Mixed martial arts has always had a strong connection with professional wrestling, owing its sports entertainment rival a debt of gratitude not only for much of the financial success the UFC has witnessed over the last decade but also for the sport's very existence. Recent stories have highlighted this relationship while also revealing a trend which sees the two growing even more intertwined.
One of the bigger stories in professional wrestling this year has been the return of Brock Lesnar - and with him "legitimacy" - to the WWE. Where in past years Vince McMahon and company have made a conscious effort to keep the upstart UFC at arms length, current storylines see them embracing Brock's real fighting accomplishments and using it in what may even be described as some sort of meta "WWE versus UFC" plot. His violent and realistic confrontations with John Cena, which always come with an underlying threat that he may at some point decide to fight for real, hearkens to the earlier era of kayfabe.
Bellator and TNA, two companies that share a home on Spike, have taken this fusing of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts to another level with their recent signing of Muhammed Lawal. While other fighters have worked as wrestlers before, during, or after their careers in the cage, King Mo's deal with the two is unique to North American promoters (but not to Japanese). Obviously they are hoping that their joint promotion, and the resulting synergy, will appeal to the numerous crossover fans that the two "sports" share. That events inside the Bellator cage may serve as plot devices for simultaneous TNA storylines, highlights the potential blurring of the lines.
One fighter who has already done what King Mo is attempting is Josh Barnett, who for years alternated between fighting for real and choreographing his combat in the rings of Japan. The mic work he picked up as part of his puroresu experiences has served him well in the lead up to tonight's contest against Daniel Cormier for the Strikeforce Grand Prix championship. Barnett's pro-wrestling background also provides a stark contrast with Cormier, who brings with him what is generally viewed as a more "legitimate" wrestling resume, having reached the uppermost echelons of amateur (or "real") wrestling.
Of course, Barnett would probably take offense to this comparison, having, in recent interviews, seen fit to defend professional wrestling's effectiveness as a training ground for combat:
... I feel really proud of a professional wrestling lineage, I feel pride in trying to re-connect those Amateur Wrestling roots to the combat aspects of wrestling, and also the history and the lineage of where Professional Wrestling came from. It's not fake, you know? I can't stand it when people go "Oh, but it's fake, right?" ... It's not fake! You can call it whatever you want, but don't say it's fake. I'm not joking out there, I'm not playing around, it's not a game to me. It's real, and I take it very seriously because I'm trying to show everything that we have as athletes out there in the ring, trying to show all the emotions and aspects that go into a fight and a struggle between two competitors.
... Pro Wrestlers used to be considered some of the toughest guys in the world back in the day. It didn't matter if they were out there working, their pedigree was otherwise, and anybody that wanted to step up to them learned the hard way.
Coincidentally, parallels can be found between all three of these stories and a contest nearly a century ago, one that saw many of the same conflicts present. "Kayfabe" versus reality. "Worked" bouts versus real "shoots". Amateur Olympic wrestling versus professional catch-as-catch-can. All of these were present in the match between Nat Pendleton and John Pesek, one of the last great "shoots" in professional wrestling.
In the early 1920's, Ed "Strangler" Lewis was the dominant force in professional wrestling. Along with athletic superstars like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, Lewis' exploits made front-page headlines in the newspaper sports sections. Lewis and his partner/manager, Billy Sandow, maintained a powerful headlock on the lucrative heavyweight crown. Along with their associates, they were cleaning up at the box office around the country.
- "Catch Wrestling" by Mark S. Hewitt
This was the era of what would later be referred to as the "Gold Dust Trio", a "Trust" that solidified control of professional wrestling in the United States. It was they, according to Marcus Griffin in the 1937 book "Fall Guys: the Barnums of Bounce", who were responsible for introducing the terms "shoot" (referring to a real match) and "worked" (denoting one where the wrestlers were merely putting on a show for the audience) and it was they who introduced the fast-paced, acrobatic "Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling", thereby destroying the public's interest in traditional wrestling.
"Practically overnight Billy Sandow became the coast-to-coast wrestling Czar, and he cracked the whip over meat tossers and promoters alike in the style expected of royal rulers."
