By Tim Hornbaker
Evan Lewis was the fourth child born to William and Elizabeth Lewis of Ridgeway, Iowa County,
Wisconsin, on May 24, 1860, after brothers William, Thomas, and John. His father was born in
Wales around 1822, while his mother was born and reared in England, born in 1829. The Lewis’
s had a large family, elevan children born between 1849 and 1871, and William Sr. worked as a
farmer. Evan’s father died during the 1870s, and by 1880, Evan himself had moved out of his
family’s quarters, and had set out on his own. Standing a little above 5’9” and weighing between
180-195 pounds, Evan ventured to Butte, Montana to work as a miner in the Star West mine, and
wrestled locals in his free time.
Nicknamed “Badger Boy,” young Lewis quickly made a name for himself, and had size
advantage over most of his other competitors. He entered a Cornish-style wrestling tournament
in Butte in May 1882. On May 24, he was defeated by Edwin Edwards, whom he outweighed by
16 pounds. Edwards won a tough match, and the loss proved to Evan that he had not yet
mastered wrestling under the rules of the Cornish-style. In a rematch with Edwards on June 25,
Lewis beat his opponent with two-straight falls, taking the first in the catch-style, and the second
in the Cornish-style. Lewis would be regarded as the Montana State Champion. Interestingly
enough, a story was printed in the August 9, 1882 edition of the Daily Miner, Butte, Montana,
stating that “Evan Lewis” had suffered injuries in a explosion while working in the mines. Whether
this was the champion wrestler, it is not known.
In 1883, Lewis won a claim to the Wisconsin State Championship, but that October 10 in
Darlington, he was defeated by a rival claimant, Jack Carkeek. As catch-as-catch-can wrestling
took the interest of wrestling fans in America, Lewis rode the wave, and with unparalleled
athleticism and strength, dominated the competition. In 1885, he beat James Faulkner, Charles
Moth, Andre Christol, and Tom Cannon, staging most of his major contests out of Madison,
Wisconsin. By the end of the year, a match with Matsada Sorakichi was on the schedule for
January 28, 1886 at the Central Music Hall in Chicago.
The winner of Lewis-Sorakichi bout would receive 75 percent of the gate and the $500 side bet
with the rules following the catch-as-catch-can style only. With an advantage of 26 pounds,
Lewis was heavily favored to win the bout. Evan took the initial fall in only 2:05, dominating with
his quickness and strength. The match got rough during the second fall, and after a move by
Sorakichi that sent Lewis into a set of chairs was deemed accidental, Evan retialiated, hurling his
opponent into the same location. The referee disqualified him for the move, paving the way for
the third fall. Lewis dove at Matsada and grabbed a neckhold that he had used earlier in the
match, but this time forced Sorakichi into submission. Newspapers reported that Sorakichi’s face
had almost turned black under the power of Lewis’s neckhold, otherwise known as the strangle-
hold. Matsada protested the move, and gave up the remaining falls, forfeiting the match.
Several weeks later, Lewis and Sorakichi were booked to wrestle again, this time on February
15, 1886 at the Music Hall in Chicago. 3,000 fans attended the match, hoping to see a well-
rounded and competitive affair. They received something else entirely. Lewis and Sorakichi
shook hands to begin the match, and after the passing of a minute, the latter was incapacitated,
suffering from a broken left ankle. Lewis had attacked Matsada violently, and purposely twisted
his ankle until he had him unable to continue. Sorakichi gave up the match, and the Chicago
audience voiced their disapproval.
Between his use of the stranglehold and the delibrate destruction of a fellow wrestler, Evan
Lewis was the most talked about grappler in the business. He had a number of financial backers,
including Parson Davies of Chicago, lining up matches against opponents across the country,
and it seemed that Evan’s own confidence grew. Lewis was a grappler to be feared, and his
reputation was preceeding him into every bout he took. Some considered his warfare “dirty,”
while at the same time ticket sales to see him remained high. Challenges quickly went out to
Colonel McLaughlin, William Muldoon, Tom Cannon, Jack Carkeek, and Joe Acton.
