by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A couple of years ago, a post on this blog featured a wrestling program from the Olympic Auditorium from 1928 and focused heavily on the promoter, Lou Daro (1882-1956), born Louis Elias in Romania and who became a noted strongman and wrestler before turning his attention to promoting matches in Los Angeles in 1924, including at the Olympic Auditorium, which opened in August 1925.
The venue, which could seat some 15,000 people, specialized in boxing and wrestling events and, when the Olympic Games were held in the Angel City in 1932, matches for those two sports as well as weightlifting were held there. Daro and his brother, Jack, were promoters at the facility for nearly fifteen years before their career was derailed by a scandal in 1939 over purportedly excessive payments to unnamed individuals considered far above what was acceptable in boxing and wrestling.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings is a program for wrestling matches promoted by Daro at the Olympic on 9 November 1927. The first event, allowing for one fall or fifteen minutes of grappling, was between Al Baffert, a native of France who was just 21 but who went on to long career in the sport, as well as a stuntman and bit-part actor in Hollywood, and Gilberto Martinez Larrea, a young wrestling star from Mexicali, the Baja California border town across from Calexico, California.
The second event, for one fall and a one hour time limit, was between Pete Sauer, born in Russia and raised in Nebraska and who was known later as Ray Steele when, in 1940, he defeated former football star Bronko Nagurski to win a world heavyweight title (these titles tended to fluctuate in number and acceptance!), and Milo Steinborn, a German-born weightlifting marvel before turning to wrestling in the early twenties and who was later a wrestling promoter and well-known gym owner in Orlando, Florida.
The main event was a big draw, with a best two out of three falls and a two hour time limit to a referee’s decision, featuring two of the greatest wrestlers of the era. Joe Stecher (1893-1974) was the son of German emigrants and raised in Nebraska, where his father and him and his two brothers taught the sport. While pro wrestling later became more theater than anything, in the early 20th century there was more competition in matches (even if many were predetermined!) and Stecher came of age by the mid-1910s after the dominant champion Frank Gotch retired.
The signature submission move he developed was the “leg scissors” which became standard, but Stecher popularized it. By placing his legs in a scissors-like grip on the torso or head, the wrestler could keep virtually any opponent immobile and secure victory. Unlike most pros who used aggression, strength and power to try to overwhelm the other wrestler, Stecher played defense and looked to tire the other man out before springing the leg scissors move decisively to end a match. After stints as champion from 1915 to 1917 and in 1920, when he lost to Ed “Strangler” Lewis, perhaps the best known wrestler of the time, Stecher met another formidable foe.
Wladek Cyganiewicz, also known as Zbyszko, (1891-1968) was a native of Poland and the younger brother of another famed champion wrestler, Stanislaus, who took the name Zbyszko from a character in a novel by the famous Henryk Sienkiewicz (best known for his novel Quo Vadis.) Purportedly, he held a law degree, could speak thirteen languages, and was a fine pianist (and godson of the great piano master Igancy Jan Paderewski) to boot.
Whatever the veracity of any of those claims, the towering figure, who briefly claimed a world championship in the late Teens, was best known for his flying mare move in which he used his opponent’s arm for leverage in hurling them over his back and onto the mat with crushing power and, often, a quick fall.
The two men met on several occasions with Zbyszko usually prevailing, the last match being in New York in February 1922 and leaving Stecher hospitalized and unwilling to climb back into the ring with the former. When Daro signed Stecher for the match on the 9th, however, the promoter was allowed to name the opponent and chose Zbyszko, which, apparently, surprised Stecher. He then arranged to meet with Daro and, through his brother and manager Anton, sought a guaranteed $7,500 with the Los Angeles Times of the 3rd reporting:
if the Pole should crush Stecher into the mat as he did in their last meeting, the Stecher boys’ hurt feelings would be partially soothed by the fact that they came out of the fight with as much money as the traffic would bear.
Because, though, the state athletic commission limited such payments to no more than $500, it was noted that Daro offered the Stechers 37 1/2% of the gate receipts, which was “half as much more than he usually receives for his local bouts.” When Zbyszko arrived in Los Angeles on the 2nd, the Los Anglees Record of the following day stated that “the match is the biggest Daro has landed for this section, and he expects a record house for his show.”
On the 6th, the Times ran a lengthy feature, accompanied by a trio of action photos shown Zybszko demonstrating his “flying headlock,” while the paper called him the “most brutal of the mat performers” and added that “the flying mare, the hold that has sent more grapplers to the hospital than any other hold in the game” was to be employed by him against Stecher.
