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The Phantom Of The Ring

The Founding Father

This article appeared in Wrestling Perspective, Volume VIII, Issue 68. 
Minor revisions have been made by the author.

Professional wrestling is deceptive in more ways than one.  Although it seems as if it has changed drastically from even, say, ten years ago, in truth it has not really changed one iota. Wrestling follows the same formula it has followed since 1919. While there have been additions, subtractions and other modifications during the years between then and today, the same basic rules apply. 

I know the counter-arguments. The same basic formula since 1919? Didn’t wrestling evolve? What about television in the Forties?  What about the cable television revolution?  What about Pay-Per-View?  What about Vince McMahon?  What about merchandising?  What about... yada, yada, yada. My reply is this: modern professional wrestling was the brainchild of one lone genius. That genius was Joseph "Toots" Mondt.

One of the paradoxes of professional wrestling as we know it today was that it did not evolve from earlier forms. The idea of modern wrestling sprang full-blown from the head of Mondt like Athena from Zeus. The other, seamier (if that is possible) side of wrestling, promoter politics, while not invented by Mondt, was nevertheless refined by him into the Fine Art of the Screw Job.  Many an "ingrate" wrestler was cheated of his rightful purse or glory because a) he refused to play along; (b) he was demanding too much money (i.e., his just share); or (c) expediency. One must therefore imagine Mondt’s utter surprise when the same thing was done to him by one of his prize pupils. His reaction? Just like one of the boys. Sit back and take orders from the new boss. The monster he had helped create claimed him as another of its many victims.
Before we examine his achievement, let’s first examine Mondt himself.  Toots was born Joseph Raymond Mondt on a farm in Iowa in 1886. Where in Iowa Toots never made clear, although he would often bill himself from Humboldt, as did probably every other wrestler who hailed from Iowa. At any rate, Mondt’s father went broke as an Iowa farmer and moved the family to Greeley, Colorado, where he pursued a livelihood in the mines. Not wishing to spend the rest of his days in Greeley, Toots began learning the art of wrestling via correspondence courses from Farmer Burns. He combined this teaching with the strong body shaped from the family farm and made his debut in Greeley at the age of 16 taking on a carnival wrestler.

When the carnival left town it had a new employee. Toots worked a lot of carnivals over the years, for the mortality rate of carnivals, due to police activity, was extremely high.  He would also try his hand in vaudeville as an acrobat, but he was unable to work his way past the lowest depths of the vaudevillian caste system. His big break came when he returned to carnival wrestling. There he was discovered by Burns during one of Burns’ many scouting trips. Working with Burns was the wrestling equivalent of a Ph.D. program and served Mondt well. Burns was also responsible for Mondt’s nickname. Mondt was the youngest wrestler in the Burns camp, and the nickname "Toots" had to do either with his small feet or his relative youth and baby face, depending which story you care to believe.  Were it not for the tutelage of Burns it’s doubtful Toots would have graduated to the next level and professional wrestling wouldn’t be in the form we know it as today.

Enter the year 1919. Up until this time wrestling contests were slow-moving exhibitions mainly confined to the mat and lasting, on average, 60 minutes. Crowds no longer found this to be suitable entertainment and accordingly they began to dwindle. Thus, with the time was right for a new approach.This new approach came from the fertile mind of Mondt, though not all at once. Mondt joined the camp of Ed "Strangler" Lewis on the recommendation of Burns and fit right in, serving in various capacities as sparring partner, trainer, sometime opponent and valuable policeman. Few wrestlers were as tough as Toots and he made sure that every Lewis opponent knew the "rules" of that night’s contest. As a sparring partner and trainer, he helped Lewis develop new holds and counters.  As a pro wrestler, Toots was there when Lewis had trouble finding an opponent, for Toots lost to no one but the Strangler, giving the match a little juice at the gate.
Lewis and his manager/partner Billy Sandow were having trouble in getting Lewis’ claim to the heavyweight championship (won in a 1915 Jack Curley-sponsored tournament in New York City) recognized.  Each promoter for the most part worked independently of other promoters and each had his own champ. Even Curley refused to recognize Lewis’ claim, having his own champion in Joe Stecher. This created a problem for the independent operator. Because he worked on a percentage of the gate, it was important to build up his matches.  But this method was haphazard at best.  Lewis could spend valuable time building up a match against Charley Cutler in New York and see it all come for naught when Cutler loses to Joe Stecher the week before.  Word of Cutler’s loss would inevitably reach the Big Apple before the match resulting in a small gate and a small payoff for Lewis.  

