"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." - John Ford
"Professional wrestling... has no history, only a past." - The Phantom of the Ring
This past Saturday marked the fifth anniversary of the death of professional wrestler Karl Charles Istaz, better remembered by his ring name, Karl Gotch. In honor of "The God of Wrestling", as he was known in Japan, KJ Gould held a Karl Gotch Week on BloodyElbow.com, wrapping it up with this great piece (which I highly recommend to everyone) on the influence Gotch had on the succeeding generations of catch wrestlers and mixed martial artists. Yet surprisingly, my favorite fellow SBNation site, CagesideSeats.com, a site dedicated to professional wrestling, neglected to post anything to mark the date.
In some ways this was fitting, for it speaks not only of the amnesia pro wrestling often displays towards its past (thus the quote above) but also the truth that when discussing Gotch's career one can not ignore the fact he has to be rated a failure in American professional wrestling. It's because of that failure however, that his impact has been so large.
For those unfamiliar with the career of Karl, he is famed in the business as a true hooker, one of the the last of the breed, a throwback to an earlier era when wrestlers could actually wrestle. Not merely amateur folkstyle, freestyle, or Greco-Roman, but the wrestling of professional wrestling... "catch-as-catch-can".
Catch was a rough-and-tumble style basically allowing everything that had ever been banned from the amateur game. Many of the theatrical moves of rasslin' today, bodyslams, sleepers and submission holds, were the bread and butter ofcatch-as-catch-can.
Karl Gotch's status as a real catch wrestler is so great that he was included in Jonathan Snowden's new book Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling, as one of the legit "shooters". According to the book, he took up the art after not only mastering more common forms of wrestling, but also surviving the worst horrors of the 20th century:
Gotch, who represented Belgium in the Olympics in 1948 as Karl Istaz, did more than anyone in a century to spread the art of catch wrestling to a new generation. A survivor of German prison camps during World War II, Gotch was tough and proud, but not too proud to admit he needed the knowledge he could only get from Riley and the wrestlers at the Snake Pit. It all started in Wigan, where he would travel to learn the real tricks of the game.
Gotch described how he came to Wigan to learn how to wrestle and what that learning process was like in an interview with Bob Leonard entitled "Karl Gotch, The Quiet Man, Speaks His Piece" which appeared in the December, 1968 edition of The Ring Wrestler:
At the first, I trained under some old-time German wrestlers to learn the basics of professional grappling, and picked up a little experience working about three matches a week. After a year of this, I heard about a great wrestling school in England, in a little town just outside Manchester called Wigan. Over there every matman knows Wigan as "The Snakepit," and believe me, that's the word for it. I saved my earning and at the first chance, struck out for England. Right in Wigan was where I learned most of what I know today, from Billy Riley and his boys... and if I could take the time, I'd go back there right now, because there's lots left to learn.
I give any credit for success to Billy Riley, the "Old Master" at Wigan. What a fantastic man? When Riley trained you, you learned to wrestle in the strictest sense of the word. You learned the basic moves first - really learned them - and then refined them. Nothing was neglected! When a man left Wigan, he took with him the imparted knowledge of Riley's thousands of matches and years of training.
Well, you know what a Snakepit is... a dangerous place! And that's just what Wigan is if you can't take care yourself. Billy Riley has no time for a man with no guts, to put it bluntly, so his training is on a 'kill or be killed' basis. In other words, you smarted up fast at Wigan and learn to defend yourself against any attack on the mat.
Gotch, like Lou Thesz, was a throwback to an earlier generation of wrestlers whose talents were actually as good as presented in the worked shows:
Both Lou and I learned our wrestling from the old-timers and greats of our sport, even though were half a world apart. Thesz started out with George Tragos in St. Louis, and after that he went to California and worked with the man I call 'the greatest of them all' - Ad Santell. Santell taught Lou every trick he knew, many of the same things I learned at Wigan, so I later found out. Lou was constantly on the mat with the old-timers, storing up experience that would take him years to learn on his own. I went over the same route, learning from the old German wrestlers and then from Billy Riley.
Unfortunately for Gotch he wasn't wrestling in the era of Ad Santell, Ed Lewis, or, his namesake, Frank Gotch, but in the post Gold Dust Trio, post Gorgeous George, televised era of American pro wrestling. That Gotch was the best wrestler meant little, as exemplified by his lack of a money making title shot against "Playboy" Buddy Rogers. Eventually, this spilled over into a locker room altercation where Gotch ended up slapping the champion around. Roberts may not have had a fraction of Gotch's wrestling ability but he had something Gotch lacked, charisma, which was far more important to the business of what was at the time "modern pro wrestling" than being a "shooter". Gotch had run himself out of the business in America, a failure in every sense, and was forced to relocate halfway across the globe.
According to Snowden, it proved to be a godsend:
Shunned and blacklisted in America, the Belgium-born grappler was embraced by the Japanese as the "God of Wrestling." The matches in the ring were still as fixed as ever, but in the dojo, where the next generation of stars was being taught, they wrestled for real, learning techniques and holds that really worked. Gotch had been trained at the famed Wigan Snakepit in England and brought those methods with him to Inoki's New Japan Pro Wrestling.
In Japan, already at the end of his career when he arrived, he flourished for a few years in the ring, but his biggest impact was out of the ring. Embraced by not only the fans, but, more importantly, the man who would become the face (or "Chin") of puroresu, Antonio Inoki, Gotch was able to mold the Japanese mat game into what he wanted pro wrestling to be. It was the birth, or rebirth, of stiff, strong, shoot style wrestling. From out of it came a revival of not only the art of catch wrestling but the return of legitimate wrestling, as well as shoot fighting and eventually mixed martial arts (MMA).
KJ Gould detailed in "Rest In Peace Kamisama" the far-reaching impact of Gotch in the Land of the Rising Sun:
The legacy of Gotch is without question. Having trained a lot of first generation New Japan Pro Wrestlers that included Antonio Inoki, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Satoru Sayama, Akira Maeda, and Tatsumi Fujinami, to the resulting lineage that produced Yori Nakamura, Erik Paulson, Greg Nelson, and the fighters they coach today on the Sayama side, to Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki on the Fujiwara side coaching Ken and Frank Shamrock, Matt Hume and Bas Rutten in Pancrase and all the great names of the sport they have in turn coached (Ken Shamrock and the Lions Den, Frank Shamrock and AKA, Matt Hume and AMC Pankration, Bas Rutten and his own pancrase gyms).
The Promotions of Shooto, Pancrase, RINGS, and Pride could all be attributed to the influence of Gotch and played host to to many of the sport's early legends such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko, and Kazushi Sakuraba.
Success for mixed martial arts is often solely credited to North America and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), but forgotten are the contributions of the Japanese promotions. It was in Japan where the idea was first introduced for MMA to be a sport governed by rules and not merely no-holds-barred street fights. It was in Japan where, after the backlash against the UFC vanquished the sport from American airwaves, it was not only kept alive, but flourished to the point it probably inspired the Fertittas it would be worth "making a go at it".
In an odd way, Gotch's greatest accomplishment was helping to lay the groundwork for a true "shoot" sport: mixed martial arts. The fact he despised the grappling in the UFC doesn't matter, he had assisted in the creation of a rival for the heart and minds of pro wrestling fans. Karl Gotch may have felt slighted by the treatment he received by pro wrestling in America, but in the end, he caused them more damage than they ever did to him.
This article presented by our guest columnist John S. Nash. In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, John Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog: BloodyElbow.com. Cageside Seats is proud to present a cross-posting of his article archives in this exclusive guest column and storystream for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content.