This article is an exclusive Cageside Features
Guest Column by: John S. Nash
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
- John Ford
Professional wrestling... has no history, only a past.
- The Phantom of the Ring
Precisely 101 years ago today, the most important match in professional wrestling history took place. There have been bigger matches in terms of money made, attendance and viewing audience, but no contest in the intervening century can match the impact that the meeting between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt on September 4th, 1911, had on the sport of professional wrestling.
Never before, or since, has there been an event which not only signaled wrestling's ascension to the top of the sporting hierarchy, ahead of boxing, baseball and bicycle racing, but was also coincidentally the catalyst which transformed wrestling from sport into "sports entertainment".
The two participants of this most important contest, Frank Gotch and 'Georg' (or George, to the English speaking world) Hackenschmidt had dominated wrestling in the first decade of the 20th century.
Hackenschmidt, or "Hack" as he was known, was not only the premiere wrestler of Europe but was viewed as perhaps the era's greatest athlete.
Born on August 1, 1877 in Estonia, which was then part of the Russian Empire, Hack was discovered at the age of 20 by the personal physician of the Czar, Dr. Von Krajewski, who brought him to St. Petersburg where he supervised his physical development along with his training in Greco-Roman wrestling.
By the fin de siècle, "The Russian Lion", as he became known, was labeled by some as ‘the strongest man in the world'. Renowned for his incredible feats of strength, being capable of carrying a small horse on his shoulders, with a single hand deadlifting a 660 pound stone, or lifting a 269 pound weight over his head using only one arm.
Nevertheless, his athletic accomplishments were not limited to strongmen tricks: he excelled at swimming, running and bike racing and once, on a bet, jumped onto a table 100 consecutive times while his feet were bound together. In addition, his intellectual prowess was equally impressive. He was a hyper-polyglot, who later in life would write several books, including those on philosophy.
As impressive as all these accomplishments were, Hack surpassed them all in the grappling arena. He won the 1898 Greco-Roman amateur wrestling championship of Europe in Vienna before entering the professional ranks where he ran off one of the most impressive streaks ever recorded, winning prestigious tournament after tournament (although the legitimacy of many of these could be questioned) across Europe, including those in Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Munich, Budapest and Hamburg.
In 1902, he went to England, becoming the greatest draw and highest paid athlete in not only the British Isles but in the history of the sport. He was a sensation facing "All Comers" (learning not to defeat his opponents too quickly, less the paying public get bored) at music halls, and one particularly famous match against "The Terrible Turk" Ahmed Madrali at Olympia Hall, triggered the largest traffic jam recorded at that time in the history of London due to the massive crowds attending.
George Hackenschmidt would eventually go on to become the first true "World Champion", unifying the American and European championships, along with the Greco-Roman and catch-as-catch-can heavyweight titles, by beating the American champ Tom Jenkins, first in 1904, in London, under Greco-Roman rules, and then the next year, inNew York City, under catch-as-catch-can rules. (The NWA has traced its belt's lineage back to this match.)
By 1911, Hackenschmidt was reported to have participated in some 3,000 matches (the number of legitimate contests is impossible to ascertain) with the only blemish in the previous decade being a loss to his upcoming opponent, Frank Gotch.
Gotch, "The Iowa Playboy" was born only a year after his coeval Hackenschmidt, on April 27, 1878. He was raised by German immigrant parents in Humboldt, Iowa, where hard work on the family farm helped develop him into a rugged grappler.
In 1899, at the age of 22, he lost a close match to a "furniture dealer" in La Verne, Iowa. His opponent's real identity was that of American catch-as-catch-can champion Dan McLeod, who had come to town looking to sucker unwitting locals to wager on their hometown heroes. So impressed was he with his "mark's" performance, that he notified Martin "Farmer" Burns of the young grapplers presence.
Burns, a man who literally wrote the book on wrestling, immediately recognized Gotch's potential. Taking him under his wing, he began to mold him into the next great wrestling champion, teaching him each and every of his many tricks of the game, including those outside the ring.
He was sent to Alaska under the alias "Frank Kennedy" to learn the art of the swindle and then served as something of a policeman for Burns and McLeod, although he failed to stop the current champ, Tom Jenkins, in his first couple of meetings.
Eventually, Gotch would become as tough as "Rough Tom", developing a notoriety for cruelly punishing his opponents with "torture holds", the most infamous being his "toe-hold", with which he could break an ankle, snap a leg or cause serious knee damage. After finally managing to capture the American Title from Jenkins, Gotch and Burns immediately went to work arranging a shot at Hackenschmidt and the World Title.
