Wrestling's biggest stars were fading into immortality. Joe Stecher was, for the time being, retired. "Strangler" Lewis, though champion headed into the new year, was considered past his prime and, during the early-30s, would develop more and more bulk. Stanislaus Zbyszko was a relic of an age that was fast becoming history, while John Pesek was too ambitious and self-motivated to be considered trustworthy by anyone.
The business needed some new draws, and quickly, given the stock market crash of late '29 that gave way to The Great Depression. But wrestling was in luck; Jim Londos had been climbing through the ranks for years and was nearly ready to make his big move. Gus Sonnenberg, meanwhile, was thrust into the spotlight with no time to waste.
Gus Sonnenberg ended Ed Lewis’ third world title reign at approximately ten months before 20,000 in Boston on January 4th, defeating “the Strangler” in straight falls. He won the first fall with his flying tackle at 30:46, and the second fall via countout after 8:20 when Lewis refused to return to the ring after absorbing a succession of tackles.
Notes: Incidentally, Boston promoter Paul Bowser settled on Sonnenberg as his territory’s unbeatable draw, even in light of the Wayne Munn debacle that had occurred only four years prior. Bowser must have reasoned the risks to be minimal, so long as he matched “Dynamite” Gus only with contenders that he could absolutely trust so that Sonnenberg wouldn’t get double-crossed as Munn had before him. Sonnenberg was said to have been ill with flu-like symptoms prior to the bout.
Bowser is said to have brokered the world championship from Billy Sandow by paying him $50,000 for the luxury of giving Sonnenberg a prolonged run at top, with the added promise that he would job the belt back to Lewis when Sandow deemed it time to do so (a deal Bowser would renege on in late-1930 when he put the championship on Ed Don George). By Stanislaus Zbyszko’s understanding, the deal was closer to $100,000—the live gate of $83,000 plus an additional $17,000. Lewis dismissed the assertion as having come from “a disgruntled old man.”
On August 23rd in Philadelphia, Jim Londos and Dick Shikat met to determine the world champion of the Curley faction, with Shikat going over to claim the championship.
Notes: Both Londos and Shikat had previously challenged Gus Sonnenberg to a match, but were unable to lure him into the ring. This was understandable from Sonnenberg’s perspective; Londos and Shikat had ties to the Curley/Mondt conglomerate, which was a rival of the Sandow/Bowser faction, and either man probably would have attempted to pull a double-cross. Still, Sonnenberg’s lack of compliance would have been perceived publicly as cowardice. This was precisely why various shooters and hookers challenged champions from competing syndicates. The champion couldn’t logically be expected to accept under the conditions, so the aim was more driven towards sullying a reputation rather than any real hope of wrestling a guy with a title at stake.
The match between Londos and Shikat was signed on July 12th. Shikat earned the bout on that date by defeating Hans Steinke in Philadelphia, whereas Londos was cited for defeating Toots Mondt the prior April. Bidding wars between promoters within the Curley group started at about the same time, with St. Louis’ Tom Packs opening with a bid of $12,000. Curley made a counter-proposal before the match was signed to occur in a Philadelphia venue via Ray Fabiani’s posting of a guarantee of $35,000.
Curley continued to pursue his dual vendettas against longtime enemies Bowser and Sandow by manipulating his connections with a variety of state athletic commissions. By late-July, Pennsylvania became the latest commission to formally strip Sonnenberg of title recognition. Predictably, New York would follow suit on August 9th.
The time of the bout was 1:15:12. Interestingly, Londos was booed while Shikat was cheered. Londos was thought to have sustained a rib injury by the closing bell. Shikat’s win summarily ended the period of a singular world champion, ushering in a highly-contested era in which a number of territories each touted their own world champion, a situation that would endure until Lou Thesz began to clean up the cluttered title scene with a series of decisive victories during the early-50s. What I have always found most curious about this is the fact that Shikat was given the nod instead of Londos, who was developing into consistently the most popular wrestler in North America since the early-20s, but still didn’t have a belt to show for it. Doubtless, Londos was inclined towards continued compliance with the promise that he would take the title at some date in the near future.
Many sources point to this match as the beginning of the NWA (National Wrestling Association, not the Alliance of later years). They are mistaken, as the Association would not be formally organized until the fall of 1930.
Ridiculously, Shikat’s title reign was marred by an incident that took place exactly one week after his victory over Londos, when a New York City cab driver took off with Shikat’s championship belt. The title, prized at a value of $5,000, would not be recovered, forcing Curley to assume the added burden of commissioning a new belt.
After a rest period of about eleven months, Joe Stecher returned to the ring with a January 23rd Los Angeles victory over Paul Jones.
