February 15, 1861 marks the date that the Farmer was born. He may have been heavily involved in the evolution of the showmanship side of professional wrestling; however, being a farmer was no gimmick for him. Ever since he was 11 years old he had worked on the farm and built incredible strength by doing so. His neck was his most noted feature being his neck at 20 inches in thickness on a man who normally weighed around 165lbs. It’s said he first took an interest in wrestling watching men wrestle in army camps.
Once he became a local star he started traveling further away and in 1889 he managed to last fifteen minutes with both Jack Carkeek and Evan ‘Strangler’ Lewis on the same day. Burns would continue touring the country from that day. There was no doubting the Farmer had officially made a name for himself on the wrestling scene. It’s often said that he wrestled over 6,000 matches and only lost around 7 of them. 1895 was the biggest year of his in-ring career though when he once again battled Lewis, this time winning, and capturing the American Catch-as-Catch-Can Championship on April 20.
For two and a half years he held the title until he finally lost to Dan McLeod On October 25, 1897. Some websites report that Burns was the World Light Heavyweight Champion prior to being the champion of America, however, several of his newspaper obituaries noted that he had won it after losing to McLeod, and reports that list him as the champion also concur it was after he lost the heavyweight title. It was in the late ’90’s he incorporated a side attraction into his show where by he’d hang himself with a noose and a six foot hangman’s drop, then he would talk to the audience members while hanging.
While still competing he started training new stars, one of which, Frank Gotch, would be the biggest star America had ever seen. In fact, Burns would be more than a trainer to Gotch, he would also be a manager and the leader of the troupe of wrestlers Gotch belonged too. Burns boasted the biggest troupe of wrestlers known up until that point in time. All in all through hands-on and mail-away training manuals it is said he trained over 3,000 future wrestlers. When you look at the scene in the late 1890’s going into the early 1900’s Burns’ name is at the top of the list of behind the scenes goings-on and in the forefront of action entertaining fans across the nation. Burns would stay close to the business, as well as running his own farm in Iowa, right up until his death on January 8, 1937.
He may not have been a terribly long champion or have a claim to a true world’s championship, but he was key in ushering in a new era of wrestling and laying the groundwork for the boom that would be soon to come in North America and he clearly added an aspect of blatant showmanship into American wrestling that had not really been seen in America with his patented hanging of himself. Evan Lewis may have originally popularized Catch-as-Catch-Can, but Martin ‘Farmer’ Burns made sure it was here to stay and wouldn’t fade away like Collar-and-Elbow and Graeco-Roman as they headed into the new millennium.