Imagine sitting in a temporary wooden grandstand on the Fourth of July, watching two heavyweight professional wrestlers “bunny-hug.”
For one hour, then two. Three and four hours pass.
Now dusk is falling. No lights, still no action. Some in the crowd, likely already losers on bets on their home-state favorite, get restless and toss cushions into the ring at the wrestlers.
A few lanterns are rounded up. An auto, maybe a Model T, is pulled up ringside so its headlights can help out.
Finally, after nearly five hours, the bout is declared a draw. No winner.
But this match — Joe Stecher of Dodge, Nebraska, against Ed “Strangler” Lewis — 100 years ago on July 4, 1916, at the old Douglas County Fairgrounds in Benson became legendary.
In 1983, World-Herald columnist Wally Provost said it was Omaha’s most famous Fourth of July sports event. In 1966, Dynamo Dennison, whom Provost called “a sports historian nonpareil,” said upon his 65th birthday that Stecher-Lewis had been Omaha’s greatest sports attraction.
And Stecher-Lewis was included in the “Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories,” written in 1976 by Howard Liss and Joe Mathieu. It was a book I read as a 14-year-old, and I developed a fascination with this story, perhaps the only sporting event in the city’s history at that time to rate mention.
Who were the main figures?
Joe Stecher, the good guy in the locals’ eyes. The pride of Dodge County, Stecher was wrestling’s champion after beating Charles Cutler on July 5, 1915, at the Rourke baseball park at 13th and Vinton. He would win and lose the title three times. He died in 1974.
Ed “Strangler” Lewis, their villain. Real name Robert Herman Julius Friedrich, the Wisconsin native took the moniker of an 1890s-vintage pro wrestler. He was a six-time world champion, taking the title for his first time from Stecher in 1920. He died in 1966.
Gene Melady, the promoter. Captain of Notre Dame’s first football team in 1887, he became a livestock man and moved to Omaha in 1901 from Sioux City, Iowa. His first big event was Stecher-Cutler. He lived in Omaha near 90th and Pacific Streets until his death in 1957.
Ed W. Smith, the referee. Smith was the sports editor of the Chicago American daily and a widely known wrestling and boxing referee in the Midwest and West. He also was referee for Stecher-Cutler.
Joe Hetmanek, Stecher’s manager. The Stecher brothers hired the postmaster in their hometown for a time in the 1910s to manage their careers.
Billy Sandow, Lewis’ manager. Real name Wilhelm Baumann, he was the Vince McMahon of his generation for creating storylines. He hooked up with Lewis in 1914.
Stecher and Lewis first met in Evansville, Indiana, the previous October. The Evansville Courier reported that the heavyweight title had been vacant since Frank Gotch retired five years earlier and Stecher and Lewis had defeated all other contenders.
After Stecher beat Cutler, Melady was working to stage Stecher-Lewis in Omaha when Hetmanek offered to have Stecher wrestle Lewis in Evansville on Oct. 20. That bout lasted 2:03, Lewis reportedly refusing to mix it up with the Nebraskan until Stecher rushed Lewis through the ropes. The Courier reported Lewis hit his head on a chair and fell into the crowd onto the floor. Later reports confirmed he suffered a broken finger and a groin injury during the bout.
The controversial finish in Evansville went into the books as a draw. The city’s mayor declared that there was to be no more professional wrestling in his town “until there could be some guarantee that the matches were honestly conducted.” The purse of $600 went to six charities — including the Little Sisters of the Poor — and not the wrestlers.
Some foreshadowing from Sandow: “It was our game to stay on the defensive ... Lewis’ only chance was to wear Stecher down even if it took three or four hours.”
In May 1916, Melady got his dream matchup booked. The wrestlers were to get 60 percent of the gate, with the winner getting 60 percent of that and the loser 40 percent. Each wrestler had to put down a $350 forfeit deposit with World-Herald sports editor Sandy Griswold. They both agreed to wear shoes in the ring.
