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 mésalliances 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."
Lewis' $25,000 bet, Sandow's bevy of $5,000 checks and the side bets expanded with the ballyhoo. On Dec. 17, newspapers reported that Tom Law, a Wichita, Kans. promoter, had wired Kearns the following message in New York: AM AUTHORIZED BY WICHITA ADVERTISING CLUB SUPPORTED BY FIVE PROMINENT OIL MEN TO OFFER PURSE OF THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR DEMPSEY-LEWIS MIXED MATCH. TO BE HELD IN WICHITA NOT LATER THAN JULY FOURTH NINETEEN TWENTY THREE. WILL ERECT ARENA SEAT FIFTY THOUSAND AT AVIATION FIELD. BILLY SANDOW HAS POSTED FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS WITH WICHITA ADVERTISING CLUB IN AGREEMENT TO STAGE MATCH HERE. WIRE ANSWER.
This offer prompted Kearns to keep the game going. He announced such a match was obviously the will of the people and that its realization within the next year was all but certain. Shortly thereafter, in Los Angeles, Sandow and Lewis were scheduled to meet Dempsey and Kearns to shoot publicity pictures and hash over terms of a contract. Only three of the four showed up. Lewis, now beginning the easy life which eventually led to his parting with Sandow, had been arrested and charged with assault while driving back from a party in Tijuana, Mexico. The charges eventually were dropped and the incident hushed up, but the key meeting never came off.
A couple of weeks later, according to an AP story out of San Francisco, Lewis disclosed that Sandow and Kearns had signed for the Wichita match, with Dempsey being guaranteed $200,000 and Lewis taking a share of the profits. But Law, the proposed matchmaker, denied such an agreement had been signed. After that, as abruptly as it had started, conversation on the subject all but ceased. Sandow tried to keep it going, claiming at one point that the owner of an aircraft company had agreed to build a stadium for the match in Tijuana. He later wrote one of his famous $5,000 checks on the possibility of a match in Kansas City. But the idea, probably beaten to death by the excess of publicity, claims and counterclaims, never caught on again. In 1927, after his partnership with Sandow had broken up, Lewis suggested a bout with a rising heavyweight fighter named Jim Maloney in Boston, but nobody took him seriously despite his offer to bet $10,000 at 10-to-8 odds.
Just why the mixed match never materialized is unclear. Sandow, now 85 and living in Portland, Ore., says he was always serious, as were Lewis and Dempsey. The difficulty, he says, was' Kearns, who had taken an earlier fling at the wrestling game and ended up losing money after one of his charges was "upset" in a big match. In truth, it appears that Kearns encouraged the talk for publicity purposes only (although he seems to have been tempted by some of the gigantic guarantees offered by Sandow, especially at the time of the L.A. meeting) and then abandoned the idea when it had been milked of all its potential. Aware of the history of previous boxer-wrestler encounters, Kearns—himself a master of the double cross—probably was just too smart to risk an engagement with a wrestler who might elect to "shoot," regardless of previous arrangements.