Joe Stecher's version of professional wrestling predated bodybuilders, alter egos and colorful costumes. It wasn't jumping off the top rope or smacking opponents with folding chairs.
It was down-in-the-dirt, twist-and-turn-until-exhaustion sport at its toughest. Stecher learned wrestling on his farm north of Dodge, Nebraska. He strengthened his legs by throwing his thighs around grain sacks and squeezing. When they burst, he moved on to pigs. Then mules.
No wonder Stecher's signature move became the leg scissors.
Stecher won the world championship on July 5, 1915, in Omaha, beating Charlie Cutler in two falls at Rourke Park in front of 15,000 fans.
Said retired wrestling legend Frank Gotch: "Stecher is the wrestling problem of the world, an incomparable performer and can beat any man in the world but me. His tactics are really different from those of any of the great wrestlers."
Said World-Herald sports editor Sandy Griswold: "Joe Stecker (sic) is a Hercules, an Ajax, and an Atlas, all bound up in one — an athlete without an equal or a peer, and the unquestioned champion wrestler of the world, we have done our duty. And more than that, Joe Stecker (sic) today is the biggest sporting card in the world, a man whose name is to go thundering down through the corridors of time, a man whose very name is soon to be a household word."
Stecher wore a championship belt studded with 308 diamonds. He became a celebrity across Nebraska. In 1920, he reportedly earned a winner’s purse of $40,000 — four times what Babe Ruth earned the year before.
Through '28, Stecher was one of the greatest wrestlers in the world, holding the title cumulatively for more than five years.
Unfortunately, he did not retire a hero in Nebraska. Stecher suffered from depression and spent almost 40 years in Veteran's Hospital in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He died there in 1974.
Stecher didn't go down in wrestling history as an icon like Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Gorgeous George or Hulk Hogan. But technically, he was one of the all-time greatest.
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Best athlete from Nebraska played with or against: Ravenna’s John Pesek was one year younger than Stecher. Pesek, nicknamed “Tiger Man,” was known for his brute strength and acrobatics — he was a circus performer growing up. In San Francisco, Pesek famously laid down in the street as a car passed over his stomach. He showed no harm. He and Stecher battled many times. Pesek became world champion in 1937.
Best moment: Stecher won the world championship three times, but it’s hard to beat the first, in Omaha on July 5, 1915, before his adoring fans. Stecher twice beat world champion Charlie Cutler using his signature scissors hold.
Early sign of greatness: Stecher and his older brother worked for a farmer near Atlantic, Iowa, when he dueled the top local wrestler and future world champion, Earl Caddock. Stecher, barely 19, won the match in a barn, earning $3.80.