as champ while Gotch got himself back into wrestling condition. Joe needed a champion to beat so Charles Cutler, the American Champion, was permitted to proclaim himself the new “Champion of the World” (2-21-15).
On July 5, 1915, Stecher easily defeated Cutler in 2 straight falls with 15,000 fans in attendance. Frank Gotch, who was still champion in the public’s mind, sat ringside in the seat of honor, and the old king’s shadow hung over any claim of Stecher. At age 21, Stecher was the youngest world champion ever. Negotiations then began than would result in a super match. Tony Stecher would later say that Gotch realized that his time was coming to an end, but wanted the entire purse to lose to the young Stecher. (Legends also tell a story about Stecher and Gotch sparing in a hotel lobby with Joe dominating the aging champion.) Tony & Joe realized the importance of the win, but their manager Joe Hetmanek had to be persuaded.
The match was being scheduled to take place at Omaha but the plan fell apart July 18, 1916, when Gotch broke the fibula of his left leg in training with the Sells Floto Circus. His health worsened until he died of uremic poisoning due to renal failure on Dec. 16, 1917. Stecher’s reputation never overcame the fact he didn’t beat the true champion and Gotch’s shadow remained to darken his career.
As the new wrestling king, Stecher’s success continued as he crossed the nation defeating opponents easily in short time and without loosing a fall. In NYC (1-17-16) he defeated one of the first masked men, Mort Henderson, at MSG. Winning two falls in less than 16 minutes. In San Francisco (2-22-17), he out classed Ad Santell, and Los Angeles (3-23-17) saw his famed body scissors squeezed the competition out of Constantine (Jack Meyers) Romanoff.
By 1915 a new wrestling sensation appeared. Ed “Stranger” Lewis would be remembered as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, primary because he had a champion to overcome. Lewis, unlike Charles Cutler, couldn’t be easily defeated and forgotten, and the two wrestler’s careers would be forever bound together. Lewis, unlike his reputation later in the century, was not a great hooker. He relied on size, stamina, and his great defensive skills to win. Ed felt he could match Stecher standing but had no chance once he was on the mat with the champion. The plan (or storyline), devised by Ed and his manager Billy Sandow, was to avoid contact and stretch the match hoping Stecher would ware himself out. This never seemed to work for Lewis, but did lead to some long boring matches.
The first was in Evansville Ohio on Oct. 10, 1915. It consisted of 2hrs & 3 min. of Lewis refusing to lock up and Stecher trying to make contact. The end saw Lewis falling out of the ring and hitting his head on a chair. The local doctor thought Lewis could continue but Lewis refused. This result inflamed the fans so much that the mayor of Evansville jumped in to the ring and held up all receipts from the match. As Lewis was inclined to do through out his career, he turned this boring disaster into a plus by emphasizing how he lasted longer than any other of Stecher’s contender. More followed.
On 7-4-16 at Omaha NB, the two legends had one of the most famous and controversial matches in wrestling history. The match was 4 hr 51min & 33 seconds of Stecher being the aggressor while Lewis refused to come out of his defensive shell. The match was stopped as darkness fell over the outside ring, followed by cushions thrown by 18,000 hooting fans. It wasn’t until the next day that the match was ruled a draw. Lewis supporters turned this mess into another moral victory. The story told through the years is that Lewis went dancing while Joe went to the hospital. This is unsupported by newspaper reports, but it is a good story, if you’re a Lewis follower.
On Dec. 7, 1916 at the Fontenelle Hotel of Omaha, Neb., Stecher married 18 year old Frances Ehlers of Scribner, Neb. The 23 year old Stecher, had going with his bride for two years. She was the daughter of Claus Ehlers, president of the First National Bank of Scribner.
On Dec. 12, 1916, Stecher’s period of invincibility came to an end. In one of the greatest forgotten matches and upsets in wrestling history, a Fin named John F. Olin defeated Joe. After two hours and & forty minutes, both wrestlers ended up outside the ring brawling. Olin wanted to continue but Stecher declined and wouldn’t return to the ring. Olin was awarded the bout by the referee. Stecher, who was without out his brother Tony this night, injured his shoulder during the match, and was out of action for over a month. In newspaper reports, no mention of a title change was made. Why the public continued to support Stecher’s title claims is unclear. John Olin’s promoters did claimed the Title, but Olin himself was mild mannered, unmanaged, and didn’t make much noise. Perhaps it was a non-title match, but in those days it is believe they considered every contest a title match with the title changing regardless to the type of finish used. It seems to me that the press refused to accept Olin, as champion because the public believed his win a fluke due to injury and none believe Olin could truly defeat Stecher. Also Frank Gotch was still alive at the time and most fans probably didn’t believe Stecher was champ to begin with. Stecher himself didn’t consider it a defeat, so the idea of Olin as champ had a lot against it. This title line, called the Olin Title Line by historians, did continue. Olin lost his “World Title” to Ed Lewis in Chicago on May 2, 1917. The Strangler would not be as mild manner as Olin.
The first reports of mental problems in Stecher began around Jan. 15, 1917, when newspaper rumors said the champion was recovering from a nervous breakdown at Excelsior Springs, Neb. He also had neuritis in an arm. Physicians told Stecher not to wrestle for several months, but Joe informed promoters that he would make all his dates. He toured the West Coast in Feb. and March 1917.
