The final decade of the millennium and unlike the Attitude Era of the 1990’s professional wrestling would not be carried into the 1900’s with a boom period. In fact things were pretty dead. Some people would have you believe wrestling was legitimate during the decades we’ve been discussing, however, judging by the multiple claims of scandal, accusations, and reports issued it would appear that this game had always evolved around one kind of work or another.
For that reason professional wrestling had never quite become the phenomena that we have come to know and love, although it had periods that were very lucrative for those involved. During 1890-1899 the groundwork was being laid for what would become the first true boom period of wrestling in North America. New stars were being molded and promoters were getting better at organizing a real all round show to get their audiences invested in the athletes.
5 – Dan McLeod
Mcleod was born in 1860 in Ontario Canada, as Daniel Stewart McLeod, he also used the alias of George Little. He worked as a miner from the time he was old enough until 1890. He first stumbled upon wrestling when he was coaxed into a match with a co-worker and defeated him easily, according to newspapers injuring him. From there he would go on to win an amateur Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship before moving onto the professional ranks, quitting the mines and going on a full tour.
Soon after he was battling with the likes of Evan Lewis, who was in the twilight of his career, but still a very popular wrestler, they drew. Mcleod then moved on to Ernest Roeber where he defeated the well respected grappler in 1894. It has been mentioned in newspapers that he was actually billed from Scotland, it’s unclear if that was every time he wrestled or not. May 1897 saw him lose to Martin ‘Farmer’ Burns, for the following five months a rematch was hyped between the two with claims from McLeod the referee was unfair towards him.
In the rematch McLeod beat burns and won the American Heavyweight (Catch) Championship. For the next four years he remained champion, he held an air of legitimacy about him, but the lack of something to draw the crowds in failed to make his reign anything special until he entered into an intense feud with Tom Jenkins and the two traded the title in 1901 and 1902, then finally in 1903 with Jenkins walking away with the championship.
McLeod would remain relevant on the wrestling scene for the following decade always being someone to call upon when a solid challenger was needed for a champion or a rising start. No matter how many times he lost he just commanded respect from both the audience and fellow wrestlers, even Frank Gotch was a fan of his. Upon retiring from the mat game McLeod took up training upcoming wrestlers many of which went on to amateur success. He passed away at the age of 98.
4 – Paul Pons
Next up is a Frenchman, Paul Pons, who was born in 1864, the exact date appears to be lost, possibly forever. Pons was considered by many as the Greco-Roman wrestler at the end of the 1800’s. Not only did he have the technique though, he was also a big man at 6’4”, weighing 260lbs, and built well being a strongman. Like some of the biggest wrestling names from Europe he appears to have started life with the feats of strength and then found wrestling as a natural line of work thereafter.
One could argue Pons, like others who have appeared on this feature, could easily slot into another decade. Most of his accomplishments in majority actually occurred in the 1900’s, however, his most important and most influential victory came in 1898. When the very first World Greco-Roman Heavyweight Championship Tournament was held. In the finals he defeated Antonitsch the Giant, who stood 7’2” and weighed 286lbs. There are a lot of people who recognize Paul Pons as the firs World Heavyweight Champion of the world, and for that reason he has to be included on the list in the 1890’s.
For being the victor Pons received 2,000 francs, which allowed him to make investments and purchase his own gym. This was he could help train a new generation of French youngsters. Pons was quite the celebrity in France and across Europe, however, for whatever reason that never quite transcended to the shores of America. He did have a successful run at the end of 1900 going into 1901 where he fought Ernest Roeber in front of 7,000 fans at Madison Square Garden on February 6, 1901. The contest went to a draw due to a time-limit curfew after 77 minutes, it had been hyped since the end of 1899.
Back in France Pons continued to train and would go on to win several tournaments and different titles across mainland Europe through-out the 1900’s, the last one being in 1907. Pons passed away in 1915 and in that same year his memoirs along with a wrestling manual totaling 340 pages was released in France. From what I understand to the French he is what Frank Gotch is to the Americans, you can not really give a wrestler a higher compliment than that in the pioneer days of wrestling. In his obituary it is remarked how he was the standard French wrestlers were held by and nobody could remove him from the Paris arena at the peak of his career.
3 – The (Original) Terrible Turk
Youssouff Ishmaelo was born around 1857 in Bulgaria (Part of the Ottoman Empire at the time) and quickly rose to fame in oil wrestling. Legend has it he took the 26 year reigning champion of the annual Kirkpinar tournament, which still exists today and is over 600 years old, to a draw and the old master gave his blessing for the young Ishmaelo to take over as the best in the land. How young was he? I can not say, but he is referred to as the “Hairless Boy” during that time period of his life. After winning he went traveling across Europe and Asia at the request of promoters, it is said he suffered no losses during this time only a draw against a fellow ‘Turk’ in London, England.
Whenever he traveled back to Kirkpinar he would help out with training young students of the game, many of which would follow his career path identically. Shortly after the European tour he would embark on a tour of America through-out the first half of 1898. The only time he was defeated were via technicalities. He even defeated Evan ‘Strangler’ Lewis in a match billed as for the ‘Championship of the World,’ albeit a controversial win. He was played up by the media as a savage monster from from foreign lands that could not be stopped. He played the part well, assuming it was a part.
The announcement was made that he would return in the fall and take on Lewis in a rematch, unfortunately Ishmaelo was on the La Buorgogne ship when it collided with another on the trip back to Europe on July 4. 163 people survived of the 725 on board. Since it has happened the way Ishmaelo died has become a point of philosophy in Turkey stating he had demanded the $8,000 ($217,299.08 in today’s money) he earned in his trip to America to be paid in gold, which he carried in a money belt around his waist. When the ship sank they say he refused to take it off and thus sank to the bottom of the ocean due to the weight of it and his greed.
