of the Ring: Gus Sonnenberg: Lawyer, Football Star, Heavyweight Wrestling
Champion of the World
The score "Marquette 211
- Opponents 7" is written proudly on the picture of
the Marquette High School football team, of which Gus Sonnenberg was
a member. The year was 1915, and the team was declared the U.P. Champs.
An Associated Press dispatch from Boston reads: "Dynamite
Gus' Sonnen-berg, Dartmouth tackle in 1920, taking up professional wrestling,
disposed of his first three opponents in a total time of four minutes
and twenty seconds."
"Sonnenberg Gets Another Chance at Lewis' Title," a 1928
"Gus Sonnenberg Still Unconscious in Hospital" is another
headline of one of the hundreds of newspaper articles saved in a scrapbook
by my aunt, Mrs. Minnie Koepp, of Marquette, now deceased, about my
great uncle, Gus Sonnenberg, who became Heavy Weight Wrestling Champion
of the World in 1929.
Gustav Sonnenberg, the oldest son of Fred and Caroline Sonnenberg,
was raised on a farm in Green Garden, Michigan, went to a little country
school, and later went to live with an older sister to attend Marquette
Gus's football career began at Marquette High in 1912. That
year he played right guard on the gridiron and the following season,
he held down the same position.
Then came 1914, when E.D. Cushman came here to become Marquette
High's first full-time physical education instructor. "Cush"
promptly switched Gus to tackle, a change that paid dividends immediately.
In 1915, with Sonnenberg's work at tackle a big factor,
Marquette High won its first U.P. Championship, undefeated for the first
time in history. They won six games, scoring 211 points to their opponents'
Aside from his accomplishments on the football field, Gus
also starred in basketball and was a member of Marquette's first U.P.
Championship team during the 1915-1916 season.
After his graduation in 1916, Gus was offered scholarships
at the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, but he
decided on Dartmouth.
He arrived in September. It was said that he came clumping
into Dartmouth college with a battered violin case under one arm, a
book of Browning's poems under the other, a cap perched on his scalp,
and wearing a pair of pants that looked like the back legs of an elephant.
Just a few weeks later, the news came that for the first time in five
years, the freshman class was victorious in the traditional football
rush, which takes place between the freshman and sophomore classes at
Dartmouth. At the crack of the gun, Captain Gerrish, of the varsity,
tossed a football into the two awaiting classes, and the fight for possession
of the ball was on. After forty-five minutes of mad scrambling, Sonnenberg,
a candidate for a tackle position on the freshman football team, succeeded
in ascending the Webster Hall steps and presenting the ball to Captain
That was only the beginning of Sonnenberg's rise to fame
at Dartmouth. He won not only a regular tackle position on the freshman
team, but also a place on the Eastern All-Frosh team.
As the football season started in 1917, Gus was back in
Marquette, holding down the fullback spot for the Northern State Teachers
College squad. That year, under coach L.B. Gant, Northern had a successful
season, losing just one game.
Gus also played on the Teacher's 1917-1918 basketball team,
and in his spare time, coached the Normal high school team.
On January 1, 1919, Sonnenberg accepted a position as coach
of Escanaba High School.
The 1919-1920 season found Gus back at Dartmouth holding
down a regular tackle position.
In 1920 the sports writers association of the East picked
Sonnenberg and George Gipp of Calumet for that group's All-America Team.
It was the first time a Marquette athlete was chosen on any All-America
team and also the first time two U.P. players were chosen on the same
Gus transferred from Dartmouth to the University of Detroit
where he starred during the 1921-1922 seasons. He graduated with a law
During his college days, he had some rather remarkable experiences.
One year he blocked nine punts and all of them, except one, would have
been good for touchdowns. Once in a game at Franklin Field, Philadelphia,
he booted the ball eighty yards in the air for the longest kick ever
made at the University of Pennsylvania's field.
Sonnenberg played in the infamous Coaldale, Pennsylvania
game. Sonnen-berg explained, "There was great spirit in Coaldale.
The local gamblers were backing the team to the last penny, betting
even their homes and shirts. Why, I saw $60,000 in cash on a blanket
on the sidelines. Well, we beat them 10 to 7. It was a terrible game.
After it was over, the crowd mobbed us. They threw stones at us as we
ran for our special train. We got on the train and dropped to the floor
to escape the rocks that smashed nearly every window. As the train of
thirteen cars pulled out of the town, they commenced to shoot at the
cars. Of course, we were all on the floor, but one fellow was wounded
in the eye by a shot.