The first Gotch-Hackenschmidt contest took place on April 3, 1908, in front of a reported 8,000 fans at the Dexter Park Pavilion located in the old Chicago stock yards.
Gotch entered the contest anywhere from a 3-to-1 to a 5-to-1 underdog, so confident were the "sports" in Hack's superiority to the Iowan (and based on their performances against their mutual opponent, Tom Jenkins). Little did anyone suspect the match would become infamous for Hackenschmidt quitting...
"Gotch, the American wrestler, severely punished Hackenschmidt at Chicago during a two-hour' catch-as-catch-can contest, and finally threw Hackenschmidt heavily. Though the referee disallowed the fall, Hackenschmidt refused to continue, thereby forfeiting the world's championship."
Hackenschmidt left the ring bearing the scars from his loss.
"While Gotch was still comparatively fresh and active, his opponent, with puffed and bleeding lips, half blinded eyes and the skin peeled from many parts of his body, appeared anything but the world's famous wrestling champion who had thrown hundreds of gigantic opponents during his career."
Hackenschmidt, used to the physical, but refined, game in Europe, had not been prepared for what American catch had to offer. Even his contests with Jenkins seemed rather gentile in comparison to those Gotch had with the "Rougher" (suggesting Jenkins had not given it his all).
The New York World ran off a litany of offenses that the paper and Hackenschmidt claimed were committed by Gotch during the match, stating:
"Gotch jammed his thumbs into Hackenschmidt repeatedly, [Hackenschmidt] complained to the referee, who declined to interfere. Hackenschmidt also declared that Gotch had oiled body prior to wrestling. The "Russian Lion" states Gotch dug his finger nails into his opponent's face, tried to pull his ear off, and, instead of wrestling, fought like a cat."
Many were offended by Gotch's tactics, and supporters rallied to Hackenschmidt's defense. Hackenschmidt himself, once safely back in London, joined in the chorus of critics demanding a rematch, a rematch that he and the public would have to wait more than three years for, before finally coming to fruition.
Hackenschmidt was quite blunt as to why this much desired rematch, as well as a contest between him and Swiss Champion John Lemm, was not being immediately made, explaining to Health and Strength Magazine in 1909:
"You must remember that a match with Lemm, whether I won or lost it, would not yield me any substantial financial profit. In any event, I should be compelled to sacrifice several weeks' engagements in order to train for the encounter, and by so doing, I should lose quite as much money as I shall receive for my share of the purse. In addition to which there would be, of course, my training expenses, to say nothing of the really heavy financial loss I should incur in the event of my being defeated.
"Quite a number of people seem to fancy that a professional boxer or wrestler should always be willing to accommodate any rival who wishes to challenge him, without the slightest regard for his present or future career. They conveniently forget that a professional wrestler or boxer is quite as much a businessman as any tradesman or professional in any other calling, whether it be law, medicine, engineering, music or architecture.
"Wrestling is my business and I have always tried to conduct it in a business like fashion. I am certainly very fond of the sporting element which enters into it, but should be absurdly careless if I allowed my tastes in that direction to interfere too seriously with my career in life."
By 1910, with neither side able to come to an agreement for a rematch, Gotch toyed with retirement; but was talked out of it by Jack Curley, who believed, according to Jonathan Snowden in his book, Shooters that:
"Curley, a genius promoter who had booked the speaking tour of William Jenning Bryan and performances by the Vatican choir, had gotten involved in the wrestling game when boxing was banned in many locales in 1909. Curley successfully promoted a Gotch title defense against Yussif Mahmout in April of that year, drawing 10,000 fans in Chicago to see Gotch whip a foreign foe who would later become his training partner and right hand man.
"Curley had connections to seemingly every major wrestler of the era. He had promoted Gotch in several matches and a big money tour, managed Roller in the good doctor's bouts in London, and emerged in 1910 as the manager of George Hackenschmidt as well."
Curley was able to sign Hackenschmidt on for an American tour for $10,000, and another $13,500, to face Gotch in Chicago once again. The Iowan champ for his part would get $21,000 for the match and an additional fifty percent of all motion picture profits. Massive fortunes for any athlete at that time. Hackenschmidt also won an important concession for the upcoming contest:
"Special rules were agreed to for this match, which provided that the men should not make use of grease, rosin, or toilet cream, and that each contestant should have his fingers and toe-nails pared to the satisfaction of the referee. No holds except strangle holds were barred, and it was specially provided also that to gouge any portion of the head or body of the opponent with fingers, thumbs, toes, chin, or elbows, willfully to strike or kick the opponent to pull his hair or ears, or to put fingers under the opponent's nostrils was prohibited under pain of disqualification."