(It should be noted that the name "Gold Dust Trio" wasn't coined until 1937 when Marcus Griffin's muckracker came out and that his book is the only source that identifies "Toots" Mondt as a member of the "Trust")
It was in 1923 that promoter Jack Curley attempted to get back into the big leagues of professional wrestling. A successful boxing and film promoter, he had also been, a decade earlier, one of the big shots of the mat game, having been the man who put together the biggest professional wrestling event in history: the 1911 match between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt that was witnessed by over 30,000 fans in Chicago's Comiskey Park and by millions more in theaters around the World. He had since been cut out of the business by Sandow, Lewis, and their allies and was desperate to get back in.
To do so, Curley would have to take on the Trust, and to do that he needed a wrestler that would not only be able capture the public's interest, but one talented enough to also be able to legitimately capture the belt. A tall order, indeed, but Curley had the perfect man for such a task. One Nat Pendleton.
Pendleton had all the traits necessary for the job: handsome, strong, and one hell of a wrestler. Born in 1895, in the heartland of wrestling, Iowa, the 200 pound plus grappler had twice been the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association champion (in 1914 and 1915) and twice been crowned the AAU champion before representing the United States at the 1920 Olympic games in both Freestyle and Greco-Roman. There he took the Silver in Freestyle after the referee controversially overturned the judges decision in the final match.
Confident in Pendleton's abilities, Curley looked to challenge the Trust, starting with the Boston market. There he and Pendleton ridiculed the current state of wrestling and their "merry-go-round" antics, claiming that Pendleton could throw anyone, including the Trust's biggest star and current champion, Evan "The Strangler" Lewis. Paul Bowser, the member of the Trust who ran Boston and was thus feeling the heat, looked for help in derailing the pairs scheme. Enter the "Nebraskan Tigerman", John Pesek.
Pesek was a notoriously skilled, tough, and, when necessary, brutal wrestler who specialized in all the holds that had been banned from the amateur game: double-wrist locks, strangleholds, head and body scissors, toe-holds, and slams, He also served as the Policeman for the Trust, a job description that required him to keep other wrestlers in line and to protect the champ from any potential "Trustbusters". Pesek had served in this capacity on many occasions, most famously a couple of years earlier in a contest against Marin Plestina at Madison Square Garden, when the giant Serbian was making hay about the top wrestlers being afraid to face him in a legitimate contest. Pesek was sent in to shut him up by whatever methods necessary.
According to a New York Times reporter at the scene:
Pesek resorted to his foul work soon after the match started. His favorite trick was gouging. The Nebraskan had a penchant for digging the thumb of his left hand into the right eye of Plestina, and he followed this course in such exaggerated measures as to compel Referee Fleeson to caution him in the first five minutes...
...Between applications of this hold, as the men struggled on their feet, Pesek gouged repeatedly. Tiring of gouging, Pesek resorted to butting, and several times jolted Plestina's head back as the Nebraskan dove in head first...
...Pesek butted and gouged, gouged and butted, and the crowd's temper rose with each successive butt and poke of the thumbs...
Eventually, with the crowd threatening to riot if Pesek's fouling was not stopped, Referee Fleeson disqualified the Tigerman and awarded all three falls to Plestina. Afterwards both Pesek and his manager, Max Bauer (brother of Lewis Mananger Billy Sandow), were banned from ever again competing in New York. But they had been successful in their assignment: a tamed Plestina now went along with whatever the Trust asked, less he be forced to undergo another lesson.
This was the man Pendleton would be facing.
The whole fascinating story of their contest was chronicled in the pages of the Boston Post and is reprinted below (having been retrieved from "Wrestling as We Liked It" Vol. 1 No. 68, by J. Michael Kenyon)
WINNER TO TAKE ALL IN MATCH
(Boston Post, January 21, 1923)
For the first time in many years, either in this city or elsewhere, two wrestlers will battle on Thursday night under a bonafide agreement wherein the winner takes all.
And the taking of all will mean, not only 50 per cent of the gate receipts, but a purse that may total well up toward $10,000.
The principals are to be Nat Pendleton of New York, the ex-Columbia College champion and claimant of the Olympic title, and an "unknown" grappler, the latter to represent Paul Bowser of this city.
The main requirements of the contest are that Bowser's "unknown" shall throw Pendleton twice in 75 minutes or admit defeat; also, that he shall weight not more than 190 pounds the night of the battle.
The mat will be placed on the stage of the Grand Opera House and will be surrounded by ring ropes, as signs point to a melee that is likely to border on the furious. "Cyclone" Burns, the veteran wrestler and coach at Tech, who understands the game all the way and whose honesty has never been questioned, has been selected to referee the affair.