Stecher, injured, tired, and newly married, lost his title for real April 4, 1917 at Omaha, Neb. to his old friend and undefeated rival Earl Caddock. Stecher force the work in the first fall, with Caddock simply trying to stay out of the way. Once his supports had won their money on bets placed on Caddock to last sixty minutes, Earl came out of his offensive shell, but Joe won the fall in 1 hour & 22 minutes with a scissors and body hold. In the 2nd fall, Caddock went after the Champion. After 55 minutes, Earl pined Stecher using a head scissors and English Arm Bar, but the move was not allowed by the referee, who claimed he had ordered a break and a return to the center of the mat. The match continued for another 40 minutes until Caddock took the fall with a full nelson and pin. The crowd went nuts. This was the first time Stecher had ever lost a fall and few, like Lewis, and Olin, had even lasted for any length of time. Stecher then remained in the dressing room and refused to return for the 3rd fall. After notice was served to his seconds to produce their man, the fall and World Title was awarded to Caddock.
Why Stecher refused to return to the ring is unknown. Perhaps he was injured or too sick to continue. Perhaps he lost his nerve. Joe himself claimed he was never told to return and, in truth, he was experiencing problems with his manager, having tried to switch to the Gotch camp in Dec. 1914.
I personally believe Joe’s failure was just a 1917’s version of a screw finish. Joe dropped his title to his friend Caddock and the plan was for Joe to be the first to regain the title with a win over a great wrestler, but WWI changed their plans (also Caddock’s management had a falling out with Jack Curley, head of the wrestling trust).
Following the loss, newspaper reported that many Nebraskans lost bets from $30,000 to $60,000 and some even lost their farms. Stecher’s reputation as a sure bet had taken a beating too.
On 9-17-17, Joe Hetmanek’s management agreement ran out and he was replaced. Tony Stecher became the manager for the rest of Joe’s career.
1917, with the world at war, saw both Stecher and Caddock join the armed serves; Joe enlisted in the Navy, like his oldest brother. Earl picked the Army. Stecher seems to have made the better choice. While still in country they both continued to wrestle.
In the late teens four wrestlers dominated pro-wrestling in North American, Stecher, Caddock, Lewis, and a forgotten man Wladek Zbyszko (brother of Stanislaus). New York promoter Jack Curry had taken control of pro wrestling and, during the years 1917 to 1920, he booked the group so that they shared wins & loses and he did a great job in keeping all four strong. The Olin Title was still around, but it had been traded back & fourth between Lewis and Zbyszko. Caddock defeated both of them in unification matches, but, because of size, he was unable to pin either one of them clean. Decision wins, which were new to the sport, were not popular with the public and the title claims continued.
After dropping the title, Stecher continued to win until Match 1, 1918, when he wrestled Wladek Zbyszko to a two hour draw at MSG. After Lewis defeated Wladek on March 19, 1918 via DQ, he and Joe wrestled a draw April 26, 1918 at MSG. (The two rivals had learned to work together and it was said to have been a good match.) Between June and Dec. of 1918, Wladek and Stecher wrestled three times, with Joe winning two and drawing in the other. On Feb. 24, 1919 (may be Feb. 23 or Feb. 25 ?) at Sioux City, Iowa, Stecher lost via a decision to Zbyszko. This was a mess of a match and the fans rioted. The decision for Wladek was announced the next day and the wrestling powers (mainly Jack Curley) stop relying on the decision finishes.
On March 3, 1919, Ed Lewis defeated Stecher for the first time. In Chicago, he beat Joe with his headlock in two hours and twelve minutes. After the riot in Sioux City, Curley finally realized he needed real finishes and this first clean loss in Stecher’s career was the result. The loss by Stecher, put Lewis on the same level and set up the rivalry for the years to come. On March 10, 1919, Stecher also did a clean job in a 2/3 fall match to Wladek Zbyszko at Kansas City.
Wladek followed that win with two clean wins over Ed Lewis in NYC and Chicago. These wins mixed with reports that Earl Caddock was sick in Europe (The Army had moved him to France and with reports of all the dead, it seemed Caddock would never return.) and about to retire, made Wladek Zbyszko’s claim to the world title (he had taken the Olin Title from Lewis) the logical next step in the storyline.
But on May 9, 1919, Stecher began a comeback by defeated Wladek Zbyszko for the Olin World Title at Louisville. Stecher followed that with perhaps his greatest victory, beating and dominating Ed Lewis in a two straight fall win on July 4, 1919 at Omaha (site of the remembered legendary five hour draw and mess that took place three years to the day before). Joe won the first fall in 1 hour and 47 minutes and the second in 14 minutes; both with his scissors/wrist lock finish. The referee was Earl Caddock, home from the war.
In late 1919, with WWI ending and all the wrestling talent being discharged, Jack Curley set up a double elimination tournament between Stecher, Zbyszko and Lewis with the winner to meet Caddock in MSG for the Undisputed World Title.
