A comprehensive article written by Mark Hewitt
IRISH PAT MCGILL: CATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN WRESTLER AND OLD-TIME “SHOOTER”
Early 20th century Nebraska produced some of the toughest catch-as-catch-can wrestlers that ever trod this earth. Joe Stecher and Tigerman John Pesek both come to mind. But one of their contemporaries “Irish” Pat McGill deserves recognition as well.
McGill was born in 1896 to a Wisner, NE farming family. He was the grandson of Irish immigrants. They were cattle ranchers and raised corn and alfalfa. Wrestling and rough-and-tumble fighting were favorite pastimes in the rural Nebraskan communities. Pat became adept at the rough-house scuffling that always accompanied harvest time as the local farmers and the itinerant threshing crews gathered the crops. Wrestling bouts were also held as part of agricultural fairs and July 4th celebrations. While still a teenager, McGill began competing for prize-money and side bets.
His first big contest was in 1915, when at just 165-pounds, he soundly defeated Art Dodd, “the king of the fields.” McGill was next matched up against professional heavyweight Cal Woods. The seasoned pro agreed to face his young challenger in a handicap bout, but was unable to gain a single fall against him. As McGill’s reputation continued growing, he traveled to Omaha, some 90 miles away, to train with the famous Farmer Burns. A return match was arranged with Woods and this time McGill won a decisive victory. The farm boy took home $1250 in side bet money. Dr. O.O. Persons of Wisner began acting as Pat’s manager and he wrestled all over Nebraska and Iowa, meeting other local prides in money matches. His younger brother Jack, a welterweight, also made the rounds and took on the lighter opponents. In addition, Pat coached a team of grapplers, including two of his other brothers, and entered them in the popular amateur wrestling tournaments held around Nebraska.
McGill was heralded as the “Wisner Wrestling Wonder.” His hometown backers were ready to put their money on the line whenever Pat stepped out on the mat. Promoters Ernie Holmes of Omaha and Charley Moon of Lincoln saw a chance to clean up what they thought would be easy pickings. They recruited Paul Bowser, a skilled pro from Newark, OH, as a ringer under the name Bob Watson and challenged the Wisner Wonder to a side bet contest. The match was arranged for February 1, 1921 in Tekuma, NE. The McGill camp made one stipulation, that being moving the weight limit up to 178-pounds, rather than the generally accepted light-heavyweight poundage of 175-lbs. Pat was not only growing in skill, but in size.
Holmes and Moon spread the word among the sporting crowd about the upcoming contest and that the “hayseed” Wisner farmers were “ripe for the plucking.” Each camp posted $1,000 as the stake money. Wrestlers, sportsmen and gamblers flooded the town of Tekuma; with “Watson” as a 5-3 betting favorite. McGill weighed in at 176, his opponent tipped the beam at 174. To the dismay of the “wiseguys” and the delight of his backers, McGill won two straight falls in a total time of twenty-three minutes. The Wisner boy used a body scissors and half Nelson to pin the ringer for both falls. Holmes, Moon, wrestlers Joe and Tony Stecher, Jimmy Londos, Chief Montour, and Adam Krieger all lost bundles betting on Bowser. Paul Bowser had wagered everything he had on himself and had to borrow enough cash to get home. Bowser later planted his roots in Boston and became one of the biggest promoters in the country. Londos was thoroughly impressed with McGill’s showing and suggested that he be pitted against light-heavyweight title claimant Clarence Eklund of Buffalo, WY.
The up-and-coming grappler came to the attention of Gene Melady and in March of 1921 he signed him to a contract. Melady was a wealthy Omaha livestock broker and well-known sporting man. He had played football for Notre Dame and had done some amateur boxing, but was best known as the manager of former world heavyweight wrestling champion Earl Caddock. Melady wasted no time in getting his latest charge on the mat and set up a bout for him with Stecher protégé Joe Stangle in Omaha. Stangle, 191 ½ pounds, went down in defeat in two straight falls. The McGill camp and his backers cleaned up in the heavy betting that accompanied the match. Pat worried Stangle with hammerlocks, brought him to the ground, and used a head scissors and wristlock to leverage his shoulders flat on the canvas. Stangle’s manager Charley Loch wasn’t convinced of McGill’s superiority and promptly challenged for a rematch.
