Long before the days of Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, wrestlers were thrilling fans across the United States. And these weren’t fake spectacles with soap opera-esque storylines, either.

In the early years of the 20th century, competitive wrestling was incredibly popular, with men from immigrant communities using fighting styles from their home nations to wow the crowds. And it became so popular that it even rivaled baseball through the 1920s.

And one star wrestler called Lebanon County home.

Jack Ozar, who attended Lebanon Valley College, was born to Polish parents in Nebraska and landed in Pennsylvania at age 10 when he began working in the mines. By age 14, both of his parents had died, and he began trying to find ways to support himself: as a sailor with the Merchant Marines, a carnival strong man, and, eventually, as a professional wrestler.

During his illustrious athletic career, he was able to draw in hundreds of cheering fans for his matches. Ozar held the world middleweight championship title, and his exploits quickly made him a local celebrity; as the Daily News reported in 1918:

Just before the wind-up bout, Jack was called to the ring and introduced, and there followed a round of the most flattering applause throughout the house. Even before the public introduction, Jack was recognized with a party of Lebanon friends, and he was pointed out very frequently, and at many times attracted more attention than the boxers scheduled on the program of the evening. Later he was greeted everywhere in a manner that did him much credit as a distinguished ring celebrity.

Men lined up over and over again, attempting to take Ozar’s title as middleweight champion from him, and would repeatedly fail. In one colorful match, the “Masked Marvel,” a heavyweight who was one of the most popular wrestlers in the world, agreed to fight Ozar in a handicap match in New York City. The fight was billed as “the greatest sporting event staged in this city since wrestling matches have been introduced here.” Mort Henderson, who wrestled under the “Masked Marvel” stage name, boasted that he could pin Ozar in one hour or would forfeit the match – but he was no match for Lebanon’s champion, who emerged victorious.

Other heavyweight wrestlers would attempt the feat on the same stage, at New York’s Academy of Music, but Ozar would best them time and time again.

In one notable match, Ozar battled Tom Draak, the “Holland Dutchman,” in which he was once again facing a heavier opponent. Ozar was able to overpower Draak, literally throwing him over his shoulder across the stage, leaving Draak with a broken shoulder.

Ozar also took on other famous wrestlers, like Pinkie Gardner and Joe Turner, thrilling audiences around the country.  And he remained a hometown hero, with his gem-encrusted championship belt displayed proudly in a Lebanon jewelry store when Ozar returned home the world champ.

According to a 1951 write-up on his life in the Lebanon Daily News, Ozar was an inspiration to Lebanon’s youth at the time, with multiple young athletes taking up wrestling because of him.

1917 newspaper ad in the Daily News for a match between Joe Turner and Jack Ozar.
Jack Ozar in later life. (Republican and Herald, 1937)

But Ozar was also much more than just a star athlete; in addition to his role with the Pennsylvania Mounted State Police as a physical instructor, he became a novelist and an international news correspondent, traveling to Europe and reporting for a national news service.

In fact, the Daily News reported in 1942 that Ozar interviewed Nazi General Hermann Göring and other private sources, which allowed him to correctly predict that Germany would invade the Scandinavian area of Europe as early as 1937. His wartime journalism career was even more impressive, considering he didn’t learn to read or write until he was 26 years old.

Before becoming a wrestling superstar, he also played football for Lebanon Valley College; after he retired from wrestling, he became a coach for the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University.

Throughout it all, though, he remained humble about his accomplishments.

“Jack Ozar was somewhat enigmatic to many in that he kept to himself to a great extent and had few, if any, local confidantes, but it is not recalled that anyone ever spoke ill of him at any time during his local residence, or since, for that matter,” Lebanon Daily News sports writer Tiny Parry wrote in 1951, who added that he “prefers to remember him as the professional wrestling champion he was, and as the quiet-spoken, non-bragging individual I knew as an acquaintance through a number of years.”

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Casandra Chesser is a Florida native and mom to six kids. Her husband is a Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient. She works from home as a freelance writer, and currently lives in Annville with her family. As transplants to Pennsylvania, they love discovering things to do around Lebanon, going...


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