Professional wrestling today features intense drama; great storylines; and of course, great wrestling action from today’s top stars. Viewed by millions of viewers worldwide in many different countries, this sport is rapidly growing as the best athletic sport in the 21st century. But in the United States, hundreds of American fans either flock to their television sets or at the arenas big or small, a theater or a bingo hall. But in the early days, it wasn’t always this way.
In the minds of traveling performers who were being paid for entertaining the masses with matches that are staged, professional wrestling began in the 1860s during the Civil War. During this time period, wrestlers were often athletes with amateur backgrounds who competed at carnivals across the country with the carnies ( a slang term used for an carnival employee and the language they use) working as both the bookers and the promoters. With colorful costumes and fictional biographies of many certain wrestlers at the time, the big circuses like P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey’s circuses and many others who put on wrestling exhibitions showed disregard for the competitive nature of the sport. The exhibitions during 19th century America were shown at many athletic shows all across the country where experienced wrestlers often challenged local athletes to a match to see who is superior. At these shows, often down for gambling purposes at the time, that the true nature of the sport changed through competing interests of three different groups of people: The impresarios, businessmen who organizes the wrestling shows; the carnies, the promoters and bookers of these events; and last but not least, the barnstormers, the athletes who put on the wrestling exhibitions.
Wrestlers were arranged in somewhat of a pyramid hierarchy of fame and vast fortune, based strictly on athletic ability and natural talent. The lowest were the journeymen, young athletic wrestlers with promise and a lot of skill, but they were relied mainly on showmanship to gain some popularity. The shooters were actual wrestlers, who used to fight real matches competitively were less common and of course more successful than the journeymen. And then there were the elite wrestlers, or hookers, named for the ability to utilize arcane wrestling hooks to inflict serious damage and serious injury on their opponents without much effort. These types of wrestlers were among a select group, and they often kept the fact that their sport was commonly faked in high secrecy to an high extent. There were talented individuals during the 19th century, and one of them was an former African-American slave who used to haul beer kegs and sauerkraut barrels around New York City as a training exercise. His name was Viro Small.
Viro Small, The First Known African American Wrestler
Viro Small was born into slavery in a small town of Buford in South Carolina in 1854. He later gained his freedom at the end of the Civil War and moved north of the United States. He began as a boxer in 1870 but got his wrestling start in 1874. In 1881, he wrestled a collar-and-elbow match against Mike Horogan as a sub for another wrestler at the time and he won. Horogan was very impressed with Small’s athletic ability and agreed to train the young man. Between 1882 and 1892 Small won 63 matches and won the Vermont Collar And Elbow Championship twice in his career, making him the first champion of African descent in the United States. These championships also gave Small an opportunity to wrestle in county fair circuits in New England. At those events, Small and Horogan would team up for some various shows, with Horogan challenging audience members to get in the ring with Small and the participant could win money of he lasted a certain amount of time in the ring against a skilled competitor like Small.
Small later moved to New York and wrestled in some of the most toughest areas in the Big Apple, including the legendary Bastille of the Bowery, owned by former boxer Owney Geoghegan. The bar featured two rings for boxing and wrestling matches, and it was infamous for its crooked management, rowdy patrons, and an seedy atmosphere. In fact, Georghegan reportedly won a decision over his opponent in the Bowery by having his hoodlums aim a gun at the referee’s head after that fight. On September 3, 1882 at the Bowery, Small wrestled Billy McCallum to a no-contest after a major argument started bnetween the two. Upset by the fight, McCallum attempted to kill Small later that evening while he was sleeping. He shot him in the neck, but Small survived. Small’s last recorded match took place in 1885.
The Legacy Of William Muldoon
During the rise of Viro Small, a police officer with an amateur background made his mark in the wrestling scene. That officer’s name was William Muldoon.
A son of Irish immigrants, Muldoon was considered as America’s first wrestling world champion. In 1877, Muldoon won the Greco-Roman championship from Christol, a wrestler from France, in two straight falls and 17 minutes of action. Aside from wrestling, from 1876 to 1881 Muldoon was a New York City Police Officer at the behest of John Morrisey, a senator of New York at the time and was a former bare-knuckle boxing champion. In 1880, Muldoon beat Thebaud Bauer at Gilmore’s Gardens (Known as the very first Madison Square Garden). His rise to stardom brought many challengers all over the globe, and in his legendary match against Clarence Whistler, it lasted seven hours.
Following the match against Whistler, Muldoon assembled an athletic competition and toured America and defending his title against anybody who was willing to take him on. In his final wrestling match in 1890, he defeated a fighting gentleman named Evan Lewis in Philadelphia. Despite promoters and challengers trying to implore Muldoon to come out of retirement, Muldoon never wrestled again and he never claimed an championship. He passed his Greco-Roman Championship to his protege Ernest Roeber.
The Beginning’s Of The Original “Strangler”
The original “Strangler” Evan Lewis sounded like a very typical wrestler. But according to wrestling historian Nat Fleischer, Lewis was a “cruel and really dangerous athlete.” Lewis began his storied career in 1882 by winning a 64-man tournament in Montana. He would later face off against Matsuda Sorakichi and he nearly broke his leg. In 1887, Lewis went on to beat Joe Acton for the American Catch-as-Catch Can Championship. After his loss to William Muldoon in what appeared to be Muldoon’s final official match, he defeated Muldoon’s protege Ernest Roeber to unify the American Catch-as-Catch Can and American Greco-Roman Championships in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1893.
Lewis’s success can be attributed with his use of the rear naked choke, known in wrestling as the Stranglehold, to finish his opponents off with ease. After defending the newly renamed American Heavyweight Championship for two years, he was defeated by the same man who was defeated btly Lewis in his official debut in 1886, the one and only Martin “Farmer” Burns. Evan Lewis would later retire in 1899.
The Rise Of Martin Burns
Wrestling historians have called Martin Burns the “Father Of American Wrestling,” and of course that is true. Wrestling as a child in the late 1860’s Burns had greater success as an adult in the late 19th century when he faced the likes of Evan Lewis and Tom Connors. Despite his small stature (Burns was 5’10” and weighed in at 170 pounds), he captured the United States Catch-as-Catch Can Championship in 1894. The following year, he defeated Evan Lewis in a rematch for the American Heavyweight Championship. His reign lasted two years until he was beaten by Dan McLeod in 1897.
Burns’ reputation as a trainer in the early years helped pay dividends for his his part. In 1899, he defeated his prized pupil Frank Gotch in one of his final matches. His workout was very successful for many talented wrestlers in his generation, and it is still used a teaching tool for aspiring wrestlers. Martin Burns was an American hero in the audience’s eyes as far as they were concerned.
As the 19th century came to a close, there were a crop of incredible wrestlers that made their mark in the early part of the twentieth century. And when it exploded, the competition got a lot fiercer.
Sources Credit: Wikipedia, Pro Wrestling Illustrated Online, Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame
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