https://www.scientificwrestling.com/public/515print.cfm

Before MMA #1: Wrestlers versus Boxers, Even the Promoters Got into the Act

Mark Hewitt

(Author's note: This article is my first journalistic attempt of the new year. It will be part of a series of articles and will hopefully culminate in a book documenting mixed-style fighting through the ages.)

Boxing and wrestling were the main forms of combat sports in the western world for many long years. The question over which fighting art was superior became an oft-discussed and debated topic. Talk of matching a top grappler against a leading pugilist goes back to the early 1900's, whether it was Frank Gotch against either James J. Jeffries or Jack Johnson, Dr. B.F. Roller versus Jess Willard, or Ed Strangler- Lewis facing Jack Dempsey. In fact it was Strangler Lewis' bold challenge to Dempsey in 1922 and all the resulting ballyhoo that really got the mixed match concept rolling. Tiger Jack and the Strangler never came to grips, despite all the noise and publicity their growling at each other generated. But in their wake a plethora of mixed boxer versus wrestler contests exploded on the combat sports scene. From main events on wrestling and boxing cards to amateur college, YMCA and even high school programs hundreds and hundreds of these mixed bouts were held, especially during the 1920's and 1930's. Overwhelmingly the wrestler almost always defeated the gloved fighter, although there were exceptions. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, popular culture still generally viewed boxing as the best means of self-defense and the heavyweight boxing champ was often heralded as the toughest man in the world. However, wrestlers did not take this lying down and were ever ready to defend their art.

Ed Strangler- Lewis' challenge to boxing champ Jack Dempsey set off an avalanche of mixed style matches
Ed Strangler- Lewis' challenge to boxing champ Jack Dempsey set off an avalanche of mixed style matches

During the mixed match frenzy that swept North America a full card of wrestler versus boxer contests took place in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1931. The unique card resulted in nearly a clean sweep for the mat men. Western wrestling fans liked their matches wild and wooly and Salt Lake promoter R. Verne McCullough regularly dished up a diet of rough and ready pro wrestling programs for their satisfaction. When a fresh round of discussion popped up about boxers against wrestlers, McCullough accommodated all concerned by putting together a whole show of mixed matches. And not one to stand idly by and let others protect grappling's honor, he booked himself to take part in the main event.

His opponent would be none other than the local boxing promoter Charley Chick-McGillis. McCullough himself was a former amateur lightweight wrestler winning the Intermountain championship six times. In addition to his promotional activities he was a popular lawyer and a successful businessman operating a grocery store and a string of auto service stations. McGillis had been the Rocky Mountain area lightweight boxing champ from 1905 to 1910, and once held a 23-fight winning streak before hanging up his gloves to promote the sport. No longer actively involved in promoting, he ran a hotel, a smoke-shop and was a newspaper circulation manager. McCullough along with wrestler Ira Dern worked on the concept of a complete show of mixed bouts for some weeks. Together with McGillis they all put their heads together to match up wrestlers and fighters of equal abilities respective of their individual sports.

Having not actively wrestled for many years, McCullough gave himself a trial go on the mat when he engaged in an unadvertised gratis bout- on one of his weekly cards. Following a battle royal which pitted two wrestlers against three boxers, McCullough took on one of the fighters Ed Stewart, a local black boxer, in a wrestling contest. With Dern as the referee, the promoter quickly tossed his adversary.

Wrestling promoter R. Verne McCullough (left) took on boxing promoter Chick McGillis (right) in a mixed match in an attempt to settle the debate about their respective sports' superiority.
Wrestling promoter R. Verne McCullough (left) took on boxing promoter Chick McGillis (right) in a mixed match in an attempt to settle the debate about their respective sports' superiority.

Figuring himself in good enough shape, McCullough planned to headline several mixed fights with his own as the top bout, and several supporting contests as well. He hoped to book Stanley Pinto, a tough Nebraska mat man in one of the main matches, but Pinto declined, apparently wanting nothing to do with a mixed fray. Olaf "Buck" Olson, the Terrible Swede- was substituted and would be pitted against Cowboy- Leonard Smith, a veteran fighter who'd spent most of his career in the Los Angeles area. Wild Bill Thornton, a 212-pound wrestler would do battle with local boxing champ Ed Shepherd. Former University of Utah wrestling team captain and football star Dean Detton, 175 lbs., would square off with Battling Lamoreaux, a rugged light-heavyweight boxer from Preston, ID. Detton had only recently turned pro and was reported to be apprehensive about engaging in a mixed bout. Local favorite and claimant to the western welterweight grappling title Hy Sharman would face Paddy O'Brien from Reno.