The “Wisner Wonder,” now 185-lbs. and standing six feet tall faced local prides and “ringers from all over the country.” A rare loss was handed to him in Creston, IA by none other than Rudy Hason, later known as Rudy Dusek. Among those McGill defeated were Big Bill Dristy, Stecher protégé Joseph Vrba, and wrestling police officer Roy Gillis.
In July of 1921, Holmes matched up McGill with a well-known Kentucky deaf mute grappler called Silent Olsen. Olsen put up $500 of his own money as a side bet. The Omaha Daily Bee noted that “nearly the entire population of Wisner” descended on Omaha to support their hero. McGill turned back Olsen’s challenge and took two straight falls, utilizing a head scissors and arm lock both times.
Lincoln promoter Moon was working to pull off a McGill/Eklund contest. McGill hit Harlan, IA to battle their local star, the lanky Fred Grubmeier. Dubbed “the Iowa Cornstalk”, Grubmeier weighed 180-pounds and measured 6’3”. He was notorious for beating unsuspecting traveling professionals, as his tall, skinny appearance belied the fact that he could wrestle to beat the band. Grubmeier continued on to a long pro wrestling career and even helped train “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Grubmeier couldn’t get past the Wisner boy. McGill slammed him hard after an hour and ten minutes of grueling combat, knocking him out and leaving him unable to continue. The bout was described as “a sensational match.”
In the meantime, Farmer Burns had developed another young wrestler and was heralding him as “a second Frank Gotch.” The grappler’s name was Charley Hanson. J.W. “Doc” Elwood, rich Omaha sportsman, took over managing Hanson and arranging bouts for him. Elwood posted a $1000 certified check to bind a match for Hanson with either of Melady’s boys, McGill or Caddock. Elwood left it up to Melady to choose which one would meet the challenge.
But first Melady and McGill would deal with Clarence Eklund. Eklund was said to be like the thirteen on dice, “he couldn’t be thrown.” The contest was arranged for January 22, 1922 at the City Auditorium in Lincoln. Eklund went into serious training with John Pesek.
At the Wisner youth’s insistence, the bout was held at catchweights, thus the light-heavyweight title was not officially on the line. Eklund always demanded that a strict 175-pound weight limit be enforced for a light-heavy championship go. Further they agreed to wrestle under a winner-take-all proposition. Holmes handled the referee chores. Pesek, Stecher and Hanson were seated at ringside. Despite Ek’s record and reputation, oddsmakers favored the “Wisner Wonder.”
Ek’s weight was announced as 177 pounds. McGill came in at 183 ½ pounds. At the call of time, Eklund, the seasoned mat man, was the aggressor. He took McGill’s back almost at will, but couldn’t do much with him. He attempted two toe holds, but was unable to cinch them up. The powerful youth was able to power his way loose from Eklund’s grips. McGill had come into the match with a bruised and swollen nose. Eklund honed in on the tender spot, causing the Wisner farm boy considerable discomfort. Having enough of Ek’s manhandling and tired of being the under man, McGill went on the offensive. Like a flash, he tore into his adversary. Eklund met the attack head-on but was unexpectedly caught with a head scissors/wristlock combination and pinned. The time was seventeen minutes, ten seconds. Eklund had McGill down on the mat, and was setting up a bar arm, when McGill rolled out, flung his legs around Ek’s head, and seized one arm. He tightened the vice-like grips and slowly leveraged the champ’s shoulders to the mat.
McGill proceeded to win the 2nd fall in 24-minutes and eleven seconds with a half Nelson and bar arm. Defeating Eklund was McGill’s biggest achievement thus far. Holmes commented, “Pat is a fine wrestler...quick and wiry. He is too strong for the Wyoming man.” (Lincoln State Journal, 1/24/22) Though the victor, McGill didn’t leave the fray unscathed, suffering a torn ligament in one arm. Hanson and McGill had agreed to wrestle in Omaha on Feb. 18th, but the “Wisner Wonder” requested a postponement due to his injured limb. Elwood objected to the delay initially, accused Melady of sidestepping and withdrew his forfeit money. This was all typical of the bluster and ballyhoo that accompanied old-time professional wrestling. The rival camps finally agreed to reschedule the match for March 3rd. Bernie Boyle landed the job to promote the event.
