Evan Lewis: The Strangler
by Stephen Yobe
Evan Lewis, the ‘Strangler’, was the most popular and feared wrestler of the period between 1883 and 1899. Lewis was the king of the catch-as-catch-can style, his finishing hold was the strangle, which was a rough version of today's sleeper. Drawings published of Lewis' strangle seems to be more like the guillotine choke used in MMA today, looking like a front face lock. He used this hold, a vicious nature, and great upper body strength to overcome his opponents. Evan wasn't known as a sophisticated wrestler, but dominated by using his strength, and finishing hold. He won a number of pro wrestling's early titles including the catch world (or American) title, and the world mixed title.
Evan Lewis was born on May 24 1860 in Ridgeway, Wisconsin, a small village in Iowa County, near Madison. In 1881, Lewis traveled to Montana, to work in the mines there. When not digging, he became involved in the sport of Cornish wrestling. His first known matches were in May 1882, when he lost a number of Cornish style matches. Lewis seemed to improve, as he won a tournament on July 5, 1882 at Butte, Montana. He then returned home, to win the Wisconsin State title on March 20, 1883 beating a Ben Knight in a match that lasted over three hours. The gate was $200, with the beat seats costing 75 cents.
On October 10, 1883, Lewis lost a Cornish Style match to Jack Carkeek, who was unbeatable in the style. After this match Lewis left the Cornish Style to concentrate on Catch wrestling. He found he was better suited to the cruelest style and it's many holds. On
May 30, 1885, at the Madison, Wisconsin Roller Rink, Evan Lewis defeated James Faulkner two falls to one. He met promoter Charles ‘Parson’ Davis from Chicago, around this time, and the story is that Davis gave Lewis the ‘Strangler’ name. Lewis' reputation was such that he developed ‘backers’, rich businessmen or maybe gamblers, who put up money which enabled Lewis to get bigger matches.
At Madison, WI on December 21, 1895, Lewis defeated Tom Cannon. After this match, Parson Davis decided to bring Lewis to Chicago. In Chicago on January 27, 1886 at the Central Music Hall, Lewis (185 pounds) defeated Matsuda Sorakichi three falls to one. The Japanese wrestler wanted a rematch, but with the strangle hold barred. Lewis agreed. In the rematch, Lewis defeated Sorakichi in 50 seconds. The Chicago Mayor banned pro boxing and wrestling for a time due to the match, and much of Lewis' image of being a brutal wrestler came from this night, but it also helped him become a major star nationwide. In 1886, Lewis defeated Edwin Bibby, Jack Carkeek, Jimmy Faukner and, in March, he defeated Martin “Farmer” Burns.
On May 27, 1886 at Minneapolis, MN, Lewis wrestled William Muldoon. In a handicap Greco-Roman match, Muldoon lost to Lewis. By 1887, the top Catch-style wrestler was Joe Acton, and he also was considered the world champion. On February. 7, 1987 at Battery D, in Chicago, Acton defeated Lewis. This was a 3/5 fall match, under new Police Gazette rules that stated two shoulders down would constitute a fall, not two shoulders and a hip as was the old rule. The new rule wasn't popular.
On February. 26, 1887, The Police Gazette announced that Joe Acton and Evan Lewis had signed a contract to meet again in Chicago on March 14, 1887. Part of the agreement was that neither wrestler could participate in another match before the date, or forfeit all money deposited. This agreement was broken by Lewis, when, out of ignorance or loyalty to a promoter, he defeated Jack Carkeek in a best of five fall match in Milwaukee on March 3. When the third fall started, Carkeek looked groggy and listless. Once Lewis took him down, the Carkeek's second threw in the towel. Time was two minutes. The next day it was revealed that Carkeek was injured internally and had some type of rupture.
