Pro wrestling in the 1870s was not as it is today.
Some of the matches were shoots, sometimes there were months in between matches, and some wrestling still happened at the carnival. But when studying American pro wrestling history, the 1870s is as good a place to start as any, since for the first time in this country, a unanimous titleholder and top star was established early on in the decade.
In January of 1870, a tournament was announced in Detroit for later that year, to crown a national champion. In the days and weeks leading up the tournament, the brand new title belt was put on display in town, the rules were laid out, and the contestants had entered. Four days before it began, the Detroit Free Press reported that the matches “will be conducted with due regard to propriety.” It is interesting that the reporter felt the need to write that.
Finally, Thursday, March 10 had arrived, and the tournament commenced at Young Man’s Hall in Detroit. Only six men were able to make Detroit in time for the tournament, those six being EP Harrington, Barney Smith, William Bell, James DeFoe, Matthew Brown, and the winner, James McLaughlin.
This sprung McLaughlin to have a huge career in the years to come. Since two competitors were from Canada, he was deemed the champion of both the US and Canada. The tournament was said to be well-attended and well-received. McLaughlin said he would put his newly won title up against anyone from the US or Canada, for $500 a side. Apparently the “fighting champion” shtick is as old as wrestling. He was answered by GC Orr of St. Louis, and subsequently, make his first successful title defense.
In the spring of 1870, Pennsylvania was home to several pro wrestling matches, including a couple of successful McLaughlin title defenses, against Homer Lane and James DeWitt. In late May, in Buffalo, Homer Lane, who had lost to McLaughlin twice, defeated John Murteigh and afterward called himself the new champion for some unknown reason. McLaughlin did not have any recorded losses since winning the title, so this whole thing comes off as a carny trick by Lane, especially since this was not the last time he would do this. When McLaughlin did return later that year after taking the summer off, he was simply referred to as the champion, and nothing was said of Lane.
In McLaughlin’s return match on December 6, he was victorious over JJ Benjamin in Titusville, PA, McLaughlin’s place of residence. He made his next defense on February 4, 1871, again in Titusville, this time vanquishing Nathan Dorrance of Chicago, in which Dorrance was injured. McLaughlin totally babyfaced himself in both the Titusville and Chicago papers, promising to fit the doctor’s bill and even refund him Dorrance his share of the stake-money. That April, however, Dorrance was apparently well enough to wrestle again, as he challenged McLaughlin to a rematch. The two went back and forth in the papers, squabbling over money and location for the next match, (almost a forerunner of cutting promos), and they finally decided on Titusville, PA for $1,000 a side, and the first major rematch for the title was set.
On Tuesday, June 20, the men met once again, and once again, the reigning champion James McLaughlin came out victorious, total time 16 minutes (a normal length for McLaughlin title matches; the hours-long matches weren’t as common yet). Wrestling matches also occurred slightly more frequently in the summer and fall of ‘71, featuring John Cross, Joseph Acton, and a wrestler from across the pond: Rolf Wolfenden. Not to mention, the first women’s match of the decade taking in Lincoln, NE. And again, in McLaughlin’s absence, another wrestler began calling himself champion. On September 11, Wolfenden defeated Cross in controversial fashion for the title in Pittsburgh. Additionally, less than a week later, a man named James Mace was also called champion, and lost to McLaughlin in his return match. So after a year and a half, the first American title’s lineage was already a mess.
McLaughlin, recognized as champion again, met Lane over and over in the winter of ‘71-‘72. Come spring, a super fight was announced between James McLaughlin, champion of America and Canada, versus R. Wright, champion of England to crown the champion of the world (because the world is Canada, US, and England). Sadly, that match never happened, but it does appear to be the first time it was attempted to crown a champion of the world. After this, the title was no longer referred to as the championship for US and Canada, but just the US.
McLaughlin took an extended break, that lasted until 1874, leaving America with fewer big-time match-ups. Eighteen seventy-two did see the beginning of one of the top stars of the coming years, John McMahon (no relation) of Vermont. He started locally, but would soon branch out to the major cities. In McLaughlin’s absence, Homer Lane took up the mantle of champion defeating Perry Higley on October 28, 1872, but lost it two months later to Harry Grace, only to win it back in a match against Lang Dolan two months after that in February 1873. The discrepancies in the title’s lineage continued. He proceeded to have a successful defense against WL Ainsworth.