On July 14, Stecher defeated Zbyszko at Lincoln and followed that with another huge win over Ed Lewis in New York on Nov. 3, 1919. Wladek then pined Lewis in Boston on Nov. 27, to eliminate him from the tournament. A Stecher victory over Zbyszko in New York on Dec. 8 gave him the right to meet Earl Caddock. To also clean up the title picture, Stecher defeated John Olin on Dec. 15 and John Pesek (who claimed the title after beating Zbyszko) on Jan. 16, 1920.
The second Stecher/Caddock match is one of the few Super Matches in wrestling’s history that lived up to its hype. These two wrestlers put on a great match in front of a huge crowd of New York City’s elite society. Joe Stecher wore down the weaken Caddock and pined him in two hrs & five minutes, using his body scissors and wrist lock for the pin. Film of it exists today and the work holds up. People have said it was the last great shoot match with a world title on the line. I don’t believe that. What we see on tape is just the old style of wrestling. Wrestling was always worked and never relied on true contests, but this night may have been high point of wrestling’s existence. The high didn’t last long; with in the next few years Billy Shandow, Ed Lewis, and others would begin there control of the sport, reshaping it into what we know today, but at that moment in history, Joe Stecher was the first true Undisputed World Champion sense Frank Gotch.
A newspaper reported on Feb. 3, 1920, that a gambling syndicate, composed of five Stecher admirers, had covered more than $30,000 of Caddock backer’s money in Iowa alone. After his win, Joe received twenty percent of the gross, “plus a share of what was left.”
For the next 10 months Stecher defeated every contender thrown in front of him. He beat Wladek Zbyszko twice, Jim Londos twice, and Joe Malcewicz. On April 16, 1920, he defeated Ed Lewis again in NYC, pining his rival in a grueling match that lasted 3 hrs and 4 minutes, using a head scissors and armlock.
But it was not the booking style of Jack Curley and the promoters of that time to let anyone stay on top for long. They remember the damage done by allowing Gotch to control the title, burning up all the contenders to get himself over until there was nothing left, and they weren’t going to repeat the mistake.
In July, Stecher injured his left arm playing baseball with the Stecher Club of Dodge and need another trip to Excelsior Springs for treatment. Retirement became the main subject of all his interviews.
His title rein came to an end on 12-13-20 at the Seventy-first Regiment Armory in NYC, when Ed Lewis pined Stecher after a series of headlocks in what was described as a great one hour & forty-five minute match. With this win Lewis became the major wrestler in the game. Stecher again injured his left arm or shoulder during the match and spent several days in an Omaha hospital. He also had some bad teeth removed.
With the development of Sport Pages and Radio, Sports become big business in America during the 1920’s, and Lewis’s personality fit in perfectly with the times. This and the win over the great Stecher, raised him high in the eyes of mainstream public.
A return match for the title did not follow. Stanislaus Zbyszko, untouched sense losing to Frank Gotch in 1910, return from exile in Europe and was groomed as the major contender to Lewis crown. Stecher put over Zbyszko in NYC on March 4, 1921 to set up Stan’s win over Lewis for the title on May 6, 1921. (The first undisputed rein of the Strangler lasted a little over five and a half months.)
Stecher was then given a rematch with the new champ in Kansas City on May 27, 1921, only to lose. Even with these wins, Stanislaus never became a major draw as champion. Old and of the traditional school of wrestler, he couldn’t live up to the color of Lewis or the hardcore popularity of Stecher. Despite his reputation as a great wrestler and star, it’s hard to find evidence that he was a major draw in America even before the war.
With no title on the line, Joe Stecher and Ed Lewis were matched again Oct. 4, 1921 at San Francisco with Joe winning again, via a very close decision. The two stars of the game seemed to be working well together at the time, but the co-operation would soon fall apart. It would be years before the next meeting. Ed Lewis regained his World Title March 3, 1922 by beating Stan Zbyszko at Wichita.
For long time I’ve wondered why Billy Sandow would allow his man, Ed Lewis, to do a job to his old rival Stecher at this point in his career, but I now believe that this was just the booking style of Jack Curley. Lewis/Sandow was still under the control of Curley and wouldn’t break free until Nov. 1921, when Curley lost power under a newly formed Athletic Commission in New York State. With Curley lacking a promoter’s licence, Tex Rickard, a boxing promoter who ran MSG, took over the promotion of wrestling in the big city and Rickard somehow lost control of Lewis and Zbyszko. From past booking patterns, it’s not hard to see the plans of Curley. I think Stecher had been promised the title back at some point. Perhaps this win over Lewis was going to lead to a win over Zbyszko for the title, but with Curley losing power, all promises and plans were forgotten.
After doing a major job to Wladek Zbyszko in MSG on Feb. 21, 1922, Stecher wrestled very little during 1922, 1923, and 1924. It seems that Stecher was playing minor league baseball during these years. He may have even owned a minor league club, sense it’s known that one local team was named after him. He played first base and was a hard hitter. Newspaper reports of Jan. 1924 claimed that Stecher had signed with the Philadelphia Nationals Baseball Club and would go to there southern training camp during the spring.
