Wrestling wth the Past returns with the life and times of pro wrestling's "last legitimate champion"; Earl Caddock, "The Man of a Thousand Holds".
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
- John Ford
"Professional wrestling... has no history, only a past."
- The Phantom of the Ring
Over the last century professional wrestling has gone through many changes, but none were as radical as the transformation that followed the First World War. Before those first shots were fired on the Appel Quay in Sarajevo, wrestling was one of the première spectator sports of the Western World, its popularity on par with such stalwarts as boxing, baseball, and horse racing. Big matches, such as those involving champions Frank Gotch or George Hackenschmidt, drew massive crowds and garnered worldwide attention via newspapers and newsreels. But shortly after the Armistice that ended the Great War, wrestling would no longer be a "sport", as it metamorphosed into what later generations would term "sports entertainment".
According to Marcus Griffin in his seminal muckraker The Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce, it was during the Roaring 20s that the terms "shooting", "working", "program", and "heat' first entered the wrestling promoter's lexicon. It was also at this time that the slower, pure and undiluted grappling of the pre war years was replaced with the faster, more exciting "Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling." These changes, according to Nat Fleischer of Ring Magazine, "altered the grappling game to the extent that no longer is it an art or a science, but one in which fisticuffs plays almost as much a part in deciding a winner as does actual wrestling."
The final result was that legitimate, real professional wrestling ceased to exist. That's not to say that the outcomes weren't fixed in those earlier matches, for many -- if not most -- contests were probably entered with a predetermined outcome. But what was real was the actual wrestling and equally genuine were the skills of its competitors, something that could not be said of the bodybuilders and gridiron heroes that made up future generations. Perhaps no one better symbolized this earlier era of real professional wrestling than the man many have called the last legitimate champion: Earl Caddock, "The Man of a Thousand Holds."
The story of Earl Caddock's is a quintessential early 20th century American one. He was born in Huron, South Dakota on February 27, 1888 to John and Jane Caddock, both Jewish-German immigrants. A frail, sickly child, his family relocated to his mother's hometown of Chicago, IL so that young Earl could receive better care after having been (wrongly) diagnosed with tuberculosis. Part of his treatment included being sent to the local YMCA for exercise, where he saw his health dramatically improve thanks to a regiment of swimming, gymnastics, and, most importantly, wrestling.
It was wrestling that would hold a special interest for Caddock. During his youth he would read and memorize every word on the subject which he could get his hands on, then spend endless hours in the gymnasium experimenting and perfecting the holds and maneuvers he had come across; even inventing a few of his own.
In 1902 tragedy struck the Caddock family when Earl's father was killed in a freak accident after falling into an open manhole cover. With the family's primary provider gone, Earl was sent to Anita, IA to live and work on his Uncle Isaac's farm. He continued to grapple in that wrestling crazed state, winning many local championships. Eventually he returned to Chicago to attend college at the Hebrew Institution, where he was coached by the legendary Benny Reuben, and to also compete as a member of the Chicago Athletic Association. From 1909 to 1915 Caddock dominated the amateur ranks, winning numerous titles, mostly at middleweight and light heavyweight, and even recorded a victory over future Olympian Nat Pendleton.
In April of 1914 Caddock took part in the national AAU championships, which were held in San Francisco, CA where he won the light heavyweight class. He surpassed this feat a year later when he returned to the Bay area to win the AAU championship in both the light heavyweight and heavyweight classes. At 27 years of age Caddock was viewed as the best amateur catch-as-catch-can wrestler in the world. It was at this point that he decided to try his hand at the professional game.
The first test of his new career was a handicap match held on June 8, 1915, against former American champion Jess Westergaard. The stipulation was that Westergaard would have to pin Caddock twice within an hour to be declared the winner, but at the end of the time limit Caddock's shoulders had failed to touch the mat. It was a most impressive first showing.
Less than a month later, on July 4, 1915, Caddock sat ringside to witness Joe Stecher defeating fellow Chicago Athletic Association member Charlie Cutler for the World Title. If Caddock ever wanted to be champion he would have to take it from the "Scissors King", a wrestler who had allegedly beaten him 2-falls-to-1 in a private match held years before in an Iowa barn in which 31 spectators paid a dime each to witness. It was also reportedly the last time either man had been pinned.
