William Muldoon was built like a Greek God. In an era that saw women afraid to reveal even their ankles beneath a long skirt, the “Solid Man” wasn’t afraid to show a little skin. Even as far back as the 1880’s, at the dawn of professionalism in sports, wrestlers already needed gimmicks to sell bouts to the masses. Muldoon, for his part, was leading the way. He was a gifted wrestler but a better salesman. His gimmick was dressing as a Roman gladiator. Before bouts he was photographed in a loincloth and sandals, often naked from the waist up. He was a man who knew gimmicks, and with the gladiator getup, he was taking iconography to the next level. Donald Mrozek, author of Sport and American Mentality, 1880-1910, thinks Muldoon was onto something that resonated with his audience. Muldoon’s costumes suggested that he was something more than a mere man. His sculpted body was the proof:
Closely tailored and spare, Muldoon’s costume emphasized his good proportions and well-developed physique. It not only had the practical advantage of freeing him of encumbrances for wrestling; it was a way of calling great attention to the attributes of his body apart from his physical performance. As much as it constituted an aid to Muldoon’s performance in the ring by its sparsity and an assist to his image by flattering his impressive physique, Muldoon’s costume was the feathering of a peacock, the uninhibited flaunting of the body in general and the male body in particular.
Muldoon had first learned to use that rock solid body in the Union Army during the Civil War. Just a boy when he enlisted, Muldoon had essentially grown to manhood in raucous Army camps. The Union in particular often whittled away long hours with impromptu as well as organized wrestling contests. It’s said that wrestling was such a big part of life in the Army that General Ulysses S. Grant had to apologize to Confederate leader Robert E. Lee when Lee came to Appomatox surrender. Grant’s tent, it seems, was in disarray:
“Pay no attention to things, Bob,” the General said, “me and some of the boys were having a wrestling match in here last night.”
Muldoon was one of the very best grapplers in the Union Army and never gave up the sport. Not ready to give up the soldiering life either, he volunteered on the French side during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. It was there that he was introduced to Greco-Roman wrestling. Developed in France and quickly spreading throughout the European continent, it was a style well suited for a man with Muldoon’s physical gifts. Never the quickest or most skilled, what Muldoon did have going for him was size and strength. Greco, which prohibited holds below the waist, was the perfect style for a man of his statuesque proportions.
When he returned to New York in 1876, he settled into a career as a police officer. Even as he progressed to the rank of detective, wrestling was never far from his thoughts. His home base was Harry Hill’s saloon, known for comely barmaids, nefarious characters, and equally nefarious prizefights. Muldoon became acquainted with boxing at Harry Hill’s, but it was wrestling where he made his mark. The boxing matches were illegal, so it was easier to strip to the waist and grapple — especially for a police officer making a few extra bucks. For a prize between $5 and $10, Muldoon would wrestle anyone who dared. Muldoon soon took his act on the road, the first step towards wrestling’s demise as a legitimate sport. At these vaudeville shows, often contested on the same stages that housed plays and other high art, the goal was to entertain — and to convince the audience into putting their money down on side bets. Professional wrestling’s secret isn’t that it once featured real contests and later shifted towards entertainment. The real secret is that, from Muldoon’s time forward, professional wrestling was never a legitimate sport. Very early on, powerful promoters took hold of the sport, and money became the primary motivator.
Even before Muldoon’s reign as champion, fans and critics were already decrying a sport that was anything but pure. The Brooklyn Eagle contends that wrestling bouts were being scripted all the way back in the 1870s, singling out a match between Frenchman Thiebaud Bauer and “Professor” William Miller:
There is probably no sport before the public — not even excepting professional billiard playing — in which there has been so much regular “hippodroming” and crookedness practiced as in the wrestling arena within the past two or three years. There has scarcely been an important contest in which the result has not been known beforehand. A system of humbug has been carried on in the form of creating a supposed bitter rivalry between prominent wrestlers, in order to get up an excitement, and matches have been arranged which have been alleged to be for thousands of dollars a side, when not a dollar has been put up on either side, the contest being one for the gate money alone, and that is equally divided, the betting deciding as to which party should win. The men have been found guilty of it and in one case the knavery was publicly exposed out West. But still the people are being gulled by these so-called championship wrestling matches. The latest contest in the wrestling arena was that between Miller and Bauer at Boston last night, in which Miller was defeated, Bauer winning in one fall. The usual $1,000 challenge followed, and another profitable gate money match will be arranged. Pools were sold at Boston on the match, in which Miller was the favorite with those not behind the scores, he being the strongest man and the best wrestler. The fact is nothing has been such a blight on honest sport as the curse of the pool box. It has almost killed professional billiards in the Metropolis; has broken into the healthy life of baseball; driven professional oarsmen out of the arena, and brought odium upon every sport with which it has been connected. But for the pool rooms of Chicago and St. Louis — encouraged by the local press there — there would have been no such crookedness in the Western baseball nines, which recent developments have disclosed.
