"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 professionally 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, it's 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 was the skills of its competitors, something that could not be said of the body builders 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 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 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, Iowa 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, 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 quit 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 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's 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 age 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.
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