Before MMA #1: Wrestlers versus Boxers, Even the Promoters Got into the Act

Mike Collins, a 160-lb. veteran Greek hard-boiled grappler- was scheduled to go up against boxer Perry Saatch. Local wrestler Arthur Hedin was matched with a southpaw from Grand Junction, CO. named Walter Still. They were both in the 143-145 pound range. McCullough had been trying to line up wrestler Young Albert with the veteran boxer and trainer Kid Davis but things couldn't be worked out with the latter and Sammy George, the fighting newspaper vendor- was recruited for the spot. The opening bout would be between a pair of amateurs, boxer Wallace Woolley and Wayne Madsen, a Granite High School wrestler. For good measure a special grappling bout- was included on the bill and would feature two rough-housing heavyweights, Jake Amend and Ivan Kollish.

The rules of the mixed bouts were fairly simple. The combatants would engage in four rounds of three minutes each. The boxers would wear regulation gloves. A single fall by the wrestler or a KO by the boxer would win the contest. The strangle hold was barred and the boxers could punch from any position, albeit using only legal blows. Scrambling into the ropes, ducking under or grabbing them would result in a restart at ring center. In the main event the battling promoters had to win either two falls or two KO's during their four rounds to gain the victory. McCullough expressed little doubt that the wrestlers would prove their superiority. McGillis bragged that his rival would be unable to even last through two rounds with him. One sportswriter quipped, "Each will stick to his own game and may the survivor take care of the widows and orphans" (1).

The wrestlers and fighters could be found in local gyms training hard in the days before the big night. McGillis worked out at the Boston Building Gymnasium. He had a couple trainers including Kid Davis fill in as grapplers as he practiced pounding them into submission. The local boxing fans rallied behind McGillis and confidently wagered heavily on his victory.

Buck Olson boldly declared that if he failed to win his match, he didn't expect any pay. Ira Dern was pegged to serve as the referee for all the bouts. He'd recently been injured in a car accident, otherwise he'd be wrestling himself in the grand affair. In fact, it had been a challenge issued by Dern to the fistic community that got the whole deal going in the first place.

(left to right) Jack Dempsey, Ira Dern, Ed Sheppard-1918. Dern and Sheppard were helping Dempsey train for his bout with Tommy Gibbons.
(left to right) Jack Dempsey, Ira Dern, Ed Sheppard-1918. Dern and Sheppard were helping Dempsey train for his bout with Tommy Gibbons.

Dern had been stirred up over a few recent sports columns extolling the superiority of boxing over wrestling and felt the need to respond. Dern stated, "I have the greatest respect and admiration for boys in the fight game, but when it comes to self defense they should confine their activities to the fight game. Wrestlers are in a class by themselves and the majority would whip present day fighters…Mixed bouts have been put on in the intermountain region, but never between two real topnotchers. Hy Sharman has met several boxers, but as a rule his opponents had no chance. I would like very much to see Promoter R. Verne McCullough or some other promoter hereabouts bring in a prominent heavyweight for me, a welterweight fighter for Sharman and two or three other good fighters for other wrestlers and stage a monster mixed card. This should settle all arguments so far as the intermountain region is concerned. I am not predicting victories for wrestlers in every bout, but I believe in the majority of cases the wrestler would prove himself superior" (2).

Just before the card took place, McGillis accused Dern and McCullough of trying to scare him off with a mysterious threatening phone call, a charge that they denied. McGillis assured one and all that he would not be intimidated, defying McCullough, "I will be there...if I have to have a police escort, and I will guarantee you that I will hang a haymaker on your chin before the bout has gone two minutes. Then when you come to yourself I will clip you with another and then toss you out of the ring for good measure" (3).

A capacity house jammed McCullough's Arena on February 12, 1931 to see the mixed jamboree. Such a card had never been held before and has never been held since. Deseret News sports writer Les Goates commented in the humorous sports journalism style of his era, "The mixed bout idea is not so new. In the old Roman Arena there was the bout between the man with the sword and shield and the gladiator with the net and trident. In this match the fellow with the net and trident was usually the favorite. The latter entry would maneuver about to get his opponent tangled in the meshes and then proceed to puncture the victim's abdomen with the trident. This would cause a great deal of innocent merriment among the spectators. It is recorded that one Nero, who was a well-known fan of those days, used to say, 'I'll die laughing at one of these bouts some day.' Even before that there was the mixed bout between David and Goliath. Up until a few hundred years ago the bout between the bull and the bear always created some popular interest, this being before the stock exchange bull and bear started their rampaging…M'Cullough can't see how he or any of his wrestlers can lose to McGillis and his 'punk' fighters…" Goates went on to quote McCullough as stating, "Wrestling is the most scientific as well as the best self-defense sport known to mankind" (4).

