Ed 'Strangler' Lewis: Feared Toughness
by Stephen Yobe
Robert Herman Julius Friedrich was born on June 30, 1890 in the Wisconsin town of Sheboygan Falls. Bob Friedrich who, after changing his name to Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis after confusion over using his real name in 1912, became the most famous pro star, and one of the best hookers, in the period following Frank Gotch. In a professional wrestling career that lasted from 1910 to 1948, Strangler Lewis won a version of the world
title at least 10 times: John Olin (Chicago, 1917), Wladek Zbyszko (Boston, 7-14-17), Joe Stecher (New York City,12-13-20), Stanislaus Zbyszko (Wichita, 3-3-22), Joe Stecher (St Louis, 2-20-28), Ed Don George (Los Angeles, 4-13-31), Wladek Zbyszko (Chicago, 11-2-31), Jack Sherry (New York City, 10-10-32), Orville Brown (Kansas City, KS, 11-26-42), and Orville Brown (Columbus, 12-3-42).
Lewis was an important part of the Jack Curley promotion, with Joe Stecher, Wladek Zbyszko and Earl Caddock, that brought wrestling out of a depression following the retirement of Frank Gotch. Then in 1922 was part owner of the Billy Sandow booking office (which was given the name ‘Gold Dust Trio’ in the 1937 book The Fall Guys, by Marcus Griffin, but never used before that date), with Billy Sandow and two other Baumann brothers.
Over his career, Lewis had major rivalries with Wladek Zbyszko, Joe Stecher, Gus Sonnenberg, and Jim Londos. Twice Joe Stecher consented to dropping the undisputed world title to Lewis. He also was the first wrestling ‘heel’ to hold the world title.
The March 3, 1922 title win over Stanislaus Zbyszko in Wichita is said to have been the first wrestling match broadcast on network radio, which was a technical break through that popularized pro sports, like TV did wrestling in 1947. The name Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis became as well-known as 1920's sports stars Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, Jim Thorpe, and many others. The actual wrestling name, of Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, taken from the great Catch-As-Catch-Can wrestler Evan ‘Strangler’ Lewis, probably didn't hurt either. The most respected wrestler by insiders was always Joe Stecher, but to casual fans, Strangler Lewis was the nationally known star, and that popularity remained until today.
Strange as it may seem, Lewis was bigger draw as a contender, than he was as champion. There are many examples of this, but the biggest is Lewis' loss to his hated rival Jim Londos at Wrigley Field in Chicago on September 20, 1934 for the NWA world title. Ed lost, but the card drew 35,265, with a gate of $96,302. These numbers broke the records set by Frank Gotch and Hackenschmidt at Comiskey Park in 1911.
Rare Ed 'Strangler' Lewis autographed picture on display at the IPWHF museum. On loan from the Bud Carson collection.
Starting in 1920, Lewis suffered from an eye infection called Trachoma. It got better, and worse over his career, but never cured. In some of his most famous matches, he could only see shadows. By the time of his death, he was totally blind.
He was going to retire in 1929, but his eyes got better, and he continued. His first retirement took place in December 1937. Lewis made a fortune during his life, but he also spent a fortune on nice clothes, card games, women, mansions in the Hollywood Hills, and bad investments.
Needing money, an overweight Lewis returned to the ring in 1941, just in time for WWII. His career then got a boost when he drew 12,986 against Wild Bill Longson in St Louis. Over the next five years he won, and mostly lost to such major stars as Yvon Robert, Orville Brown, John Pesek, Maurice Tillet, Ray Steele, Frank Sexton, Enrique Torres, Lou Thesz, Primo Carnera, Lee Wykoff, Everett Marshall and Bronco Nagurski. Along the way, he won two more world titles. On March 29, 1948, Lewis’ wrestling license was revoked by the California Athletic Commission, when he failed a physical examination. So, Lewis retired for keeps.
Still needing money, Lewis tried refereeing, managing, training, running an arena, and promoting. On November 22, 1948, a group of promoters formed an organization to go against the new National Wrestling Alliance forming in the Midwest. Members were Toots Mondt, Eddie Quinn and Frank Tunney, and they recognized Lou Thesz as champion. They formed a position of ‘Wrestling Czar’ for Ed Lewis, which was mostly a public relations job, which was going to bring full time wrestling back to Madison Square Garden.
Ed Lewis was also a respected public speaker, with a historically known celebrity name. When Lou Thesz was made the National Wrestling Alliance world champion on November 28, 1949, part of the deal was giving Lewis the position of its ‘ambassador of good will’. For this, the NWA claimed he received $12,500, but the figure was more like $25 a month. During 1950, his friend Lou Thesz got Lewis the position of his manager.
Lewis filled his position well, and he got a percentage of each gate. Always a gentleman, he was liked and respected, as he was pushed in every city as pro wrestling's greatest star, and shooter. With Gotch dead, Stecher in a nursing home, and the rich Jim Londos happily growing avocados on a farm, no one was left to complain. When Thesz sold his St Louis stock, and was no longer a promoter in the NWA, Ed Lewis lost his job, but the Alliance continued to support him until his death in a Tulsa Veterans Hospital on August 7, 1966. Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis' was cremated and later buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia.
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