Irrespective of how the contest on Thursday night may result, it is to be followed by another fray the night of Feb. 15, on which occasion Pendleton has engaged to throw Paul Bowser twice in 75 minutes or forfeit a big part of the gate and all of the purse.
While the wrestling bouts of the last few weeks in particular have been drawing some big houses in this city, that of Thursday appears likely to break all record for the Grand Opera House. Already the Howard Theatre management, under whose direction Paul Bowser has arranged the tourney, has received requisitions for tickets from New York and Philadelphia, to say nothing of a big home demand.
There is a chance that Bowser may change his original plan and make known the identity of his protégé before the night of the battle. There has been much speculation for weeks as to just who the chap may be, with the general trend favoring George Kotsonaros, Renato Gardini and John Pesek, all having been mentioned.
Should it be one of these three or another grappler altogether, whoever he is he will have his work cut out for him on Thursday night. Pendleton makes the boast of never having had his shoulders put to the mat, and as he weighs a good 200 pounds, is a finished matman and can remain on the defensive the entire 75 minutes if he so pleases, it is going to be one big proposition to throw him.
The history of handicap matches of late in this city has been the defeat of
the challenger, George Calza, failing to throw Kotsonaros and Joe Stecher
missing out in his endeavor to toss Calza.
PENDLETON PUTS UP $2,000 TOWARD PURSE
(Boston Post, Sunday, January 21, 1923)
The big mat battle between Nat Pendleton of New York and Paul Bowser's "Unknown," set for Jan. 25 at the Grand Opera House, was clinched last night beyond question.
Pendleton wired to Jack Conway $2,000, which he wishes to be added to the purse offered by the Howard Theatre, stating that he planned to wire $2,000 more before Thursday.
Bowser has agreed to contribute a like amount to the purse, dollar for dollar, before 12 o'clock midnight, Tuesday.
The conditions of the match require Bowser's "Unknown" to throw Pendleton twice in 75 minutes or forfeit the entire purse, gate receipts, etc.
JOHN PESEK WILL BE THE 'UNKNOWN'
(Boston Post, January 25, 1923)
By Doc Almy
They're going to "shoot" tonight, Nat Pendleton of New York vs. John Pesek of Omaha, Neb.
Not with "gats," of course, but "shoot" is the term applied when two wrestlers mean business without fancy trimmings.
And at the Grand Opera House tonight, Pendleton and Pesek have plenty of incentive for meaning business, for the chap who loses merely gets three cheers.
All of the rest, a purse amounting to $7,000 and the entire end of the gate receipts set aside by the Howard Theatre management for the matmen, goes to the victor. No provision is made even for paying the carfare home of the vanquished warrior.
It's a mutual agreement: nothing one-sided about it. It's all down in the articles drawn up for the contest, several of which, those pertaining to the rules governing tonight's fray, appeared in the Boston Post of Wednesday.
The main feature of tonight's fray is this: Pesek, under the agreement made for him by Paul Bowswer, manager of the wrestling at the Grand, must put Pendleton's shoulders to the mat twice in 75 minutes, pin falls of three seconds duration, or be declared the loser. All that Pendleton has to do to win is keep his shoulders off the mat for one hour and a quarter and, if he succeeds, he connects with all the cash in the house and goes home with it.
Gouging, kicking, biting, hair-pulling and all that sort of stuff is barred, and the matman that starts any of it tonight has a chance of bowing himself off the mat and out of the cash. "Cyclone" Burns, the veteran Boston wrestler and referee, in his day considered one of the best matmen in the East, and whose honesty has never been questioned, will be the third man on the mat tonight.
He will punish by disqualification any funny business by either of the contestants. It would gbe well for the men not to try to pull anything on the "Cyclone," for he had just as soon as not toss either offender off the mat.The chap who is disqualified loses.
Concerning Pesek, he has the name of being a rip-snorter when under full head of steam. He weighs under 190 pounds, one of the requirements placed on him tonight, but for all of that, it is fact and not fiction that he has the big leaguers of the matmen flock, from Ed Lewis, the champion, down along, all stepping on their own feet. By close followers of the game, it may be recalled that Pesek provided the "bout on the level" that Joe Marsh had so long been seeking for his protégé, Marin Plestina, it having been the plaint of manager and man that everyone wanted the latter to "lay down." Pesek met Plestina in New York and again in Chicago and not much has been heard from Plestina since.