They agreed, too, that the match “shall not terminate in a foul, accident or a draw, but must positively be decided by a winner, two best falls in three.”
Lewis came with Sandow to Omaha on June 2 to train. His camp went to Seymour Lake, near 72nd and L Streets, then to the Dietz club on Carter Lake. Wherever he was, The World-Herald said after a couple of weeks, women gathered and men gathered to see the women.
While in Omaha for a bout in 1943, Lewis recalled, “I pitched camp right west of the site of the present boat house, and trained there for five weeks. I’d do from 8 to 10 miles of roadwork around the lake every morning, then wrestle a couple of hours each afternoon.
“I remember the fellows who helped me train, too. There was Earl Caddock, who’d come over from Iowa. And Mac Baldrige, just out of Yale, I believe. And Tom Draak and George Gustcourt.”
Stecher stayed in Dodge, working out with Bill Hokuf of Omaha. His troupe didn’t arrive in Omaha until the morning of the match.
Melady readied the year-old county fairgrounds, across from the Krug amusement park at 52nd and Maple Streets, to handle a crowd of 25,000. The grandstand for the half-mile harness-racing track was expanded and was named Melady Stadium. He even insured the fight with Lloyd’s of London in the event of rain.
Tickets were $1, $2, $3 and $5. Autos were parked in the track infield — that proved to be fortuitous. Streetcars ran every two minutes on the Benson and Krug Park lines.
The main event
How many spectators were there that day differs, with estimates from 10,000 to 20,000, but Melady certainly didn’t get the hoped-for 25,000. A band and two bouts on an undercard were the prematch entertainment.
Once Stecher, Lewis and their entourages entered the outdoor ring, the match began at 3:58 p.m. Daylight savings time had yet to be introduced, so sunset in Benson was at 8 p.m.
Omaha’s three daily newspapers covered it — The World-Herald with Ross Chamberlen, the Bee with Fred S. Hunter and the Daily News. Hunter’s account, which has the match starting at 3:58 in sunshine, provides the most play-by-play from how the match unfolded. Another account comes from Smith, the referee, for his Chicago newspaper; he wrote about himself in the third person.
Smith: “Stecher forced Lewis to wrestle with shoes on, and Lewis claims this handicapped him seriously.”
Hunter: “It was evident Lewis intended to play a defensive game. And he did it and was successful. The Strangler sounded his death knell as a wrestling attraction in Nebraska yesterday but he made himself a power as far as other parts of the country were concerned.”
Hunter: “Stecher made his first move. He pulled Lewis to the mat. But the Kentuckian was up in another minute.”
Hunter: “(As) both men were still on their feet, the bugs who had bet their money Lewis would stick thirty minutes raised a cheer.” More would ensue as there were odds, too, on whether Stecher would win both falls within 40 and 60 minutes.
Smith: “The betting was 3-to-1 Stecher would win and even money he would win both falls in an hour.”
Hunter: “Stecher started to pursue Lewis, with the Strangler using his footwork to keep away. The crowd howled in glee and defied Lewis to stand and fight.”
Hunter: “Lewis made his first move and that was more or less a bluff. He caught one of Joe’s legs but muffed it. ... The crowd became very impatient and began to assail Lewis for his disinclination to mix it. Organized choruses howled, ‘Make him wrestle’ and ‘He’s a coward.’”
Hunter: “Stecher pulled Lewis to the mat for a knee hold but Lewis quickly got back to his feet again. This so incensed Stecher that he deliberately turned his back to Lewis. Lewis could do nothing but go to the mat, of course, on top, but it was not a position gained through superior wrestling. Joe deliberately let him do it; even made him do it.”
Hunter: “Stecher caught Lewis unawares and squirmed out. And here was where the thirty seconds of wrestling occurred. Stecher gained the top position and instantly made a wild attempt to clamp the scissors. He took a desperate chance. He laid himself wide open in the hope that he might land the scissors. But his position wasn’t strong enough. He didn’t have the time and Lewis managed to ooze his way out and clamber back to his feet for some more of the tedious grind.”