Charley Hanson hailed from Minnesota and was of Swedish heritage. While homesteading in the Canadian wilderness, he had brought along a copy of Farmer Burns wrestling correspondence course and spent the winter studying it. It’s said that he practiced holds on table and chair legs. So serious was Hanson about pursuing grappling as a profession, that he journeyed down to Omaha and sought out Burns for first hand instructions. The old master saw tremendous potential in “the Minnesota Swede”, and took him under his wing. The duo headed up to Sioux Falls, SD and set up their base where Hanson knocked off one opponent after another. Hanson collected the scalps of former champ Charles “Kid” Cutler, Jack Sampson and Paul Martinson, among others. His only loss was to another Burns’ protégé Marin Plestina. Elwood took Hanson south to Nashville under the moniker Charley “Hammerlock” Whitlock of Birmingham, Alabama. The plan was to establish “Whitlock” as a local star and then lure in the current heavyweight champ Stanislaus Zbyszko for a match. The ringer beat opponent after opponent and finally a title match with Zibby was arranged for Dec. 12, 1921. “Whitlock” stayed on the defensive for nearly three hours and prevented Zbyszko from doing anything with him. The bout was stopped at midnight. He revealed his identity as Hanson and promptly challenged for a rematch. The news went out that an “unknown” down in Tennessee held off the world champion and completely frustrated his attempts to throw him.
The McGill/Hanson contest, though no title was at on the line, caught the interest of America’s sports fans. It was believed that a pair of legitimately tough wrestlers would “shoot” it out. The $2500 side bet and all the wrestler’s share of the gate would be awarded to the winner; not to mention the lively betting on the outcome. McGill was the favorite but by the time of the match wagers had shifted to even odds. Fans flocked to Omaha from all over. A who’s who list of leading pro wrestlers were in attendance, including the Stechers, Pesek, Santel, Eklund, Plestina, Jack Sherry, Mike Yokel and Jack Reynolds. In preparation, Hanson had trained with Sherry, and McGill went through the paces with Caddock. Referee Danny Ryan told the press, “Let the best man win.".
A 4-pm weigh-in was held on the day of the contest. McGill was 185 pounds, Hanson 195. Caddock seconded McGill, and Burns was in Hanson’s corner. A capacity crowd of 10,000 was on hand to witness the match. Omaha sports writer Sandy Griswold penned, “no match in the history of the game, save the now historical Joe Stecher-Charlie Cutler match, some seven years ago, ever had the state so wrought up as this one.” (Omaha World-Herald, 3/3/22) Recently adopted state rules called for a best two-out-of-three falls contest over a 2 ½ hour period. If no falls were obtained the competitors would be given an additional 25 minutes. If still no fall, the referee would render a decision based on points.
It was a tough struggle from the start with both men going for broke. Hanson showed that he could break McGill’s vaunted scissors holds. A sportswriter noted that Hanson “was the aggressor throughout the match, and only once did he allow the Wisner athlete to see his back.” (Omaha Evening Bee, 3/4/22) After one hour, 50-minutes and 23-seconds of combat, Hanson threw his opponent with a half Nelson and grapevine after breaking free from a McGill body scissors. They grappled furiously for the remaining allotted time, but neither man was able to pin the other. By virtue of that single fall won by Hanson, the match was awarded to the Farmer Burns protege. Sioux Falls promoter Bob Kennedy called it “the greatest match he ever saw.” Thousands and thousands of dollars changed hands on the result.
In his syndicated sports column Straight From The Shoulder, writer Frank Smith opined, “McGill has been touted as the real trial horse of the alleged trust, and young Hanson flopped said trial horse and thereby won a ton of money for his backers, for it was one of those antique matches in the wrestling game, a winner take all affair with a side bet of $2,500.” (Chicago Tribune, 3/8/22) Smith is alluding to this bout being a “money match” with both men legitimately competing; rather than the typical professional wrestling hippodrome bout.
