Thanks to state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser's alleged injudicious use of his hands on the neck of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, the Badger State is in headlines everywhere like the one recently posted on The Atlantic magazine's website: "The Latest on the Wisconsin Chokehold."
Somewhere, Evan Lewis is gagging.
He knew that a chokehold was unworthy of the name unless it left the victim unconscious and/or spitting up blood. A native of Ridgeway, in Iowa County, more than 125 years ago Lewis was the first Wisconsinite identified with that maneuver, and his use of it made him the most famous and feared wrestler in the world. It gave him his nickname:
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Lewis "made no bones about his method," said The Ring magazine in 1930, "which was to get an arm about the throat of an opponent and choke him until he whispered 'enough' or was unable to whisper anything."
That's how wrestling was in the 1880s, under the no-holds-barred style the Chicago Tribune called at the time "one of the cruelest forms of sport permitted in any civilized community. The breaking of a leg, the crushing in of the ribs, the slow torture of tearing a limb from its socket is permissible and constitutional."
When he could talk again after Lewis choked him into submission in Madison in 1885, French wrestling champion Andre Christol sputtered that "in all his 24 years of wrestling he had never encountered such a man."
Lewis's most famous matches were against a Japanese grappler named Matsada Sorakichi, known in that very politically incorrect time as "The Jap." He had his own specialty on the mat, which was to ram his head into the ribs of his opponents. In their first match in Chicago on January 27, 1886, Sorakichi surrendered when The Strangler choked him until the blood flowed, and afterwards challenged Lewis to a rematch in which the chokehold would not be allowed.
When Lewis agreed, The Jap made sure he understood the conditions: "You choke me, I shoot you."
"I will not choke you this time," promised Lewis, "but I will screw your leg off."
Which is pretty much what happened at the February 15 rematch in Chicago, won by Lewis. The result even made the front page of the New York Times, whose correspondent interviewed Sorakichi in his bed after the match, "unable to turn on either side, his features distorted with pain," as the Japanese wrestler "in broken English attempted to describe how Lewis had tried 'to breakee the leg like a stick.'"
Lewis beat most of the renowned wrestlers of his time, and though the strangle hold was barred in the match he still defeated Ernest Roeber in New Orleans on March 2, 1893 for the championship of the world.
After he lost the title to Martin "Farmer" Burns on April 20, 1895, Lewis retired from the mat and got into politics in Ridgeway, serving on the town board. He was a Democrat, and at party caucuses he was appointed to keep delegates from getting out of line and choking one-another.
He died of cancer on Nov. 3, 1919, at age 59. By then there was another famous Strangler Lewis, a man born Robert Friedrich in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, who adopted the name when he took up wrestling and who became recognized as heavyweight champion. His specialty was actually a headlock.
According to a long-ago article about the original Strangler Lewis in the Chicago Herald, "Off the stage (he) is quiet, modest and unassuming. There is no braggadocio about him and no evidence of any unnatural ferocity, but the moment he faces an opponent his whole nature seems to change and no one can control him in the least."
Sounds just like some of our state Supreme Court Justices today.