"Another game, in Shenendoah, found the gamblers losing
and they came on to the field in a rush and refused to get off the field
so the game was postponed and all bets were off."
Following his graduation, he was sought by many pro teams,
including the Green Bay Packers. He signed with the Columbus, Ohio Tigers.
Later he played with the Detroit Panthers and Providence, Rhode Island
Gus was picked as "all-professional" tackle by
the managers and owners of the league. One night he went with a newspaper
man to see a wrestling match. The newspaper man said, "Why don't
you get into this game? It's as easy as pro football anyway, and there
is more money." Gus, just recovering from two broken ribs, thought
nothing could happen to him on the mat like the riot that followed the
clash in Coaldale.
Before long, "Dynamite" was the nickname given
to him as a new wrestler. He was described as five foot seven inches
tall, weighing 200 pounds, possessing extra large feet, the chest, arms
and shoulders of a bull gorilla, not very much neck, and a round face.
Other descriptions said he looked just as good in his green
trunks as he did in a tuxedo. He used excellent English, speaking in
a deep baritone, danced well and played a great game of bridge.
In his wrestling matches, Gus let his head hit his wrestling
opponent with great force, and as the man went down, he would nail him
in the stomach with another head-on smash. As for Sonnenberg's "flying
tackle" and the rule book, inasmuch as he used his hands as well
as his head, it couldn't be barred under "butting." Sonnenberg's
constant habit of playing football without a helmet had been great training
for his wrestling game.
It was not long before Paul Bowser, the Boston wrestling
trainer, got in touch with Sonnenberg. A match with Mayne Munn was scheduled,
and if Gus won that match, he would give up professional football for
a career in wrestling.
Sonnenberg was seventy pounds lighter than Munn, and nearly
one foot shorter. Gus threw his huge opponent twice, once in a minute
and nineteen seconds, and again in twenty-five seconds. This was the
twenty-eighth consecutive match Sonnenberg had won, having not been
defeated since he started his new career on the mat.
Gus Sonnenberg had the heavyweight wrestling championship
of the world in the palm of his hand when an unexpected and disastrous
accident sent him to the hospital. On June 29, 1928, he had tossed the
champion, Ed "Strangler" Lewis for the first fall with his
famous flying tackle. His head butted Lewis in the stomach, and the
champion was lifted from his feet with the flying tackle and slammed
to the mat. The time of the fall was thirty-seven minutes, thirty seconds.
Lewis was out for five minutes.
The crowd of 10,000 fans went wild at the Boston Arena.
Gus was sure to win. Never had such a wrestling match been staged. Sonnenberg
had sailed into Strangler's stomach with his bullet-like head so many
times that many thought Lewis would not be able to re-enter for the
When Lewis, still all but helpless from the battering he
had received, returned to the ring for a second round, Sonnenberg, amid
cheers that rocked the arena, started out for a second fall. With blood
in his eyes, he butted Lewis around and it looked like sure victory
for Gus. Suddenly Gus went sailing into a whistling flying tackle, missed
his target, and shot like a bullet at least fifteen feet through the
ropes, beyond the row of reporters, landing on his head on the concrete
floor of the arena. He was picked up unconscious. The crowd was thunderstruck!
He was given fifteen minutes to return to the ring and continue the
match, but at the end of that time he was still unconscious and Lewis
was given the fall and the match.
Sonnenberg was examined by physicians and found to be suffering
from a concussion. He was taken to Trumbull Hospital.
Sonnenberg had been a great drawing card, attracting immense
crowds every time he had battled. Sonnenberg received $7,500 for his
work and Lewis $15,000, the highest sum every paid a champion matman.
The story of Gus Sonnenberg, however, is more than one of human
strength, and speed. He brought to wrestling the color and dash of American
football. He promoted his first show in Boston at the old Grand Opera
House. The gate was $85. On January 7, 1929, 20,000 people jammed the
Boston Garden and paid $75,000 to see the "Strangler" Lewis
vs. "Dynamite" Gus Sonnenberg show.
Another article states.... "Two of the most surprising
things about Sonnenberg were his strength and speed. He launched his
tackle at the most unexpected moments and from almost any angle and
position." The tackle which really cost Lewis his crown came as
a bolt from the blue. The Strangler had brought his locked arms up under
Gus's chin, not only snapping the challenger's head back but lifting
him off his feet and dumping him heavily on all fours near the ropes.