On the same night in Wichita, KS, Ed “Strangler” Lewis reclaimed the heavyweight title from Zbyszko. Elwood immediately fired off a defi at the Strangler to meet Hanson, “winner-take-all, or any other way he wants to wrestle.” Anton Stecher sent a challenge to Hanson to face his brother Joe in Omaha for up to a $10,000 side bet. And, of course there was the inevitable talk of a rematch between McGill and Hanson. Melady attributed McGill’s loss to his shoulder injury suffered in his go with Eklund. Challenges and counter-challenges were flying in all directions.
Other than the ballyhoo, little is heard from Hanson or McGill over the next few months. A proposed bout between Joe Stecher and Hanson was planned for July 4th in Omaha but never materialized. As time approached for the annual Ak-Sar-Ben fair in Omaha, the organization attempted to include a Stecher versus Hanson match as part of the entertainment. The Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben Foundation was a philanthropic organization that was created to keep the Nebraska State Fair in the city of Omaha. “Ak-Sar-Ben” was “Nebraska spelled backwards. Omaha had a reputation as a “wide-open city” with its “saloons, gambling houses and honky tonks,” so a group of civic-minded Omahaians had banded together to clean things up with Ak-Sar-Ben.
Unable to bring Stecher and Hanson together, the fair planners shifted to a return bout between Hanson and McGill, slated for September 21, 1922 and began promoting it as one of the highlights of the upcoming fair. The event, a 12-day affair also included auto, harness and foot races, a carnival midway, parades and pageants. Though neither wrestler was hailed as a champion, both were Nebraska favorites and considered two of the top men in the heavyweight ranks. They set up training camps and went into serious preparation. An article in the Lincoln State Journal stated, “Nebraska has at this time three men who are contenders for the world’s championship wrestling title-Joe Stecher of Dodge, Pat McGill of Wisner, and Charlie Hanson of Omaha. In order to decide who of these three will advance up the ladder Ak-Sar-Ben will present...Charlie Hanson and Pat McGill in a finish wrestling match...a ‘survival of the fittest’ match and the purse is the smallest item at stake inasmuch as the man who wins is destined to meet the world’s best wrestlers and the loser will be out of the running.” (Lincoln State Journal, 9/10/22) A stipulation was added that if Hanson proved the victor again, he’d be given a match with Caddock within sixty days.
Hanson, billed as “Omaha’s Viking” worked out with Big Bill Dristy and brothers Rudy and Emil Hason (Dusek). The rivals were both well-trained and fully conditioned as the evening of their clash neared. Both were around 200-pounds, with Hanson a few pounds the heavier. McGill’s brother Jack appeared in the preliminary, wrestling Young Gotch to a thirty-minute draw. The other prelim was an 8-round boxing match between two local welterweights. Leo Shea refereed the main event,
Sports scribe Jimmie Baugh declared, “The game Pat McGill and the doughty Charlie Hanson put wrestling back on its feet in Nebraska last night when they staged one of the finest, most thrilling exhibitions ever witnessed in Omaha.” (Omaha Evening Bee, 9/22/22) Sandy Griswold called it “a square shooting match...one of the cleanest ever witnessed in this section of the globe.” (Omaha World-Herald, 9/22/22) Hanson repeated his previous triumph and threw McGill in two straight falls. Hanson used a half Nelson and bar arm to pin his rival at the one hour and five-minute mark. Following a short intermission, hostilities resumed and McGill made a valiant effort, plowing into Hanson. For the first time he got Hanson’s back, and briefly had the advantage. The “Omaha Viking” powered himself free and turned on the Wisner grappler. He encircled his arms around his torso and took him down to the mat, where he was pinned flat. Hanson had used a simple body hold to gain the second and winning fall. The time was 23-minutes. Evenly matched skill-wise, it was Charlie Hanson’s superior strength that carried the day. Griswold said that Hanson wrestled “with all the savagery of a South Sea man eater.” (i
Stecher and Pesek were among the large crowd who watched the battle, and the latter quipped afterwards that Hanson was “made to order” for him. (Omaha Evening Bee, 9/22/22) Shortly afterwards Pesek issued a formal challenge to Hanson to meet winner-take-all with up to a $5,000 side bet. McGill’s brother Jimmy quickly added a challenge to the mix on behalf of Pat to take on the winner of a Pesek versus Hanson match. It was said that Hanson ignored Pesek’s defi hoping to get a match with “bigger game.” Pesek, who was serving as the Lewis camp “policeman” at the time was anxious to get Hanson in the ring. By the end of the year, he had upped his challenge to take on Hanson, Stecher, and former Olympic medalist Nat Pendleton all on the same night. In February of 1923, it was announced that Hanson, though winning, had suffered a severe vertebra injury during the bout with McGill, that had only continued to get worse. It was even thought that he might never wrestle again.