Notes: Now desperate for gainful employment, Stecher tossed away notions of playing any role in controlling the industry, and returned to work under the influence of Bowser. This was an unfortunate decision because Stecher’s old enemies, Ed Lewis and Billy Sandow, were business associates of Bowser. Lewis in particular seemed to endlessly pursue a childish grudge against Stecher for some unknown perceived slight that happened years before, and would devote his influence in the years to come largely to build himself up at Stecher’s expense.
In spite of his prior dominance, Stecher was exploited primarily in a mid-card capacity. He was brought back largely to build others for the main event. On February 21st, he jobbed to Joe Malciewicz, who would go on to face Sonnenberg for the championship.
Gus Sonnenberg defended his newly-won world heavyweight championship against Ed “the Strangler” Lewis, Joe Stecher, Joe Malciewicz, Charlie Hansen, Stanley Stasiak, Dan Koloff, Pat McGill, Howard Cantonwine and Marin Plestina over the course of 1929, but still fell under near-constant criticism from the press for the manner in which he avoided key challenges from Jim Londos, Dick Shikat and John Pesek.
Notes: Much of the criticism stemmed from a facade that was exposed by The Boston Traveler in June, in which Koloff encountered Sonnenberg in a number of title matches in March, April and May under close to a half dozen aliases, a scam masterminded by Bowser to create the impression that the champion had a much greater bounty of challengers than he actually did.
The news prompted the Illinois State Athletic Commission to penalize Koloff—who had appeared as Dan Kolman, Dan Shannon, Dave Petroff and Fred Gotch—with a 1-year suspension for his antics. Sonnenberg’s reaction was near-immediate, and he filed a slander and libel lawsuit against the paper on July 29th, demanding $500,000 in damages. As Sonnenberg had graduated from Michigan State with a degree in law some years earlier, it is possible that he represented himself.
The onslaught from Sonnenberg’s detractors would continue, and the vilification took an undeniable toll on the champion. By September, Sonnenberg reported to the press that he was considering leaving the industry once he lost the title (he would continue to wrestle actively for eleven more years). He took to drinking, and his alcohol addiction became so bad in later years that he relied upon a driver—Lou Thesz—to get him to the arena in one piece.
The champion’s enemies weren’t finished seething with jealousy: On October 22nd in Los Angeles, a middleweight hooker by the name of Pete Ladjimi headbutted Sonnenberg in the face outside a gymnasium. He had been put up to the attack by Londos, who might have resented Sonnenberg with a particular zeal due to the meteoric rise of the champion at a time when Londos had paid his dues for years and was only just now positioning himself for a run on top. Ladjimi was convicted of assault and battery on November 13th, but rather than serve out a 30-day jail term, he appealed his way out of trouble.
Sonnenberg acknowledged the mental strain in a 1930 interview with The Dallas Morning News, in which he soberly stated, “I have hated myself and everybody else connected with the sport, many a time...Wrestlers don’t last very long, you know, and when you’re through being famous, they’re still just wrestlers, and there isn’t any place for them in the scheme of things...I won’t last so long at it. I’m high-strung and full of nerves. I’ll burn out soon. They all do unless they’re like animals—no feeling.”
Stanislaus Zbyszko filed a lawsuit aimed at The New York American Inc., a paper that had run an article on evolution directly comparing Zbyszko to an ape. Zbyszko sought $250,000 in damages for the manner in which he claimed the article had irreparably harmed the relationship between him and his wife.
Notes: The court wasn’t buying that argument, and ruled the comparison as “ambiguous and capable of an innocent as well as a disgraceful meaning.” By some accounts, the presiding judge exercised a sense of humor in awarding Zbyszko an immediate cash settlement of exactly one dollar, well below the 250 grand the Pole was asking.
Ed Don George made his professional wrestling debut amidst little fanfare on November 21st in Boston, defeating Ivan Ludlow on a card promoted by Paul Bowser.
Notes: Don George was previously noted for his amateur success, as he had placed fourth in the freestyle wrestling competition of the 1928 Olympic Games. He was also a former National AAU heavyweight champion. He was later renowned in professional rings for being Sonnenberg’s conqueror. In all, Don George reigned as AWA world champion on three occasions before retiring during the forties and opening a wrestling office based in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.
In May, Ray Fabiani began training boxer George Godfrey with the hopes of unleashing him upon the pro wrestling scene at the end of the month.
Notes: Godfrey had been a heavyweight boxer and was a former world’s colored champion, a title he would regain upon returning to the boxing game in 1931. He would periodically return to wrestling into the early-40s, but had limited success. He died relatively young in 1947.
Matty Matsuda, one of the few Japanese-American wrestlers in existence, died of tuberculosis, made worse by influenza, in Battle Creek, Michigan on August 1st.
Notes: Matsuda was a 24-year veteran of the industry and claimant to the world middleweight title. He had worked for the Sandow/Lewis faction over much of his career.