In the early 20’s professional wrestling was still very much a regional affair. That said there were attempts to have a recognized “National Champion.” The various promoters were able to get together (for the most part) and in 1921, Ed “Strangler” Lewis defeated Stanislaus Zbyszko on March 3, 1922 in Wichita. At this time, Lewis and his manager, promoter Billy Sandow tried to branch off and take control of wrestling as a whole. They broke off from fellow promoter Jack Curley and essentially went into business for themselves.
They had control of nearly all of the Midwest at this time and they protected themselves by bringing in John Pesek and a young, innovative wrestler by the name of Toots Mondt. Prior to this time, wrestling was, for the most part, still a legitimate competition. Lewis began having matches with wrestlers far less skilled and began developing the “entertainment” aspect in wrestling which we see today. This style was beginning to move fans to near riots. Lewis would get heat by “crippling” his opponents with his feared headlock. In watching Lewis seemingly maim his opponents intentionally, the fans became more and more incensed.
From 1922 to 1925, Lewis and Sandow monopolized wrestling and nearly bankrupted Jack Curley in the process. Even those wrestlers that might have been able to compete with Lewis had to get by Pesek, considered the ultimate hooker of this time or Mondt.
In early 1925, the Lewis and Sandow decided to bring a newcomer into the picture, and it would be a move they would forever regret.
Wayne Munn was born in 1896 in Colby, KS. As a teen, he worked as a clown in the Campbell Brothers Circus while he was becoming a star football player as Fairbury HS. Wayne chose to attend the University of Nebraska in 1916 and became nationally known almost instantly. At 6’2″ 230 pounds, he also was successful in football, basketball, boxing and even as a wrestler; winning the heavyweight championship in the Missouri Valley Conference.
After he left Nebraska, he served briefly in World War I. He worked several jobs for a number of years when promoter Gene Melady convinced him to try professional boxing. He began training under Mike Gibbons and reports at the time claim that Munn lost 40 pounds. Writers at the time were comparing him to Jack Dempsey and his handlers believed that they had a potential champion in their stable.
Unfortunately, reality was a little different and in his first match against a fighter named Jack Clifford, he was knocked out. His second bout, against Charly Paulson, finished with the same result.
Munn then decided to give wrestling a try. Because of his name and size, Munn was sought after by promoter Billy Sandow. He began training in Omaha and had his first match on February 12, 1924 in New York City, beating Bill Beth. He incorporated football moves in his wrestling which was unique at the time. Wayne “Big” Munn was now a wrestler.
Sandow and Lewis began making arrangements for Munn to win the World Title, feeling that it would cause some controversy (due to Munn’s inexperience) and ultimately create a huge payday with a rematch. On January 8, 1925 in Kansas City, MO, Munn “upset” Lewis in three falls, becoming the “disputed” champion. Lewis refused to give up the Diamond Belt. After the first match, Sandow arranged the rematch to take place at a stadium in Michigan City, IN. While this all sounded great, Lewis and Sandow forgot to take into account that Munn was not only inexperienced, but new to the business of wrestling as well.
Sandow and Lewis booked Munn into matches against hand-picked opponents, protecting him and would never let an outsider get to Munn in the ring. In Philadelphia, on April 15, 1925, Munn was up against another member of Sandow’s group, former champion Stanislaus Zbyszko. Zbyszko had worked for Sandow previously, even jobbing to Munn on a prior occasion, despite the fact that in a legitimate match, Zbyszko would have been able to defeat Munn handily. The match was scheduled to go in two straight falls and it did. However, it was Zbyszko that took the win.
Wrestling was part show and part athletic competition in the early 1900’s. Most champions were legitimate wrestlers that could handle themselves in the ring. Munn was, in reality, the first “performer” to ever hold the belt. It appeared that a huge double-cross had taken place. Zbyszko lit into Munn, taking the first fall in 8:11 and the second in only 4:53 (this at a time when matches were rarely less than 60 minutes). When the dust settled, out from behind the curtain stepped Jack Curley. He had made the deal with Zbyszko to take the title and took the title they did.
Ultimately, Sandow claimed that because the first match was “disputed” that Lewis was still champion. This split in the title would remain until 1928 when Curley agreed to allow Lewis defeat Joe Stecher for the Championship.
While Wayne Munn may not have been the greatest wrestler, his legacy in the sport can not be denied; as the first “Performer” as champion, Munn is the bridge from wrestling as sport to wrestling as entertainment.
Patrick Croak wrote: Here is a story reporting the Championship match between Lewis and Munn that appeared in Time Magazine in their January 19, 1925 edition.
Two men shook hands on a mat in full view of 15,000 Kansans. One was Wayne (“Big”) Munn of Kansas City, local hero. The other was Ed. (“Strangler”) Lewis, world’s heavyweight wrestling champion, whose unpopularity was evinced by squalls of boos.
Then began the slapping, spanking bout of brawn and brain. A sinewy limb slipped under an unprotected crotch, another encircled an unguarded torso, there was a sudden jerk forward, followed by a heavy fall, and Champion Lewis found himself pinioned beneath 250 pounds of his opponent.
The second fall began with feline caution. The two wrestlers stepped this way and that but never a hold did they get. Suddenly Munn strode forward, seized the hapless Lewis, heaved him high into the air and over the ropes. The fall was heavy, but its noise was drowned by the thunderous applause from the Kansans. Lewis lay prone. Invectives were hurled at his limp form.
Meantime, Billy Sandow, Lewis’ manager, had jumped into the ring. “It’s a foul!” cried he. “A dirty foul! You’ve got to award us the match!” The swarthy Munn peered querulously across the mat, tore off his bathrobe, assumed a bellicose attitude, confronted the irate manager. Munn’s manager likewise grew threatening; but for all that the referee gave the fall to Lewis on a foul, allowing the latter 15 minutes to get back into the ring. The crowd was indignant, stormed about the ringside, hooting, booing.
The last fall was quickly decided. Lewis appeared, his back well bandaged; soon he was lying limp on those bandages. The heavyweight title had passed to Wayne Munn. The crowd went “mad-dog,” scrambled on its seats, shook the rafters of Convention Hall as it screeched, boomed, barked salvos of shouts for the victor. Many sportsmen caterwauled at the dejected figure with the bowed head in the centre of the ring. A yokel was heard to shout: “You big bum, I hope you’re hurt!”
After the match, Lewis was taken to a hospital, where it was said that he was suffering from a strained sacroiliac joint (that part of the vertebra that joins the pelvis). His discharge from the hospital was considered imminent, but there were plenty of opinions that said he would never Wrestle again.
Manager Sandow remarked after the match: “If Munn thinks he is going to get that diamond belt* he is mistaken, for he should have been fouled out of the bout when he threw Lewis from the ring.”
* Belt studded with 39 diamonds and worth $10,000. It was awarded to the champion several years ago by the Central Athletic Club.