The article continued that Zbyszko defeated the famous Ed “Stranger” Lewis so many times that the latter refused to enter the ring against him and repeated that Stecher “crossed Wladek off his list” after the 1922 pounding he took. It ended by echoing its contemporary by observing “there is no doubt that the Olympic should be packed for this bout. It is the biggest and most important mat fracas Daro has lined up in years.” The next day, the paper warned that Stecher had to change his approach of trying to tire his opponent out to one with more aggression, while point out that the common wisdom was that he would not be able to use his leg scissors move on Zbyszko as he did with others.
On the 8th, the Times continued to believe that Zbyszko was the odds-on favorite, stating he “is taller, heavier, stronger and a better wrestler” than Stecher while calling him “the most colorful wrestler in the game” and one sure to give fans the most for their money. If he was to prevail, the paper forecast that “he is expected to prove a more popular champion that Stecher has ever been” because “he is a better mixer on the mat and more spectacular.”
The day of the brawl, the paper ran a menacing photo of Zbyszko with a purpoted quote of “I break heem in two chust like dees” as the image showed the wrestler squeezing his palms together in a crushing motion. It quoted Stecher as saying he would pin his opponent the second the flying mare was to be employed and that “it appears that Stecher has hopes of locking his legs around yong Zibby’s stomach the minute the Pole begins bringing the champion over his shoulder.”
Despite the Times’ expectation that the Polish wrestler would emerge victorious, it reported the day following the match that “Joseph Stecher, Kingpin of heavyweight wrestlers, tossed Wladek Zbyszko off his list of title contenders when he secured two out of three falls in the main event at the Olympic Audtorium last night before 7500 fans.
Stecher scored the first fall with his scissors move “after a slow start” and had Zbyszko clamped tight until the latter “decided [to] fall down and thereby squirm free but in so doing opened himself to the fatal body scissors” upon which Zbyszko “quickly conceded the fall.” The Polish grappler, however, was able “to cop the second fall . . . with a series of flying mares” after trying several toe holds unsuccessfully, which allowed Stecher to “painfully crawl into the ropes and freedom.” Wladek held Stecher up and tried his flying mare hold several times until the fall was secured.
“Coming back with plenty of vinegar,” Zbyszko looked to repeat his success and close out the match and, after more toe holds, went to the flying mare three consecutive times. On seeking the “mankiller” finish with a fourth, though, Wladek was surprised when “Stecher slipped his head aside and Zzyszko [sic] crashed to the canvas. Stecher leaped on his prostrate foe and clamped on another body scissors” to claim the match and retain his title. As to the other contests, the Times noted that Sauer defeated Steinhorn by using a series of reverse headlocks, while Baffert and Martinez Larrea grappled to a draw in their fifteen-minute opener, though a United Press wire service report stated that the Mexican wrestler took the match.
With respect to the main draws, Zbyszko went on to wrestle professionally until he was nearly 60 and then retired to a farm in Missouri where he and his brother trained grapplers. As to Stecher, there were, according to one biographer, growing signs of mental instability, shown, for example, in his loss of the heavyweight title in 1917 when he refused to return to the ring because of severe anxiety and doubt. Periods of deep depression and sudden outbursts of anger were also common to the wrestler.
As professional wrestling moved more towards showmanship and theatrics, Stecher was becoming more archaic in his approach and, in February 1928, he again lost the heavyweight title to Lewis, who embraced the transformation in the game. As the Great Depression worsened, so did the mental state of the former champion who was also battered financially by bad investment decisions and/or conniving from con artists and a divorce and separation from his children.
Stecher’s brother, Anton, had him committed to a mental institution and, while some wrestlers, such as the champion Lou Thesz, visited him, he was increasingly forgotten and left more alone after his brother’s death in 1954. Stecher lived two decades longer and died, all but forgotten, in an institution in 1974 at age 81.
The program has a “Mat Topics” section by Dominick Amatuzio, a native of Italy and graduate of Los Angeles Polytechnic High School who worked for the Los Angeles bureau of the Associated Press and was the golf writer for the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News before becoming Daro’s publicity director. Amatuzio wrote of Daro’s hopes for securing top-name wrestlers for the final matches of the season in late November and early December. These included Steinborn and Sauer along with several other well-known names like Richard Schikat, Hans Steinke, Paul Jones Lutz and John Pesek.
As always, it is interesting to see the advertisements in publications like these, including for Coca-Cola, Golden Bear fruit drinks (heavily promoted during Prohibition), car dealers, the Yellow Cab taxi company, the Oaks Tavern Cafe, and Eastside, the 0.5% alcohol content “near beer” produced by the storied Los Angeles Brewing Company. The program is an interesting reference to late 1920s Los Angeles and its sport world, even as professional wrestling, emblematic of the situation involving Stecher, was becoming more theatrical and staged, foreshadowing what we see in that world today.