Over the next two years Caddock built up quite an impressive resume as a professional, meeting 23 opponents and racking up 46 consecutive pin-falls in the standard two-out-of-three fall matches. Amongst his victims were Clarence Eklund, Ad Santel, Marin Plestina, and Jess Westergaard, who he pinned twice in 42 minutes in their rematch. During all these matches Caddocks shoulders never once touched the mat.
It was also during this run that Caddock picked up Gene Malady as his manager, a Midwest businessman whose reputation and ability as a promoter was rejuvenating the professional wrestling business. It was Malady that gave Caddock the name "The Man of a Thousand Holds", a fitting moniker for the small heavyweight who tipped the scale only a few pounds over the 175 pound light heavyweight limit and who regularly gave up 40 pounds to his opponents.
"He can use the scissors, the half-Nelson, the bar arm, the toe hold, and hundreds of others, and he uses each with equal effectiveness. And that's what makes him the great champion that he is. If he can't get you with one, he tries another, another, and so on, until you fall victim to his variety."
Caddock's vast range of holds was so astounding that the legendary Greco-Roman champion William Muldoon once said: "They short-change Caddock every time they call him 'The Man of a Thousand Holds'. Ten thousand would be a more exact figure."
One of Malardy's first actions was to send Caddock to learn the ropes of the professional game from two of its paramount practitioners: Martin "Farmer" Burns and Frank Gotch. Burns, the former American champion was commonly recognized as the best teacher of catch-as-can wrestling in the world, living or dead. The newly retired Frank Gotch had been Burns' most accomplished student and was widely hailed as the greatest wrestler since Milos of Croton.
In 1916 Caddock ended up traveling with the two in the Sells-Floto circus soaking up every trick and tip offered by the pair during their nightly wrestling exhibitions. He also assisted in Gotch's training, who was at the time planning on ending his retirement for a "match of the century" with Joe Stecher. Unfortunately, Gotch ended up fracturing his leg while grappling with fellow circus wrestler Bob Managoff and shortly thereafter fell ill from uremic poisoning. By the end of 1917 the peerless champion was dead at the young age of 39.
With the Gotch-Stecher contest no longer a possibility the biggest match now to be made in wrestling was between the champ Stecher and the up-and-coming Caddock. With their similar Midwest backgrounds and records they made for an interesting pairing; neither had yet to see their shoulders pinned to the mat for even a single fall.
The meeting took place on April 9, 1917 in a sold out arena in Omaha Nebraska. Almost 8,000 spectators paid to see a match billed as a contest between Nebraska (represented by Stecher) and Iowa (with Caddock as their champion). Caddock entered the match as anywhere from a 3-to-1 and 5-to-1 underdog, but he was also in the best condition of his life thanks to his time with Burns and Gotch.
Steve Yohe recounted the match in his excellent Earl Caddock bio The Man of a Thousand Holds.
"The match started slowly with both wrestlers on their feet, Stecher trying to take the challenger down, but Caddock blocking every attempt for most of an hour... both wrestlers went on the offense with Stecher getting the better of the action. At one point Caddock fell from the ring and into the ringside seats, hitting his head. He climbed back into the ring dazed, soon falling victim to Stecher's body scissors and wristlock, being put on his back and pinned after one hour and twenty-two minutes. This was the first time Caddock had been pinned in his pro career.
"After the ten minute rest, the wrestlers returned from their dressing rooms. At the start of the second fall both wrestlers began to mix it up, but this time Caddock had the best of Stecher. Many times Caddock's quickness got him behind the champion and Stecher seemed powerless to stop him. At the fifty-minute mark of the second fall Caddock took Stecher down and got a pin, but the referee refused to allow the fall because both men were partly off the mat. This decision almost started a riot. Caddock's dominance of the exhausted Stecher continued until Caddock actually won the second fall in one hour and forty minutes using a reverse nelson and a head hold to pin Joe. The crowd went nuts as this was the first time that Stecher had ever been pinned."
What happened next caught everyone off guard. "From all reports Stecher quit cold, and quit unexpectedly." Having retreated to his dressing room for the fifteen-minute interlude between falls, Stecher now refused to return for the final fall. He was simply too exhausted to continue, explaining later that it felt as if I was wrestling against five men at the same time."
With Stecher refusing to return, Caddock was declared the winner. The celebration that followed was described by Nat Fleischer in his book From Milos to Londos:
"[Stecher] was all flagged out, so much so that he forfeited the match by refusing to return to the match for a third fall. The Dempsey victory over Firpo and the excitement attending the "long count" match between Tunney and Dempsey were as nothing compared to the furor and wild scenes when Caddock was returned victor over Stecher.
