When we look at wrestling figures of the past, often it’s only the wrestlers or on-air personalities that get a mention. Somehow in the vast, figurative, library of professional wrestling history books the names of the men behind the scenes got placed on a top shelf resulting in hardly anyone ever taking them down. Rather, names like Lou Thesz, Frank Gotch, Gorgeous George, and Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis are spouted frequently by those partially in the know, but these tremendous athletes couldn’t have accomplished what they did without someone there to arrange the events, finance the arenas, and publicize the upcoming stars.
If the newest generation of fans are asked what they know about old school promoters, you’ll probably get the response of, “They hate Vince McMahon,” and “They all screwed the boys out of money.” Of course that is true towards some and not so true towards others, either way though, these men made professional wrestling. Like Vince McMahon Jr. was in the 1980’s, some of them were absolutely irreplaceable in the evolution of the industry we all know and love.
Today I’m going to look at one of the most notable promoters at the turn of the 20th century in North America. As you probably guessed from the title of this piece, that man’s name was Jack Curley. 1876 was the year of his birth, July 4 the date and San Francisco the location. In his long journey that took place following his arrival in this world, he couldn’t have ended up much farther away from his home before finding his greatest success. As Dusty Rhodes would say, “hard times,” are what Jack Curley suffered for much of his life as a young man when he ran away from home to Chicago.
His luck would change when he met a prizefight promoter by the name of P.J. Carroll and he became an important part of Carroll’s gym and promotion between 1893 and 1896. Once he had learned enough to move on, Curley would set up his own promotion in Iowa before moving back to Chicago in 1901. In a move that worked out perfectly for his current boxing and later wrestling promotions he joined a local newspaper in Chicago as a correspondent; all the while promoting prizefights and also managing fighters, something he had started to do back at Carroll’s gym.
His days as the Czar of professional wrestling wouldn’t start until around the mid-1900′s. Given his previous newspaper experience he had good connections to ensure positive publicity for his wrestlers. The very first major contest would see non-other than Frank Gotch on the stage against Fred Beell. Slowly his empire grew. By the end of 1911 he had taken down long term and major promoter, J.C. (Ole) Marsh (With a bit of help from the U.S. Postal Authorities), found a great friend and wrestler in Dr. Benjamin F. Roller, and toured across Europe staging shows from Britain to Austria. If that wasn’t enough for one man, he also staged the biggest match to have taken place up until that point in time; Gotch Vs. Hackenschmidt II.
All the while, he had still been promoting boxing. But by the middle of the 1910′s he had become a victim of politics and stopped holding any prizefights. With all his focus now on professional wrestling and the ever changing times, it is said that it was Curley was the first who suggested changes to the structure of matches. One of his most popular and long lasting ideas was that of one fall to a finish, rather than the previously used two-out-of-three falls for a victory or the rarer three-out-of-five falls contest. These changes had gone into effect by 1918.
There were further changes still. For the first time in America there was an almost organized conglomerate of promoters across most of America, all working together with Curley at the head. All implicating the same rules and sharing talent. Historically they were referred to as ‘The Big Four,’ consisting of Curley, Gene Melady, Billy Sandow and Tony Stecher. Many smaller promoters would also be in sync with them. Together they crowned a new undisputed champion in 1920 in an epic tournament consisting of wrestlers Ed Lewis, John Pesek, Joe Stecher, and Wladek Zbyszko with the winner to face Earl Caddock at a later date to be held at Madison Square Garden. Joe Stecher would be the new champion once it was all said and done.
Everything came crashing down during 1921 as Ed Lewis, the World Heavyweight Champion at the time, left ‘The Big Four’ with his manager, Billy Sandow, to join forces with Joseph ‘Toots’ Mondt to form what would later be christened as ‘The Gold Dust Trio.’ With the talent the trio left behind Curley somehow managed to keep hold of his New York City base, biding his time. That is until 1925 when he and long term associate Tony Stecher joined forces with wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko and promoter Tom Packs in a successful attempt to double cross the Trio. Zbyszko would legitimately shoot on the Trio’s appointed champion, Wayne Munn, gaining the championship back for Curley’s trust. From there many trust’s were formed and broken, alliances shifted regularly, and the wrestling scene became an absolute mess of people claiming to be the World Heavyweight Champion in various regions of the country.
One thing remained solid through-out all of the behind the scenes turbulence and that was business in New York City. Everything had started to settle down again in 1932 when a brand new trust was made mending old bridges and creating new alliances too. A star had been shining through-out the time in Jim Londos and with him came some of the most lucrative years ever known in that area during the early 1930’s. Unfortunately all good things really must come to an end. By the mid-1930’s Jack was nearing 60 years old. With the future of the territory on the line, new plans had to be made.
Then on June 12, 1937 Jack Curley passed away. Ending a career that had spanned into five different decades and accomplished more most promoters could ever dream of. He showcased some of the biggest names ever including Zbyszko, Londos, Lewis, Gotch, Beell, Roller, Stecher, Caddock, Shikat, and O’Mahoney. I’m no expert on prizefighting, so I won’t try and list a load of matches or fighters. However, even with my limited knowledge I know that the fight between Jack Jonhson and Jim Jeffries is one of the most important in boxing history. Outside of contact sports Curley also tried his hand at managing in the following forms of entertainment: opera singers, tennis players, swimmers, actors, and circuses.
New York City being the home to many people immigrating from across the world, most notably Ireland, it always had a good wrestling scene going all the way back to the 1860’s. Never had there been such an abundance of money to be made from the area until Curley took it out of the saloons and bars and brought it into bigger venues. With huge names, promotion, simple story-lines, and changes to the rules when needed the public kept wanting to come back for more.
Jack Curley made every opportunity work to his advantage, seizing every possible chance to be successful in whatever field he chose. In wrestling it paid off for him and for every promoter to be fortunate enough since then to call New York City a home base. I feel the best way to sum up exactly how important he was is like this… when people are asked for the top five American promoters who ever lived, if Jack Curley is not on that list alongside Vince McMahon Jr. and Sam Muchnick then the person answering does not have a clue what they are talking about.