Hunter: “A gang of youngsters brought a lot of fireworks to the match and proceeded to touch off firecrackers and torpedoes wherever they could do so without waking up the policemen. Just before 6 o’clock, one kid set off an extra loud one, right in the middle of the grandstand, and it created a young panic.”
Hunter: “Stecher became weary again. For the second time he deliberately laid down on the mat and forced Lewis to go behind him. But Lewis made a couple of feints and passes and immediately climbed to his feet. The Strangler refused to stay on the mat.”
Hunter: “Stecher became somewhat peevish. He began to display his temper by roughing Mister Lewis in the mush. He rubbed his nose and twisted his head and gave him several little pushes in the face. But even this could not induce Lewis to crawl out of his shell.”
Hunter: “Stecher threw himself on the mat for the third time, and for the third time Lewis was forced to go down. Thus three times during the match Lewis was behind Stecher but each time because Stecher forced him to do so, not through any desire on his own part. Lewis soon managed to get Stecher away from the mat and onto his feet.
“The sun was sinking in the west and dusk gradually approached. Parts of the crowd began to leave for home. Both wrestlers were obviously tired. Neither had the strength to do much so they were merely content to tug and tussle without attempting to secure any holds.”
Hunter: “The deadlock was still in force. Gene Melady at this point issued orders for the wrestlers to stick it out and his order was communicated to them. Aides were sent to find lamps as it was practically impossible to see more than a few feet. A couple of auto lamps and a barn lantern were pressed into service. Their light was insufficient, however, and the last hour of the match was wrestled practically in semi-darkness with neither wrestler moving much beyond an occasional shove or push.”
By now, the match announcer had given up on account of a “complaining larynx,” the Bee reported.
Chamberlen: “When darkness came, Referee Smith wanted to make it a draw, and called the two more to him for this purpose. Gene Melady, the promoter, leaped into the ring and declared that the men should finish the bout. Smith then sent them to the center of the mat again and there they fooled around until 9 p.m. when, seeing the utter disgust of the crowd and the ugly mood that showed in spots, Melady told Smith to call it off.”
Hunter: “The crowd became so irate that they began to hurl cushions into the ring. Some of them striking Stecher, some Lewis, some Referee Smith and some the innocents in the press box. A few obstreperous persons had to be removed from the park by the police.”
Smith: “The referee once ordered the match stopped and announced it would be finished in the morning in the same ring, but this was objected to and the men resumed wrestling, tho neither was able to do much more than hold up his arms in defensive attitude.”
Hunter: “Dr. A.P. Camp of Macon, Ga., who came all the way to Omaha to see the match, suggested that the match be called because the strain upon both Stecher and Lewis might be so great upon their hearts that they never would be fit for wrestling again.”
Hunter: “After a conference of the various officials, Referee Smith decided to call it a draw.”
Hunter: “A more patient crowd was never assembled. Of the thousands on hand at the start, probably four-fifths were on the job at the finish and beyond hoots and hisses, the brief period of promiscuous cushion throwing and a little grumbling at the end, it remained orderly all the way through.”
Hunter: “There were those who gave all the credit to Lewis on the grounds that Lewis went in to stay and that he accomplished what he hoped to accomplish, while Stecher, who was anxious to throw Lewis, failed utterly. But they were in the minority, a very small minority. Most of the fans blamed the whole affair on Lewis and a few after the match started what might have become a serious riot.
“As Lewis was leaving the ground a number of the disappointed began to hurl bottles, cinders and rocks at Lewis. Two policemen were forced to come to his rescue to protect him and one of the bluecoats fired a shot into the air in an attempt to disperse the small mob.”
Hunter reported police stopped a car driven by J.F. Morgan of South Omaha and asked for a lift for Lewis and Sandow. A rock broke the car’s windshield and the police escort continued until Morgan dropped the men off at the Dietz club.
Later that evening:
Hunter: “Lewis, after a shower and rub, went to the Dietz club after the match and danced until midnight, apparently as fresh as ever.”
