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U.S. & Olympic Wrestling: The Early Years

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Updated: May 17, 2012

By Mike Finn

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of 11 weekly reviews of past Olympic experiences by the United States until the start of the 2012 London Games in August. Featured in this article are the following Olympics:1896-Athens, Greece; 1904-St. Louis; 1908-London, England; 1912-Stockholm, 1920-Antwerp, Belgium; 1924-Paris, France; 1928-Amsterdam, Holland In next week’s WIN eNews, we will look at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.)

 

Wrestling is always billed as the world’s oldest sport. It dates back to Genesis in the Bible and was contested at the first Olympic Games held in Greece.

But when the modern Olympics were first brought back to Athens, wrestling had a hard time finding its place as did the Olympic Games, which were not held in 1916 because World War I and both 1940 and 1944 because of World War II.

Of the 128 all-time Olympic wrestling medals won by the United States in through 2008, 44 came over seven Games prior to World War II. But it should be pointed out that 21 came in 1904 when only American wrestlers competed in the St. Louis Olympics as few Europeans cared to cross the ocean.

In the first three Olympic Games, it was hard to find wrestling.

In 1896 in Athens, there was only one style (Greco-Roman) and one weight class was offered as 157-pound German Karl Schumann, who also won three gold medals in gymnastics and finished fourth in the shot put, was the first Olympic champion in wrestling as all the matches took place in a sand pit;

In 1900 in Paris, there was no wrestling at all;

In 1906, when the Games tried a two-year stop again in Athens, the U.S. did not compete;

George Mehnert (top) became the first American to win two Olympic medals when he gold in the "Catch as Can" freestyle of 1904 and 1908.

Finally in 1908 in London, both freestyle and Greco were offered and American wrestlers were represented with more than one wrestler at each weight. George Mehnert, who won one of the seven Olympic gold medals in 1904, became the first American to earn two gold medals as the native of Newark, N.J., also captured the 119-pound freestyle championship in 1908, when he went 15 minutes in beating teammate Gustav Bauer.

According to the “Encyclopedia of American Olympians,” Mehnert was a vegetarian and “showed form quite above any man in the whole contest and undoubtedly was the most scientific, both in attack and defense of any wrestler taking part in the Games.”

Mehnert reportedly lost just two matches in his career. One of those came to future Olympic teammate George Dole, who won the 132.5-pound championship, when he pinned James Slim of Great Britain in a match that lasted 9:28. Dole, a native of Ypsilanti, Mich., also played football at Yale, where he later graduated and eventually became an economics professor.

Only Greco-Roman was offered at the 1912 Games in Stockholm, which did not include any Americans. The 1916 Games were cancelled because of World War I. So the United States would not win another gold medal until 1920, when Charles Ackerly claimed a championship at 132 pounds in Antwerp, Belgium. The Cornell University wrestler beat his teammate and rival Sam Gerson in a decision.

Among the Americans’ other wrestlers in Belgium, heavyweight Nathan Pendleton also finished second while Charles Johnson (165.5), Walter Maurer (186.5) and heavyweight Fred Meyer all earned bronze medals.

Pendleton, a native of Davenport, Iowa, later became a movie actor and appeared in over 100 films including the Abbott and Costello comedy “Buck Privates.” Johnson was a four-time AAU champion with the first coming in 1909 and the last earned in 1921. Maurer and Meyer each represented the Chicago Hebrew Institute.

Freestyle was more popular in the United States, which developed the “catch-as-catch-can” style of wrestling, than Greco-Roman. Most people believe the United States did not send a Greco team to the Olympics until 1956.

But records show that the United States had two upper-body style of wrestlers — William Lyshon and George Retzer at 132.5 pounds — compete in 1912 but did not place. And then in 1920, ten Americans competed in five different weights, including George Metropoulos and Pendleton, who wrestled both freestyle and Greco-Roman.

The more successful of America’s first Greco wrestlers were heavyweights Alexander Weyand (fourth) and Edward Wilkie (fifth).

The Roaring ‘20s was also a perfect name for Olympic wrestling during that decade, especially for Oregon natives Robin Reed and Russell Vis, who won two of four gold medals for the United States in 1924 and were considered the first great wrestlers in America.

Reed won the 134.5-pound championship when he defeated another Portland, Ore., native Chester Newton, while Vis brought home gold at 145.5 pounds from Paris, where he defeated Finland’s Volmari Vikstrom in 1924.

Reed won three AAU national championships between 1921 and 1924 and according to the Encyclopedia of American Wrestling entered four weights in the Pacific Northwest tryouts for the Olympic Team between 145 and 191 pounds. Reed reportedly could pin every member of the U.S. team including the two other gold medalists Jack Spellman at 192 and heavyweight Harry Steel.