Given the size of the problem, Mondt’s solution was downright ingenuous. First, he convinced Sandow and Lewis that the days of wrestling in its current form were numbered. If they were to get the crowds, they had to change the style to meet the new expectations. Mondt’s suggestion was to combine features of boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling and the old-time lumber-camp style of fighting into what Mondt termed "Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling." This is essentially the form of wrestling we know today, save for the addition of acrobatics.
Next, reasoned Mondt, why were Sandow and Lewis allowing promoters to control them? With a little planning, they could be the ones calling the shots. Mondt simply reached back into his vaudeville days and conceived the plan to promote wrestlers and wrestling bouts on the same scale as vaudeville acts were booked and staged. He, Sandow and Lewis would act as a central booking agency and with the contacts they had among the wrestlers, the plan could be pulled off with little trouble.

To the credit of Mondt’s partners, they didn’t need a lot of wattage in order to see the light. They immediately set about convincing other wrestlers about the advantages of the new style of wrestling and signed hundreds of them to contracts. Under Sandow, Lewis and Mondt, the boys would be well paid and paid timely, no longer subject to the whims of a promoter. Within only six months Sandow was the new czar of wrestling. By signing every wrestler he saw, Sandow decimated the talent pools of the other promoters. Meanwhile, the new style of Slam-Bang Wrestling was completely over with the fans, drawing huge gates and providing sweet payoffs for the hundreds of new employees on Sandow’s payroll.
In the short space of only six months the trio of Lewis, Mondt and Sandow controlled the course of professional wrestling in America. More importantly, they also moved their product out of the burlesque theaters and back alley halls to the major sports venues in each city they promoted. It didn’t take long for the Gold Dust Trio (as they were nicknamed by sportswriters) to build their empire, but as with any successful revolution, the secret came not in gaining the prize, but in holding onto it. This was where the Trio made their mark on the history of wrestling. All new talent was tested in Sandow’s private ring. Routines and finishes were carefully worked out, most by Toots himself. Characters were refined. The art of "working" was born. When two men faced each other in the ring, each knew the other’s ability and style, and the best man usually won. To Sandow’s credit, a merit system was established. The best workers were kept on top. Those who had color but lacked ability were kept off the top rung. They became "ethnic" wrestlers; given a name and character to fit whatever crowd they were aimed at. Oh sure, the ethnic wrestler might receive a title shot now and then, but would never hold a title. The public would never buy an ethnic wrestler as champion and Sandow knew it. Any ethnic wrestler who possessed exceptional ability was "de-ethnicized," a  lesson they learned when the failed to do so with Stan Zbyszko, one of their rare failures. Lewis would hold the belt for now, and when they determined that the public was tiring of the champ, a new champ, an all-American champ, would be selected to take the crown.  All other good ethnic wrestlers would be built up as local favorites and given shots at the champ whenever he wandered into their area. Sandow’s conviction was that only a wrestler of exceptional ability should be champion. This was the reason Lewis dominated the belt during the Twenties. It lent an air of legitimacy to the proceedings and convinced the public everything was on the level. The point was no longer in the contest, but in how the contest went over.

In the new jargon of wrestling, a "program" was a series of bouts whose ultimate result was to build up a suitable opponent for the champ to meet when he came to town. The wrestler to be built up would be receiving a "push." He would work the program with another well-heralded matman, well-regarded with the fans, so when the man to be pushed went over, the fans accepted it. If the man to be pushed wasn’t going over with the fans, wasn’t getting that all-important "heat" (fan excitement), then he would work the job to his opponent. The fans always came first.

If one wrestler "hooked" (double-crossed) another, he would usually come face to face with the "policeman" in his next bout. The policeman knew everything he needed to about this rogue grappler because the policeman was usually the one who broke the wrestler in and trained him. That policeman was none other than Mondt himself, for that was Tootsie’s role in the organization. The match would be a "shoot," meaning on the level, at least on the part of the policeman. Mondt was so feared and respected that he rarely if ever had to engage in these kinds of matches. Besides, under the Sandow-Lewis-Mondt regime the boys were paid so much better that only a few had any reason at all to grumble. Sandow came up with an innovation so radical that it won the boys over without complaint: the regular paycheck. Wrestlers never had to worry where their next payoff was coming from or by who, or whether the promoter had absconded with the box-office receipts during the bouts. Sandow’s system led to the saying "loyal as his last paycheck."

This system worked so well that wrestling played to healthy crowds during the Twenties. Many fans became hooked on the weekly doings at their arena no matter how many times they saw their favorites wrestle each other. Another factor that made the fans come back for more was the complete absence of any form of wagering at the arena. Sandow hated betting, believing it gave his product a bad odor. Wrestlers and promoters who broke this taboo soon found themselves on the outside looking in. Wrestling for Sandow was "worked," not crooked.   

