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Ad Santel (Adolph Ernest) • Pioneer • Legendary catchwrestler, participant in mixed rules bouts in the early 1900s.
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“The one match which I wish for most of all is a contest with Adolph Ernst. Ernst, you know, is rated as the greatest light heavyweight in the world. If I can beat him, and I believe I can do that very thing, these fellows who say they have never heard of me would be forced to admit that I have something."
Earl Caddock, to the The Lincoln Daily Star, December 3, 1915

by Roel Torres

At the turn of the twentieth century, international mixed-styles grappling matches pitting judo/jiu-jitsu vs. wrestling were a rare occurrence. And often, the grappler representing American wrestling in these challenge matches was a spectacular physical specimen named Ad Santel. Santel was a formidable catch wrestler who was a willing to risk his skills and reputation against well-seasoned judoka from Japan. Also on the line in these matches were national pride and the credibility of each man's grappling art. These were high-stakes, and to his credit, Santel repeatedly rose to the occasion.

The man eventually known as Ad Santel was originally born Adolph Ernst on April 7, 1887, in Germany before he moved and settled in San Francisco. In a sport dominated by Heavyweight stars like Stanislaus Zbyszko (235 lbs) and Ed Lewis (260 lbs), there were a handful of men who laid regional claims as the Light Heavyweight Champion of the World including mat stalwarts like George “Dub” Gion, “The Mason City Wildcat” Helmer Myhre, Elmer “Pet” Brown, “Cyclone” Billy Mitchell, Henri Irslinger, Ted Thye, Billy Edwards, George Barnes, Toni Bernardi, Charley Rentrop, Ira Dern, and Carroll “Pinky Gardner. But two of the most credible claimants were rivals Clarence Eklund (who retired holding the light heavyweight belt undefeated wrestling at 170-175 pounds) and Santel (who wrestled at 180-185.)

Eklund and Santel chased each other in attempts to settle the superiority between the two men, but the ten pound weight difference between the two (and the inability to determine the proper catch-weight) left the outcomes of their matches with unsatisfactory results. In their first match on April 6, 1925, Eklund bulked up to 180 to meet Santel, making him too big and slow. Santel won decisively in two straight falls, scoring the first fall with a body scissors in an hour and fifteen minutes using a short-arm scissors/bicep slicer, then securing the second and deciding fall with a double-arm scissors.

When they met for a rematch on September 29, 1928, Santel had to cut down to 175 to meet Eklund in an Australian title tournament, leaving him too weak and drawn out to compete effectively. Even after his victory, Eklund conceded that the weight difference was an insurmountable obstacle for Santel, stating in his biography “He had whittled himself down from a big man to a little man, and in doing so had whittled down his strength, his speed and his vitality... That's why I beat him. I don't want any great credit for doing so... he is only a shell; if I can't beat a shell I have no right to be a wrestler.”

While his light heavyweight catch wrestling history provides ample support for his historical significance, it is Santel's repeated ventures into mixed-styles matches that tends to carry the greatest general interest. Starting on April 18, 1904 when Yukio Tani beat Jem Mellor in London, England, matches pitting catch wrestlers against touring judo/jiu-jitsu practitioners began happening on a semi-recurring basis. Santel was the wrestler who embraced these matches most enthusiastically, and he became the first wrestler to travel to Japan to challenge the world's best jiu-jitsu players. In his eight recorded bouts, Santel only suffered one defeat – and that was in a rematch to a man he had previously beaten.

Santel's bouts were as follows: Win over Senryuken Noguchi (November 30, 1915 in San Francisco), Win over Tokugoro Ito (February 5, 1916 in San Francisco), Loss to Tokugoro Ito (June 10, 1916 in San Francisco), Win over Taro Miyake (October 20, 1917 in Seattle), Win over Daisuke Sakai (November 2, 1917 in Seattle), Draw with Reijiro Nagata (March 5, 1921 in Tokyo, Japan), Draw with Hikoo Shoji (March 6, 1921 in Tokyo, Japan), and a Win over Hitoshi Shimizu (March, 1921 in Nagoya, Japan.) Fighting eight mixed-style matches against against seven different black belts, in four different cities, over two different continents, over a span of six years including an unprecedented, undefeated barnstorming tour of Japan where he faced the Judo/Jiu-Jitsu masters on their home soil, Santel went 5-1-2. It was an unbelievable set of results for a man with fantastic skills, tremendous courage, and unwavering confidence.

In a footnote to his career, in his later years Santel became a travel companion of NWA champion, professional wrestler, and noted catch wrestling master, Lou Thesz. Santel told Thesz that he was paid to intentionally injure George Hackenschmidt before the second Hackenschmidt v Gotch match. While Thesz gave this anecdote strong credibility in his autobiography, the story is almost surely apocryphal since Santel was not a training partner of Hackenschmidt, and the details largely contradict the versions told by Hackenschmidt and his actual training partner, Dr. Ben Roller.
 

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