On Dec. 13, 1923, Joe and Tony Stecher showed up ringside for a Ed Lewis/Josef Gurkeweicz title defense in St. Louis. Manager Billy Sandow refused to start the match if the two Stechers were allowed to enter the ring. After the first fall, Tony Stecher offered Lewis $15,000 for a title match in St. Louis. Sandow said Stecher could have the match if he was able to defeated Stanislaus Zbyszko or John Pesek first. Stecher defeated Stanislaus Zbyszko on Jan. 27, 1924, but the promise of a Lewis match was forgotten.
The idea, of policemen protecting the champion, was never stronger than with this Lewis Company. Pesek, Mondt, and even old Zbyszko stood before anyone trying to get at Lewis and it seems to me that the main problem, that the Strangler need to be protected from, was Joe Stecher. Ed Lewis may not have worried about Joe, but Billy Sandow sure did.
Lewis and Sandow (Toots Mondt joined the two in Oct. 1922 as a trainer and wrestler) controlled the title for three years and the new forms of 20’s publicly turned the “Strangler” into one of sport’s superstars. It was not a good period for pro-wrestling over all, but Lewis himself was a huge draw. Billy Sandow didn’t follow the balanced booking style of Jack Curley, but reverted back to the “scorched earth” style of Frank Gotch. Lewis defeated Zbyszko, Pesek, Londos, and Toots Mondt over and over until none could draw (well Londos could always draw). A new contender was needed and it wasn’t Stecher.
In 1924, Sandow attempted to make a major star out of a famous football celebrity of the time: Wayne “Big” Munn. He was the forerunner of many of the wrestlers of today like Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Goldberg etc. He couldn’t wrestle but he looked good. Munn pinned Lewis for the title Jan. 8, 1925 at Kansas City with plans of a rematch at a super promotion on May 30. The angle was working as planed until Sandow booked Munn verse old Stan Zbyszko in Philadelphia on April 15, 1925. Zbyszko, who always had strong ties with Jack Curley, easily double-crossed the non-wrestler Munn and stole the title in Philadelphia.
Stecher became more active at the beginning of 1925, but wasn’t getting his old push. He didn’t lose but he had a few draws with Jim Londos, Renato Gardini and the unknown Ivan Zaikian.
In Feb. 19, 1925 a Stecher interview, published in an Omaha Newspaper, in which he seemed to admit engaging in fixed matches was filed with the N.Y. Athletic Commission. Stecher was forced to appear before the Commission during the investigation that followed. Joe denied any involvement and claimed he was being set up by his enemies, the Lewis group.
On May 30, 1925, Stanislaus Zbyszko was paid $50,000 by Jack Curley, Tom Pack, Tony Stecher and others to drop his new World Title in straight falls to Joe Stecher at St. Louis. 13,500 fans saw Stecher once again become the king of wrestling.
Lewis, who came up with many reasons to continue to still recognize Wayne Munn as champion, defeated Munn for that title the same day at Michigan City, Indiana. The Lewis group published many stories during this period to discredit Stecher’s title claim and even got the referee from the first title loss to Munn to reverse his decision. Lewis even tried to get the public to believe he wasn’t pined by Munn. Munn himself gave interviews saying he was never champion. The Stecher group then produced the referee from the March 3, 1922 Zbyszko title loss to Lewis and had him reverse his decision. It all became very funny to the public, who knew about the Zbyszko double-cross and didn’t believe any of the hype. Lewis’s group lost strength and most of his wrestlers moved over to the Stecher promotion.
The Lewis people tried other tricks. During early 1926, Boston promoter Paul Boswer began promoting wrestler Joe Malcewicz as the uncrowned world champion. He created a story that Malcewicz had wrestled champion Earl Caddock in Dec. 1919, before the famed Caddock title loss to Stecher in MSG, and been given a decision win at Utica, NY. They claimed the champion’s loss was hushed up by Jack Curley and Malcewicz was too stupid to make any claims until 1926. This untrue story remained with Malcewicz for the rest of his career. The facts are that the match didn’t happen in 1919, but on Jan. 14, 1921, long after Caddock had dropped the title. Stecher also defeated Malcewicz in a title match on Feb. 11, 1920 at Utica.
On March 11, 1926, Stecher accepted a booking in Boston. He knew the promoter, Paul Boswer, was a member of the Lewis clan, but the large purse of $12,000 seemed worth the risk. Boswer advertised the match as Stecher vs “the Unknown”, but the press hinted that the secret opponent was Joe Malcewicz. Stecher himself was told that the opponent was Jake Brissler, and that he could pick the referee of his choice. Stecher also wanted his purse paid before the match. The day of the match, Boswer told Stecher he couldn’t pay his the $12,000 but offered him a percentage of the house. Since the guy he was wrestling wasn’t major, Joe agreed but wanted his money before the match started. Boswer agreed and the deal was made that Tony would be given a check before the start of the match. The Stechers must have suspected something before even going to the arena.
Jack Brissler was the first in the ring followed by Joe and Tony Stecher. Then the Stecher/Jack Curley referee, Lou Grace, was not allowed into the ring and replaced with a Bowser referee. A group of men formed around Brissler, and he was hustled out of the ring. Joe Malcewicz, who had been sitting ringside in street cloths, jumped into the ring and was declared by the ring announcer to be the “Unknown”. Faced with the obvious double-cross, the Stechers jumped from the ring and returned to the dressing room as the announcer proclaimed Malcewicz “the new heavyweight champion of the world.”
