A look back through history: The Original World Heavyweight Championship, Part Five
In the final article of this series, Paul closes out the history of the World Heavyweight Championship
Welcome to the final part of our look back at the Original World Heavyweight Championship. Apologies once again for the delay in this article coming out. After the fun of Covid, I then had the unenviable task of moving house, and my internet provider messing up the transfer, so I am currently without internet! Thankfully the team have rallied round to get this up, so thanks to all and again thank you for your patience.
In our last piece, we saw that once again everyone's favourite guy, Ed Lewis, was back in control of the title, and held it for a considerable amount of time. But there were also new World Titles springing up due to disputes surrounding the recognised champions and disputes with promotors. As we move into this final part, I would like to say a huge thank you to all the readers out there who have made this series the success that it has been. I have plans to delve into the histories of other titles, and if anyone has any suggestions as to what they would like to see going forward I encourage you to comment and let me know.
But for now, let's get into it!
Since April 13th, 1931, Ed "Strangler" Lewis had been the World Heavyweight Champion, and had also become the NYSAC World Heavyweight Champion by defeating Jack Sherry in October of 1932. He was enjoying a monumental reign as Champion, but all that unravelled when he got in the ring with Danno O'Mahoney.
Danno O'Mahoney was an Irish born wrestler, born in Ballydehob, Cork in 1912. He served in the military in the early 1930's, establishing himself as an athlete, earning records in the Hammer Throw and the 56lb Weight Throw, the latter of which was a record he held until the 1990's. He also used his time in the military to develop his boxing and wrestling skills. It was in 1934 when Boston based promotor Paul Bowser spotted his talent and brought him to America. Bowser was not particularly interested in his wrestling skills at this point, more his look and athleticism, and so secured his release from the military before intensively training O'Mahoney in wrestling. The story goes a little off to the side at this point, but it does all come back together.
By June of 1935, Jim Londos was in his second reign as NYSAC World Heavyweight Champion, having defeated Jim Browning for the title, who had previously beaten Ed Lewis. Londos had also won the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Title and unified it with the NYSAC World Title.
Londos was to defend the NYSAC and NWA Championships against O'Mahoney, and on June 27th 1935, in a match that lasted over an hour,O'Mahoney dominated Londos. Throwing him around the ring and using his strength to counter any holds Londos would try to apply. In front of 25,000 fans at the Boston Globe, Danno O'Mahoney defeated Jim Londos in what many thought would end up being the final match of Londos' career (more on that later...) to become the NYSAC and NWA World Champion.
Londos stated backstage afterwards that O'Mahoney was the strongest opponent he had ever faced, and was quoted as saying:
"I knew after the first five minutes I would have to be lucky to win. The Kid is green, but with his strength, I believe he can beat any man in the world. And when I took the bout, the New York people told me I had nothing to fear! I wish I knew as much before I signed … and this bout would have never taken place."
But Londos was sure to be consoled of his loss by the $50,000 payment he received, plus a $20,000 extra payment for losing which was written into his contract, so in total received around $70,000 for the match, roughly $1.3m today!
Following this, O'Mahoney was put into a match with Ed Don George, the AWA World Heavyweight Champion, which would take place just a month later on July 30th, 1935. All the titles were on the line in this match, which would also take place in Boston. It was also announced that World Heavyweight Boxing Champion James J Braddock had signed on to referee this match.
The match took place in front of 40,000 fans, and garnered roughly $60,000 in gate receipts, around $1.1m in today's money, and by the end of the match, O'Mahoney's hand was raised in victory as he became the AWA World Heavyweight Champion. As a result of unifying all three Championships, O'Mahoney was officially recognised as the Unified World Heavyweight Championship, and was awarded the original World Heavyweight Championship also.
The match did however have a controversial ending, as referee Braddock did not initially understand the count out rule, and so did not make any ruling after O'Mahoney had been thrown from the ring. As George began to leave the ring thinking he had won, O'Mahoney shot back up and into the ring, throwing George out. As George believed he had already won, he took his time getting back into the ring, only to find that referee Braddock had counted him out and awarded the match to O'Mahoney. The original Dusty Finish you could say!