"The Omaha Ball Park, owned and managed by the veteran Pat O'Rourke, never saw such wild acclaim. The crowd was simply crazed and Caddock, possessing wonderful personality, good looking, and clean living, made a great hit and became immensely popular."
Less than two years since his first professional contest and only four months before his 30th birthday, Earl Caddock was the World's Heavyweight Champion.
Three days before Caddock's joyous victory the United States had declared war on Germany thereby entering what would eventually become known as the First World War. Congress soon passed the Selective Draft Act, requiring all males between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for military service. Caddock, caught up in the patriotic fervor, didn't wait to be drafted, choosing to instead enlist shortly after marrying his longtime sweetheart, Grace May Mickel of Walnut, Iowa, on July 21, 1917. Two weeks after exchanging vows Caddock appeared before a military draft examination board where he was surprised to learn that physicians had determined he was unfit for military service due to an infection caused by an earlier tonsil surgery.
Caddock, who had already declined an exemption for being married now, refused one on behalf of his medical condition. In September he checked into the Mayo clinic where he underwent corrective surgery and a month later was accepted into the US Army.
The day after Christmas, Caddock entered the U.S. Army as a private in the Eighty-Eighth Division, which was stationed in Camp Dodge, Iowa. For one of the most famous athletes in the country, military life took some getting used to.
"I woke up along about 1 o'clock," he says, "and some chap kept walking back and forth past the head of my bunk. I rolled over and said, 'What the dickens are you walking around all night for?' He was the guard, and told me to shut up and go on sleeping."
During all this time Caddock continued to wrestle, receiving a pass to leave Camp Dodge whenever he had a match, although the army stipulated that "He will not be allowed to wrestle for money during the war except for the benefit of the Red Cross". As champion Caddock defended against the likes of Dr. Benjamin Roller, John Olin, Yussif Hussane, and John Freeberg, winning at least a score of matches after capturing the title from Stecher in 1917. His streak of straight falls only came to an end when he faced Wladek Zbyszko in February of 1918, winning two falls to one. In a rematch in May he failed to pin the giant Pole, but took the decision, an outcome that was repeated a month later against Ed 'The Strangler" Lewis. In both these matches the general consensus was that Caddock had wrestled rings around his much bigger opponents. There was little doubt to those that followed the sport that he was at that time the "World's Greatest Grappler".
In April of 1918 promoter Jack Curly offered a $50,000 purse for meeting between Caddock and the winner of a match between Joe Stecher and Ed "The Strangler" Lewis. The contest, which was to be held on July 4th at Madison Square Gardens, was aborted when word came that Caddock's unit would be shipping out to the battlefields of Europe.
"Premiere wrestling honors probably will rest with Sergeant Earl Caddock of Camp Dodge until after the war, as it is declared the national army man will engage in no more championship contests before his division - the Eighty-eighth - leaves for France."
On August 4th, the Omaha World-Herald reported:
(Caddock was headed) "overseas with the Eighty-eighth division in the headquarters department. He leaves for the east immediately, and will probably sail the latter part of the week. The fact that Caddock is leaving removes all possible chances of his meeting any world's champion heavyweight aspirants."
Caddock arrived in France in late August, and was there for little more than three months before the guns went silent an hour before noon on November 11th. While he had missed the worst of the trench warfare during his short tour of duty, he had not escaped unscathed.
"He has gone through a war, has done a hitch at the front, lived in the trenches, slept in the mud and water, eaten of army "chow" that he claims didn't agree with him and finally was gassed in the Argonne."
He would remain in Europe for another six months, falling ill from a mild case of influenza during this time. Caddock could count himself lucky for the Spanish Flu had killed some 50 million people worldwide during the war years and had been responsible for almost as many US military deaths as those lost in combat. Following this episode rumors soon emerged that his career was over, with the Associated Press reporting in March of 1919 that,
"Caddock is on his way home, but he will wrestle no more. Before he left the division, he told his friends that when he was released from the army he was going to retire permanently from the struggles of the mat and turn farmer."
By June, he was finally home with his wife and a newborn child who had been born while he was overseas. He had been gone from Iowa less than a year but the experience had obvious affected him deeply, as he returned looking thinner and unhealthy, with deep lines beneath his eyes. His early idealism was also gone, with Caddock declaring that he would only fight again if the U.S. was invaded, and never again on foreign soil.