The night's festivities opened with the amateurs in action and set the precedent for the mayhem to follow as youthful grappling representative Madsen defeated boxer Woolly. Next up Hedin added to the mat men's laurels by beating Sill, tossing him with a body press. Collins continued the streak and won over Saatch in one minute and eight seconds' time. The boxer was helpless as soon as Collins took him down to the mat. The grappler actually had to pin the boxer three times before referee Dern finally counted him out. Dern, a veteran of the mat, was likely just trying to keep the show going. Young Albert went on to conquer his designated fistic foe. The boxer gave the wrestler a lively session for nine minutes "until he was finally trapped in a hammerlock and thrown" (5).

Hy Sharman-the Salt Lake City Bone-Crusher
Hy Sharman-the Salt Lake City Bone-Crusher

Wild Bill Thornton used a body press to vanquish Ed Shepherd, but it required four rounds to do it. Detton was driven to desperation before he managed to put Battling Lamoreaux, Idaho boxer out of the way, with only five seconds left. The boxer proved an elusive rope crawler but Dean, after taking considerable punishment in the first three rounds, tricked the boxer to the center of the ring for the fall (6). The fans cheered with delight as Detton body-slammed the fighter into defeat. Sharman pinned his man with a body press in the first round and then agreed to give the fighter another chance. He quickly repeated the win, this time using a headlock.

Before MMA #1: Wrestlers versus Boxers, Even the Promoters Got into the Act

The wrestling bout was held next and saw Amend throw Kollish with a full Nelson, after what was described as 16 minutes of biting, kicking and hitting (7). Back in the mixed bout realm, Olson and Smith tangled in the most interesting battle of the evening (8). The Swedish wrestler threw the fighter one minute into the second round with a body slam. The Cowboy wasn't convinced that Olson was his master and requested another session. Olson readily acquiesced and they went at it again. Perhaps Olson was over-confident as he met Smith's gloved fist full force and went down for a count of ten. It was the only knockout of the night. After Olson was given time to recover, with one fall apiece, a third and deciding round was started up. The Terrible Swede was all business and promptly took Smith to the mat and pinned him. The tally now stood: wrestlers-8, boxers-0.

The eagerly awaited main event was up next. Both contestants had a large and vocal following in attendance and the final bout was a real crowd-pleaser. It went the full four rounds and referee Dern called it a draw, yet all who witnessed it agreed that McGillis battered his rival from pillar to post. Early in the opening round the wrestling promoter made a dive at McGillis' legs. The boxer grabbed hold of the ropes and kicked McCullough over backwards. He fell out of the ring and landed hard on his head. Though McCullough rose up and re-entered the ring he was in the state the old-time pugilists called queer street-. As he later described, "I didn't know anything from that time until at the end of the third round" (9).

Sportswriter Hank Smith observed, "McCullough could do little else than dodge and hang on…Only his stout heart carried him to the end for a draw decision" (10). "The fans hooted, howled and rocked in delight" throughout the brawl (11). McCullough regained his senses, later stating that his opponent actually "beat me conscious. He hit me so much I came to, I guess" (12). McCullough rallied in the fourth and final round and had McGillis down on the mat with a body scissors and chokehold when time was called. Terribly punished under the fighter's blows, the wrestling impresario admitted, "if you ever saw a beat-up man, I was him" (13.). McCullough was left battered and bruised with a badly swollen face.

The grand score finished at 8-0-1. Though roughly manhandled by the boxer and barely eking out a draw, McCullough got the last laugh. In negotiating for the match, he had offered McGillis 25% of the gate or $500. The boxing chief opted for the flat five hundred, losing out on what would have proved to be a bigger payday. It turned out that McCullough and Dern split $3800 as their share of the profits.

The wrestling versus boxing card was a unique event in combat sports history and was a step in the development of modern MMA. McCullough would continue to include mixed boxer versus wrestler contests, wrestlers in boxing bouts, as well as jiu-jitsu versus wrestling matches on his programs over the years and the fans never seemed to get tired of these specialty bouts. Back in their day, rival combat sports promoters McCullough and McGillis stepped into the ring and walked their talk.

