Noted intellectual, multiple world wrestling champ and later Hollywood star - Stanisław Cyganiewicz, born 140 years ago this day, was no April Fool
Professional wrestling has created some of the world’s most recognizable stars such as The Rock and Hulk Hogan but the first World Champion was a strongman from Poland.
Born in Jodłowa, southern Poland on April 1st, 1881, Jan Stanisław Cyganiewicz, who was known professionally in the US as Stanislaus Zbyszko would become multiple world champion and go on to star in Hollywood films.
After competing in legitimate fights and winning numerous titles around Europe in the Olympic style Greco-Roman wrestling he started travelling to America and competing in ‘catch-as-catch-can freestyle wrestling’.
Billed as the ‘Mighty Son of Poland’, Cyganiewicz drew in crowds of over 15,000 and became a hero to immigrants.
But in addition to being a legitimate strongman he was also promoted as an intellectual who had studied music, philosophy, law while growing up in Vienna, Austria, and who spoke 11 languages.
Professor Neal Pease of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who wrote the authoritative paper on Cyganiewicz in 2017, noted that like much of his life, to become a better box office attraction, he would exaggerate his achievements.
Pease wrote: “He was also a skilled fabulist who invented and reinvented himself so often and so well that separating truth from fiction is made hard work.
“Still, even without the fabrications and embellishments—indeed, in part because of them—his biography belongs among the most intriguing in the history of sport.”
Cyganiewicz lost six years of his athletic prime during World War I as he was wrestling in Russia at the outbreak of the conflict and the Soviet state interned him for being a ‘subject of an enemy power’.
When he managed to return to America he vowed never to return to Russia, he had not only lost most of his fortune, he was widely believed to be the richest Polish athlete of the time, but was out of shape and getting closer to forty.
The professional wrestling business had moved on and while immigrants were still nostalgic for a hero from their homeland many questioned if Cyganiewicz could win back his World Championship.
This he did in 1921, when he beat then-champion Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis.
But despite enjoying a resurgence in fame and fortune, Cyganiewicz began to suffer both in and out of the ring and, wrestling his final match in 1939, he ended up bankrupt and owing taxes in Argentina.
A fire at his home and failed attempts at promoting wrestling both in Poland and South America left Cyganiewicz struggling. He bought a pig farm Missouri where he would teach want-to-be wrestlers in exchange for their labour on the farm.
For 10 years he remained in the shadows, quickly forgotten in a rapidly changing wrestling industry, but in 1950 Hollywood came calling with a role tailormade for him in ‘Night and the City’, for which he won acclaim as a grizzled old wrestler.
He died of a heart attack on September 23rd 1967, aged 86.