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Stanislaus Zbyszko:
The Pioneer of Working Pro

by Oliver Lee Bateman


The origins of wrestling are murky and more than a little bit seedy. How did pro wrestling transform from a legitimate athletic contest into a carefully orchestrated spectacle undertaken by performers who moonlight as television, movie, and social media stars? It is hard to capture this transformation in a single story, much less a single life, yet early 20th-century wrestling champion Stanislaus Zbyszko worked and lived long enough to bridge that gap between then and now, almost single-handedly.

Zbyszko, born Jan Stanisław Cyganiewicz and educated as a lawyer during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, immigrated to the United States at age 30 in the early 1900s to compete against the greatest wrestlers in the world, men such as Iowa-born grappler Frank  Gotch and Estonian superman George Hackenschmidt.

In those days, even though the wrestlers themselves were stocky powerhouses, the matches were deadly dull affairs: hours-long defensive struggles, with one competitor sitting atop another, usually immobile or nearly so, until their foe made a mistake and gave them an opportunity to slam their shoulders to the mat for the decisive pinfall.

Zbyszko excelled at this form of competition, demonstrating proficiency in the styles that later became standardized in the Olympics as ‘freestyle’ and ‘Greco-Roman’, but which were contested professionally, like boxing matches, around the turn of the century. He solidified his claim to worldwide fame by battling Gotch in 1909 and then, a year later, challenging the era's widely acknowledged international champion, Indian star Ghulam Mohammad Baksh Butt, the ‘Great Gama’ — in both cases, Zbyszko utilized superior defense to force time-limit draws after hours of strategic inactivity.

But Zbyszko, a cerebral man who understood the value of showmanship, knew that legitimate-yet dull bouts like these were costing the business lots of box-office money. Accordingly, by the early 1920s, he and his brother Władysław, who wrestled as ‘Wladek’, had begun cooperating with athletic promoters who sought to script exciting outcomes to wrestling matches. Both served as world champions in this changing landscape, in which popular but unskilled celebrities and athletes from other sports could win world championships and attract crowds despite limited skills. Much as Zbyszko had once literally carried Frank Gotch and the Great Gama on his back in legitimate contests, he now carried washed-up football stars like 6’9” Wayne ‘Big’ Munn through eye-catching albeit short matches in which he put them over as world-beating wrestlers by letting them win.

Yet Zbyszko never stopped doing business for himself. Booked to face then-world champion Munn in a match in 1925 promoted by ‘Toots’ Mondt, founder of what became today's WWE, Zbyszko decided to change the outcome: he pinned Munn in seconds and then sold the belt to rival promoter Tony Stecher, agreeing to lose it to his brother Joe. This double-cross delayed pro wrestling's evolution towards showcasing pure entertainers who lacked real wrestling credentials by many decades. Because pro wrestling increasing reliance on predetermined outcomes remained trade secret, and despite periodic print exposes like Marcus Griffin's The Fall Guys that began to be published in the 1930s, promoters were forced to keep world titles in the hands of unglamorous gra