Strangler leaped forward to clamp on the finishing headlock.
But from this seemingly defenseless posture, Sonnenberg
instantly uncoiled and shot from the floor, hitting the champion squarely
a little above the knee. A quick jerk of his powerful arms, the final
flying lunge, and the famous Strangler was flat and out.
The second fall and the championship was awarded to Sonnenberg
by the referee when Lewis would not, or could not, re-enter the ring
after having been repeatedly knocked through the ropes by the butts
and tackles and Dynamite Gus.
After Sonnenberg's arm was raised as a gesture of victory,
Paul Bowser, promoter of the title bout, came into the ring and presented
him with the coveted $10,000 diamond championship belt, and announced,
"Gus Sonnenberg... The World Champion Wrestler!"
The Championship Match was filmed by the Educational Film
Exchanges, Inc. It contained 1,000 feet of film and most of the views
more thrilling action squeezed into those ten or
twelve minutes than in any movie ever seen. The manner in which Sonnenberg
finished off Lewis tells the story of his name "Dynamite."
This thrilling one reel movie was shown at the Delft Theatre in 1929.
Just one year before, Sonnenberg was a professional football
player drawing a few thousand dollars per season from the Providence
Steam Rollers. He didn't know anything about wrestling and now he was
the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world with $90,000 in the
His mother had pictures of him all around her living room.
On a sideboard a picture of him in a football uniform, another in the
uniform of a member of the Student Army Training Corps, another of him
showing him wearing the $10,000 diamond studded belt, symbolic of the
heavy-weight wrestling championship, and in a corner one of his violins,
waiting for his return home. She said, "Every time he writes, he
sends money home."
His mother, at age sixty-seven, drove to Milwaukee with
her other son Carl, to see her first wrestling match, and last. She
was in agony and couldn't bear to watch. When finally opening her eyes,
she said, "Mein Gott, He'll kill him!" She buried her face
again and was shaking all over. "My heart,"she said, a hand
at her throat, "It's right here." Finally, when it was over,
she picked up her hat, a shapeless pulp from her worried hands, and
said, "My boy Gus, I knew he'd get him. But for all the money in
the world, I wish Gus wouldn't wrestle."
In August 1929, the U.P. hosted a match between Sonnenberg
and Stanley Stasiak, the Wrestling Champion of Poland, at the Palestra
in Marquette. The bout between Sonnenberg and Stasiak was listed as
a "two falls out of three" finish match for the championship
of the world. The match was probably the biggest professional sporting
event the U.P. had ever seen, due largely to the fact that Marquette
was Sonnenberg's hometown and he wanted to give his hometown backers
a real show.
The bout between Sonnenberg and his giant challenger took
place before a crowd of nearly 3,000 people. The spectators got an hour
and nine minutes of thrilling entertainment as Stasiak fought hard before
Sonnenberg finished him with a flying tackle.
Sonnenberg bought the wrestling mat from Ed Butler of Ishpeming
after using it for the bout with Stasiak. He said it was one of the
best wrestling mats he had ever seen. The mat had been the property
of the Ishpeming Theatre for twenty years and now would be used in all
of Sonnenberg's matches. Gus had sustained many infections from wrestling
on the dirty, blood-stained mats that were usually provided.
Gus had trouble on the matrimonial scene. He married a movie
star, known as Judith Allen in 1931, and that marriage only lasted a
few months. He later married Mildred Micelli, who left him, Gus says,
because she was embarrassed by the "shiners" he got as a wrestler.
Gus said, after waiting all evening to introduce her husband to the
girls as a hero, he would come limping and lurching in after a wrestling
bout, sometimes with one eye painfully swollen and closed, or perhaps
both would be that way, or so black and blue as to be ghastly. One arm
might be bandaged and in a sling, and he didn't look much like a hero.
And so a second divorce came.
Gus died September 9, 1944 at Bethesda Naval Hospital in
Maryland, of leukemia. He is buried in Park Cemetery in Marquette. He
was selected for induction into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.
A champion in a game played by giants, a lover of poetry,
an outstanding performer in professional football yet a student of the
violin, a squatty winner of wrestling rounds yet a graceful dancer.
He wore $150 suits and turned up Panamas, and a big rock on his finger.
That was Gus Sonnenberg, Heavyweight Wrestling Champion of the World.