By all accounts, Hackenschmidt took the match very seriously, immediately setting up a camp in his Shoreham, England villa, where he studied the catch-as-catch-can game under Dr. Roller, Jacob Koch and Adolph Ernest, better known as Ad Santell. He retained Roller and Koch for his American tour and several weeks before the contest set up a new training camp in Chicago where he paid Wladek Zybyszko and "Americus" Gus Schoenlein to assist in his training. So focused was he on his preparation, Hack had brought to Chicago his own "special chef to cook his meals and ten barrels of French spring water, not wishing to take any chances with a change of diet."
For his part, Gotch retreated to his Iowa home for the five months before the contest, where he ran through the hills of Humboldt, while rolling with a rotating team that included Yussif Hussane, Henry Ordemann, Jess Westergard, Joe Rogers, Charlie Olsen and Fred Beell. The entire training regimen was overseen by his manager, Emil Klank, in conjunction with his longtime coach, the wily Farmer Burns.
As the day of the match approached, the public's anticipation, both in the United States and around the world, grew to a level unmatched in history (with the possible exception of Johnson-Jeffries). It was being labeled "The Event of the century"...
"It will be a battle of the monsters, the clash of two veritable man mountain marvels of speed, strength. And endurance; and - a fight to the finish. By sundown Monday, one of two things will be fact: A champion, raised on a pedestal of glory and lauded as never before has a champion been lauded, will have justified the admiration that has been his, or he will have fallen before one of even greater prowess, and with him the pride of the American people.
Percy Sholto Douglas, the 10th Marquis of Queensbury, covering the contest for the Chicago Daily American Newswrote in his report "Title Match Excites Country":
"Yesterday I was wondering in my mind what on earth sporting Chicago was going to do with itself after the big event of this afternoon was over. "
So great was the work done by Jack Curley, that Referee Ed Smith later recalled that:
"As a promotional effort, this second match will stand out in my memory as one of the world's greatest accomplishments in that line."
The match was held on a Labor Day Monday at the then newly built Comiskey Park in Chicago, IL. The baseball home of the White Sox drew a reported crowd of over 30,000 paying spectators, with another 40,000 left outside without a ticket to be had. It was not only the biggest match ever held in professional wrestling but, behind only the previous year's Johnson-Jeffries boxing match, was the biggest gate of the pre-Dempsey era. Camera crews were set up all around the stadium to record the event for a future theatrical run. The interest was so high that the AP (Associated Press) set up a special Morse telephone circuit to give out minute-by-minute updates across the country.
In the days beforehand, betting odds had been relatively even, but in the hours, leading up to the match Gotch had risen from a 5-to-3 favorite to as high as a 3-to-1 or even a 5-to-1 favorite. Rumors were floating around that Hackenschmidt had been injured, even skipping out on planned promotional appearances. When he finally came to the ring, it did nothing to quell the talk, for Hack came out in full tights where he usually wore shorts, had a noticeable limp, and was visibly nervous, even pale.
Worse yet, he looked out of shape, with a roll of fat where "The Russian Lion" had previously been all muscle. With whispers passing through the crowd, Chief of Police McSweeney stepped into the ring and declared that all bets were off.
With no money to be made wagering on the outcome, the spectators focused on the match itself, although it wasn't much of one:
"The story of the actual wrestling is soon told. Time was called at 3:15 o'clock. The contestants immediately locked heads and began feeling each other out. For five minutes, they tugged at each other's necks, wrists and arms, but neither obtained dangerous hold.
"It was Gotch who first turned attention to the legs. Me [sic] made several fake passes at Hackenschmidt's knees before he finally obtained a knee hold at the end of the eight and a half minutes. Once the Iowan's massive hands were fastened on Hackenschmidt's left leg the Russian went down. He struggled out of them and a subsequent hold of the same kind and then became the aggressor. He got a body hold and put Gotch to the mat. But the American was down only a minute.
"After 14 minutes of wrestling Gotch started Hackenschmidt down with a knee hold, faked crotch and then quickly worked the Russian into a half nelson. They struck the mat together, head to head. Then Gotch pivoted on his opponent's stomach, clamped on a reverse body hold, and the first fall was over.
