By Tim Hornbaker
Going back to the 1800s, there were organized syndicates in professional wrestling. These cliques
were usually made up of allied promoters in various cities, and a troupe of different wrestlers who
battled within the protected walls of the group. By the 1920s and '30s, these alliances were much
more defined and organized, and extended from coast-to-coast. And by the time the National
Wrestling Alliance was formed, booking agents in wrestling were the ones in control, and teamed
with their fellow associates to dominate all aspects of the sport.
These types of promoter unions were significant during the era of Frank Gotch. Along with Farmer
Burns, other organizers in the Midwest, and a group of wrestlers, Gotch created a syndicate of
sorts that built up challengers to his heavyweight championship. They would then go out on the
road and sell their feud to the public, almost always fighting from within their troupe. Before he'd
arrive in a particular town, his ready-made challenger had gotten good publicity, won a series of
matches, and been hyped as a potential champion, building up the house for his bout with Gotch.
Then Gotch would come in and squash his opponent, displaying his mastery.
It was an organized system that worked real well for Gotch and his partners. These successful
aspects of professional wrestling are still a debatable topic, and there are historians that do not
believe everything was prearranged well in advance. Gotch tweaked the different gimmicks from
time to time, and used handicap matches (where he'd lose by failing to throw an opponent within a
set time-frame) to heighten the drama. His loss to Fred Beell was also a major cog in the entire
ploy, proving that he was, in fact, beatable. It kept the public thinking every time he went to the mat
against a solid opponent. Maybe, just maybe, another Beell would come along and pin him.
Outside of the Gotch-Burns group, there were other great minds actively searching for gold in the
wrestling business. Jack Curley had been itching for years to break into the big-time and was
beginning to branch out. In early 1909, he united with a number of other promoters to establish
the Empire Athletic Association. This new combine was made up of organizers behind the major
Empire Athletic Clubs already running high caliber wrestling and boxing promotions across the
nation. According to the February 2, 1909 Montreal Gazette, this new group was created "for the
good of the mat game."
That was the same reasoning the National Wrestling Alliance used in 1948. The Empire Athletic
Association "controls the leading wrestling clubs in America and a mat artist barred from the
organization for wrongdoing can find himself unable to find bouts to pay him," the article noted.
Adopting formulas to cast out rogue wrestlers was a tool many promoters used throughout history,
and again, the NWA did the same thing. At that time, however, it was called blacklisting, and was a
weapon in the Alliance's monopolistic arsenal.
On January 31, 1909, Curley went to Cincinnati to meet with other members of the E.A.A.. The
combine consisted of W.D. Scoville of Kansas City, who promoted the Gotch-Beell title rematch in
December 1906, Joe Coffey of Chicago, Sandy Griswold of Omaha, Earl Ruben of Des Moines,
and George Kennedy of Montreal. Each were matchmakers in their individual cities and powerful
guys within the business.
Just how powerful? It is my contention that the members of the Empire Athletic Association
managed 90% of the top wrestling talent between 1909 and probably 1915-'16. The few they
didn't control were segregated and later would be known as "trustbusters," although Curley denied
the E.A.A. was a "trust." Please note that this was right before Billy Sandow was piloting Ed
"Strangler" Lewis and Tony Stecher managing his brother Joe to the top of the sport.
Nothing in wrestling during this time-frame was black and white. Everything had edges, particularly
the recognition and billing of champions and the alliances between promoters and wrestlers. The
only definite thing was that Gotch was the universally accepted heavyweight champion of the
world. All others advertising themselves as "American" champ, and there were many guys doing
so, were all secondary to him.
To make money in the business, wrestlers of all skill sets had to abandon their hopes for shooting
their way through the ranks, and conform to the established rules. That included George
Hackenschmidt, Stanislaus Zbyszko, and other foreign wrestlers to venture to the United States
seeking fame and fortune. Those matches between untrustworthy adversaries were definitely
shoots and handled that way, and there were occasions in which wrestlers had to defend
themselves and their reputations in real matches - not performances.