Bauer would lose a rematch to Miller, giving up two of three falls for the princely sum of $500. Muldoon, while later becoming a very serious man and the head of the New York State Athletic Commission, wasn’t above that kind of tomfoolery in his own nascent wrestling career. He worked closely with the above mentioned Miller in a series of bouts in 1878 and was caught by police detective Thomas Adams and the New York Times trying to work a match with Bauer to build up his name:
Muldoon attempted to perpetrate a little dodge on the public by making an arrangement with the wrestler Bauer to appear at the entertainment in a match with him, it being prearranged that Muldoon should throw Bauer, and thus enlarge upon his previous reputation.
Adams belonged to the executive committee of the club, and took great pride in pure athletics. When he discovered Muldoon’s scheme he went to him and forced him to drop it, telling him that he would expose him if he attempted to make a false reputation at the expense of the club. This made Muldoon a bitter enemy of Adams.
Despite the questionable legitimacy of his wrestling, Muldoon was a public relations dream. By 1881 his matches were such attractions that the Solid Man, celebrated in song and verse, left his job to become a professional athlete. At the time, this kind of professionalism was unheard of. Athletics were a pastime, a pursuit to build healthy bodies and minds. No one did it as a vocation. No one, that is, until Muldoon.
Even before turning pro, Muldoon had already been crowned Greco-Roman champion of the world. In 1880, the Spirit of the Times, an early sports periodical, made a gold medal up for grabs between Muldoon and Bauer. The winner would receive the medal and the title of World Champion. At New York’s Gilmore’s Garden, the Madison Square Garden of its day, the two wrestlers drew a crowd of 3,000 spectators and more than a handful of photographers and reporters. Muldoon, who outweighed his opponent by more than 20 pounds, took the first fall in 43 minutes, but not before entertaining the assembled crowd with his feats of strength, easily breaking all of Bauer’s holds. In the second fall, 20 minutes in, Bauer scored a flash pin, Muldoon’s shoulders having touched the mat for just an instant despite controlling most of the action. In the deciding tumble, Bauer got behind the policeman and looked to have things under control. But it only takes a momentary lapse, a loss of focus, to lose a bout contested at the highest skill levels. When Bauer wiped the sweat from his eyes, Muldoon struck, tossing him to the mat and pinning him in just three minutes.
Title lineage was constantly in dispute. Others also claimed to be the world’s best, and at different times a handful of men were often listed as the champion. Muldoon, for his part, took on all comers. His first challenger was Professor William Miller, a British strongman who teamed with boxer Jem Mace on a tour of the Americas. The battle raged into the early hours of the next day, neither man able to secure even a single fall. Of course, bouts that ended with a disputed finish led to boffo box office for the inevitable rematch. It was a pattern that was repeated in Muldoon’s first famous bout with Clarence Whistler. The two locked horns for eight hours with no end in sight. Finally the venue owners shut off the gaslights at the Terrace Garden Theatre, sending a crowd of 2,000 home unsatisfied.
It was a brutal match. Whistler was the quicker of the two and spent much of the bout behind Muldoon, once even dragging him to the ground looking to turn him for the pin. The two went at it for seven hours, each hour round separated by a 10-minute rest period. Muldoon’s arms and neck were streaked with red, a product of Whistler’s fingernails, purposely kept long to wreak havoc on the champion. After hours of wearing away, Muldoon claimed Whistler then doused his head in ammonia, rubbing this new weapon into Muldoon’s many wounds and causing excruciating pain. For his part, Whistler had his left ear torn partially from his skull. Certainly no one left that match prettier than they were going in. Still, as the years went on, Muldoon remembered his opponent fondly. “I am convinced Whistler could not have thrown me,” Muldoon said after his foe’s 1885 death. “But I must admit that he is one opponent whom I do not think I could have beaten at his best. He was a wonderful wrestler — the greatest I have ever met, and one of the greatest, probably, the world ever knew.”
