Aleksander Aberg: The Estonian Mat Marvel
by Steven Bell
Out of the smoldering ashes that was Europe immediately following the first World War, fiery new sparks were ignited.
The Russian Revolution, borne largely out of political and social conflict over Russia’s war strategy and struggles, would go on to last longer and have comparable casualties to the global battle that preceded it, but is remembered as a mere footnote – yet its deadly affects are still being felt globally today.
Men, women, the elderly, young; from the infirm to heavyweight champion wrestlers, were forced to flee further and further into the obscurity and the wilderness as their towns and cities crumbled around them.
Two men that made up that final category of Russian civilian were Georg Lurich and Aleksander Aberg.
Aberg, who stood six feet tall and weighed 235 pounds, had followed in the footsteps of the slightly older Lurich and their Estonian comrade Georg Hackenschmidt in conquering the Greco-Roman and freestyle heavyweight wrestling worlds before the Great War had started in 1914 (Estonia was then part of the Russian Empire).
Despite many of the sport’s main protagonists being of European descent, American promoters had led the way in forming the ‘prize-ring’, where wrestlers of differing regional disciplines could compete under mixed or free-style rules. The aim was to attract the world’s finest wrestlers and therefore boundless audiences, creating lucrative wealth and prizemoney for the promoters and athletes alike.
Hackenschmidt’s long-awaited Chicago rematch with Frank Gotch in 1911 had proven the blueprint for this, attracting almost 30,000 spectators into the Chicago White Sox’s newly opened Comiskey Park and with it, a record-breaking gate. Following Gotch’s victory, both men would descend into semi-retirement, leaving the stage clear for the next generation of wrestlers to compete for stardom.
Born in the small Estonian borough of Kolga on 11 August 1981, ‘Alex’ Aberg went on to tour and dominate in some of the harshest parts of Europe, before first appearing in the USA in 1913. He returned, alongside his friend Lurich, to New York two years later. He was recognised as the Greco-Roman World Heavyweight Champion, laying claim that this title was won way back in 1903 after winning a tournament in London. He was also multilingual, speaking German and English in addition to his native tongue.
As Europe descended into war, its plethora of world-class grapplers made their way to the United States. They were lured to New York by the promise of the greatest wrestling tournament in history, as promoter Samuel Rachmann dreamt of a mainstream breakthrough for the sport in the Big Apple.
To use modern wrestling parlance, entering the 50-man strong ‘International Tournament’, Aberg was simply the man. He was known for slowly punishing and breaking down his opponents, sometimes during hours-long, sweaty, hard to watch contests. The tournament was scheduled to last over 8 months, with the competitors all facing each other several times each in separate Greco-Roman and Catch-as-Catch-Can matches, which would predominantly take place at the Manhattan Opera House. A complicated system would see points would be given for victories and draws.
Rachmann even feared Aberg’s dominance in the Greco-Roman discipline may undermine the overall competitiveness, and therefore take away some public interest, too. So, on top of the $5,000 first prize for the tournament winner, Rahmann offered up an additional $1,000 for any man who claimed a victory over Aberg in his preferred style – and this in a competition featuring the likes of Russian champion Lurich, Wladek Zbyszko, American champion Charlie Cutler and the up-and-coming Catch-as-Catch-Can star, Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis.
In a bid to start his magnum opus with a bang, Rachmann booked the tournament to open with a main event superfight between two of the top names in the world. But Aberg and Zbyszko would wrestle to a boring, near four-hour draw which failed to entertain, capture imaginations, or garner any interest in the New York printed press.
Despite Rachmann’s many promotional efforts, his tournament continued with long, uninspiring wars of attrition and failed to fill arenas and column inches alike.
Professional wrestling had already descended into a murky world, happy to predetermine the outcomes of matches when necessary. With the large investment in his vision at risk of slipping away, Rachmann moved beyond the mere predetermination of some matches and into full vaudeville.
A large, masked spectator began to appear in the front row for matches in October. His presence alone began to stir up the desired attention. After a few days of this, the approach of the ringside menace became less subtle. Accompanied by an advocate and with his black hood sinisterly obscuring his identity, he began to storm the ring, demanding what he claimed to be his rightful place in the tournament. Murmurs that something new, exciting, and unpredictable was unfolding were soon converted into full arenas and tabloid column inches.
The clamour to see the latest instalment of the saga inevitably led to ‘The Masked Marvel’ being added to the star-studded league. The problem was, the man behind the mask was journeyman part-time wrestler Mort Henderson, and to continue the lucrative charade, he needed to win against some of the world’s finest. The Masked Marvel’s outings were exciting spectacles, as he plundered his way through the competition with a series of unlikely victories (one of note over Lurich) and draws.
In the midst of the magical New York winter, Christmas came and went as the tournament began to near its thrilling conclusion. Aberg would defeat ‘Strangler’ Lewis in 42 hard-fought minutes. The match was billed as the battle of the two world champions, with Aberg the Greco-Roman king and Lewis now recognised as the Catch-as-Catch-Can champion. “He is the strongest man in wrestling today,” Lewis would say of his conqueror. On the same show, there was a bizarre spectacle as a wrestler named Lindow put his opponent George Bayley into a trance during their match, forcing him to let go of holds with only the use of his eyes – and with that, wrestling’s conversion to pantomime entertainment was somewhat complete. Ref bumps and other unlikely endings to tournament matches were also soon reported.
New Year’s Eve celebrations were buoyed as Aberg defeated the Masked Marvel, putting himself in prime position to take the prize when the tournament resumed in the New Year.
The following night, Aberg and Lewis battled out an epic draw for Jack Curley Promotions – the match lasting over two hours and only being halted because of the city curfew.
On 29th January 1916 at the Manhattan Opera House, Alex Aberg was awarded with the $5,000 winners’ cheque – shoot, work, or somewhere in between, there would be no stopping the man of his, albeit brief, era from lifting his crown.
Aberg and Lurich saw the world as they travelled home via Japan and China. They were the headline acts competing in a major tournament in their country’s capital, Tallinn, which had to be postponed mid-way through as war intensified around them. They went to Saint Petersburg in hope of finding work that would see them through the atrocities facing them, but found the city, along with the likes of Moscow, putting the shutters down and barricades up.
Together, Aberg and Lurich trekked south, evading the violence around them. By the end of 1919, they had made it to Armavir, in the south of Russia, with their ultimate aim being to escape the barbaric war by way of a perilous crossing of the Black Sea. But the winter was harsh. With little around them for shelter, warmth, food or medical provisions, illness, disease and starvation set in around them. Both men, who had verged on the superhuman just months earlier, contracted typhoid and became debilitated. Lurich submitted first, dying on 22 January 1920. Aberg pushed himself towards a recovery, and appeared to have outlasted the disease with a typically arduous battle, only for his weakness to allow pneumonia to set in. Aleksander Aberg, who dominated the Greco-Roman discipline for almost half of his tragically short life and, on the grandest stage, helped see professional wrestling through one of its most important transitional periods, passed away in the bleakest of circumstances in Armavir on 15 February 1920 at the age of just 38.
From 1960 to the present day, the International Aleksander Aberg Memorial tournament in Greco-Roman wrestling is held in Tallinn, and the Estonian trifecta of Hackenschidt, Lurich and Aberg are remembered as uniquely instrumental in the formation of professional wrestling as we would later know it.