But once a wrestler was known as a guy who wasn't playing by the rules, regardless of his talent,
he was tossed to the wolves, and any dreams of making big money in the Gotch or Curley
syndicates were gone.
The leading heavyweights during this period were in it for financial gain, plain and simple. Even
Gotch was demanding big paydays for appearances, upwards of $21,000 for the second
Hackenschmidt bout. If purported championship claims, saying that Gotch proclaimed them his
successor, and other gimmicks were needed to draw people to arenas, so be it. These were all
practiced trades in a crazy business. All the stops were pulled out to get people excited about the
next major show.
One has to wonder whether or not Gotch received financial kickbacks from the men he promoted to
be his successors after his multiple retirements. After all, he was hanging up his wrestling gear
and publicly backing a wrestler, and in those days, Gotch's word was immensely valuable. It
wouldn't be too crazy to learn that Gotch made money on the side from Charles Cutler and
The basic strategy for the members of the E.A.A. was to bolster the credibility of their name
wrestlers, and at the same time, strengthen their secondary players to create interesting
match-ups around the nation. When it came time to push toward a truly special event, the
promoters and managers went to the extremes to achieve maximum payoff.
In assessing the supremacy of the Empire Athletic Association as a syndicate, take a look at the
following list and their connections to the organization:
Charlie Cutler - Managed by Joe Coffey
Dr. Roller - Managed by Jack Curley
Americus - Managed by Jack Curley
George Hackenschmidt - Managed by Jack Curley (1910-'11)
George Lurich - Managed by Jack Curley
Henry Ordemann - "Managed by" Frank Gotch, Farmer Burns
Jess Reimer (Westergaard) - "Managed by" Frank Gotch, Farmer Burns
Fred Beell - "Managed by" Frank Gotch, Farmer Burns
Raoul de Rouen - Managed by George Kennedy
These were the biggest names in the business, and many of them were title claimants of some kind
at one juncture or another. Stanislaus Zbyszko, managed by Jack Herman, went from being an
outsider who wanted to wrestle in the shoot-style to being a compatible worker. Zbyszko beat
Cutler, Roller, Reimer, Ordemann, Beell, and Americus, and Herman worked closely with both
Curley and Coffey in Chicago. Charles Olsen, William Demetral and Adolph Ernst (Ad Santel) were
three other name grapplers for the syndicate.
All of this being said, you have to look at the championship aspirations of anyone claiming to be
the American or World Heavyweight champion in the aftermath of any of Gotch's retirements, a little
differently. Knowing the connections of these individuals through their management and the
motivations of the overall Association, you can see that everything was tied together and running in
an extraordinarily loose way. All of these players were making money together and performing a
role in the overall scheme. Business was business.
But for title history junkies, the flat lineage will remain ever so important. Does it hurt the
examination of these championships to know that every claim and every so-called champion,
regardless of their basis, was created by this syndicate to bolster the drawing ability of their
charges - and not done for any legitimate reason other than that? It was possible to actually bill
two wrestlers as the "American" champion in two different cities all with the intent of drawing larger
For the record, the American championship can be traced in a fairly roundabout way from October
1910 when Ordemann beat Cutler through the summer of 1914. Of course, all title holders had
connections to the E.A.A.
Researchers won't find many mentions of the "Empire Athletic Association" in the press, and
perhaps the organization founded in early 1909 with Jack Curley as secretary, formally dissolved
on paper. On the other hand, extended publicity about a unified group of promoters/managers
and an examination of their wide reaching interests may have been a topic better kept quiet. And it
The tentacles of this syndicate were stunning and as time goes by, we will continue to assess its
power structure and overall affect on the business because it really was a dominant force during
one of wrestling's most heralded eras.
|The Empire Athletic Association: Secretly Ruling Pro Wrestling?