After winning and unifying the titles, O'Mahoney got married and, four days after doing so, was able to get a win over the only man to have defeated him thus far, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, in London on October 11th, 1935. Unfortunately for Boston based promoter Paul Bowser, O'Mahoney was not the worldwide phenomenon he had been hoping for when he signed him to a $100,000 contract. As attendances got lower and other promoters got tired of the "Unified Championship" arrangements, meaning only one promoter could book the Champion at a time, Billy Sandow publicly belittled O'Mahoney and his lack of any real wrestling (or rasslin...) ability, and offered him $5,000 if he would take on his guy, Everett Marshall.
Marshall was no slouch in the ring, he was the MWA World Heavyweight Champion (Yes, another World Title!) which was a Championship recognised in Ohio, and many believed he could and would outwrestle O'Mahoney on any given day. However, this match never happened, as Bowser in an attempt to quieten Sandow and any doubters, offered to pit O'Mahoney against two of his other wrestlers, Jim Browning, or our favourite guy at this point, Ed Lewis. Both men had fearsome reputations as "Shooters" and would be a real test of O'Mahoney's wrestling prowess. However, it seems this was all conjecture, as again the matches never happened.
In November, he drew his first match against Ernie Dusek, but around this time he was beginning to have problems with his visa to work in America, so in order to give them time to work out the kinks, Bowser arranged an angle where Candian wrestler Yvon Robert would taunt O'Mahoney during the match, then rush the ring and "knock him out" afterwards. This angle went down a storm and made Robert an instant star, and possibly one of the first engineered "heels" of wrestling.
Once the visa issues were resolved, by early 1936 O'Mahoney was touring the country, but was beginning to become the victim of double crosses. Upon learning that other promoters planned to legitimately hurt and undermine his position as Champion, he and Bowser would simply leave the arena and not take part in matches. This led to him being stripped of the World Title, and on March 2, 1936, he also lost the NWA Title to Dick Shikat, who punished him throughout the match to the point O'Mahoney tried to quit twice, and was also then recognised as the World Heavyweight Champion. Shikat immediately put the title up for sale, and agreed a deal with Billy Sandow. The only problem was, Shikat had a management contract with Bowser, and so in retaliation Bowser would look to ruin Shikat's reputation by booking him into matches without telling him, and after he would no-show the events, he would often be suspended by the state athletic commissions. As a result of these shenanigans, it all came to a head in court, where it was heard there were no less than five recognised World Champions, and as a result of all the controversy, the popularity of wrestling began to dwindle.
On a side note, O'Mahoney would lose the AWA World Heavyweight Title to Yvon Robert, before setting sail for home. He did eventually return to the states, and would serve in the war, before opening a restuarant and wrestling locally in Los Angeles. He eventually moved back home to Ireland in September 1950, but tragically he died in a car accident just five weeks later.
Shikat's reign did not last long, as only 54 days later he would lose the Title to Ali Baba. Despite the New York State Athletic Commission stating he would not be recognised as World Champion in New York, the match went ahead and, in front of 8,000 fans, Baba beat Shikat to claim the title, and on May 5th he faced Shikat again at Madison Square Garden. He beat him, and was then recognised by New York as the World Heavyweight Champion.
If Shikat's reign was short, Baba's was shorter, as he lost the title to a wrestler named Dave Levin just 48 days later.
Levin was considered something of a prodigy in wrestling, having won his debut bout in less than 30 seconds, he worked his way through the ranks as a Light-Heavyweight before stepping up to Heavyweight. His first match against Baba for the title ended in a loss after just eleven minutes, but he was undeterred, and on June 12th 1936 he faced Baba again and won by disqualification after Baba kicked him where it hurts. The match and the title were awarded to Levin who, at 23, became the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in history. Levin's reign with the Championship was longer than that of Shikat's and Baba's previous reigns combined, but only just. He held the title for 109 days before losing to Dean Detton, a former University of Utah Football player on September 29th. Detton would hold the Championship until June 29th, 1937 when he lost it to Bronko Nagurski.