What they wrote
Smith: “There is one wrestler in America that Stecher has not succeeded in stopping and his name is Ed Lewis, the Kentucky strangler. Stecher had his second trial against the burly Kentuckian yesterday afternoon at Gene Melady’s new stadium in the presence of some 12,000 spectators and at the end of nearly five hours of desperate struggle the referee called the affair a draw.
“Lewis finished considerably the stronger and Stecher was really in a mighty bad way at the end. Neither one of the wrestlers had an ounce left.”
Chamberlen: “Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, heralded throughout the east as championship timber, kept away from Joe Stecher five hours, flat, at the fairgrounds yesterday afternoon and evening, and thereby earned a draw decision from referee Ed Smith.
“In some particulars, this was the most remarkable grapple in the entire history of this ancient game. In other respects it was a sad disappointment to the thousands of friends of the Dodge wrestler who were there to see their idol dethrone another comer.”
Hunter: “Five years ago Oscar Wassem and William Demetral wrestled six hours and a half to a draw in Birmingham, Ala.
“Yesterday Edwin (Strangler) Lewis, the Kentucky terror, made a desperate effort to duplicate the achievement in his match with Joe Stecher at the Douglas County Fair grounds, and might have accomplished it except that Referee Ed. Smith took a hand in the proceedings and rang down the curtain an hour and a half earlier. Smith called the match a draw after the grapplers had toiled for four hours and fifty-five minutes without a fall.
“It was an exceedingly disappointing match to the spectators who crowded their way into the fair grounds in the hope that they would see a real go. In the entire four hours and fifty-five minutes, just thirty seconds of wrestling was shown. For thirty seconds Stecher made a desperate attempt to get his celebrated scissors hold on Lewis, but the Strangler eluded him, gained his feet and the pushing and pulling went on. The whole match could be likened to a tug-of-war except that in a tug-of-war the competitors try to pull each other while Stecher and Lewis tried to push each other.”
Chamberlen: “The crowd that witnessed the bout was a magnificent one. Every available seat in the big amphitheater was taken and hundreds of automobiles were parked about the infield. It was an orderly match, too, until toward the last of the match. Everybody was with Stecher to win and they deplored Lewis’ method, but aside from throwing the cushions the spectators kept well within the bounds of reason.”
Melady waited 36 hours, until Thursday, July 6, to give the wrestlers their money. He met with their camps twice. The Daily News reported Melady “put it up to both wrestlers. ‘Are you willing to give the public a fair shake?’”
Said Hetmanek: “We’ll wrestle Lewis tomorrow, next week or next year. We don’t care where or when.” Sandow pleaded that Lewis had a full schedule for the next few months in the west.
“I have done everything in my power to protect the public,” Melady said. “Nobody regrets any more than I do that match Tuesday. I hope the public is satisfied that I have done everything possible.”
He offered to stage the resumption match and put up all the money himself. Stecher’s camp said it would for the entire receipts. But the Lewis camp said no. Each side parted ways — for the time being — with a reported $5,022 as its cut.
Stecher and Lewis had one more draw, this one called after two hours, in New York in April 1918 before they got down to business.
In 1919, Lewis won in Chicago in March before the rivals came back to Omaha on July 4 — no outdoor venue this time; it was staged in the cooled air of the city auditorium — and Stecher won in front of 5,000.
Peerless Joe won three of the next four meetings against Lewis before nearly 61⁄2 years without a bout, pro wrestling starting to be more about entertainment than competition. Lewis reclaimed the world title from Stecher in St. Louis in February 1928, which started a five-match winning streak for the Strangler.
None of those subsequent meetings, however, spawned notoriety such as that July 4 a century ago where Benson High now has its campus. One of the last people alive who was there that day was Mrs. Neil J. Brown of Alliance, who gave her take in a letter to Provost in 1979:
“They ‘bunny-hugged’ until about 9 o’clock that night — until the doctors stopped the farce.”
And Omaha had a strange-but-true sports moment.
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