"The first five minutes of the second bout was a replica of that period in the first. But, all of a sudden, Gotch reached down his right hand, grasped Hackenschmidt's left ankle and unbalanced the lion."
With Hackenschmidt on his back, Gotch quickly applied his dreaded toehold:
"Referee Smith is authority for the statement that when Gotch secured the fatal toe lock, which won the second fall, Hackenschmidt cried out: "Don't hurt my toe!" And a second later "Don't break my leg!" and fell with his shoulders to the mat, frothing at the mouth."
"The knee sank to the floor with a crash and Hack uttered a cry of pain. Gotch reached for, got a toehold, and started to twist. Hack howled again and, as he flopped to his left side, Gotch said very calmly, looking almost in his face, "Will you go down or shall I break it?"
"Stop, I'll go down" shrilled Hack and the great match was over."
Not only had Hackenschmidt fallen again to Gotch, it was the first time he had ever had his shoulders pinned to the mat. Immediately after the loss the Russian Lion declared, "It was the cheapest world's championship ever won!",claiming he had entered the contest with an injured knee, the bandaging for it hidden beneath his full-length pants.
Hackenschmidt had a history of knee problems, even undergoing surgery in 1905. But he swore that he signed on to this match in complete health. Unfortunately, a fortnight before the contest, according to Hackenschmidt, they were finishing a day of grappling when he asked Dr. Ben Roller to make one more attempt at keeping him down.
"Let's do it once more," I said, and down I went again, with the doctor behind me. I jumped up to try and free myself, and this time he did not try to hold me. He went up with me. As we got on our legs, his right foot struck my right knee. I heard three distinct little pops, like small corks being drawn, and I dropped to the floor, to lie there like a log."
Later stories would arise that Ad Santell had intentionally injured Gotch after being paid to do so by Farmer Burns. The contradictory facts of the story indicating Santell worked with Hackenschmidt in England rather than Chicago, and Hackenschmidt, Roller, and Curley all having confirmed it was Doc Roller who had injured him, and perhaps the simple matter an injury could have forced a cancellation of the match as easily at it could have given Gotch the advantage, have done little to dissuade the tales.
Because of his loyalty to Jack Curley, and the money which his friend had riding on the contest, Hackenschmidt decided to go ahead with the event. Even so, he was despondent after the loss, visibly weeping in the dressing room.
Hoping to make up for the performance, Hackenschmidt posted $5,000 for a private return match with Gotch (private matches, because of the lack of money to be made off ticket sales or public wagering were more likely to be legitimate "shoot" matches) immediately afterwards. However, when Frank accepted, on the terms that it would have to be held in the next two months, it was rescinded.
The repercussions from Gotch-Hackenschmidt were immense. Between their 1908 contest and the buildup into the 1911 rematch, the nation experienced an explosion in interest in all things wrestling, both professional and amateur. As KJ Gould has explained:
"The first match had invigorated the collegiate wrestling programs in East Coast states and by the time of the rematch Universities in states such as Iowa and Pennsylvania had Wrestling programs well underway. The popularity of the two at the time cannot be undersold, and with Gotch winning and retaining the title on American soil catalyzed athletic clubs and YMCAs to adopt wrestling classes as part of their programs."
The second match's influence was not nearly as positive. Almost immediately, the contest was labeled a "hippodrome" and a "fraud" by a public that had soured on being taken in by the hucksters. According to the September 5th, 1911 Chicago Tribune:
"Most of the spectators filed out of the place in orderly fashion, feeling something had been done to them, they knew not exactly what, but something."
The Mayor of Chicago even went so far as to label the contest two years later as "The Labor Day swindle at White Sox Park in 1911."
In the immediate aftermath, attendance plummeted but would soon recover, reaching even higher numbers by 1920, thanks to the rotating championship between Caddock, Stecher, Lewis, and Wladek. More importantly though, the sportsman and gamblers left the sport, convinced that wrestling could never be more than a sucker's bet, taking with them their betting rolls.
Without money from gambling, wrestling became completely dependent on a paying public at the gates. A public who had little to no interest in paying for the long matches many were now convinced were all fixed. This led to the promoters focusing on offering a faster, more entertaining style, one that drifted further and further away from actual wrestling and more towards what was referred to as "Slam-Bam Western Style Wrestling", or even more condescending "Circus Show" wrestling. Within a generation, wrestling would mutate so greatly that it would have been unrecognizable to those in attendance in 1911.
The match that started it all was that "event of the century" between Gotch and Hackenschmidt, 101 years ago.
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.
Via Ken Viewer at WrestlingClassics.com