Not much was heard from McGill for several months. He was reported, along with his brother Jack to have done some boxing in West Point, NE. In the fall he was back in active wrestling competition in Chicago and Kansas City, wrestling for Ed White. Hanson was said to have fully recovered and was planning a comeback. Billy Sandow, the enigmatic manager and trainer of Strangler Lewis bought McGill’s contract and added him to his troupe of bone-benders. McGill wrestled regularly on Sandow’s cards around the country, had numerous matches with Lewis, and was used as a sparring partner to keep the Strangler in shape. McGill also served as the referee for several of Lewis’ important title bouts.
Hanson continued to be a nuisance to the Sandow/Lewis camp. With their eye on the box-office, Sandow and Lewis had placed the heavyweight crown on an oversized college football player named Wayne “Big” Munn. It was the first time a non-shooter had been put over as the champ. Old Farmer Burns issued a challenge to wrestle Munn himself, but it was Burns’ protege Charley Hansen who attracted the most media attention. Hansen, billed as “Farmer Burns’ Trustbuster,” and his manager Doc Elwood, were making life miserable for Munn. Sandow’s camp was attempting to pass off Munn as a legitimate wrestling champion and his troupe of mat men regularly put him over in matches around the country. Hansen, Elwood, and Burns made challenge after challenge, taunting the promoters to pit their best men against Hansen and give him a shot at the title. Burns stated that, “Hansen is the only man with the exception of Frank Gotch, to whom I ever gave the ‘inside stuff’ I developed in my half-century of wrestling...he is the coming American champion.” (Wichita Eagle, 12/26/21)
Lewis’ “policeman” Pesek was called into the breach. It was set for Hansen and the Tigerman to shoot it out in Omaha on February 27, 1925. Hansen went into training at Burns’ gymnasium. Pesek worked out at the YMCA with capable grapplers Ad Santel and Gus Kallio. The match aroused considerable interest; fans made plans to attend from all over Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. A $5,000 purse was put up on a winner-take-all basis. Pesek weighed in at 196 pounds. Hansen tipped the scale at an even 190. The match was described as “a thriller of thrillers.” (Omaha World Herald, 2/28/25)
Pesek won two straight falls, both with head scissors. After being thrown for the first fall, Hansen lost steam and futilely attempted to just hold on for the time limit to expire. The Omaha World-Herald reported that “Hansen has no business monkeying with alleged ‘trusts’ barehanded...to attempt combine-smashing by any means short of blasting powder is to have the action reversed, and the buster becomes the bustee,” adding that “Munn is the champion, but Pesek does his work for him.”
Like McGill, Hanson succumbed to the lure of the big-time promoters. He hung up his “trust-busting” gear and stayed active on the pro wrestling circuit, particularly in the northwest. Charley Hanson tragically drowned in 1934, while trying to swim after a runaway boat in a Washington lake.