Nagurski was born in Toronto Ontario, Canada, and was a standout football player. He has an impressive NFL Career record, with three NFL Championship wins with the Chicago Bears, as well as a multitude of personal accolades. He was a proficient wrestler too, renowned for his strength and athletic ability, and so it came as a surprise to very few people when he beat Detton for the World Title. of course, by this time, controversy had set in once again in regards to the Championship and he was not fully recognised as World Champion until he won the NWA World Heavyweight Title, with the NWA declaring him the "Real" World Champion.
But the purpose of this article is the original World Heavyweight Championship, and so we will switch focus back to that. Nagurski held the by now limited version of the title for well over a year, defeating all challengers, until a former World Heavyweight champion stepped back into the ring to challenge him: Jim Londos.
You may remember from earlier in this article that, after losing the title and picking up a very substantial sum of money, Londos apparently "retired" from wrestling, in truth this was never actually the case, and in what us modern day fans would consider true Terry Funk style, he "returned" to the ring and beat Nagurski for the World Heavyweight Championship on November 18th, 1938. Footage of this match is all over the internet and it is widely considered to be a fantastic match, with many stating they were surprised by the pace of it, expecting it to be a slower match than it was.
After winning the World Heavyweight Championship, Londos was back in the big time, and racked up wins and Championships, once again winning the NYSAC World Heavyweight Championship. Unfortunately, around this time World War Two kicked into gear, and over the next five or six years, little is known. What is known is that Londos held both the Original World Heavyweight Championship and the NYSAC World Heavyweight Championship until he wrestled his final match in 1946 against Lord Albert Mills. He defeated Mills, and retired as Champion, vacating it on his way out. Londos lived a happy life after retirement, dedicating his time to numerous charitable causes before passing away in 1975. He was posthumously inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2018.
The story of the World Title pretty much ends there, as for the next six years it laid dormant, with multiple other titles coming to the forefront, but on May 21st, 1952, the title was awarded to the man who had unified National Wrestling Association, National Wrestling Alliance and the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium World Heavyweight Championships to become recognised as the Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion: Lou Thesz.
If you don't know the name Lou Thesz, you should probably question whether you are even a wrestling fan at all. The man is a legend, pioneer and champion in every sense the world over.
Born in 1916 in Banat, Michigan, but living in St Louis as his family moved when he was young, he had wrestling in his blood. His father was a Greco-Roman wrestler in his native Hungary, and at eight years old Lou began training with his father. Thesz took the decision to leave high school at 14 years old to pursue freestyle wrestling training, and quickly became an accomplished freestyle wrestler, winning numerous local Championship and catching the eye of a local professional wrestling promoter, Tom Packs, in the process. Packs sent Lou off to be trained by George Tragos, a well-known Greek Olympic wrestler, and he was almost instantly impressed with Thesz's determination and willingness to learn. Tragos introduced Thesz to submission style wrestling, and for four years Thesz trained under his watchful eye. Thesz at one point in his career stated the following advice that Tragos gave him:
"Any fool can start on top. If you start at the bottom, you learn to wrestle."
Tragos had a profound effect on his young protege, but worked him hard, often training for ten hours a day. Thesz also trained under a man named Ad Santel, who ran a Judo school in California. During a six month stay, Thesz stated it was "the most intensive training period of my life", but it helped turn him into one of the world's most fearsome wrestlers.
Thesz later met, you guessed it, Ed Lewis in St Louis and challenged him to a friendly exhibition match. While Thesz lost the match in 15 minutes, Lewis was very impressed with him and took him under his wing, later becoming his manager and trainer, and teaching him some of the most painful holds in wrestling. Thesz made his debut in 1932 at the age of just 16, and worked the St Louis circuit. By 1937 he was their top name, and defeated Everett Marshall for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on December 29th, making him the youngest ever World Champion at just 21 years old. He held this title for only six weeks, but he had developed a taste for Championship gold, and in 1939 he won the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Title, again beating Marshall, and later in 1948 the National Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Title was in his possession also after beating Bill Longson.
