“Wannop was nearly killed.”
So concluded a cablegram from The Sporting Life’s New York special correspondent, published on 10 May 1888 to update British readers on Jack Wannop V Evan Lewis three days prior.
The wrestling match at Chicago’s Battery D Armoury for the first wrestling ‘Championship of the World’ had been hotly anticipated. A confident Wannop arrived in America in February, expecting to meet ‘The Strangler’ a few weeks later in the catch style – no hold barred – best of five falls with shoulders on the floor.
Jack’s farewell benefits in New Cross were covered by the press, interviews conducted, and arrangements made. He was set to meet his brother ‘Joe’ on the other side of the pond – a man I believe might actually have been Christopher Wannop, who fled to America in 1884 after the arrest of Jack and two sex workers on a night out in Greenwich. That’s another story for another time.
George Brown took over Jack’s New Cross Boxing Club, and Jack and his backer, Harry Hoare, crossed the Atlantic in search of fame, glory and a big pile of cash.
In April The Sporting Life made an ominous prediction:
During the past month an effort has been made to revive the interest in public wrestling, but the “fancy” seems to have tired of the sport, and now there is no money in exhibitions or gate-money ventures. Legitimate matches are the only things which pay…
The most important thing on the docket is the match between Jack Wannop, the Englishman, and Evan Lewis, the “Strangler”. This contest will be for blood and money, and somebody will be hurt when the pair meet in the West next month.
Wannop was billed as the English Champion in this match for 1,000 dollars a side – although it’s interesting to note that shortly after the fight, while he was still off in America, George Steadman and George Brown fought at the New Cross Public Hall for the same English Championship.
In the years before a regulatory body for the sport, title claims appeared to be somewhat of a free-for-all. In May 1888, for example, The Sporting Life answered an unknown question from a correspondent called Nick with a one line answer: “Wannop is not the champion wrestler of England.”
[This note sits above an answer to another unknown, but probably quite weird, question: “Jimmy Shaw’s Jacko killed 200 rats in 1 ½ minutes, 37 seconds.”]
Lewis’s brutal strangling method – probably a move similar to today’s rear naked choke – was notorious but this signature hold was banned from the match. Chicago’s Mayor ordered him to be closely watched by the police, should he forget himself. An audience of 2,000 to 4,000 men, depending which reports you believe, gathered to watch.
The expected $1,000 stake or side-bet had also been withdrawn on the Mayor’s orders, replaced with an agreement that the winner and his team would take 75 per cent of ticket receipts and claim a new World Heavyweight Championship title, while the loser would go home with 25 per cent of the profits.
Wannop was shirtless, and wearing white tights and dark brown or black velvet trunks. At 190lb, he was the heavier man by 20lb and credited with greater strength, reports say. Seconded by Hoare, he was first to enter the ring, “a perfect picture of a typical English bulldog,” observed the Galena Gazette.
Lewis’s manager Parson Davies then appeared in the ring, having received a challenge from Japanese wrestler Matsada Sorakichi, who was sat at ringside. Sorakichi requested that the night’s winner fight him the following week to take half the gross receipts of the house, providing Sorakichi was thrown within fifteen minutes. Hoare and Davies accepted on behalf of their men.
The match began at 8.47pm and it quickly became evident that Wannop was outclassed by the American professional. “Experts looked upon the match as a one-sided affair from the first”, with Wannop looking visibly nervous from the bell.
Both men went down early in the first bout, with Wannop on top, but Lewis quickly broke the hold and found his feet. After several attempts to trip each other, Lewis caught Wannop in a grapevine lock with his right leg, before hoisting Wannop onto his shoulders and landing him squarely onto the mat. The ‘bulldog’ rose but seemed dazed after the first fall. He was shocked, and evidently in distress.
A fifteen minute break was called, with Wannop disappearing ‘backstage’ to remove his traditional wrestling tights. Both men returned in trunks only.
The second bout opened with a series of headlocks, before Lewis forced the battered Brit under the ropes. Lewis went in for the grapevine lock again, but Wannop turned it on him into a hip-lock to immense cheers from the crowd. It didn’t last. Wannop was forced down onto all fours by an aggressive Lewis, and was out for the count thanks to a hammer-lock and half-nelson which pushed his shoulders to the floor. By the third round he had blood pouring from his ear and knee.
The third and last bout lasted just 58 seconds. After reaching for a number of different holds, Lewis, by a grapevine and shoulder-lock, lifted Wannop from the floor and slammed him down again, square onto the mat to end the match.
“The big fellow’s heart was broken” (Galena Gazette, 8 May 1888).
A mass of spectators broke through the ropes, hoisted the new World Champion onto their shoulders, and carried him around the hall to wild applause. Jack’s big break, months in the making, was over in minutes.
Harry Hoare, Wannop’s backer, soon returned home, and rumour abounded of fix and scandal. In June, word was received in England from Wannop that he’d been too scared to win the match: he had deliberately lost because Lewis’s Chicago “mob” had threatened a reprisal attack if their man went down. A poor excuse from a sore loser, perhaps? Sorry, Jack.
Rumour also circulated at the time (cited in Tim Corvin’s Pioneers of Professional Wrestling) that Wannop had been drinking ahead of the contest – a pre-match habit more typical of John L. Sullivan.
It was in the American newspapers’ best interests, of course, to support their countryman and if I may be permitted to do the same for mine, it was likely that Jack was simply outmatched and perhaps a little out of shape. At 33 (albeit pretending to be 29), he was the older of the two men by several years, had spent weeks waiting on unfamiliar turf for the postponed date with Lewis, and he was also prone to rheumatism.
Upon his return to England the following year, Jack went into more detail in an interview for The Sporting Life about what happened with Lewis. He had been lured to America by a man who turned out to be Lewis’s uncle, to compete in a match designed purely to enhance the reputation of his nephew, Wannop claimed.
While I am not sure of the original source, this excellent Legacy of Wrestling article on Lewis by Tim Hornbaker states that “it was reported that Wannop and his backers lost $10,000 on the bout, and that between $20,000 and $30,000 changed hands in betting circles.”
Jack stayed in America for the rest of 1888 and on to 1889 but turned his hand to boxing instead, with considerable success.
Next on the blog: It’s summer 1888 and time for Jack Wannop V Jim Fell in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Wannop V Jim Sheehey: an utterly mad night involving a drunk guy, oil, a massive fire, and a 500-strong angry mob of howling sports fans baying for blood…