As Malcewicz wrestled sub Ned McGuire, the Stechers held a press conference in the dressing room explaining their side of the mess. They stated they were willing to meet Malcewicz at any time for a side bet of $10,000 and stated that the worry was the Boswer referee Burbank. The press reported the mess for what it was, a failed double-cross, and the public never paid much attention to it. Nothing resulted from Malcewicz’s title claim and it seemed to be forgotten. Stecher was banned by the New York Athletic Commission (March 26) for a short time, but that was lifted when Joe returned to the East to wrestle Jim Londos in May 1926.
It’s been said that Stecher sat on his title, not defending his championship, but the opposite is true. In that 2 ½ years, he defended vs the best in the world. This theory seemed to come from books written in the East and New York City. What did happen is that he moved to a place that was becoming a major sports town and the most glamorous cities in America, Los Angeles. Many of his most important defenses took place in the city next to Hollywood. He moved with most of the Stecher family into house in Long Beach, witch was located near beaches and the Pike Amusement Park. The city was the Orlando of it’s time.
The 1920’s were the time of much public building and on Aug. 10, 1925 Stecher defended his title vs Renato Gardini on the first wrestling card at the new Olympic Auditorium, which, until the new Madison Square Garden was build in 1928, was billed as the largest indoor arena in America.
For a few years, a rivalry had existed between Stecher and John Pesek in St. Louis. Joe had won the title in that city and one of his biggest matches had taken place in St. Louis, a defeat of Jim Londos on Feb. 10, 1926. This rivalry had started before Pesek left his job as policeman and hatchet man for the Lewis group. Pesek was a ripper who took pride in hurting people for money and he had been banned in New York State for doing just that. Stecher seemed to respect him over all his contenders, even Lewis.
During the first week of April 1926, a conference of the major wrestling promoters and powers, such as the Stechers, took place at Omaha. What came out of that meeting may have been the foundation of the sport over the coming years. It also seems to have set up a system of a touring World Champion thru out the newly forming territories.
At this meeting Stecher announced that he was going to take time off in order to train for a super match with John Pesek at a site all the promoters would bid for. The storyline was that St. Louis promoter Tom Pack, out bid Aurolio Fabiana (Philadelphia), Jack Curley (NYC), and Lou Daro (L. A.) for the match that took place on April 26, 1926.
Pesek won the first fall in three hours and fifthteen seconds with a Head Scissors and Double Wrist Lock. Stecher won the second fall with a Double Wing Lock in thirdly three minutes and fifty six seconds. The third fall ended in forty minutes and thirty five seconds when Pesek fell from ring, hitting his head on floor, to be counted out. The in ring match lasted four hours and fourteen minutes and took over five hours to complete. It was said to be a classic match and Stecher’s purse was said to be $30,000.
After Stecher defeated Jim Londos again in Philadelphia on June 10, 1926 in front of 15,000, he met John Pesek in a Los Angeles rematch on Aug. 24, 1926 that ended as a two hour draw. It was strange contest, in that both didn’t sell for the others finishing hold and that the match was said to be uninteresting.
After defeating Zbyszko for the title, Joe stated he would not defend vs Ed Lewis because “The Strangler” had refused to meet him during his title reign. After the two messes with the New York Commission and the Malcewicz match in Boston, Stecher went on the offense and began accepting Lewis’s challenges. Lewis backed away.
In late Aug. 1926, Seth Strelinger, chairman of the California Athletic Commission, force the two to agree to meet at The Olympic Auditorium on Oct. 6. Both wrestlers posted $5,000 bonds. The Lewis/Sandow group had pretty much fallen part after the title lost, with most of his wrestlers going over to the Stecher group. What was left was being booked in to an old boxing arena a few miles from downtown L. A. in Vernon, Calif.
Two weeks (Sept. 24) before the match, Lewis claims he broke his left elbow and the Stecher/Lewis match was moved back six weeks. To replace that super match, Lou Daro signed John Pesek for a third match.
On Oct. 6, 1926, Stecher won the first fall in forty one minutes and ten seconds with a double-bar arm lock and Pesek evened the match in twenty one minutes and forty five seconds with a head scissors and double-wrist lock. The third fall saw Pesek tear into Stecher with frenzy. It is said that Pesek threw Stecher all over the ring with all sorts of holds, ranging from “figure fours” to hammerlocks to strangle holds to just plain muscle wrenching. At one point, it looked like Pesek had Stecher beat with a head scissors but the referee, Tommy Travers, ruled the hold a strangle that had to be broken. Still on top, Pesek applied another form of wrist lock and some have said that Stecher submitted. The referee then stopped the contest and Pesek supporters claim that Travers first attempted to raise John’s arm, but then had a change of mind and disqualified Pesek and ruled the finishing hold a strangle. Most fans favored Pesek and it’s been written (years later) that Stecher cried following the match. The Athletic Commission backed up the referee two days later.
This match has always been considered a double-cross by John Pesek. Who put him up to it isn’t truly known. It would seem to be the Lewis’s group, but it may have just been just Pesek’s ego. All three matches in 1926 were billed to seem like shoot matches to the fans, perhaps they were or the two lost their tempers. We can only make guesses. Pesek continued to work with the Stecher group, but he also recorded more losses during the year following. Following a draw with Jim Londos (July 20, 1927) at The Olympic, John Pesek wrestled Paul Jones on Aug. 3, 1927, with the winner to wrestle Joe Stecher on the next card for the title. Pesek lost.