Thesz had built himself up to be a star name and attraction in wrestling, He was known the world over, and such was the level of respect he garnered in Japan they nicknamed him "Tetsujin" which means Ironman, a testament to his speed, conditioning and overall expertise. by 1948 the National Wrestling Alliance had formed, and on November 27th, 1949, they awarded their World Heavyweight Championship to him after the current Champion, Orville Brown, suffered career ending injuries in a car accident. A little under three years later, Thesz would beat Baron Michele Leone to win the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium World Heavyweight Championship, and cement his place atop the professional wrestling world, becoming the Undisputed World Heavyweight Champions and being awarded the original World Heavyweight Championship in the process.
As the Undisputed World Champion, Thesz was presented a belt which signified all of these championship into one physical belt, which became known as the "Lou Thesz Belt", but the original World Title continued singularly for a little while longer, as Thesz would defend the title against Whipper Billy Watson.
Watson was the son of an English father and Canadian mother, born in Ontario in 1915, and made his wrestling debut in 1936.he toured all over the world, including here in the U.K., and over the next several years worked his way up to main event status. In 1942 he won the Maple Leaf Wrestling British Empire Championship, a title he would win nine times in total, and is a former Stampede Wrestling Canadian heavyweight Champion. Watson had pedigree, and was a decorated champion so the match between Thesz and himself for the World Heavyweight Championship promised to be fantastic.
The match took place on March 15, 1956, and with boxing legend Jack Dempsey serving as referee and in front of 15,000 fans, Thesz lost the title by count out to Watson, who won the biggest Championship of his career. Thesz at this point took some time away to heal some nagging injuries, while Watson continued to tour America as both the NWA and World Heavyweight Champion, defending the titles against such storied competitors as Bobo Brazil, Killer Kowalski, and Fritz von Erich. Watson's reign as champion ended after roughly seven months, as a returning Lou Thesz beat him for the titles on November 9th, 1956. Thesz would continue to defend the Original World Heavyweight Championship until it was deactivated and its lineage continued over to the NWA World's Heavyweight Championship on July 24th, 1957.
Over the course of 52 years, the World Heavyweight Championship had 28 reigns shared between 20 different wrestlers, 22 if you count the unrecognised ones from the John Olin line. there were just three vacations of the title, and the man with the most combined days as Champion is also the man with the most reigns, our new favourite wrestler, Ed "Strangler" Lewis!
Ed held the title six times, four officially, and held the title for a combined 3,682 days, just over ten years as champion. By contrast, Jim Londos is in second place for combined days as champion with "just" 2628 days, a little over seven years combined. Ali Baba's solitary reign as Champion ranks as the shortest reign at just 48 days.
There is no doubt that the World Heavyweight Championship has an extremely prestigious, if a little complexed at times, heritage. And its lineage continues to this day as part of the NWA World's Heavyweight Championship, which is currently held by British Wrestler Nick Aldis. The Championship and all its holders, recognised or not, all helped to pave the way for the world of Professional Wrestling that we all know and love today. Some people may say that a Championship is just a prop, and maybe to an extent these days that may be true. But as we have found from this trip down memory lane, legacies were created and dreams fulfilled by winning titles, and at the end of the day, isn't that what anyone gets into wrestling for? To become a Champion is the biggest honour you can get in wrestling. It shows that the bookers and promoters believe in you to draw money, but the pride of carrying a Championship is immeasurable. In my mind at least, Championships do just as much for the wrestler holding them as the wrestler does for the Championship itself.
The WWE Championship may well be the most popular Championship today, but in this writer's opinion, it is by no means the most prestigious.
I have truly enjoyed researching and crafting this article over the last few weeks, and I thank you all for taking the time to read and comment on it. I am undecided on my next topic as yet, but I am open to suggestions from you, the readers, as to what you would like to see.
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