By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Well, Bruthas and Sistas, our heralded history of the territorial days of professional wrestling has brought us to the family that changed everything, and turned the business model on it’s ear with not only a global expansion, but by hammering the NWA structure like a Stasiak punch to the heart that left it staggering to right itself.
While most every wrestling fan knows the name McMahon for the most recent generation’s accomplishments, it was Vince’s grandfather that laid the foundation on which their empire would be built. Let’s not kid ourselves either, it is a family empire that could be compared to any of the stories of accomplishment in the realms of film, music, sports or industry. Let’s go back and see how this all started though, and take a trip back to the end of the Nineteenth Century, and to old New York.
If New York City was the Big Apple in 1882, it was far from the pristine red fruit ready to be plucked from the tree, but more like the apple that had fell to the ground and had gone brown with rot. It was a dirty, crime ridden city that was undergoing a constant inundation of immigration as the poor of Europe flooded its shores. Two of the many throngs of Irish that strode upon American soil were the couple McMahon, Roderick and Elizabeth. Both were born in County Galway, on the shores of the North Atlantic Coast of Ireland in the Mid-1800‘s. The arrived in New York City in the early 1870‘s and started up a family in the borough of Manhattan.
One of four siblings, Jess McMahon was born into the heat of Summer in the city, on May 26, 1882. He was the youngest of his brothers and sisters and they all grew up in the frenetic bustle of NYC. Even in those days the city was always ion the move and never seemed to sleep. All the children went on to higher education and earned degrees from Manhattan College. Though the brothers Jess, and Edward had gotten financial educations, it was the sports promotion game that really sparked their interests.
While still in school, at the age of seventeen and nineteen, the Brothers McMahon were booking events at both the Empire and St. Nichols Athletic Clubs, as well as having an ownership stake in the Olympic Athletic Club. They also took part in the growing Negro Baseball League at that time and founded the New York Lincoln Giants, and were based in Harlem. In a move that precipitated the territory dipping of his grandson, Jess managed to lure away talents from both the Chicago and Philly teams, bringing together the top five black baseball players of the day. With these ringers, their Lincoln Giants reigned supreme for several seasons. Even after losing control of the team in 1914, they managed to retain several player’s contracts and re-launched a new organization called the Lincoln Stars, but a year later their baseball days were over, but they continued to try their hand at the promoting game.
In 1915, the brothers traveled to Havana, Cuba and helped to promote a boxing match between the then-controversial champion Jack Johnson in a bout against the big man from Pattowatomie County Kansas with the iron jaw, Jess Willard. The fight went forty-five rounds, with Willard taking a pounding, but survived to win the title from Johnson in what many perceived as an upset. After forty-five rounds….I’d say he earned that gold! The toughness of those boxers and wrestlers from the early days, and the tales of their astounding accomplishments leaves me in awe. Their ability to not only absorb punishment, but have the heart to withstand it to finally be able to deliver a knockout blow has not been seen in the athletic community in many years, in any sport. People will want to argue that with me, but if you go back and look at those old boxing statistics of the pugilists, you too will understand.
Jess moved out to Long Island after his return from Cuba, and started to promote professional wrestling out of the Freeport Municipal Auditorium. This was his first foray into the wrestling business and he soon brought in a veteran worker to align himself with that would change the game for him. He and his older brother, Edward kept their promoting game moving forward and Jess managed to work his way into promoting boxing at Madison Square Garden just after 1926, with his connections through Tex Rickard.
Jess began to expand his family in these years as well. He married Rose Davis, a New Yorker herself, and the two had three children over the next few years. Roderick Jr., Vincent, and their daughter Dorothy. His young family was the jewel of his eyes and he did everything to give them the best in life.
The two brothers continued to promote mostly black sports attractions and teams for the next several years, by not only founding the one of the most successful black basketball teams in the country, with the Commonwealth 5 in East Harlem, but they also promoted boxing and black boxers from their Commonwealth Casino facility. They knew how to book, and draw by setting up many of the biggest mixed-raced matches of the day. While that concept may cause many today to shake their heads at the situation, they need to remember the time. By promoting these matches the McMahons gave many boxers and athletes the opportunity to be seen that may have never made it out of the poverty of the city.
Things were beginning to line up for Jess to take a much larger role in the sporting scene in New York City, but he needed a missing element to aid in his success. He needed a partner with evolutionary ideas, and a new formula for promoting professional wrestling to help him take the New York territory by storm, well before the NWA had become an idea, let alone a reality. That man just happened to be out near the base of the Rockies, in a little town called Greeley.
