Though Steve Stanlee, who died on July 2, 2010, at the age of 90, was never as famous as his older brother “Mr. America” Gene Stanlee, he carved out an impressive, lengthy career of his own. But he never really escaped his sibling’s shadow either.
The Wrestling Fan’s Book from 1952 described Steve as the “220-pound brother of Gene (Mr. America) Stanlee, the bobby-soxers’ heartbeat … A Chicagoan like his glamour-boy brother, Steve also sports the same long blonde hair and has a ring get-up consisting of leopard-skin grappling tights and flowing velvet cape … Actually is considered stronger than his more-publicized brother.”
He was born Paul Oswald Zygowicz on February 29, 1920, in the Avondale area of Chicago to poor Polish parents Victoria and Paul Zygowicz. Paul was two years younger than Steve (Eugene), and all told, there were 15 children, nine sons and six daughters.
As a child, he was playing in a garbage dump, and fell, cutting one calf badly. His pants covered in blood, he eventually made it home, where his mother tended to his nearly-severed leg. Steve often told the story as a way of showing off the scar, which only measured about three inches on his latter-day monstrously-developed calf muscles.
Promotional material from Steve Stanlee’s early career claimed that he started wrestling pro in 1939 and went to Northwestern University for two years, studying mechanical engineering. That doesn’t really jibe, if one considers that Gene Stanlee’s first recorded match was in 1946. Initially, Steve was Paul Stanlee in ring action.
Like his brother, Steve served in the U.S. Navy, putting in four years as a Machinist’s Mate, First Class.
In an interview for the Icons of Wrestling program that aired on Canada’s Biography Channel (a feature, naturally, about his brother), Steve Stanlee recalled his time fighting in the Pacific. “There’s no way we can come out of this alive, so what’s the difference?” he remembered thinking.
The Stanlee brothers had some of the most incredible physiques in wrestling at the time. They did team here and there, but were never seen as a permanent duo by promoters.
“We trained, trained, trained. We watched our diets, did our running, just everything,” said Steve Stanlee. “We worked real hard. And we overdid it.”
“They were both bodybuilding, weightlifting,” recalled Lou Thesz in the Icons show. “They had a very good run. They were making some money, doing really well.”
According to the obituary in the Chicago Tribune, in 1947, Steve “obtained the title of Mr. America because of a combination of body building, wrestling, and power lifting skills.”
While Gene Stanlee claimed to have 20 fan clubs across the continent, the Steve Stanlee Fan Club was based out of Toronto, and had 1,000 members.
Perhaps it was his tactics.
“Steve is somewhat rougher in his mat tactics than brother Gene, but he could not be classed as a boo-evoking villain by any means,” reported the NWA Official Wrestling magazine in June 1952.
“Naturally I’m for the fans who are on my side,” he is quoted as saying in the mag, “and the ones who are against me I like too. They make me wrestle better. I never do better than when I’m being expertly heckled by some ringsider.”
He made an impression on a the Lewin family of upper New York State, who would send three brothers into the mat wars — Donn, Ted and Mark — and see their sister marry Danny McShane. Steve Stanlee lived with the Lewins for a time.
“A gentle man, with the strength of a horse, Steve lifted weights religiously,” wrote Ted Lewin in I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler. “Once he rang in the New York doing bench presses with a heavily laden Olympic bar. He never missed a health-food or protein-pill fad.”
Lewin recalled that in the ring “Steve wore gorgeous short jackets with huge puffy sleeves. They were full of piping, sequins, spangles. It was hard to say which dazzled more: his smile, the sequins — or his long blond hair. He and his brother, Gene (also known as ‘Mr. America’) bleached the hell out of their hair. Steve used to take a bath in foul-smelling stuff to get everything blond.”
During the 1950s, Stanlee travelled in the continent, and received numerous shots at the NWA World title. In the early ’60s, with Gene Stanlee having left the scene, a new Stanlee brother was brought in to form The Stanlee Steamers. The new partner was Bob Stanlee, actually Bob Merrill, who also worked as Giant Evans and Sky Hi Krueger. The Ring Wrestling wrote about this Stanlee duo in May 1963. “Bob and Steve Stanlee, known as the Stanlee Steamers-‘The Mr. Americas of Wrestling,’ are a good looking tag team … Bob has had less experience than Steve, with about four years in the pro field, but he makes up for this by his knowledge and use of Judo and Karate to make the team a well balanced duo … They are currently seen in Eastern rings.”
In the latter part of the ’60s, Steve Stanlee was used as little more than enhancement talent for bigger stars, including 1964 to 1966 in the World Wide Wrestling Federation.
Steve Stanlee died on July 2, 2010, in Lake Geneva, WI.
There will be a memorial service on Thursday, July 29, at the Steinke Funeral Home, 515 Center St., Lake Geneva, WI, with visitation starting at 10 a.m. to time of services, at 11 a.m.