Once home Caddock's strength and spirit rapidly returned and he was soon announcing that not only was he not retiring from wrestling but was already in training in order to defend his title. Promoters at first ignored him, satisfied to move ahead with a Lewis-Stecher championship match, but public support for Caddock couldn't be ignored. A rematch against his old rival Joe Stecher was arranged for January 30th, 1920 in New York City by premiere promoter Jack Curley For the match the two wrestlers would be splitting the $40,000 purse bid.
Billed as a clash between the two branches of the armed forces, with the sailor Stecher representing the Navy and the soldier Caddock as the Army's champion, the match drew an enthusiastic crowd of ten thousand spectators to Madison Square Garden. The gate was nearly $100,000 with ringside seats going for $22 ($20 for the seat plus a $2 war tax).
At 9:15 PM, the referee, former lightweight champion George Bothner, brought the two the center of the ring for final instructions. The match would be a one-fall contest with the stranglehold and full-nelson banned. Stecher was the larger of the two, having fifteen pounds on the 190 pound champion. Caddock reportedly glowed with a rosy health.
"Both were careful at the start. They placed their strong hands on each other's shoulders and began to tug and pull. Caddock tried to trip Joe and get him on the canvas, but Joe hopped around on one foot and kept his balance. "Watch him Joe," yelled the gallery, "don't let him fool you."
Round and round the ring they went backwards and forward both as wary as two cats. With their hands together they pushed and shoved, but neither could get a hold only on the other's neck."
The two circled the ring for the first 18 minutes before Caddock made the first move, a body hold. With the ice broken the battle was now underway. For next the two hours the crowd was treated to a masterful display of grappling, as they attacked, defended, and countered without pause. At the hour mark Caddock broke free from a painful-looking arm hold, and by the ninety minute mark he was on top of Stecher looking for a pin. Miraculously, Stecher managed to not only escape but reverse the predicament.
At one hour and forty-five minutes Caddock was felled and again the "scissors" hoodoo clinked menacingly in the air.
In a flash, Stecher had clamped it on, combined with a further arm hold. It seemed game Caddock's end. Excitement was a fever heat. Men about the ring twisted their Sunday-to-to-meeting high hats into, pretzels.
Women, and there were thousands of them there, piped the usual feminine wails as Caddock's shoulders neared the mat. Inches separated Joe Stecher from the world's title. Slowly, half an inch at a time, Caddock seemed to be slipping to wrestling doom. One shoulder was already pinned. The scissors was clamped on in a killing lock. The further armhold was gradually forcing the remaining shoulder to the mat; an inch to go.
George Bothner, on the flat of his tummy, utterly unmindful of his spic and span, to be in at the death. And then Caddock gave way and Bothner tapped Stecher on the shoulder. He was the champion.
The match was filmed and exhibited around the country to packed audiences, for which Caddock and Stecher were together paid the handsome price of $30,000. It is the oldest surviving film of a professional wrestling match and our only evidence of what wrestling was like before the ascension of the "Gold Dust Trio".
Caddock never reclaimed the belt. He continued to wrestle for the next few years, winning most of his matches but falling whenever he faced the likes of Ed Lewis and the Zbyszko brothers, Wladek and Stanislaus. For many it was obvious that Caddock was no longer the same wrestler he had been prior to his tour in France.
"After a few days, it became quite apparent to Earl's horde of friends that he was no longer the Caddock who only a few months previously had been hailed as one of the greatest of American matmen. The War had taken his strength from him. The gas had injured his lungs to such an extent that when he coughed his saliva was black."
Earl Caddock's last known match took place in Boston, MA on June 7, 1922. Caddock once again challenged for the world championship, this time against Ed Lewis. He managed to pin Lewis in the second fall, but lost the other two to the Strangler's dreaded headlock.
According to wrestling historian Mark Chapman "Earl Caddock was a devoted husband, father, Christian and high-successful businessman, as well as patriot and champion athlete". In retirement he went into business with his brother-in law, and reportedly became an Evangelist, having converted to Christianity at some point during his career. But, unlike most professional wrestlers, he would never return to the ring after hanging up his boots. Fitting, for there was no place for him in the world of wrasslin' that arose after he departed.
Earl Caddock "The Man of a Thousand Holds" would pass away on August 25th, 1950. The last legitimate champion was dead at the age of 62.
This article presented by our guest columnist John S. Nash. In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, John Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog: BloodyElbow.com. Cageside Seats is proud to present a cross-posting of his article archives in this exclusive guest column and storystream for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content.