"My man is not a foul wrestler or unnecessarily rough," declared Pesek's manager, Max Baumann, yesterday, "but when an opponent fouls him, he will not tamely submit to it. Wladek Zbyszko tried that stuff, foul holds, and finally Pesek, after warning him a dozen times, whacked him on the jaw for a down and out. The next time they met Pesek threw him twice, two beautiful thuds to the mat, both in 29 minutes."
Paul Bowser thinks that Pesek will score the first fall tonight within 15
minutes, but there are plenty who do not agree with him. Pendleton knows
wrestling, has been training for weeks for the fray tonight and as he has
merely to act on the defensive, should be able to avoid anything like a quick
defeat. It has been demonstrated in this city within a month that handicap
matches usually result in a victor for the chap on the defensive.
In one of the preliminary matches tonight will appear Stanley Stasiak, the giant Pole, who is trying to coax George Calza into a match with him. He declares that he can tie the big Italian boy into a bow knot.
FACTS CONCERNING TONIGHT'S BOUT
Place -- Grand Opera House.
Time -- 8 o'clock.
Principals -- Nat Pendleton, New York, vs. John Pesek, Omaha, Neb.
Weights -- Pendleton, 202 pounds; Pesek, 190 pounds.
Rules -- Police Gazette, catch-as-catch-can.
Conditions -- Pesek must throw Pendleton two three-second pin falls in 75 minutes to win.
Referee -- "Cyclone" Burns of Boston.
Purse -- $7,000, contributed by wrestlers and Howard Theatre management. Added to the purse will be 50 per cent of the Grand Opera House gate receipts, bringing the total up to more than $8,500. Winner takes everything.
Second match -- Feb. 15, in Boston, when Pendleton agrees to throw Paul Bowser twice in 75 minutes, winner-take-all, under foregoing conditions of rules, purse, etc.
John Pesek of Omaha, Neb., defeated Nat Pendleton of New York, former ex- Columbia and Olympic champion, two straight falls, in their handicap match at the Grand Opera House last night.
The first fall was won by the Westerner in 35 minutes and 20 seconds, and the second in 5 minutes and 32 seconds, less than 41 minutes of actual time.
To the victor went 50 per cent of the gate receipts, amounting to about $2,000, and in addition, the purse amounting to $6000, the largest amount of spare cash ever corralled by a grappler in this city.
Both falls were incidental to a toe hold, Pendleton resigning in the first round to save his right leg from being broken when Pesek put on the inside leg and toe grip, made famous by the late Frank Gotch. In the second round, a crash to the floor damaged Pendleton's right arm, and, a moment later, when Pesek began to put pressure on the right ankle, which had been injured at the time of the first hold, Nat gave up the battle.
The handicap time for the match was 75 minutes, Pesek being obliged to throw his man twice in that time or acknowledge himself defeated.
"Cyclone" Burns refereed the fray, but had little to do other than to watch that neither man committed a foul. Neither attempted any rough stuff, however, and the fray was battled out on its merits, both men wrestling clean throughout, with never even a caution from the arbiter.
Pendleton had a majority of the more than 3,000 spectators that crowed the theatre to the doors with him, and when he had held Pesek off for more than half an hour and seemed likely to evade defeat, the fans gave him round after round of cheers.
While at times the New Yorker took the aggressive, he was the challenged and consequently kept pretty much to the defensive. He knew that Pesek's best and most dangerous hold was a double wristlock, also, that the Nebraskan would not hesitate to put on a wicked toe hold if the opportunity presented. Consequently, the bulk, of his work was to guard against these two grips.
Within the first five minutes Pesek, by working his man into the ropes, which was one of the big points in his attack, succeeded in getting behind, and, bringing Pendleton to the floor, got on the double wrist-lock from the side. It was a wicked one and in the battle to escape, Pendleton and his tormentor rolled about the mat. Pesek got a head scissors in addition to the wrist and it looked mighty bad for the ex-Columbian. Nat bridged, however, until Pesek loosened up a bit, and then rolled out of it and escaped.
Once later in the match Pesek got the same hold and again Pendleton broke it, the fans cheering him madly. From attacks on the wrists, Pesek shifted to the toe, getting what appeared to many as a leg scissors, which seemed unlikely to amount to very much. John knew what he was doing, however, and so did Nat, and for the time the New Yorker thwarted the attempt.