Vis, meanwhile, lost just one match during his career when he moved up a weight and never met Reed during their careers. Reed was reportedly impacted most by legendary professional wrestlers John Pesek and Farmer Burns.

Among the American’s other gold medalists of 1924, Spellman, a native of Middletown, Conn., attended the Olympics without getting permission by Brown University, where he was a two-time AAU national champ; Steel, meanwhile, learned much of the sport from Reed, including a leg drive that the Ohio native used in France.

The U.S. also received a bronze medal that year from 123.5-pound Bryant Hines.

Four years later in Amsterdam, the United States’ Olympic Team was commanded by General Douglas MacArthur and lived aboard the SS President Roosevelt during the competition. In wrestling, the Americans earned just one gold medal — from Allie Morrison at 134.5 pounds — while Lloyd Appleton won a silver medal at 158.5 pounds.

Morrison, a native of Marshalltown, Iowa, competed collegiately at the University of Illinois where he never lost a match and later helped the U.S. maintain its Olympic domination at 134.5 pounds, where he won by injury default over Kustaa Pihlajamaki of Finland.

Appleton, meanwhile, lost the gold medal to Finland’s Arvo Haavisto. The graduate of Cornell College in Iowa later became an instructor at the United States Military Academy and reportedly developed the physical aptitude examination given to all cadets. According to the Encyclopedia of American Olympians, Appleton received the first-ever Civilian Service Decoration.

Other Americans who just missed out of a medal in Amsterdam were Robert Hewitt (fifth at 123.5), Clarence Berryman (sixth at 145.5), Ralph Hammond (fourth at 182), Heywood Edwards (fourth at 192) and Ed George (fourth at heavyweight).

 

The Depression Years

The 1930s may have been the era of the Great Depression, but a group of Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State) wrestlers helped the people in Stillwater forget the Dust Bowl and sad times by dominating amateur wrestling during that decade.

During the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, a pair of Cowboys — Bobby Pearce (123) and Jack Van Bebber (158.5) — joined a University of Kansas All-American football player Pete Mehringer (191.5) in winning gold medals for the United States.

Pearce, a 1931 NCAA champion who was born in Wyconda, Md., defeated Hungary’s Odon Zombori for the gold medal in L.A. His college teammate Van Bebber, born in Perry, Okla., never lost a match in college and became the first collegian to win three NCAA championships. Oddly, his only loss was early in the Olympic Trials before he battled back to make the team.

Once in Los Angeles, according to the “Encyclopedia of American Wrestling,” Van Bebber nearly missed his gold-medal match. After realizing the match’s starting time had changed, he first attempted to walk the six miles to the arena before catching a ride from a motorist. Van Bebber eventually defeated four-time Olympian Eino Leino of Finland.

Mehringer, meanwhile, grew up near Kinsley, Kansas, where he learned the sport by mail order from a book written by Farmer Burns. According to the “Encyclopedia of American Wrestling,” Mehringer tried out and made the Olympic Team at 191.5 pounds and heavyweight, but chose to compete at the lighter weight; winning the gold over Sweden’s Thure Sjostedt. Mehringer later became a stunt man in Hollywood and appeared in movies like Knute Rockne, All-American. He also doubled for many well-known actors, including Bob Hope when Mehringer wrestled a man in a gorilla suit.

The heavyweight on the 1932 team was John Riley, who finished second to defending Olympic champion Johan Richthoff of Sweden. Riley later played one year of football with the NFL’s Boston Redskins before returning to coach at his alma mater, Northwestern.

Also finishing second in 1932 was Ed Nemir at 134.5 pounds, where his only loss was to Finland’s Hermanni Pihlajamaki.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, may have been known as Hitler’s Olympics, but Frank Lewis, another Oklahoma A&M wrestler also helped steal the show as the native of Cushing, Okla., won the gold medal at 158.5 pounds. Oddly, Lewis was pinned by Sweden’s Ture Andersson in a fourth-round match but had fewer penalty points (3) than the Swede (4), who finished second. Lewis did rack up four pins of his own during the event.

A trio of Americans — Ross Flood (123.5), Francis Millard (134.5) and Richard Volvia (174) — all earned silver medals in Germany.

Flood won three NCAA championships at Oklahoma A&M (1933-35) and the native of Braman, Okla., finished second to Hungary’s Odon Zombori. Millard, a mill worker from Massachusetts, followed Finland’s Kustaa Pihlajamaki. Volvia, who attended his hometown Indiana University, was first selected as an alternate to the U.S. team but eventually competed and won six straight matches before he was pinned in the finals to Emile Poilve of France.

The U.S. also earned fifth-place finishes from Harley Strong (145.5) and Ray Clemons (192).

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