Joseph “Toots” Mondt was originally born in the corn country of Garden Grove, Iowa in January, 1884. His family moved out to Weld County, Colorado a decade later. Though much of his childhood life is not documented, it’s known that he got his first taste of in-ring competition in the musty and dangerous environment of the carnival days, when matches were usually a large strong man type, or legit shooter or hooker taking on all comers. Toots began to formulate his own sense of style in those early days but received his initial, and official wrestling training from Jack Taylor in 1916, but it was when he took a correspondence style wrestling course from Martin “Farmer” Burns, that things started to click for him. Burns later took notice of the young Mondt on one of his scouting tours of the country. After a little more hands on tutelage, Toots became known on the carny circuit as one as hooker, or a man that knew how to really hurt you, and could take on anyone that was in the crowd for money. His nickname was said to have came from Burns, who saw him as a kid, and was the youngest in his touring troupe of wrestlers.
Once he had made a name for himself, the opportunities came calling for Mondt, who was recruited to be the sparring partner for Ed “Strangler” Lewis by Billy Sandow in the Early Twenties. His job, besides sparring with Lewis, was to work his future opponents to get them in line with his wrestling style. While the years earlier under the reign of Karl Gotch saw long matches with little action other than the exchanging of submission holds and counter-moves. Mondt saw a need for a change in the way the matches were presented, to bring more action to the ring, as well as illicit it from the fan. He convinced Sandow and Lewis to adopt a new style that incorporated more theater, and Greco-Roman type maneuvers, alongside some loose, rough and ready catch wrestling. The two conceded and Toot’s idea of Slam Bang Western Style was born. This, Bruthas and Sistas was the true birth of any type of professional wrestling as we know it, that was ever conceived in America.
As this new style began to take hold with the wrestlers, as well as the fans, Mondt continued to tool away and perfect his new creation. He used body slams, arm drags, and suplexes alongside the hard hitting striking to get the crown right in the palm of his hand. He is credited with creating the modern “finish” to a match as we know it, using the moves and the emotion of the crowd to maximum effectiveness. As the popularity grew the three men came together and branded their new venture, ‘The Gold Dust Trio’, and took to task of charting a new course for professional wrestling in their lifetimes.
They started booking their product in sporting arenas and leaving the carnival tents, and burlesque houses behind them. They brought in talent from all over the country and began to solidify themselves as the main players in the business within a year or their merger. They began to have Lewis “drop” the title to local talents, or bigger names that had came into their territory long enough to keep the fans interested, then Lewis would inevitably win back the title. If anyone tried to run their own plan or go off-book, then Mondt would step in and remind them how he got his reputation, with a good working over, until the transgressor decided to do business. In everyday talk, he would beat his ass and show him that it was their way or the highway.
The GDT ended up going the way as most power sharing relationships in the wrestling business, then and now, when they split up in 1928 over financial disputes, and disagreements in the direction of the company. Mondt left and went to Philadelphia, forming a partnership with local promoter Ray Fabiani. The two promoted Jim Londos as their Champion, and began to expand their territory out of Philly, and into the neighboring states. New York promoter Jack Curley was their main rival and he successfully kept the pair from promoting The Big Apple, the entire time he was alive. It was after his death that the men saw their opportunity to sew up the Northeast market and make it their own. The two men formed an alliance with Rudy Dusek, who was the right hand man of Curley. This allowed them to bring in the different New York promoters without the rest of Jack’s family or supporters being none the wiser. It was a coup de tat of beautiful proportions, and the men executed it to perfection as they swooped in and took over the vulnerable New York territory.
Though Toots had gained access to push his Slam Band Western Style with most of the promoters in the NYC market, Tex Rickard was against the product and refused to back him in his use of MSG until 1948, when Mondt got another financier to support his claim to work the Garden. He ran the first shows there in nine years since Dusek had lost to Gorgeous George. He met Jess and Vincent for the first time during these shows and the men formed a strong friendship and business bond, continuing to work together for many years. The two men formed the Capitol Wrestling Corporation in 1952, and they joined forces with the NWA a year later. The men took control of the Northeast Territory of the NWA and used the profitability of the area they warded over to help control most of the bookings for the NWA Champion.
Jess McMahon passed away on November 22, 1954 as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Vincent stepped up and took the reigns of his father’s business after his passing. Mondt would take Vincent under his wing during this time and mentor him in the ways of the working of the professional business. This was an education that no university could have ever provided him, and one that he in turn pass along to his own son years later, continuing the cycle of legacy, and forging the pride that continues on today in the McMahon branded family of companies. Though the CWC only lasted as an entity for a short time, they set all the dominoes in alignment for the next generation to take it to a whole other level that I doubt Jess or Toots had ever thought possible.
Well, Bruthas and Sistas, that brings us to the end of this first look into the deep history of what we now know is the company that “won the war”, and put it’s competition to bed, and many of it’s hardest workers on the shelf. We will definitely get there, as we continue to dig into the rich history of this business. I hope you enjoyed this little nugget of gold, and until next time……Peace!!