Finally, after they had been at it for about 35 minutes, Pesek got the right toe, and at the same moment, Pendleton clapped onto Pesek's foot. It was a case of a double toe hold. Pesek kicked his foot free, doubled Pendleton's right leg over his own and put on the pressure. In a moment the leg would have been broken.
"Stop, stop," called Pendleton, resigning the fall. He had saved his leg but lost the first fall. He was helped to his corner by William Wanzer, who was acting as his manager in the absence of Stuart Robson, that mentor being ill in New York.
After 10 minutes' rest, the bout was resumed, but was a bit one-sided because of Nat's badly strained right ankle. In a roll, Pesek came down to Nat's right arm, injuring that. It was then but a matter of a few minutes, Pesek getting hold of the damaged foot. Nat resigned the fall to end the match.
Following the bout it developed that Pendleton was not the only injured man. Pesek, with a right thumb torn and bleeding and his right arm swollen from blood poison, an attack which came on three weeks ago, was in agony from the moment the fray began. He went onto the mat against the orders of two physicians to show the fans that he was game, though by the articles he was obliged to.
"Pendleton was shipped on here by Curley," declared Max Baumann, manager of Pesek, "because he thought Nat could whip Pesek and that would get my man away from the two Zbyszkos, whom Pesek has been worrying all over the country. I want to say right here and now that Pesek has thrown Wladek Zbyszko twice in less than 28 minutes, the second fall in one minute and a half, and can do it again.
"What's more, he can throw and challenges to meet him, any many that Curley can find. Pesek will treat them one and all as he did Pendleton here tonight, only his hand will be right next time and he will do it quicker.
"And this goes for George Calza of New York, also, only in his case, we will wager any part of $5,000 and wrestle winner take all that Pesek throws him twice in 75 minutes. We will take this match on any time within two weeks."
Pendleton was pretty well broken up over the affair. "I knew what I was up against," he said, after the out, "that I had a dangerous man."
"However, I did not fear him. I guarded against his pet holds, and, as you know, broke his wristlock several times, something few grapplers have been able to do. Unhappily, however, I forgot my foot and that cost me the match. I am satisfied that Pesek is not my master on the mat and later on will challenge him for another contest. Tell the wrestling fans that my match with Paul Bowser for Feb. 15 is on and that I will be back here again and will be the victor next time."
In the preliminary bouts, Louis Andrews threw Frank Wilson 26 minutes with a double arm lock and Stan Stasiak beat Jack Taylor in 1 minute and 30 seconds with a double wrist lock.
[An interesting side-note relating to the injured thumb and blood poisoning Pesek reportedly entered the ring with. According to Bowser this injury was self-inflicted:
"This Pesek turns out to be a very shrewd fellow. Just in case he loses, he feels he should have an alibi so what does he do? So help me, he puts his thumb on a table and smacks it with a hammer, breaking it up into little pieces, just so he will have a good excuse if he gets licked."]
With Pendleton's loss Curley's dreams of returning to the top of the wrestling business were destroyed. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle elegantly summed it up,
"Pesek did manage to claw and chew up Curly financially by the simple method of throwing down Curley's one best bet, Nat Pendleton, the former Olympic champion."
Within a month Curley was announcing his retirement from the business.
It was with a voice trembling with emotion that Curley took his farewell of the grapplers. According to a witness, "Curley paid the sport a glowing tribute and declared that he has never known it to be in a healthier condition than now." It is because of its extreme health that Curley is leaving it. In the days when it was unhealthy and attracting money, Curley could not feel justified in separating himself from such a condition. But now that the grapplers are strong and husky from not being overburdened with wealth, Curley feels that he can say au revoir, if not goodbye, to the men with whom he has been associated so many years.
For his part, Pendleton stuck around a few more years but was never allowed to become a major star by the powers-that-be. Eventually he left the wrestling business for Hollywood where he had a semi-successful film acting career.
In the end it was the Trust, and the new model of professional wrestling it represented, which had won. Its control of the business was now absolute, making impossible any return to legitimate contests. Ironically enough, in the aftermath of the match, it was Pesek and his manager, Bauman, who took to taunting and challenging the top wrestlers of the Trust. Unfortunately, Pesek had been too effective in his role as Policeman and the Trust members could now afford to ignore his challenges. Worse yet, when a few years later Pesek managed to arrange a match with the champ, Joe Stecher, which he then turned into a "shoot" and won, the "sport" was at a point where the referee could simply overturn the results and freely reward the victory to the loser.
The era of "shoot" had passed. At least for the time being.