While a good thing can’t be expected to last forever, the way in which the Gold Dust trio’s empire dissolved was positively ludicrous. A power struggle developed between Toots and Sandow’s brother Max that quickly led into a "him or me" demand by Mondt. To Mondt’s surprise, Sandow chose his brother and Toots was out in the cold - but not for long. He soon hooked up with Philadelphia impresario Ray Fabiani. Fabiani, one of the promoters who had to accept whatever he was given during the glory days of the Gold Dust Trio, snapped at the chance to be Mondt’s partner.  Mondt for his part chose Fabiani because of his political connections in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The new combination wasted no time in choosing their new titleholder, Dick Shikat, a former circus strongman originally from Germany. When they determined Shikat’s reign as champion had run his course, they made Jim Londos the new champ and struck it rich as Londos became wrestling’s first matinee idol. Sandow and Lewis, on the other hand, allied themselves with Paul Bowser of Boston and put over another ex-college football player, Gus Sonnenberg, as their new champion. This partnership would end in 1931 when Bowser pulled the rug out from his partners in putting Henri DeGlane over on Lewis as champ in a crooked bout. Lewis and Sandow went into eclipse while Mondt’s star continued its rise.
With the immensely popular Londos as champ, Mondt and Fabiani consolidated their hold on the Northeast. From their base in Philadelphia, they moved north to New York City and Hartford, and south to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. This is as far as Toots wished to expand; he had seen the pitfalls of a national operation from being involved with Lewis and Sandow. New York City was the toughest market to crack, controlled for many years by the formidable Jack Curley, who could often call on help from Bowser in Boston. Bowser, who did not like the fact the Mondt and Fabiani were invading his New England territory, gave Curley as much help as he could in repelling the invaders from Philadelphia.

For their part, Mondt and Fabiani had help in the form of Rudy Dusek, Jack Pfeffer, the Johnston Brothers, and Jess McMahon, who worked for the noted boxing promoter Tex Rickard. (Rickard, who despised wrestling, kept the game out of Madison Square Garden from 1939-48, claiming low attendance as the reason.) But the man who ultimately helped Toots triumph in the Big Apple was none other than Bernarr McFadden. McFadden, a physical culturalist and former wrestler turned millionaire cum philanthropist. In the Twenties, McFadden opposed the Gold Dust Trio, but different times bring different attitudes. Nursing a grudge against Curley, McFadden bankrolled Mondt’s invasion of New York. By the early Forties, Curley’s organization was gone and Toots reigned supreme.     

Wrestling enjoyed a boom after World War II and Toots rode the cash wave along with everyone else. The popularity of Gorgeous George, combined with a new regime at Madison Square Garden, led to the return of wrestling in the arena in 1948. The main event that night saw Gorgeous George use his flying side headlock to defeat Ernie Dusek. But the attendance was not what the promoters expected. Toots quickly saw that salad days were upon him once again, but if the green was to continue to be a part of that salad, he would need a box office draw in the style of Londos. Mondt had already signed the giant ex-boxing champion, Primo Carnera and taught him the not-so-fine art of pro wrestling. Carnera, however, was never really over with New Yorkers, having left a bad taste in their mouths when he was Boxing’s Heavyweight Champion, with a little help from his friends Owney Madden and Lucky Luciano. 

Toots needed a fresh face, yet an ethnic one for the East Coast fans. He found just that in 1948 when he pried Antonino Rocca away from his manager Kola Kwaraini. Rocca proved to be a gold mine for Mondt, bringing the customers back time and again. Taking note that more and more Latinos were in attendance, Mondt brought in new faces such as Miguel Perez to keep them happy. But in all the expansion he forgot to keep Rocca happy and that would come back to haunt him.
Rocca, miffed at the lack of attention and always on the lookout for a better financial deal, sided with Vince McMahon in a palace coup of sorts and overthrew Mondt as the lead man in the promotion. Mondt’s fate was sealed when lead partner Fabiani gave his blessing to the re-organization. Mondt had earlier alienated Fabiani when he, through some sort of misunderstanding, sold half the promotion to Pedro Martinez, ostensibly to settle gambling debts. When Martinez came to New York to collect, Mondt denied the whole thing. At which time Pedro decked Toots in full view of wrestlers and press in the dressing room. Martinez was eventually satisfied financially, but would hold a grudge against Fabiani and McMahon the rest of his life.
Now out of power, Toots became an aide-de-camp to the reorganized promotion. He still had influence among his fellow promoters, though, and used it to put Buddy Rogers over as NWA champ in 1961. That was to be Tootsie’s last hurrah, however. He was never really enthused about leaving the NWA to form the WWWF, and though he was an early supporter of the young Bruno Sammartino, preferring him to as Rogers, he no longer packed the power to see it through. After a couple of years booking angles for the new promotion, Toots retired to St. Louis, where he lived out the rest of his years in a peaceful retirement. When he passed from this earth in 1976, most wrestling fans had little or no idea who he was, but it was Toots who made the show possible.

(The Phantom would like to give a tip of the hood to Mark S. Hewitt of Mat Marketplace for information concerning Mondt’s early years.) 

This article is Copyright © 1997, 2001 Wrestling Perspective

Footnotes/Endnotes for this article should read as follows: 

The Phantom of the Ring, "The Founding Father," Wrestling Perspective,
Volume VIII, Number 68, (1997): 9 - 11.

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