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Joe Stecher (April 4, 1893 - March 29, 1974), sometimes spelled Joe Stetcher, was a professional wrestler and three-time World Heavyweight Champion. Stecher is the first wrestler to regain the original version of the World Heavyweight Championship.
The son of Bohemian immigrants, Joseph Stecher was born on April 4, 1893 on a 400-acre (1.6 km2) farm in Dodge, Nebraska. Joe was the youngest of the family’s eight children, and as a youth, he excelled in numerous sports, including swimming, golf, tennis, and baseball. While the boys were still young, Frank Stecher enrolled his three sons in a wrestling course at the local Fremont YMCA, and Joe’s older brothers soon emerged as accomplished amateur grapplers. Joe’s eldest brother, Lewis, would earn a commission to Annapolis, and as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy, he was eventually recognized as the National Intercollegiate Light Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. Moreover, Anton (“Tony”) Stecher starred as the premier wrestler at Fremont High School; and as a result, Joe was determined to follow in his brothers’ large footsteps. From the moment he took the mat, it was clear that Joe Stecher was a natural wrestling talent, as he utilized his strong body and long limbs to outclass his opponents. Then in 1909, as a high school senior at just age 16, he nearly defeated “Doc” Benjamin Roller, one of the world’s top turn-of-the-century grapplers, in a hard-fought exhibition bout while Roller was touring the Midwest.
Professional wrestling career
In 1912, both Joe and Tony Stecher decided to join the professional ranks; and Joe easily defeated Bill Hokief in his first pro match. After a few months, it soon became apparent that Joe, who was taller and heavier than his older brother, was also the clearly superior grappler. However, Tony possessed greater savvy for the business; and so he subsequently became Joe’s trainer and co-manager along with Joe Hetmanek (who had previously served as the Dodge postmaster). During this time, Joe Stecher also developed freakishly strong leg muscles as he practiced squeezing 100-pound sacks of grain on the farm until they would ultimately burst. As a result, Stecher soon became renowned for his feared leg scissors submission hold, which subsequently earned him the nickname of “The Scissors King.” Nevertheless, Joe Stecher would not gain national awareness until attracting the attention of the fabled "Farmer" Martin Burns, the former American Champion who was also the mentor to the now-current World Heavyweight Champion, Frank Gotch. While touring the area, Burns planned to sucker the area gamblers by offering cash to any local wrestler who could defeat his “strongman,” who just happened to be world-class hooker Yussiff Hussane, one of wrestling’s feared “Terrible Turks.” This was a standard con for Burns’ group, and when young Joe Stecher accepted the offer, nobody anticipated that he would pose a legitimate challenge. However, Stecher proceeded to out wrestle the great champion, and when he finally slapped on his patented scissors hold after 45 minutes, a desperate Hussane was disqualified for biting Stecher’s leg.
World Heavyweight Champion
In the following years, the young phenom continued his ascent by defeating established grapplers like Jess Westergaard, Ad Santel, Bob Managoff Sr., Marin Plestina, and Adolph Ernst, all in straight falls, and all in 15 minutes or less. Then with Frank Gotch in attendance on July 5, 1915 in Omaha, Nebraska, Stecher defeated the reigning American Champion, Charles Cutler, to claim pro wrestling’s World Heavyweight Championship. At just 22 years old, Joe Stecher became the youngest World Champion in history up to that point, yet he remained in the vast shadow of Gotch, who had retired a couple years earlier without ever losing the title and was thus still acknowledged by the public as pro wrestling’s true champion. As a result, a Gotch vs. Stecher “dream match” was arranged for July 18, 1916 and was promoted as being wrestling’s biggest matchup since Gotch’s battles with Georg Hackenschmidt a decade earlier. Unfortunately, the bout never materialized, as Gotch broke a fibula in his leg while wrestling Managoff as part of a traveling circus, and his health deteriorated until he eventually died on December 16, 1917.
Despite having never faced Gotch (though it is speculated that he had dominated the aging champion in an impromptu sparring session), Joe Stecher reigned as the sport’s elite star while also beginning a legendary rivalry with a new wrestling sensation named Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Stecher and Lewis wrestled for the first time on October 20, 1915, when a then-unknown Lewis was counted out after over 2 hours when he fell out of the ring and hit his head on a chair. The two then rematch on July 4, 1916, where they grappled for nearly five hours before the match was finally ruled a draw. After a third draw in 1918, Lewis had achieved notoriety by again managing to avoid being pinned by Stecher, though he was widely criticized for employing a defensive/avoiding style, while Stecher was usually the dominant aggressor. Nevertheless, it was Stecher who would win the majority of their contests over the course of the next five years.
Retirement and post-career
He retired for good in 1934, but later suffered an emotional breakdown and was institutionalized in the St. Cloud Veteran's Hospital in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where he remained for 30 years. He died on March 29, 1974 at age 81.
- Finishing moves
- The Scissors King
Championships and accomplishments
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 2002 (Pioneer Era)
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards
- Other titles