History Lesson: Ed George

Michigan's World Champion

By Leah Howard, U-M Athletic Media Relations

Born June 3, 1905, just outside of Buffalo in the rural community of North Java, N.Y., Edward Nicholas George learned at an early age the payoffs of hard work. He excelled in football and wrestling at Buffalo's Canisius High School, where he lived in local area boarding houses after having left the family farm at the age of 14. During his summer vacations, George worked hard, physical labor in logging camps, on road gangs and on local farms.

George entered the University of Michigan in 1925 and was a member of legendary coach Cliff Keen's inaugural U-M wrestling team. He competed in limited action for the Wolverines over the course of three years, posting a career mark of 15-2, which included defeated seasons in 1927-28 and 1928-29. Michigan improved its record in each of George's season, ultimately claiming its first-ever Big Ten title in 1929 with a 15-11 victory over Illinois.

Beyond the college season, George twice captured national AAU heavyweight titles, including the 1928 championship in which he defeated defending champion and former Olympian Roger Flanders in the second overtime to qualify for that year's U.S. Olympic team. He was joined on the 14-man U.S. freestyle squad by Wolverine teammate Robert Hewitt, who competed in Amsterdam in the 123.5-pound bracket. Both men won two preliminary matches to advance to the championship final but lost in similar fashion to just miss medals.

George narrowly defeated Oklahoma A&M great Earl McCready, a member of the Canadian Olympic team, in the first round of competition but later fell to Sweden's J.C. Richtoff in the final. He lost again to Finland's Aukusti Sihvola in the second-place contest and opted out of the third-place match to end up in fourth place. Describing his experience in a letter to Keen shortly after the Games, George wrote, "I lost to a Swede in the final once by a rolling fall and secondly by a decision that I think would have been given to me in the States. However, I beat McCready, which gave me nearly as much satisfaction as winning first."

Returning to Ann Arbor for his senior season, George registered the best performance of his collegiate career, compiling a perfect 7-0 record and winning the 1929 Big Ten championship. The Wolverine, however, did not enter the NCAA tournament, denying Oklahoma A&M's McCready a rematch as the Aggie wrestler went on to win his third NCAA heavyweight crown.

Having completed his eligibility and unable to remain Michigan due to financial strains, George returned home and earned his bachelor's degree from St. Bonaventure. He was employed by Firestone Tires Co. out of college, and while traveling through Batavia, N.Y., on a work-related trip, George was introduced to a wrestling promoter at a local carnival. "Ed Don George" was born that day, as the former U-M standout embarked on what would be a life-long career in professional wrestling.

George competed in his first professional match on Nov. 21, 1929, in Boston, and defeated Ivan Ludlow. Standing just over six feet tall and weighing in at 219 pounds, George developed a knack for several finishing moves, including the bone-breaking hammerlock, the flying mare and the flying tackle. Just a year past his professional debut, on Dec. 10, 1930, George defeated Gus Sonnenberg in two-out-of-three falls to capture the world heavyweight mat championship. George lost the first fall in 14 seconds, but, using a double wristlock and a scissors, he pinned Sonnenberg at the 2:30 mark of the second to even the score. In the final and deciding contest, George applied a Japanese armlock en route to claiming the fall at 12:52 and dethroned Sonnenberg, who had been the undefeated champion for nearly two full years.

After spending only five months as world champion, he relinquished the title to Ed "Strangler" Lewis on April 13, 1931, but would remain a popular fixture and a fan favorite in the squared circle. Two years later, George again reached the apex of the professional wrestling world when he defeated Henri Deglane on Feb. 9, 1933, in Boston to claim the world championship crown. This time he would retain the title for two and a half years before suffering a controversial loss to Danno O'Mahoney on July 30, 1935, in which guest referee Jim Braddock misapplied the rules and counted out George, resulting in a riot among the 40,000 spectators at Boston's Braves Field.

The end of his competitive career came in 1942 when George was called for active duty in the Navy. He spent three years teaching hand-to-hand combat techniques to Naval air cadets during World War II, rising to the rank of Naval Commander before receiving his discharge in 1945.

Finding his wrestling popularity still intact upon his return to the U.S., he stayed involved in the business, often serving as a guest referee before using his earnings to purchase a booking office in Buffalo. He promoted his first wrestling card on Sept. 12, 1947, and for years ran a very successful promotion and introduced many popular wrestlers to the business. He sold the promotion, the National Wrestling Federation, to legendary promoter Pedro Martinez in 1956. George later promoted wrestling in the casinos of Havana, Cuba, until the rise of Fidel Castro.

George died on Sept. 18, 1985 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the age of 81. He is buried in St. Nicholas Cemetery in his hometown North Java.

He was the first Wolverine wrestler inducted into the Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1981, joining his coach, Cliff Keen, who was inducted the previous year. He is also lists as a member of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (inducted posthumously in 2002) and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (2006).

Note: This story was featured in The Riding Times: an inside look at U-M wrestling.

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