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The First Martyr of Wrestling?


Jim Wango


Wrestling Heritage Members will be well aware of the controversy surrounding black US athlete Jesse Owens' success at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler refused to award his medals. 

Fight fans, too, will know all too well of the excitement that same year when Germany's Max Schmeling had the first of his two momentous bouts against America's Black Bomber, Joe Louis, which led to the German's challenge for the world heavyweight boxing championship a couple of years later, all the time against the backcloth of Nazi propaganda and pressure from the Fuhrer himself.

However, it was one year earlier that wrestling had triggered the race debate regarding sportsmen under the burgeoning Nazi regime.  White-skinned Schmeling had, rather ironically, previously been nicknamed the "Black Lancer of the Rhine."

Jim Wango was a 6'5" heavyweight wrestler billed from Marseilles, but born in Brazzaville, Congo.  In "Blue Blood on the Mat", author and opponent Athol Oakeley describes how Wango delighted Parisian fans by jumping 15 feet from the dress circle after his bouts, only to land centre ring in the splits.  Oakeley lured the fantastic athletic attraction for a series of bouts in the UK, and Jim Wango headlined the very first wrestling presentation at the Victoria Palace in 1932, with other familiar stars also billed including Cordite Conroy, King Kong Curtis and Norman the Butcher.  He beguiled fans and opponents alike by bounding into the ring over the top rop, seemingly mesmerising adversaries with his bulging eyes, and threateneing all kinds of hypnotism by spreading his large open palms in front of the other wrestler's face.  The Germans were equally quick to invite him.

The Olympic Games-News Service was an English-language magazine published in Berlin which shared with the world preparations for the following year's Olympic Games.  In the 30th March 1935 edition, above, see the swimming pool under construction.  Sharing the front page was a quotation taken from the Reichsfuhrer's introduction to  Friedrich Mildner's soon to be published book Olympia 1936 Physical Training in a Socialist State.

 "Sporting chivalrous contest arouses the best human attributes. It does not sever but unites the opponents in mutual understanding and reciprocal respect. lt also helps to knit the peace between nations. Therefore may the Olympic flame never expire''  

In 2013, however, prominent Wrestling Heritage Member Allan Best uncovered and shared a startling series of events which have become known as The Wango Incident.  Allan takes up the story:

In the run up to the Olympic Games to be held in Berlin an incident occurred that brought international condemnation and almost had the Games moved to another country.

In March 1935, in the manner of German wrestling still maintained today, a professional wrestling tournament lasting several weeks was taking place at the Herkules Velodrome in Nuremberg. Black wrestler Jim Wango was beating all before him, defeating wrestler after wrestler, all of whom happened to be white. To one of these meetings came Julius Streicher, the infamous Gauleiter (Governor) of Frankonia in whose province Nuremberg is situated. Part way through the evening Streicher leapt to his feet to make an impassioned speech. "We are in favour of sporting contests," he began, "including wrestling in the compass of sports involving strength. What we  oppose is the linking of sport with dirty business interests and sales gimmicks. It is a sales gimmick, an appeal to inferior people, to sub-humans, to put a negro on view and let him compete with white people. It is not the spirit of the people of Nuremburg to let white men be subdued by a black man. Anyone who applauds when a black man throws a white man of our blood to the ground is no Nuremberger."   Mayhem followed.  Steicher's words were cheered and "there was no end to jubilation'' when the Gauleiter announced that, because the black man had generated an unhealthy excitement, the police had banned him from further tournaments.

The Frankish Zeitung, a Nazi newspaper, reported: "It was interesting to observe how the wrestlers reacted when freed from the burden of the negro's participation. There were no more bad performances. Racially valuable and beautiful people turned in wonderful, good sporting, aesthetically perfect bouts."

Jim Wango found himself ostracised by the inhabitants of Nuremberg to the extent that they would not even sell him food. Wango's manager, realising they would get no help, transferred him to Berlin, where Wango is reported immediately to have fallen ill.  On entry to the hospital, he was diagnosed as having a severe kidney disorder. It was too late, Jim Wango died a few hours later.

The wrestler's death caused a world wide storm. The French ambassador asked the German government "whether countries which send Olympic delegations, including coloured athletes can expect to be exposed to incidents as painful as the one in Nuremberg and to risk some of their competitors being banned from certain events?"   The turmoil spread to the United States. Demands were made that the Berlin Games be boycotted or the Games transferred to another country. Later the same year a law was passed in Germany reducing the status of Jewish people to second class citizens.  

The Games did take place, of course, but the ghost of Jim Wango returned to haunt The Fuhrer. The star of the Games was Jesse Owens, who picked up four gold medals and was the idol of the crowds.

There are many tales of how Herr Hitler responded to awarding medals to the athlete, one says he turned his back on Owens, others that he made an excuse to absent himself from the ceremony. No matter what the truth is it must have distressed The Fuhrer. Much has been made in the past about the poor showing of the 1936 British Olympic Wrestling team whose members included many great men including Norman Morrell, but when one considers the case of the Middleweight wrestler Les Jeffers, a metropolitan policeman who, because he was given no time off, had to train after his long shifts on the beat. When he arrived at the training camp in Berlin he found that the Turkish team had arrived several months before and were fully acclimatised. The same was the case for all the British athletes who had to stick strictly to the amateur code and were thus greatly handicapped compared to the "professionals'' of other competing countries.

Jeffers often said that as he was introduced to Adolf Hitler he could have killed him and saved a lot of lives. Well he could dream. For the full story of the 1936 Games I would recommend "Hitler's Games" by Duff Hart-Davies," published in 1986 by Century Hutchinson."

Heritage thanks  Allan Best for bringing the Wango incident to our attention. It enabled Wrestling Heritage writers to put this wrestling controversy into historical context and to highlight once again, in a world of doubters and knockers, just how significant and popular wrestling was around the world even before the war and that, in many ways, this time unfortunately sad, Wrestling really did Lead The Way.  Further research reveals that the French authorities maintained that Wango had been roughed up in Berlin where he died on 5th April, just seven days after his final bout had been interrupted definitively.

Following Wango's death the name Black Devil continued to be used by a wrestler of West Indies descent, Dave Smith, who lived in Dewsbury.  Like his predecessor Dave Smith was an extrovert character with one report, whilst in the process of defeating the Japanese wrestler Yoshoko, declaring the Black Devil "...screamed and ran around the ring  as if he had been stung by a swarm of bees."

In the same way as Jim Wango leapt over the ropes at the start of his bouts, this research has enabled him to leap to even greater significance.  His wrestling style was quite clearly passed on to recently arrived Gambian policeman Masambula in 1952;  and there can be little doubt what was in promoters' minds when they hurriedly bestowed on their latest recruit John Lagey, shortly after Wango's death, the still now household name of Johnny Kwango. 

21/09/2021 Page moved from wrestlingheritage.com