Drawing an estimated 2,000 to the Battery D Armory in Chicago on June 28, 1886, Lewis faced
off with Muldoon in a Graeco-Roman match with Duncan Ross serving as the referee. Lewis won
the first fall with help of his strangle-hold in 2:30, but dropped the second after a little more than
30-minutes. Shockingly, Muldoon, before the third fall began, declared that he could not go on
any further, and Lewis won the bout by forfeit. On August 26 in Cincinnati, Evan beat Cannon in
the second stanza after losing the first, using his stranglehold to nearly kill his opponent.
Cannon was unable to continue the match. By this time, newspapers had grown accustom to
calling Lewis the “Strangler,” a tag that would forever stick.
Acton was generally recognized as the catch-as-catch-can champion of the United States. The
managers of Acton and Lewis negotiated the details for a match, and everything fell in line for a
bout on February 7, 1887 at Chicago’s Battery D Armory. In a match regenerating interest in the
sport, Lewis was defeated by Acton with high drama and controversey. Acton captured the first,
third and fourth falls to win 75 percent of the gate, and although some called their match “fake,”
and thought that the bout had been predetermined behind-the-scenes, it received high credits
for being exciting and giving the fans what they wanted to see. On March 3 in Milwaukee, Lewis
extracted some revenge from Carkeek, winning three-straight falls, the second by forfeit.
The anticipated rematch between Lewis and Acton occurred on April 11, 1887 in Chicago at the
Music Hall. In his corner, Lewis had his friends Carkeek, trainer John Kline, and Davies handling
the money. Acton took the first fall, but Evan returned to take the second, third and fourth,
capturing the American catch-as-catch-can championship.
Lewis’s run as champion ended on June 13, 1887 in Pittsburgh. That night, he competed with
Tom Connors of England at the Grand Central Rink, and an estimated 3,000 fans were in
attendance. There was a massive size difference between the competitors, although Lewis
reportedly weighed only 173, 12 pounds lighter than his regular weight. Everything seemed to
favor the “Strangler” going into the match. To combat the stranglehold, Connors went after Lewis’
s fingers, nearly breaking them until Evan gave up the move. Connors inflicted a fierce headbutt
during the first fall, causing severe damage to the left side of Lewis’s face. Blood blinded the
defending champion. The match was halted, but the referee Fred Goodwyn decided not to
award either a fall. Once the match was resumed, Connors was caught in the stranglehold again,
and this time he chose to butt Lewis again. He was disqualified for the first official fall.
Establishing himself as the quicker of the two, Connors pinned Lewis for the second fall in 3-
minutes. In the third, Lewis was disqualified for an illegal strangle, and Connors was declared the
Davies lost a bundle of money on the match, and Lewis’s obvious size advantages were for
naught. The bout was a violent, bloody affair, and America had crowned an English-born
grappler champion. With a signed rematch nearing with Connors, Lewis became ill in December
1887, cancelling out the planned duel. He was under the care of Dr. W.W. Gill in Madison.
During the first few months of 1888, Lewis toured on a Davies-sponsored circuit along with
Muldoon, as attempts to get him rematched with Connors for Chicago failed to materialize.
Davies knew that Lewis was not done making money at the box office, and not before long, Evan
was being referred to as the American catch-as-catch-can champion once again, although it was
not an undisputed claim. Parson needed his famed “Strangler” to be a champion, and was not
going to be held up by Connors and his management team. It was time for Evan Lewis to
become World Champion.
In control of the promotions, Davies brought in a veteran English wrestler-boxer named Jack
Wannop, who had a exceptionally loose claim to the English Title, and booked him into a contest
with Lewis for the “World” Championship on May 7, 1888 in Chicago at the Battery D Armory.
Wannop was a team player, trained with Lewis’s pal Kline in Beloit, Wisconsin, and didn’t pose
the same dangers Connors had. This was the match Davies wanted to present, a match between
two wrestlers representing rival countries, and the winner being proclaimed the heavyweight
champion of the world.
