The 1920s were years of hero worship, and among the shiniest of the heroes were the decade's sport figures. Two of the brightest—because they were so peaceful in private and so brutal at work—were Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler, boxing's heavyweight champion; and Edward (Strangler) Lewis, king of a sport believed equally violent—at least in those days—pro wrestling.
A 185-pound former amateur baseball player, Lewis met his future manager, Billy Sandow, when the latter was teaching the doughboys of World War I the tricks of lethal infighting. In the years just after the war, Sandow helped Lewis develop his famous headlock and made him the most popular personality in wrestling as well as its heavyweight champion.
During those same years, Jack Kearns was doing the same kind of promotion for Dempsey, although the Manassa Mauler needed no cooperation from opponents to do his thing. Wherever they went in the '20s, Dempsey and Lewis were sellouts. Once Dempsey drew a $1,000 gate for an exhibition bout in Kansas City and two days later Lewis showed up and sold out the same hall two nights running. It was natural then that an eager sporting public, its enthusiasm fanned by the puffs of press-agentry, should demand a meeting of the two in a no-holds-barred match.
Such sporting m�salliances were not unknown in those days. Several good boxers had been matched in earlier years against wrestlers, usually with the same result—the pinning of the boxer. Probably the most famous such event occurred in 1921 in Reno, when Farmer Burns, although retired as a top wrestler, easily dispatched an active, well-known middleweight named Billy Papke.
Despite this lopsided history, a Dempsey-Lewis match had quite a bit going for it, not the least of which was the nature of Kearns and Sandow. Neither was likely to miss an easy buck and at times the mixed match appeared to be a most lucrative proposition. Sandow was the originator of most of the talk. Envisioning a record payday, he issued a challenge to Dempsey and Kearns on March 16, 1922 through J. L. Ray, sporting editor of the Nashville Banner.
"I mean business," said Sandow. "Let him [ Kearns] deposit a check for $5,000 as I have done on the behalf of Lewis and the match will most assuredly be staged. Our money is up and we stand ready to deposit another $5,000 when Kearns puts up the money for Dempsey. And my personal wager of $5,000 still stands that Lewis can beat Dempsey inside of 20 minutes in any ring in the world." The $5,000 guarantee was a favorite gimmick of Sandow's. From here it seems that Lewis' manager must have spent at least half his time writing checks. Within the next nine months he wrote no less than five although none ever saw a cashier's hand.
Kearns replied promptly, but there, for the moment, plans stopped. Kearns packed Dempsey off to Europe for a series of exhibitions and Lewis went on defending his title in almost every city in America against the local hopefuls. Resurrection of the issue did not come until that December when Sandow, with whom the idea had become something of a fixation, began upping the ante while the American press responded with an avalanche of publicity.
The New York Evening Telegram bannered the renewed challenge on its sports pages, as did the Washington Times, Nashville Banner and Boston Evening American. Walter Eckersall, a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune, even went so far as to create a fictional match between the pair in which Lewis came out the victor in a bloody 38-minute battle. Dempsey landed his "one punch," but only after he had been so weakened by the clever Lewis that the blow lacked its vaunted deadliness.
Even the proposed participants joined the fun, each outlining his view of the probable outcome and the tactics he would employ. Dempsey, in a story in the Rochester ( N.Y.) American of Dec. 10, 1922, noted that "if the match ever went through, I think I'd be mighty tempted to try to beat that wrestler at his own game. I've done a lot of wrestling as part of my preliminary training and I think I've got the old toehold and headlock down close to perfection. If I can win the first fall from him, I'll begin to use my fists. But I've got a funny little hunch that maybe I can dump him without rapping him on the chin." This declaration was not just publicity talk, according to persons who knew Dempsey. He really had done some wrestling in his younger days, and though he was not very successful at it, he firmly believed he could lick anyone on the mat.
Lewis had his moments of glory also, and in a syndicated story told of his plans: "You must understand that in such a contest I would be allowed to use my feet and legs. I can throw myself, feet forward, at least 15 feet. In doing so, I believe I could break the leg of a man like Dempsey, who is not used to wrestling. If I do not care to do this, I could cover up long enough to get hold of him, and once I got hold, he would not have a chance, because he does not know how to break wrestling holds and I am stronger than he is. Of course there is one chance in a thousand that he might hit me with a punch hard enough to knock me out before I could get hold of him, but that is only one chance. I am sincere about the match and will put up $25,000 in real money to bet that I can beat him."