By March 9, 1887, Joe Acton had backed out of the match with Lewis, and Carkeek was brought to Chicago as replacement. Acton demanded his forfeit ($100), got it, and left town. Lewis then defeated Carkeek on March 14. in a match everyone thought was worked. Parson Davis had re-signed Acton, and Lewis for April 11, 1887. On that day, at Battery D Armory in Chicago, Lewis defeated Joe Acton three falls to one to become the new American Catch Champion. On July 15 1887 in Pittsburgh, Tom Connors won the American Catch Championship by defeating Lewis two-falls-to-one. A Dec. 19, 1887, match between Tom Connors and Evan Lewis in Chicago was canceled because Lewis was sick and couldn't wrestle. Connors demanded the forfeit money. On January 15, 1888, it was announced that Tom Connors, American Catch Style Champion had left the country. With Connors gone, Evan Lewis returned to calling himself the American Catch Champion.
On October 24, 1891: Evan Lewis injured his legs in a ‘runaway’ accident at Barneyeld, WI, and was said to be partially crippled. One knee was so severely injured that he was confined to his house. He returned on March 21, 1892 to defeated Jack King in a mixed match three-fall-to-two in Chicago. On March 2, 1893, at The Olympic Club, New Orleans, Louisiana, ‘Strangler’ Lewis won the World Mixed Style Championship by defeating Ernest Roeber three falls to two. Lewis won his three falls in the Catch style while Roeber won his two falls in the Greco-Roman style. The third fall was in Catch style because Lewis won one of his falls in the quickest time.
At Ridgeway, WI, on February 16, 1894 Evan Lewis return to training after having a bad case of pneumonia. Seems Lewis' heath was failing him, this illness may have been TB (Pulmonary Tuberculosis). On April 7, 1894, a Chicago match between Evan Lewis and Farmer Burns was canceled because Lewis was too sick to wrestle. Later on April 14 the New York City The Brooklyn Eagle reported that Evan Lewis was dying from consumption (TB) and claimed he had only one lung left. Then, on Nov. 26, 1894 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Lewis defeated J. C. Comstock winning three-falls-to-one.
For three years a match between Evan Lewis and ‘Farmer’ Burns couldn't happen because of Burns' refusal to allow Lewis to use the strangle hold. (Lewis being sick was probably also a major reason.) In March 1895, Burns gave in to the use of the hold and the two agreed to meet. The match was set for April 20, in Chicago. On the night before or around that time, the strangle was barred by the government under a new law. Officials claim the strangle and other tricks mainly used by Lewis to cripple his opponents were too dangerous and had to stop. It was speculated that Lewis would drop out of the match, but he had been under pressure for years over the use of the hold, and realized he had to give in to the law or quit.
On April 20, 1895 at the 2nd Armory in Chicago, Burns defeated Lewis three-out-of-five falls to win the World Catch Championship. This Catch World Title would later become the American Title that Tom Jenkins and Frank Gotch would fight over. On February 19, 1897 in Marshfield, WI, Lewis defeated Fred Beell. The young Fred Beell would go on to take the Catch American Title from Frank Gotch and be recognized as one of the greatest pound-for-pound wrestlers in history. During a two-month tour of England, he defeated ‘Bulldog’ Clayton in straight falls for a British version of the Catch World Title, in London on August 28, 1897. And on June 20, 1898 at Tattersalls, Chicago, Lewis defeated Yousouf, The Terrible Turk by DQ. The sold out 7,000 and the reporters agreed that no man alive could beat the Terrible Turk that night. Evan Lewis had been in bad health for some time and seemed to be picking up what money was left in this career. He then retired to his farm near Dodgeville, WI.
Evan ‘Strangler’ Lewis died on November 3, 1919 at age 59 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Dodgeville, WI. Lewis had owned a farm near Ridgeway, WI, and been a well-known celebrity and civic leader in the area, but by 1919 had been sick for years. Reports are he died from cancer, but what type isn’t known. He was survived by his second wife Margaret Todd and had a daughter Ruth and two sons.
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