Before long, Lane was squaring off against John McMahon in a big-time title match on May 30. McMahon, the up and comer in his first championship bout, won the belt, and a new top guy in wrestling was created. He immediately turned around and successfully defended the belt against Perry Higley a month later. The following month, he challenged and defeated Thomas Copeland, the champion of Canada, and was called by some papers the champion of the world. He then drew with Albert Ellis of England, defeated Lane again, and rematched Ellis for the win. In the meantime, Homer Lane was crowned middleweight champion, differentiating from McMahon’s now apparently heavyweight championship. McMahon continued his busy championship schedule by beating Homer Lane time after time in the coming months, and was working far more often than McLaughlin ever did, and no doubt setting the precedent for a wrestler’s schedule.
On February 14, 1874, James McLaughlin returned to the ring. He defeated Michael Whalen in San Francisco, and, most importantly, resumed his claim to the national championship. A month later, McMahon was paired against Lane—again—and was also billed as champion. The double title claimant wouldn’t be settled just yet, and McLaughlin took the rest of the year off, and McMahon exclusively wrestled Lane for the rest of the year. No doubt, Lane was happy being McMahon’s jobber, and simply followed him around as part of the trust.
In 1874, pro wrestling seemed to grow in prominence throughout the country, as matches happened more and more frequently, even without McLaughlin and McMahon on most of the cards. San Francisco, in particular, became a hotbed, scheduling regular matches that featured such talent as Michael Whalen, Leopold Vandervecken, Thiebaud Bauer, and most importantly, Professor William Miller, who would soon break out as a national star.
By 1875, the super fight between McLaughlin and McMahon still hadn’t happened, despite it originally being scheduled for the previous November. The rest of the country continued hosting matches, and the business seemed just fine without an undisputed champion. McMahon continued touring the country, putting on exhibitions with Lane, while McLaughlin didn’t record a single match in the year. Later in the year, McMahon visited the now hottest city in the country for wrestling, San Francisco. There he won bouts against William Ferrell, R. Gardiner, Thomas Coligan, and Richard Whalen. He also issued a challenge to James McLaughlin. McLaughlin, completely ignoring McMahon, issued different challenges in the paper, that if William Miller, Andre Christol, or anyone wanted to call themselves champion, they would have to beat him first. Despite not mentioning McMahon by name, he called out the two men who were having a match for the championship of America—Professor William Miller and Andre Christol—which McLaughlin obviously took exception to. Miller defeated Christol (then called the champion of France and Spain), and the papers treated the match just as big as any McMahon or McLaughlin title match. It should be noted that this title was distinguished as the Greco-Roman title. But, that didn’t stop McLaughlin from saying they can’t claim the title without defeating him.
In November of 1875, a year after it was originally supposed to happen, talks were renewed for a McLaughlin versus McMahon match. By this time, Christol was working regularly in the United States, and rematched with Miller (a few times) unsuccessfully, once to a five-hour draw. Lane shockingly made another claim to the US title after defeating Richard Whalen, which made no sense whatsoever and was recognized by essentially no one. Before the end of the year, Miller defeated the so-called champion of Europe Louis Carterton, to solidify his claim to the title. So he was the Greco-Roman champion, and McLaughlin and McMahon were the major collar-and-elbow claimants by the end of the year.
Eighteen seventy-six saw the three title contenders almost try to outdo one another, as they all worked at least somewhat frequently. James McLaughlin, in particular, wrestled much more often than usual, but still avoiding the big names. Andre Christol jobbed to Thiebaud Bauer to set Bauer up for a feud against his old San Francisco buddy, William Miller. Miller and Bauer would wrestle a million times in ‘76 and ‘77, and even traded the title back and forth several times. McMahon worked some, but always against no-names, and with much less fanfare than McLaughlin, Bauer, and Miller. In September, McMahon sent out a sweeping challenge in the paper to anyone, and called out James McLaughlin by name, but nothing came of it. Despite talks initially happening between the two years earlier, one has to believe that the real reason McLaughlin versus McMahon hadn’t happened yet is because they couldn’t agree on who would lose, but ultimately that’s pure speculation. As the fall progressed, Miller and Bauer’s unending feud featured a match on October 21st that immediately was nailed by the papers as a work.