Ed Lewis never wrestled Stecher in Los Angeles in 1926. On Oct. 8 Lewis told the Athletic Commission that he was bored with Los Angeles and left town. Refusing to meet Stecher, he forfeited his $5,000. Jim Londos subbed for Lewis on Dec. 1, 1926 (a draw) and Stecher is given $2,500 and Lou Daro $2,500 of The Strangler’s money. Lewis also backed down from Stecher in other cities, such as Chicago.
It was during the 1920’s that wrestling took the form that we recognize today. Many of the strong territories were established at that time and the developing pro sports movement created a need for the building of new larger indoor arenas and stadiums. These new buildings needed dates filled and they turned to wrestling to help cover them. Most promoters before 1925 would stage there shows three to four weeks apart, but as the 20’s progress, they realized that the more shows you ran… the more money you make. A theory many go by, is that at any time in wrestling history, the number of true shooter/hookers remains constant, so worker/performer types became more important as the number of wrestlers increased. Bigger arena’s also mean that they needed to be filled with fans who needed entertainment, not just traditional wrestling (which always relied on gambling). So the style was speeded up and brawling was added, and it began to rely more on the use of the hero/villain storylines. Matches also became shorter, because fans didn’t want to concentrate for two and a half hour on the same contest every night, and more matches were added to each card to fill out the time. This all created a need for more wrestlers or something that resembled one.
Wrestling evolved to fit the situation of a changing sports world. No one person was responsible. These changes started during the period of Sandow/Lewis control (1922 to April 1925), but they really took form during Stecher’s last reign (April 1925 to 1928). Toots Mondt liked to take credit for this evolution of pro wrestling, but it is my theory and strong belief that the Golddust trio idea was created for the book FALL GUYS in 1936. It was Stecher that toured the nation and it was Stecher who opened many of these arenas, including The Olympic Auditorium in L. A.
In late 1926 and through 1927 toured the nation. He hit traveled though the mid-west, the south and the east coast, playing every major wrestling city in America. In these matches he met Jim Londos, Ray Steele, Dick Daviscourt, Renato Gardini, Paul Jones, Rudy Dusek, Ivan Podulny, Nick Lutze, Wladek Zbyszko, George Calza, George Kotsonaros, Charley Hansen, Giovanni Raicevich, and Jim Browning.
From 1925 to 1928, the Sandow groups fell apart or at least weaken. Lewis claims as champion continued but he had injury, conditioning, and eating problems, and his eye infections, which had bothered him sense 1920, worsen. Most of his wrestlers switch sides to make money with Stecher, and he was left with just Wayne Munn and Toots Mondt to wrestle. He still had a few territories, but mainly he was limited to minor areas and was inactive for long periods. What he had going for him was the fans perception of him as a great wrestler and the super Stecher/Lewis event. The public wanted to see the two meet. It is not known how much of this Lewis/Stecher rivalry was worked. The two had always worked together during there careers. These two groups seemed to be shopping the super match all over the country.
By late 1927, Stecher, who was once again worn out, and thinking he had enough money, was doing interviews talking about leaving wrestling and retiring to his farm forever. Deals were made and the match was set for St. Louis. The POLICE GAZETTE had published this retirement rumor in Dec. 1926 and other newspapers had reported that Stecher was making $275, 000 a year as champion.
It was St. Louis promoter Tom Pack who finally signed the match for Feb. 20, 1928. In front of more than 7,500 fans, the acting Mayor of St. Louis, two State Senators, the Circuit Judge, the City Registrar, twenty city officials of Evansville, Ind., more than fifty newsmen, two wirer services, and most of the major wrestling promoters in the nation, including Jack Curley, Julius Siegel, Paul Bowser, Ed White, and Ray Fabiana. (I think Lou Daro called in sick, having lost a street fight to one of his wrestler in Jan.) Special trains arrived from such cites as Hannibal, Mo. Kansas City and Chicago and the price for a ringside seat was $25. The gate ended up at $65,000. Offers for a national radio broadcast were turned down by the promoter Tom Pack and overtures from film companies were refused, because the high powered lamps would produce too much heat.
The match was billed as 2/3 falls to a finish. The first fall saw both men wrestling defensively, with Lewis slightly the aggressor. Most of the fall saw the wrestlers standing, but Lewis did take Stecher down a few time but no real holds were applied. Unlike in past matches, Ed was more willing to mix, with Stecher waiting for Lewis to make a mistake. Neither wrestler received much punishment. Things seemed to speed up at the two hour mark and the end came unexpectedly. At two hours, sixteen minutes, and 32 seconds, Lewis put Stecher into an arm lock and body block for the pin. After a rest period, the two returned to the ring and Stecher surprised everyone by pining Lewis using the identical hold in fifty-six seconds. The third fall took twelve minutes and fifty seconds, with Stechers legs over the edge of the ring and over the ropes, Lewis used another body hold and arm lock to pin Stecher. At no time during the match was Lewis’s headlock or Stecher’s scissors a factor.