The Whistler bout was Muldoon’s last as a city employee. Combining grueling training with a dangerous job was too much for any man. From that point forward, the Solid Man was a full-time athlete. Professional athletics wasn’t a realistic goal for most of American history. But changing demographics, including a fast-growing urban population and the development of a national rail system, made both major attractions and touring shows possible. Muldoon, by now becoming a bona fide star, was quick to take advantage.
The Police Gazette, a scurrilous weekly magazine known for its scantily clad women and lurid crime reporting, had found an audience rabid for sports content. Perhaps the first American tabloid, there was no account the publication wouldn’t run, no story too lurid for an audience looking for the sex and violence traditional daily papers were shielding them from. The story of an illegal prizefight in West Virginia between Paddy Ryan and Joe Goss, the English champion, sold 400,000 copies. The “proprietor” of the Gazette, Richard Fox, smelled a hit and the magazine became the sports chronicle of record through the dawn of the 20th century. Muldoon knew Fox well. The two had become close as the wrestler built his reputation in bar room matches and Fox always gave the wrestler plenty of ink. Muldoon’s friend and biographer Edward Van Every emphasized, “Almost every week some mention of Muldoon was to be found.”
Muldoon was an innovator, always looking for ways to improve his performance. In the North East, dedicated sports fans expected a bout to be a long and drawn-out affair. They were diehards, often with money at stake, and expected a wrestling match to last all night. People gaping at wrestlers on a nationwide tour didn’t have the same expectations. Far from it. Seven-hour bouts were certainly not going to be tolerated. Muldoon would soon become the first promoter to institute a time limit.
There was much more to Muldoon’s act than mere wrestling. His performance art was generally what onlookers would remember years later. The wrestler called them “plastic poses.” He would cover himself in white paint and stand perfectly still, a human representation of a classic Greek statue or a scene from antiquity.
Wrestling was a major part of the act. Along for the ride were familiar former foes like Whistler, Miller, and Edwin Bibby, a British wrestler skilled in the catch-as-catch-can game. Whistler was his most popular foe, and it was said that while “the firm of Muldoon and Whistler coined money, Muldoon was always uncomfortable while the partnership lasted.” Whistler, it was whispered, was the better man in a real contest. The troupe traveled around the country, from New Orleans to San Francisco, developing the sport of professional wrestling as they went.
As Gerald W. Morton and George M. O’Brien relate, “All the hoopla of modern professional wrestling as a roadshow attraction was there. The media build up before bouts and challenges issued in the local press, claimants to regional titles, a collection of impressivechampionship belts, foreign challengers, colorful tights and even costumes were all part of the wrestling scene in the 1880s.”
Some of Muldoon’s bouts were on the level, others exhibitions staged to please his fans. Crowd challenges were common, with Muldoon offering $200 to any man who could throw him even once. Against legitimate local studs like Ohio’s John Theurer, Muldoon would up the ante. Theurer would get $300 if he could toss Muldoon. The champion would collect $100 if he could best the challenger once every 10 minutes for an hour.
Future major league baseball president Ban Johnson was on the scene for the Enquirer, gushing over Muldoon’s impressive physique, “showing plainly the grand development of which the human body is capable.” The muscles were for more than show: Muldoon finished off Theurer 10 times in just 23 minutes.
In 1883, Muldoon truly established himself as the top Greco wrestler in the country. He defeated Bibby and Whistler in a second epic match from Clarence’s homebase of San Francisco. Foreign challengers followed, men from Germany, France, Spain, England, and even Matsada Sorakichi from Japan. None could best Muldoon. Traveling for a decade straight, Muldoon remained undefeated, although many of the contests were just for show. Other wrestlers like catch wrestling star Evan Lewis came and went on the tour, as did boxing great John L. Sullivan, who Muldoon had discovered in Boston and brought back to New York to jump start a splendid career; Muldoon was the constant.
Jonathan Snowden is the best-selling author of Total MMA, The MMA Encyclopedia, and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He’s a former radio DJ and television producer who worked for the White House Communications Agency in Washington, D.C. He currently works for the Department of Defense.