A look back through history: The Original World Heavyweight Championship, Part Three
Part three of this in depth look into the origin of the World Heavyweight Championship.
In part two of my article, we went through the confusion and complexity of the World Heavyweight Championship, and how it had split into three distinct "lines" through John Olin, Ed Lewis and Earl Caddock all claiming to be the World Champion. After years of the title being under contention in this way, Stecher was able to take the Olin line title back and set up a unification match with Earl Caddock for the crown of Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship.
Now you could be forgiven for believing that Vince Russo was behind all this, it certainly feels like something he would come up with, but as wrestling at the time was not scripted, disputes such as this were fairly common. Whilst in today's Pro Wrestling world this would be a storyline which would play out over a number of weeks leading up to a main event Pay-Per-View match, this was legitimate sport where matches took place months, sometimes even years apart.
Many people believe that this was the last real shoot match in wrestling before it began to move away from the catch-as-catch-can style and more towards the sports entertainment model that we know today. As two bona fide tough men, the match between the two was hotly anticipated, given both their skills and military backgrounds.
Both men served in the First World War, with Stecher being deployed with the US Navy, and Caddock being a part of the US Army. In fact, such was the strength of Caddock's resolve, that even after he was subjected to a gas attack whilst deployed in Europe, which called into question whether he would ever be able to wrestle again, he was able to return in time for the huge unification match, and there were no doubts about the toughness that Stecher possessed in abundance.
So, on January 30th 1920, the match took place in New York City. Since Stecher and Caddock both had military backgrounds, they were both led to the ring by contingents from the Navy and the Army respectively. The crowd in attendance numbered around 10,000, drawing in gate receipts of $75,000 - $80,000 (almost $1m in today's money) with some people paying $22 ($286 today) for ringside seats. In addition to this, both Stecher and Caddock were reportedly paid $30,000 each (roughly $400,000 today) for motion picture rights of the match, and you can see footage of the match below. For my money, this still holds up today as possibly one of the greatest matches in all of wrestling.
The match lasted over two hours. Caddock was the early aggressor and was taking the fight to Stecher, but as time wore on the physical toll of the match wore him down, and he was eventually forced to submit after getting caught in Stecher’s patented Scissor Lock. After the match, Stecher helped Caddock to his feet and the two shook hands before Stecher was officially crowned the World Heavyweight Champion. Craddock limped away after this match, as former champions often did, and two years later had his final match when he unsuccessfully challenged once more for the World Heavyweight Championship.
Stecher would hold the World Title for the majority of 1920, losing it in December of that year to a man we are all familiar with now, Ed Lewis. As I mentioned before, Lewis was part of the Gold Dust Trio in the 1920's, a group that would control the wrestling landscape during this decade, who moved the business towards what they called the "Slam Bang Western Style", something that today's Pro Wrestling is not a million miles away from. They controlled the business by making wrestlers work to their standard, and anyone who did not would find their pay would be severely reduced or even gone altogether. They would cheat people out of money and wins if they refused to work to their standards, and sometimes even out of sheer convenience to themselves. Also, matches had started to become "works" or booked as we know it, but there was still a significant air of legitimacy to wrestling.
By this point, Lewis was now a three-time World Heavyweight Champion, if not officially recognised as such, and would hold the title for roughly five months until losing it to the man who never lost the championship, Stanislaus Zbyszko.
As you may remember, Zbyszko won the championship back in 1914 from "Americus" Gus Schoenlein before vacating it in October of the same year to enlist in the army as World War One started. He returned to America in 1920, and shortly after was approached by the Gold Dust Trio of Billy Sandow, Toots Mondt and World Champion Ed Lewis to become World Heavyweight Champion on their behalf.
The Trio believed that Zbyszko was the perfect man to ensure that no one tried to double cross them, as by this point Stecher was running his own shows and rivalling them, making them worried that he would convince the champion over to jump over to his shows, and also would make money from him by drawing fans to arenas.
Unfortunately, this turned out to not be the case, Zbyszko was part of what was fast becoming a dying style of wrestling, as the Trio's Slam Bang style was taking preference by many fans. Sensing this, the title was switched back to Ed Lewis less than a year after Zbyszko's win. After taking the title back from Zbyszko, Ed Lewis would hold the title for three years, and also took his rivalry with Joe Stecher up a gear by having one of the longest matches in history, a five-and-a-half-hour draw, during that time.
Eventually, the Trio decided upon a new man on which to hang their proverbial hat.
Wayne Munn was something of a footballing prodigy (American football that is, for our UK fans), he played for the University of Nebraska and at 6'6" and 230lbs, Lewis and the other members of the Trio saw serious dollar signs in him. Munn had no wrestling background before being approached by the Gold Dust Trio, but was convinced to turn his hand to wrestling, and in 1925 he shocked the world by defeating Ed Lewis for the World Heavyweight Championship. This was a particularly poignant title change in history, as it was the first time a person with no real wrestling background had won the championship instead of a legitimate wrestler.
After winning the championship, Munn would defend it against other members of the Gold Dust Trio or people affiliated with them, and because of his fame from his footballing days, he was able to draw crowds and make money. To further solidify his status as World Champion, the Trio asked Stanislaus Zbyszko to "do the job" for Munn. This would spark a chain of events that would bring about the Trio's worst fears.
Being asked to lose to Wayne Munn, in order to make him look better, horrified Zbyszko, and because of this he turned to Joe Stecher and secretly joined up with him. He then went back to the Trio and agreed to the match. On April 15th, 1925, Munn went out there to defend the title against Zbyszko in a match he knew he was going to win.
Only he didn't. Zbyzsko turned the worked match into a legitimate contest. He pinned Munn over and over again, until the referee had no choice but to award the match and the World Heavyweight Title to Zbyszko. Wayne Munn's reign ended after just three months. The Trio had been betrayed and double crossed by their own guy, who consequently added insult to injury by dropping the title to Joe Stecher just forty-five days later.
The legacy of this was huge, as afterwards promoters would think twice before putting "non-wrestlers" in the ring. But of course, as the Trio was involved, Munn still claimed to be the World Champion, and was recognised as such in certain states, notably Illinois and Michigan, effectively splitting the World Title that Joe Stecher had worked so hard to unify, once again.
The dispute rumbled on for some time, almost three years, before Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher were able to resolve their differences. The two men had been adversaries for many years by this point, but were able to bring to an end their conflict and agree to work together. As a result of this, Lewis would beat Munn for the Illinois/Michigan line of the title and another "unification" match was set, only this time it would be between Lewis and Stecher.
As for Wayne Munn, he retired from wrestling after losing to Lewis, and tried his hand at boxing before retiring from sports altogether. He stepped away from the fame and the spotlights and spent time working in the oil trade for a number of years. Sadly, he was soon struck down with kidney and other health problems, and he died in January of 1931 at the tragically young age of 34.
Stecher and Lewis's match took place on February 21st, 1928 in St Louis, Missouri, with 12,000 fans in attendance. In a match which lasted two and a half hours, Ed Lewis once again came out on top as the World Heavyweight Champion. He was back on top, no longer in a fierce rivalry with the indomitable Joe Stecher, and for a time, everything seemed like it was finally going in the right direction.
But then, along came Gus Sonnenberg...
Thanks so much for reading. This was originally going to be in two parts, but while researching I found out so much more interesting facts about it that I felt it had to be extended. Part four will be coming next Monday! And dont forget to keep up to date with news from all the major promotions as well as the uk indies, by following us on Facebook and Twitter.