Many knew already that Wannop stood no chance against Lewis, but the build up was
successful, and the match had the feel as being something out of the norm. Under catch-as-
catch-can rules and for a $1,000 side bet, Lewis and Wannop battled for superiority. The
contest was all one sided, and Lewis won three-straight falls in less than 15 minutes before
nearly 3,000 people. A strong rumor circulated that Wannop was drinking heavily before the
match, backed by citizens who saw him in nearby bars. It was also 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. Davies had been successful in getting Lewis the World Championship in the
catch-style, and Evan was regarded as the number one wrestler from the United States.
In July 1888, Lewis was arrested for alleged illegitimate parentage by Annie Smith of Madison,
who brought a $25,000 suit against the champion wrestler for “breach of promise.” The
negotiations between Davies and Connors’ backers was never ending, and even though match
dates were set, no match would take place. These talks would continue off and on through 1891
without a resolution. In June 1889, Evan lost a mixed-style bout to Duncan McMillan in Milwaukee.
After battling off influenza, Lewis shinned during Davies’ tournament in Chicago in February
1891, then toured the United States with Carkeek staging performance bouts. In October of that
year, he suffered injuries at his home in Wisconsin, again, keeping him off the mat for an
extended period of time. It wasn’t until March of 1893 that another important contest was staged
with the famed “Strangler” on the bill. The Olympic Club of New Orleans signed Graeco-Roman
Champion Ernest Roeber to face off with Lewis in a mixed-style match on March 2, 1893.
Unfortunately for the promoters, and the wrestlers themselves, Lewis and Roeber’s match was
not as successful as previous high-profile matches staged in either Chicago or New York City. A
small crowd attended the program. Lewis won the first fall, catch-as-catch-can, in 7:56, but
Roeber won the second, Graeco-Roman, in 28:12. The third ended with a fall for Lewis in the
catch-style, at the 12:09 mark, but, once again, Roeber won his favorite style in 24:43. Evan won
the fifth fall, and the match, in the catch-style in 1:03. He was considered the catch and mixed-
In November 1893, Lewis engaged a long series of matches with Duncan C. Ross in mixed
contests in Chicago, then beat Charles Wittmer on November 26 in Cincinnati. He fell ill again
during the winter of 1894, and had a bad falling out with Parson Davies. As Lewis was on his way
to retirement, there was another able-bodied, American-born catch superstar on the horizon. His
name was Martin “Farmer” Burns of Iowa. Burns “chased” Lewis for months, requesting and
demanding a match. The bout was signed for April 7, 1894 in Chicago, best three-of-five falls,
catch-as-catch-can rules. Two weeks after the agreement was made, the bout was cancelled.
On April 21, 1894 in Cincinnati, Wittmer beat Lewis in a rematch in the Graeco-Roman style.
Late in April 1894, Lewis became ill with consumption and was reportedly near death. He
recovered, and worked his way back into shape for the match of a lifetime. On Saturday, April
20, 1895, Lewis wrestled Farmer Burns at the Second Regiment Armory in Chicago, and an
estimated 3,000 fans were in attendance. The purse was $2,000, best-of-five falls, catch rules.
Lewis won the first fall in 15-minutes, lost the second in 25-minutes, and then took the third in 22:
08. Burns then returned to win the fourth in 1-minute, and then the deciding fall in 10:08,
capturing the catch-as-catch-can World Heavyweight Title. The bout was riddled with
accusations of not being on the level.
Lewis remained semi-active in wrestling over the next four years, even losing to the original
Terrible Turk on June 20, 1898 in Chicago. He worked with and trained Fred Beell of Marshfield,
a future American Champion. Outside of wrestling, he farmed, owned property, and was a civic
leader in Ridgeway. Evan “Strangler” Lewis died on November 3, 1919 near Dodgeville at the
age of 59.
|Evan "Strangler" Lewis Wrestling History