Big time wrestling debuted in the Middle Georgia area in the autumn of 1913 when “Big Jack” Leon defeated Gus Kerveras at the Old Armory in Macon. For the next seven months, Diggs’ wrestlers fought it out in Macon, Columbus and Dublin.
The first match at the Bertha came on the evening of April 3, 1914 in a bout which pitted Dr. Ben F. Roller, (LEFT) a real physician, against Billy Jenkins and Mort Henderson. Handicapped from the start, Roller had to wrestle the men back to back - Henderson being his greatest nemesis. Roller, a former professional football player, easily took Jenkins in 16 minutes. Still weary from wrestling Zbyszko in Birmingham the week before, Henderson held his own against his famous opponent Roller, a three time American Heavyweight Champion.
The following year, Henderson would try something new in the wrestling arena. He was credited with being the first wrestler to don a mask to hide his identity, wrestling as “The Masked Marvel.”
A rematch was set for April 9 in what promoter Diggs proclaimed as “The American Championship.” With several Maconites who had come down on a special M.D. & S. train in attendance, Roller was “at his best from start to finish, and the champion’s best is about the best there is in the wrestling business,” wrote the Courier Herald. Roller took the first round in 51 minutes with a leg and arm hold. In the second round, a Courier Herald writer wrote, “The doctor went after Mort like a large sized tornado” in defeating Henderson, who had gone toe to toe with Jack Leon in Macon the night before, in less than ten minutes before a near capacity crowd.
Greek wrestler Gus Kerveras jumped into the ring and urged the champion to go another round. Roller’s manager, Billy Sandow, a professional wrestler himself and one of the sport’s most well known managers, objected as Roller had already fought enough during the evening. Sandow did agree to allow his champ, to return to the ring the following night to fight the grandiose Greek.
Roller, a clean sportsman and of Greek ancestry himself, kept his word and climbed into the ring the next evening. “The bout was a cross between science on one side and plain every day ‘head buttin’ on the other,” a Courier Herald writer reported. Despite his aggressive manner, the powerful Kervarus, not exactly a fan favorite by the small crowd, was defeated for the first time by Roller, who won the first fall in 48 minutes and the second one in only 4 minutes.
The third week of the season featured a match in which Henderson, Dublin’s favorite wrestler, defeated Paul Sampson, a giant German journeyman wrestler.
Another “championship bout” was on the card for the fourth week. Promoters, who expected Dublin’s largest wrestling crowd ever, provided for a special train for fans to leave Macon at 6:00 o’clock and return to Macon a half-hour after the match was over all for the sum of $3.00 for the train ride and a ringside ticket.
Mort Henderson’s (LEFT AS THE MASKED MARVEL) throng of local supporters filled the Bertha Theater. His opponent was Jack Leon, a wrestler on the rise, who was making his first appearance in Dublin.
Leon, a long-legged, ugly-looking, big boned, Swedish, bulldog of a wrestler, was on his game, taking the offensive from the beginning. Henderson’s supporters hoped that Leon (LEFT) would wear himself out with his strong efforts. Those hopes were dashed at the 49 minute point of the 60 minute round. The second and deciding fall came when Henderson fell half way through the round.
The final match of the 1914 wrestling season came on May 22, 1914. Jack Leon, still celebrating his championship victory over Mort Henderson three weeks before at the Bertha, was slated to fight Ed “The Strangler” Lewis. Diggs, in order to boost the attendance in the final fight, offered a purse of $300.00 to the wrestlers in addition to their share of the gate receipts. Diggs, backed by wealthy, prominent Dublin boosters, was once again boosting the encounter as the most sensational match ever held in Dublin. All women were admitted free of charge.
“Eddie Lewis, who by the way is a handsome youngster, beside a strangler of international fame, is one of the classiest and fastest wrestlers in the business,” proclaimed the Courier Herald.
The writer was correct. Lewis (LEFT) used his strangle hold to win six World Heavyweight Championships and a have dozen state and regional championships. “The Strangler” was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002. Lewis’ manager, Billy Sandow, once issued a $10,000 challenge to Jack Dempsey that Lewis could beat him in any ring anywhere in 20 minutes or less.
Lewis took the first round when he used his patented “strangle hold” on Leon a quarter of the way through the first round. Leon turned the momentum in his favor, when he caught Lewis in a half Nelson nearly half way through the second stanza.
Referee Harry Diggs called the match for Lewis, when once again, the “Strangler” put his strangle hold on Leon at the twenty minute mark for the victory.
That summer, the voters of Dublin inexplicably decided to ban wrestling at the Bertha Theater. Just when Wrestlemania was peaking and fans were thrilled every week, it was all but gone from the city. Dr. Roller did return to Dublin two years later in 1916 to defeat the Frenchman, Constant Lemarin, (LEFT)
Wrestlemania never really returned to Dublin. In the 1920s and throughout the 1930s, boxing became the pugilistic preference of Dublin’s contact sport fans. Over the years, promoters booked matches in high school gyms and in the Laurens County Ag Center to entertain a new generation of wrestlemaniacs.
But, none of these overly fake wrestling matches can compare to those days of a century ago when Dublin, along with Macon and Columbus, featured some of the best wrestlers in the country in Wrestlemania 1914.