Whether that is true or not he is enshrined in Turkish folklore as the wrestler who conquered the world and was commended by his King for it, earning the name of Koca Yusuf (The Great Yusuf). In wrestling he started the trend of foreign monsters and his match with Lewis drew a huge crowd for the time, as high as 10,000 paid to see the contest. For many years the Kirkpinar winner would almost be guaranteed a trip to American following the win as the newest Terrible Turk and all ferocious foreigners since have paid homage to him whether they realize it or not.
2 – Ern(e)st Roeber
A German born wrestler, who actually wrestled in America before he ever did in his home country, although his American upbringing was not always acknowledged. His parents came to America when he was just a child and he was raised for the majority of his childhood there. It appears he was born on September 18, 1862 according to newspapers, where as a lot of websites these days list 1861. According to one source he was a member of the Gas House Gang for much of his young adulthood. Other than that he had also been excelling as an amateur wrestler, said to have won championships. Greco-Roman was his chosen form of wrestling, still ranked as the most popular style while he was growing up. By the time he broke into the professional side of things in the late 1880’s that had changed, and Catch-as-Catch-Can was officially king.
Not that, that mattered to Roeber as he was determined to succeed at the style he loved. Toward the end of 1889 he managed to hold his own with William Muldoon in an open challenge. Muldoon was so taken aback by the newcomers abilities he immediately took him on the road with him as part of his troupe. At the time Muldoon was still the reigning American Greco-Roman Champion. The two would tour together for the next couple of years and over the course of that time Muldoon would announce Roeber as the true champion.
June 25, 1892 he was billed against French Champion Apollon, Roeber won and was announced as the Greco-Roman Champion of the World. The following year he lost to Evan Lewis in a three out of five fall mixed styles match, Lewis won three Catch rules matches, while Roeber won both Greco-Roman styles matches and kept his title, Lewis became the first American Mixed Styles Champion. Roeber would then embark on a tour of Europe where reportedly he remained undefeated and was even presented a sheep skin scroll declaring him Greco-Roman Champion of Europe on September 26, 1895 and thus laying his claim to being the first true world’s champion.
For five years he could continue to make that claim, of course other claimants came up especially in Europe though. Roeber’s last major matches would be against one of them, Bech Olsen right at the turn of the 20th century, drawing up to 12,000 fans for one match, not bad for a dying wrestling style. Shortly after Roeber bowed out of the mat game. He had already started training wrestlers, many of whom went on to amateur fame. Going forward he would concentrate on that and his business ventures such as his saloon in Mahattan and cafe in Ridgewood, New York until he passed away on April 30, 1944. As if all that wasn’t enough to put him on the list, he also competed in one of the first mixed sports matches against boxer, Bob Fitzsimmons, and won in the late 1890’s.
1 – Martin ‘Farmer’ Burns
February 15, 1861 marks the date that the Farmer was born. He may have been heavily involved in the evolution of the showmanship side of professional wrestling, however, being a farmer was no gimmick for him. Ever since he was 11 years old he had worked on the farm and built incredible strength by doing so. His neck was his most noted feature being his neck at 20 inches in thickness on a man who normally weighed around 165lbs. It’s said he first took an interest in wrestling watching men wrestle in army camps.
Once he became a local star he started traveling further away and in 1889 he managed to last fifteen minutes with both Jack Carkeek and Evan ‘Strangler’ Lewis on the same day. Burns would continue touring the country from that day. There was no doubting the Farmer had officially made a name for himself on the wrestling scene. It’s often said that he wrestled over 6,000 matches and only lost around 7 of them. 1895 was the biggest year of his in-ring career though when he once again battled Lewis, this time winning, and capturing the World Catch Heavyweight Championship (It is often called the American Heavyweight Championship these days).
For two and a half years he held the title until he finally lost to Dan McLeod. Some websites report that Burns held the World Light Heavyweight Championship prior to being the champion of America, however, several of his newspaper obituaries noted that he had won it after losing to McLeod. Either way, he had belts in two weight classes. It was in the late ’90’s he also incorporated a side attraction into his show where by he’d hang himself with a noose and a six foot hangman’s drop, then talk to the audience members while hanging.
While still competing he started training new stars, one of which will be featured in the next list of important stars, Frank Gotch. In fact, Burns would be more than a trainer to Gotch, he would also be a manager and the leader of the troupe of wrestlers Gotch belonged too. Burns boasted the biggest troupe of wrestlers known up until that point in time. All in all through hands-on and mail-away training manuals it is said he trained over 3,000 future wrestlers. When you look at the scene in the late 1890’s going into the early 1900’s Burns’ name is at the top of the list of behind the scenes goings-on and in the forefront of action entertaining fans across the nation. Burns would stay close to the business right up until his death on January 8, 1937.
He may not have been a terribly long champion or have a claim to a true world’s championship, but he was key in ushering in a new era of wrestling and laying the groundwork for the boom that would be soon to come in North America and he clearly added an aspect of blatant showmanship into American wrestling that had never been seen in America with his patented hanging. Evan Lewis may have originally popularized Catch-as-Catch-Can, but Martin ‘Farmer’ Burns made sure it was here to stay and wouldn’t fade away like Collar-and-Elbow and Greco-Roman as we head into the new millennium.
– By Jimmy Wheeler