The next day Tony Stecher protested the finish of the third fall, due to Joe’s feet being in the ropes, and also claimed Joe was pined by a fast count in the first, but no one was listening or cared, least of all Joe who announced his retirement and return to his farm and grain business in Nebraska a rich man.
Lewis claimed he was the champion all along and told stories about how the difference between he and Stecher came down to heart. It reminded me of Bill Russell raging on Wilt Chamberlaid after his retirement. Lewis always would claim the match was the “shoot” it was promoted to be, but anyone can see that both the second and third falls were theatrical. In Lewis unpublished Bio, he claimed only the first fall was a contest. That seems more believable and Lewis did train down to 227 pounds for the match, a weight he would never make again. Three weeks later his weight was 240. I personally believe this was one of the most important matches in the history of pro wrestling, and no match was more thought out or negotiated. I can’t believe the wrestling powers would leave anything to chance.
This was not just a title change, it was a power change. I believe that it was the first step in moving the sport past the Lewis/Stecher era of wrestling, which had been going on sense 1915. This match had to take place, because the public had been promised it thru out the 1920’s, but with Stecher gone, the promoters had no intention of keeping Lewis as a long term champion. Lewis continued through 1928 as champion and had his first match with Gus Sonnenber in June. He spent the summer in Germany drinking beer and return fat and out of shape in Sept. Lewis lost the Title to Sonnenber on Jan. 4, 1929 in Boston.
Stecher retired to Nebraska, but low grain prices during the depression force a return in Jan. 1929. He’s position as champion gone; he became an employee of the Boswer/Shadow group and later the Curley/Londos’s company.
His first major match back was in Boston on Feb. 21, 1929, where he lost to his old rival Joe Malcewicz. It would seem to have been done to test his loyalty to bosses Paul Boswer and Billy Shadow, sense Stecher was later given wins over Malcewicz in Los Angeles (April 17, 1929) and in Tulsa (May 13, 1929).
On 5-1-29 Stecher lost to Lewis at L.A. Three more losses to Lewis follow that year plus at least 2 to the World Champion Gus Sonnenberg. In 1930, he wrestled Lewis and Sonnenber again before going on a tour of Australia with Lewis where the two shared a win and a lost with two draws.
A return match with John Pesek was set up in Columbus on Oct. 8, 1931, but it was cancelled when Pesek was injured in a car accident. The match instead took place on Jan. 1, 1932 for Pesek’s Columbus MWA World Title. Stecher lost in sixty four minutes.
He had two major matches with Jim Londos in Chicago in 1933. The first was a draw on Jan. 19. To be given draw vs Londos was sign of great respect. Jimmy wasn’t even dropping falls during these years. The rematch was on March 3, a Stecher loss, that drew 16,800.
Stecher wrestled until 1934. He was respected and always kept strong. He remained a major box office star and a serious title contender. He never got fat and his condition and work remained at a top level. His loses were usually to world champions such as Pesek, Everett Marshall, Jim Londos, and Jim Browning, but Joe never won another title. His last match is believed to have taken place on Feb. 21, 1934. It was a loss to Champion Jim Browning in Chicago. Browning’s idol was Joe Stecher.
Stetcher, always quite and sensitive, develop health problems. He had an emotional breakdown and suffered from uncontrolled depression. His wife with his children left him and he was institutionalized in a Veteran’s Hospital for 30 years; looked after by his brother Tony, until the older brother’s death on Oct. 10, 1954. Joe Stecher died March 29, 1974 at age 80.
Joe Stecher by all accounts was one of the best wrestler, shooter, and hooker of all times. Lou Thesz worked out with him in the late 30’s when Joe was living in a hospital. Even with Stecher being totally out of shape, Lou said he was a “Monster”, who was a great technical wrestler in every way.
Stecher’s public legend suffers when compared with Ed Lewis. Much of this has to do with Lewis’s out going personality and the fact he stayed in public eye much longer. Lewis wrestled longer and traveled the nation as World Champion Lou Thesz’s manager and pro wrestling’s ambassador, always promoted as the best wrestler in history. Joe always was quiet and stayed to himself even in his early years. His publicity mainly came from his brother and manager Tony. His mental problems probably affected his public image also. The biggest damage was done when he was unable to get Champion Frank Gotch in the ring. Stecher’s title win over Charlie Cutler looks small when compared with Lewis’s big title wins over Joe. What’s forgotten is Stecher’s dominance of “The Strangler” in the teens. Stecher was the superior technical shooter. In the matches that may have been shoots, Lewis ran from Stecher. Lewis had weird strength, size, stamina, and balance that enabled him to beat people, but he did not have the skills of Stecher. Lewis also was afraid of Stecher. Not once did Lewis ever defend his title vs Joe. (I see Stecher as the Champion in their Feb. 20, 1928 match.) The stories that Stecher hide in 1925 to 1928 can not be proven if one looks at the record. He wrestled Pesek (3 times), Londos, both Zbyszkos, Steele, Browning, Malcewicz etc. He challenged Lewis in LA & Chicago and Lewis left town. This is not meant as a put down of Lewis, he will always be remembered with Ruth, & Dempsey as one of the major sports figures of the roaring 20’s; but Dempsey had his Gene Tunney and Lewis had his Joe Stecher.