McGill was involved in an unusual incident in Los Angeles in 1928. Jim Browning was making his way up the ranks and was chomping at the bit for a title match against Lewis. LA promoter Lou Daro booked him as part of an ongoing elimination series with the eventual finalist getting a shot at the Strangler. McGill, who was wrestling on the east coast, fired off a challenge to Daro for a bout with Browning. Daro accepted and McGill dropped everything and rushed to LA for a one fall contest with Browning set for July 11th. When the bell rang the two men began mauling, tugging and shoving one another around the ring. There was no mat work at all. Nothing sensational, no fancy moves. After thirty-seven minutes of their locking horns and bulling each other, a representative of the California State Athletic Commission ordered referee Don McDonald to stop the match and further to hold up their purses. It appears that McGill was sent in to make Browning look bad and slow his momentum as a rising contende
McGill issued a challenge to meet the heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera in April of 1930. McGill proposed a mixed match with a $1000 side bet; although nothing was heard back from Carnera’s camp. In June of 1930, McGill, accompanied by his wife and daughter, traveled to Australia where he would spend the next few months wrestling for Dick Lean’s Stadiums Limited promotion. Several other North American pro wrestlers were active “down under” at the time, including George McLeod, Dr. Karl Sarpolis, Charles Strack, Billy Edwards and George Kotsonaros. Former champs Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Joe Stecher also made forays to Australia over the summer. McGill was billed as the protégé of Earl Caddock and the originator of the “aeroplane spin.” He proved to be a popular draw, exhibiting both scientific and rough-house wrestling. His legit skills would be brought into play once again.
Leo Le Cornu was running a rival promotion to Lean, based in southern Australia. One of Le Cornu’s top men was the big Italian Leon Labriola. Labriola was a globe-trotting veteran of the mat who had done some pro boxing and had been a sparring partner of Jack Dempsey. Labriola journeyed to Australia in 1929 and boasted that he had defeated Strangler Lewis.
When the Strangler arrived to wrestle for Stadiums Limited, Labriola’s claim was denounced as false. Labriola was challenged to furnish the proof with ten pounds to be donated to charity if he could confirm it actually happened*. In addition, Labriola was challenged to meet Lewis in a private bout for 500 pounds a side. Stadiums Limited deposited ten pounds with the sporting editor of the Adelaide Advertiser to show that they meant business. Labriola was further challenged to face Sarpolis for a side bet. Challenges and counter-challenges were flung back and forth between Le Cornu, Stadiums Limited, Sarpols, and Labriola.
Le Cornu agreed to a cross-promotion match for Labriola but insisted that the side wager be reduced to 100 pounds. Lean and his associates put McGill forth as their representative and the rival groups planned a joint-card at the Exhibition Building in Adelaide for October 2, 1930. Two boxing matches preceded the challenge wrestling contest. The bout was fast-paced with Labriola being the aggressor through much of the battle. Pro wrestling in Australia was held in eight-minute rounds, with the first man to win two falls being awarded the victory. In the second round, Labriola had McGill trapped with a short arm scissors, but he couldn’t hold it. Labriola used an airplane spin, slam and body press to pin McGill for the opening fall one minute and fifty-two seconds into the 3rd round.
McGill came back in the 4th, and following a forward headlock and chin lift and eight halches in a row, body pressed Labriola for a fall. With some clever mat work McGill gained another fall in the fifth round and saved the day for Stadiums Limited. The challenge contest had been widely publicized in newspapers across Australia.
McGill participated in a boxer versus wrestler mixed match a few years later. His opponent was Ed “Bearcat” Wright, “the negro heavyweight boxing champion.” Omaha promoter Jack Lewis arranged the bout for June 30, 1933. McGill needed two falls to win; Wright was required to get two knockouts. They contested in three-minute rounds. The boxer floored the wrestler once for a five count in the 4th round. McGill won falls in the 3rdand 6th rounds. A newspaper article noted that “...a man with boxing gloves on is in a bad way when there’s a McGill in the ring.” (Omaha World-Herald, 7/1/33)
“Irish” Pat McGill actively wrestled into the early 1940’s and continued in the game as a referee. Two of his sons, Frannie (Frank) and Steve briefly pursued pro wrestling careers. A reputed nephew Cecil McGill of Iowa wrestled under the name Pat McGill, primarily in Canada.
McGill came up in the rough-and-tumble world of Nebraska “shooting” contests, merged into the big-time professional circuit, and was a direct link between Farmer Burns and the modern era. Men like McGill kept alive the old-time knowledge of authentic catch-as-catch-can wrestling.
*Labriola’s claim was based on a handicap contest in Boston on 3/26/25. The Strangler agreed to throw both Labriola and Frank Bruno one fall apiece in an hour’s time. He tossed Bruno in a half-hour, but Labriola held out the remaining time. Lewis actually held several victories over Labriola in finish matches.
Mark S. Hewitt/ Combat Sports Research 2023