Some Notable Grappler versus Boxer Mixed Matches Through the Decades:

Wrestler Phil Evans controls boxer Alex Staventz on the mat under the watchful eyes of referee John C. Meyers. Both athletes were from Washington University in St. Louis
Wrestler Phil Evans controls boxer Alex Staventz on the mat under the watchful eyes of referee John C. Meyers. Both athletes were from Washington University in St. Louis
Ray Steele defeated boxer Kingfish Levinsky in a 1935 mixed match. After absorbing Levinsky's initial fistic assault, the wrestler took him down, locked him up and pinned him-in 35 seconds.
Ray Steele defeated boxer Kingfish Levinsky in a 1935 mixed match. After absorbing Levinsky's initial fistic assault, the wrestler took him down, locked him up and pinned him-in 35 seconds.
Jack Sherry forced boxer Phil Scott to give up to an leg lock in their 1938 contest. Sherry had an open challenge to any boxer or judoka to last 100 seconds with him.
Jack Sherry forced boxer Phil Scott to give up to an leg lock in their 1938 contest. Sherry had an open challenge to any boxer or judoka to last 100 seconds with him.
Ernie Dusek works over boxer Bob Roper at a war bond drive benefit in St. Louis-1943. Referee Whitey Brexler attentively waits for Roper to cry enough.
Ernie Dusek works over boxer Bob Roper at a war bond drive benefit in St. Louis-1943. Referee Whitey Brexler attentively waits for Roper to cry enough.
Billy Scott battles James Warring in a UWFI mixed match in Tokyo, Japan-1991
Billy Scott battles James Warring in a UWFI mixed match in Tokyo, Japan-1991

4/5/1906 - Paris, FR Taro Miyake, jiu-jitsu beat William Higgins, boxer

4/1910 - Ben Lomond, CA Farmer Burns, wrestler beat Billy Papke, boxer

11/7/1913 - Lismore, New South Wales, Australia Sam McVea, boxer beat Professor Stevenson, jiu-jitsu

12/30/1916 - Hilo, Hawaii Taro Miyake, jiu-jitsu beat Ben De Mello, boxer

2/17/1922 - Portland, OR Basanta Singh, wrestler beat Eddie Richards, boxer

3/10/1922 - Joplin, MO Sterling Strong Boy- Price, wrestler beat Elmer Sailor- Adams, boxer

3/14/1922 - Ogden, UT Henry Jones, wrestler beat Cyclone Williams and Kid Williams, boxers

4/4/1922 - San Francisco, CA Joe Toots- Mondt, wrestler beat Louis Espen, boxer

7/4/1922 - Montrose, CO August Sepp, wrestler beat Sugar- Willie Keeler, boxer

1/19/1923 - St. Louis, MO Phil Smith, wrestler beat Alex Staventz, boxer

3/8/1923 - Asheville, NC Fritz Hanson, wrestler drew Rough-House Ross, boxer

7/5/1929 - Tampa, FL William Demetral, wrestler beat Mike Firpo, Andreas Castanos and Crackerjack Webb, boxers

1/19/1930 - Sao Paulo, Brazil George Gracie, jiu-jitsu beat Johannes Toom, boxer

1/16/1932 - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Helio Gracie, jiu-jitsu beat Antonio Portugal, boxer…Geo Omori, jiu-jitsu beat Tavares Crespo, boxer.

3/11/1932 - Memphis, TN George Tragos, wrestler beat Stanley McRae, boxer...Rudy Dusek, wrestler beat Tom Pivac, boxer

6/16/1932 - Kansas City, MO Charlie Midget- Fischer, wrestler beat Houston Ash, boxer (note: Ash was not required to wear gloves and fought with taped fists).

4/5/1933 - Wiinipeg, Canada Steve Trojack, boxer beat John Verk, wrestler

2/23/1934 - Tampa, FL The Unknown (Tommy Draak), wrestler beat Eddie Wagner and Carl King Kong- Connolly, boxers (note: On the same night the masked man also defeated wrestler George Peach).

10/9/1934 - Minneapolis, MN Abe King Kong- Kashey, wrestler beat Charley Retzlaff, boxer

1/28/1935 - Townsville, Australia Tommy Nevins, boxer beat Leo Demetral, wrestler... "Strangler" Tony Cabassi, wrestler beat Herb Vardy, boxer

11/19/1935 - St. Louis, MO Ray Steele, wrestler beat Kingfish Levinsky, boxer

3/31/1936 - Indianapolis, IN George Zaharias, wrestler beat Art What-a-Man- Shires, boxer

6/6/1936 - Charlotte, NC Al Massey, boxer beat Johnny Plummer, wrestler

8/11/1937 - Los Angeles, CA Nick Lutze, wrestler beat Pio Pico, boxer

3/21/1938 - Butte, MT Wildcat Pete (George Perttula), wrestler beat Lee Williams, boxer