Recommended Match 1) Earl Caddock vs Joe Stecher (1-30-17)
Sources: 1) Mainly Newspapers of the time from N.Y., L .A., Chicago, S.F. etc. 2) The research of Don Luce, Fred Hornby, J. Michael Kenyon, Koji Miyamoto, Richard Haynes, John Williams, Mark Hewitt, Jim Melby, Ross Schneider Altho the conclusions & interpretations are the reponsabilty of Steve Yohe 3) The Ring Record Book of Joe Stecher by Richard Haynes 4) The WAWLI Papers by J. Michael Kenyon 5) “From Milo To Londos” published by “The Ring” Magazine 6) “The Arena” Jan. 1931-Article by Jim Barrett 7) Interview from S. F. Chronicle on 2-25-17
Originally posted by Steve Yohe: Joe Stecher By Steve Yohe & John Williams
After six months, the two returned, with major wrestling reputations, back to Dodge and were met by a forgiving father. Joe then with stood the objections of his parents and turned pro. His first formal pro match was on Nov. 23, 1912 versus Warren Miller in Sioux City Iowa. On Feb. 28, 1913, he easily defeated Bill Hokief at Dodge, Neb. to earn a purse of $26.
I think the date for the last match was 2-26-13 in Dodge and the man he faced was William "Bill" Hokuff, who was claiming the Nebraska State Title.
Why Stecher refused to return to the ring is unknown. Perhaps he was injured or too sick to continue. Perhaps he lost his nerve. Joe himself claimed he was never told to return and, in truth, he was experiencing problems with his manager, having tried to switch to the Gotch camp in Dec. 1914.
I know there were some deals being worked by Emil Klank to secure Stecher's contract at that time, but after everything fell through, Stecher seemed proud to have not been affiliated and trained by either Farmer Burns or Gotch. He was adamant in 1916 saying that Burns was never his coach and that he had learned everything from Tony.
I personally believe Joe’s failure was just a 1917’s version of a screw finish. Joe dropped his title to his friend Caddock and the plan was for Joe to be the first to regain the title with a win over a great wrestler
This is still debatable, although it does seem highly possible.
On 9-17-17, Joe Hetmanek’s management agreement ran out and he was replaced. Tony Stecher became the manager for the rest of Joe’s career.
There were major disagreements between Hetmanek and Stecher, including the fact that Hetmanek wanted Joe to get himself a trainer other than Tony. Stecher broke with Hetmanek as early as 9-8, prior to Hetmanek agreeing to end all dealings with the wrestler on 9-12.
Early in life the boys watched the great Dr. Ben Roller wrestle in Dodge and that influenced both to think of a pro career.
Not only did they see him, but both wrestled and lost matches to him at the Fremont YMCA. Roller was in the area taking on all comers. Both Stechers were amateurs at the time. Roller later established some sort of title claim based on this win over Joe.
Typo...he was Jacob "Jake" Brissler of Perry, Iowa.
This was totally compelling. Thank you Steve for your work and research. Professional wrestling from that era has such a strange fascination. The fact that those wrestlers that you wrote about are known by such a very few number of sports fans is tragic. That kind of professional wrestling was the most brutal, tough, and amazing sports that has existed in America.
I think it was members of the Caddock family that was upset over the fact that I thought Earl worked matches. That was four years ago & I don't know how long their feeling were hurt.
The 190 lb Caddock pined Ed Lewis, who everyone likes to think of as a great wrestler & outweighted Earl by 50 pounds. If that was a shoot...then Caddock is the greatest true wrestler of all time. This took place on June 8, 1920 at Des Moines, which is after the title loss to Stecher, which is after his lungs were gased in WWII. He also had clean wins over Wladek Zbyszko, John Pesek, Jim Londos, & Ad Santel. If those were shoots, he is the best pound for pound wrestler in history. Anyone who writes that Caddock's health ruined him after WWII hasn't seen the record or just wants to stick with old family stories. Chapman thinks I disgraced the family by saying Caddock "worked" matches.
Part of the problem, may be, that he wants to write the story himself and he doesn't like anyone messing with his storyline. The gas story explains or gives an excuse for the losses to Lewis & Stan Zbyszko in 20 & 21. He may also want to end Caddock's carreer with the loss to Stecher. I don't know. The only wrestler he wants to push harder is Frank Gotch.
Chapman is a great man, wonderfull person, who does as he does in a world of his own.
I am a old hippie from Montebello who has finished his Caddock Bio and doesn't plan on writing any more about him.--Yohe
Over the last few days I have been reading up on Earl Caddock, and I don't think calling him one of the greatest wrestlers of his era is far off! In his weight group I don't think there were many who could compete with him. Weather the gas was legit or not, there was nothing wrong with him losing to Lewis or Wladek (IF they were shoots, which I doubt given both's track record) would not be a big mark against him. Well maybe Wladek, but both men did out weigh Caddock by close to 50lbs and this may have been close to Lewis's peak as a wrestler.
I'm glad that Caddock is getting the credit he deserves. And he does indeed belong in the same class as Santel, Pesek, Lewis and Stecher.
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