On Wednesday, December 27, 1876 in Boston James Owens’s defeated the great James McLaughlin to take his claim for the world title. McLauglin suffered his first loss since winning the first consensus national title on March 10, 1870. McLaughlin blamed his loss on a bad ankle. Perhaps to get some clout back on his name after his loss, McLaughlin finally agreed to have a match with Bauer.
On March 5, 1877, the two met, and despite some controversy, McLaughlin won, getting a massive win.
Soon after, Owens started defending his title, racking up a couple successful defenses against Murphy, Grace, and Martin. McMahon also returned to the mat, winning of course, and Bauer and Miller continued their feud over the Greco-Roman title. Bauer did find time between those matches to job to McMahon again on April 10th. McLaughlin, blaming his loss to Owens on a bum ankle, still claimed the title.
By the end of ‘77 and the beginning of ‘78, McLaughlin, Owens, McMahon, and Miller were all throwing challenges at each other in the papers, despite nothing actually coming of them. As 1878 progressed, matches that didn’t even involve any of those four were billed as for the championship of America. This was either the boys working the papers, or the papers making mistakes. While its easy to believe the former, papers made mistakes all the time in an era without easy fact-checking, especially for something as unimportant as wrestling.
Despite this, finally, five years after McMahon first made his claim to the title, and eight years after McLaughlin won the first national title, these two met in a long-awaited super match in Chicago on Saturday, November 16, 1878. McMahon won the bout to “deafening yells.” The rematch, however, wouldn’t take as nearly as long to put together as the first. A month later, on December 14, the men rematched and McLaughlin won. It seems the comprise between the two was to trade wins in short period of time.
The following month, McLaughlin met and defeated “Andre Christol.” This wasn’t the real Andre Christol, though, just someone later revealed to be a fake. This “Andre” also worked a collar bone injury in this bout, and in February he used this as excuse for his loss to Clarence Whistler in Omaha, NE. Due to his “injury,” Whistler and Andre worked a benefit to raise money for Christol. Two weeks later, they did the same thing in nearby Lincoln, NE, only this time Whistler was the one with broken collar bone, and they set up a benefit in his honor. In March, the real Andre Christol defeated the fake Andre Christol (revealed to be Lucien Marc), and so the real Andre came to Nebraska and worked a series with Whistler in the same cities that Marc worked.
You can take wrestling out of the carnival, but you can’t take the carnival out of wrestling.
The new trend of big names facing each other continued, as McLaughlin, Miller, and McMahon all met each other in the first half of 1879. McLaughlin and Miller completed a trilogy of one win apiece and one draw, McLaughlin and McMahon drew to keep their record even, and Miller and McMahon traded wins. Obviously there’s a pattern. It seems that after years of the top names dodging each other, they finally decided to compromise, and trade wins against each other, so that they could get the big money from the big matches.
Although, it should be noted that McLaughlin and Miller traded more wins in June, but this time McLaughlin came out on top, two matches to one. These feuds featuring Greco-Roman and Collar-and-Elbow wrestlers would alternate rule sets every match, and sometimes have mixed rules matches.
In July, the Boston Globe, published a piece reading, “…it is a well-known fact that nine out of ten of the so-called matches are mere exhibitions for gate money,” which is a strong argument against kayfabe ever really having a hold on the public that is usually associated with this time period. In August, James Owens, the first man to beat McLaughlin, jobbed to John McMahon, and McLaughlin beat Christol (the real one) again.
On September 13, 1879, in Detroit, MI, the star that defined wrestling in the 1870s, wrestled his retirement match. James McLaughlin, America’s first champion, defeated Bauer once again, and after the bout gave a speech saying this will be his last match. Now, of course, this is wrestling, so it wasn’t actually his last match, but he did, to his credit, step away for a few years. Nonetheless, this was a momentous in wrestling, and wrestling would have to do without its first star.
Wrestling, as it turns out, would do just fine without McLaughlin. McLaughlin stepping away would create space for a new star to rise, a star whose legacy would outshine those who came before him, and who would ultimately come to define wrestling for the 1880s: William Muldoon.