4/21/1938 - Kansas City, MO Lee Wykoff, wrestler beat Harry Thomas, boxer

11/24/1938 - London, UK Jack Sherry, wrestler beat Phil Scott, boxer

9/9/1943 - St. Louis, MO Ernie Dusek, wrestler beat Bob Roper, boxer

6/29/1944 - Los Angeles, CA Rube Wright, wrestler beat Babe Ritchie, boxer

9/14/1944 - Lincoln, NE-Tigerman John Pesek, wrestler beat George Jumbo- Dixon, boxer

2/14/1947 - London, England Bert Assirati, wrestler beat Arnold Jack- Corley, boxer

2/24/1950 - NY, NY-Mr. America Gene Stanlee, wrestler beat five boxers-$15,000 challenge contest on TV show We The People

9/11/1952 - Jersey City, NJ Marvin Mercer, wrestler beat Omelio Agramonte, boxer

3/15/1956 - Columbus, OH "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, wrestler beat Jersey Joe Walcott, boxer

4/15/1963 - Memphis, TN Lou Thesz, wrestler beat Jersey Joe Walcott, boxer

12/2/1963 - Salt Lake City, UT Judo Gene LeBell, judo beat Milo Savage, boxer

6/25/1976 - Tokyo, Japan Muhammed Ali, boxer drew Antonio Inoki, wrestler

6/25/1976 - New York City, NY Andre the Giant, wrestler beat Chuck Wepner, boxer

4/3/1984 - Port of Prince, Trinidad Victor Jovica, wrestler beat Joe Frazier, boxer

4/25/1989 - Toledo, OH The Great Wojo (Greg Wojciechowski), wrestler beat Leon Spinks, boxer

12/22/1991 - Tokyo, Japan Nobuhiko Takada, wrestler beat Trevor Berbick, boxer...Billy Scott, wrestler beat James Warring, kickboxer

4/19/1992 - Tokyo, Japan Masakatsu Funaki, wrestler beat Roberto Duran, boxer

5/6/1992 - Yokohama, Japan Kiyoshi Tamura, wrestler beat Matthew Saad Muhammed, boxer

11/12/1993 - Denver, CO Royce Gracie, jiu-jitsu beat Art Jimmerson, boxer-MMA rules

1/6/1995 - Westland, MI Dan Severn, wrestler beat Johnny Johnson, boxer

10/6/2009 - Yokohama, Japan Kazushi Sakuraba, wrestler beat Rubin Williams, boxer-MMA rules

8/28/2010 - Boston, MA Randy Couture, wrestler beat James Toney, boxer-MMA rules.

Endnote: In more current times there was talk of another promoter versus promoter contest, MMA versus pro wrestling, namely the UFC's Dana White and WWE kingpin Vince McMahon. In planning for his 2011 annual pro wrestling extravaganza known as WrestleMania, McMahon reportedly considered a WWE versus UFC theme. He hoped to bring in UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar to take on the Undertaker (Mark Calaway). McMahon, himself, wanted to meet White in either a worked- wrestling bout or in a legit fight. White wanted no parts of professional wrestling after struggling to make the UFC somewhat respectable and accepted by the mainstream sports world and laughed off McMahon's offer. No doubt, McMahon, the master showman that he is, would not have hesitated to bring his proposition into being if White had been willing. It would have been quite a show. The fun never ends as just recently promoter and former champion boxer Oscar De La Hoya has been out with a challenge to White for a boxing bout.

Footnotes:
1.) Deseret News, 2/10/31
2.) Salt Lake Telegram, 1/14/31
3.) Salt Lake Telegram, 2/3/31
4.) Deseret News, 2/11/31
5.) Deseret News, 2/14/31
6.) Ibid
7.) Ibid
8.) Ibid
9.) Salt Lake Tribune, 11/13/58
10.) Deseret News, 2/14/31
11.) Miami Daily News-Record, 3/2/31
12.) Salt Lake Tribune, 11/13/58
13.) Ibid

The next article in this series will cover the 1905 anything goes- contest between Charles Olson and Akitaro Ono in Asheville, NC. The series will also include George Bothner versus Katsukuma Higashi, Judo Gene LeBell versus Milo Savage, Wim Ruska versus Ivan Gomes, Taro Miyake versus Will Bingham, John Pesek versus Nat Pendleton, and old-time wrestler William Demetral taking on three boxers in one night.

© 2019 Lion's Share Ventures, LLC All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission prohibited.