InterMat Rewind: Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt

Mark Palmer

8/28/2007
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

It seemed like a classic mismatch -- one of those wrestling match-ups where the outcome was assured long before the contestants took to the mat.

In one corner, the defending champ, from Russia, known as "the Lion" -- undefeated in a long string of bouts with internationally-respected competition. An incredible physical specimen with a 20-inch neck, and 52-inch chest tapering down to a 36-inch waist, the muscular Russian caused more than one opponent to literally submit to end the match early rather than get caught up in the crushing power of his bearhug and risk injury being lifted high overhead and thrown violently to the mat for the fall.

Facing this fearsome champion, a farm boy from the heartland of America -- the best big man this country had to offer. Although lacking the showy muscles of his foreign rival, the US wrestler was deceptively strong from years of hoisting hay bales and hogs.

This account may sound familiar to modern-day wrestling fans. But, no, this isn't a description of the contestants of the super-heavyweight Greco-Roman finals match at the 2000 Sydney Olympics between defending champ Alexander Karelin of Russia ... known as "the Siberian Tiger" for the ferocity with which he tore into opponents, and "the Experiment" for his almost freakishly muscular physique -- and Rulon Gardner, the Wyoming dairy farmer who shocked the world by handing the three-time Olympic gold medallist his first defeat in thirteen years.

What we're describing is a match-up from nearly a century ago between George "the Russian Lion" Hackenschmidt, the massively muscular world wrestling champion ... and Frank "the Iowa Plowboy" Gotch. The two men met in the professional wrestling ring twice -- first, in April 1908, and then on Labor Day 1911 -- both times in Chicago.

Why are we talking about pro wrestlers?

The first question that may have occurred to many of you is: RevWrestling.com is an amateur wrestling website. What is an article about professional wrestlers and their matches doing here?

For starters, George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch were major sports superstars of the early 20th century. Fans of all ages collected cabinet cards and postcards with their images, read their books, and devoured articles about them in newspapers. Their epic matches were front-page news around the world -- akin to today's Super Bowl or soccer's World Cup in terms of garnering global attention -- and helped to launch organized amateur wrestling in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. In fact, a large number of high school and college wrestling programs can trace their roots back to the 1910s and 1920s -- the era when Hackenschmidt and Gotch were still household names, and highly respected athletes.

Historical perspective

The world of George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch was a vastly different place than we know today. Realize that their first match in April 1908 was less than five years after Wilbur and Orville Wright had their first successful flight of a motorized aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (December 1903), so commercial air travel was still a number of years in the future. Likewise, the automobile was still somewhat rare. Before Henry Ford got into the car business in 1903, only the rich could afford automobiles ... and, outside the cities, paved roads were few and far between. Passenger trains were the primary means for Americans to travel great distances on land; overseas travel was limited to ships. (Note that the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 was just eight months after the second Gotch/Hackenschmidt match on Labor Day 1911 ... and World War I was yet to occur.)

In 1908, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was in his last year of his second term as US President; William Howard Taft would be inaugurated as President in 1909. The US population in 1908 was approximately 89 million, growing to 94 million by 1911 -- one-third of today's census figures. At the time of the Gotch/Hackenschmidt matches, host city Chicago had nearly two million residents, and was the second-largest city in the country.

The sports page 100 years ago

What were the popular sports of a century ago? Major league baseball got plenty of newspaper coverage and drew thousands of fans; Frank Gotch took in a Chicago Cubs game the Sunday afternoon before the 1911 rematch. Another fan favorite was professional cycling -- bicycle races, usually held on steeply banked oval tracks, was all the rage in the early 1900s. Football was a college game that was working to overcome an image as a violent, brutal and sometimes deadly sport; there was no National Football League. Likewise, the National Basketball Association was a distant dream; basketball was a game played in schools and at YMCAs.

As for personal combat sports in the early part of the 20th century, boxing seemed to have a split personality. "The manly art of self-defense" was a staple at private men's clubs and many colleges as a pure, amateur athletic endeavor, while, professional boxing matches were outlawed in many states. Organized amateur wrestling had something of an elite image, as it was pretty much limited to men's athletic clubs, Y's, and eastern colleges such as Penn State and Ivy League schools. Unlike today, professional wrestling was viewed as a legitimate sporting activity by the general public. Among pro wrestling historians, there is some debate as to how "real" it was; some argue that "routine" matches had predetermined outcomes, while many if not most historians seem to be in agreement that championship matches were real contests.

It's also important to note that the theatrical elements we associate with today's WWE -- wrestlers portraying roles as "faces" (good guys) or "heels" (bad guys), wearing costumes, performing spectacular moves, and acting out soap-opera-like storylines -- were not in evidence in professional wrestling in the Gotch/Hackenschmidt era. Both of their championship matches were filmed and shown to the public in theaters, but these films cannot be located at this time. However, a number of amateur wrestling champions have viewed the oldest existing film available of a professional wrestling match: a 1920 title bout at Madison Square Garden between Joe Stecher and Earl Caddock -- two Midwestern farm boys who were also World War I heroes -- and have commented on how much it looks like a modern-day college wrestling match. There were no flying chairs, no flying leaps off the top rope, no chokeholds, no whipping the opponent into the turnbuckles. From viewing this film and reading accounts of other professional wrestling matches of the time, it seems the Stecher-Caddock title match was a typical example of professional wrestling in the US up to the early to mid- 1920s, when the theatrical aspect we associate with pro wrestling today started to make its appearance.

Say hello to George Hackenschmidt

George Hackenschmidt
Although known as the Russian Lion, George Hackenschmidt was actually born in Dorpat, Estonia in the summer of 1878. As a teen, "Hack" developed into a physical specimen who performed feats of strength, even lifting a small horse off the ground. After he turned eighteen, Hackenschmidt worked as an engineer, but dabbled in weightlifting. It was at this time his life took a major turn; after sustaining an injury, he visited a local doctor who had a distinguished guest staying with him, Dr. von Krajewski, a physician to the Russian czar. Dr. Krajewski asked Hack to come stay with him in St. Petersburg, Russia with the idea of developing him as a professional athlete and wrestler.

At Dr. Krajewski's direction, Hackenschmidt had the opportunity to work out with and compete against the best wrestlers from throughout Europe, mastering Greco-Roman technique. In 1902, Hack won the European Greco-Roman heavyweight title by defeating Tom Cannon of England; in 1905, he beat Tom Jenkins, the American heavyweight champ (and future wrestling coach at West Point), making George Hackenschmidt the first widely recognized World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.

Meet Frank Gotch

Although born the same year as George Hackenschmidt (1878), Frank Gotch's upbringing was significantly different. Born as the youngest of nine children on a farm near Humboldt, Iowa about 90 miles northwest of Des Moines, Gotch grew strong not from lifting barbells but from farm chores ... and learned to wrestle from grappling with his brothers and other boys in the area.

By his late teens, Gotch developed a reputation in north-central Iowa as being a tough wrestler. That reputation was cemented when he wrestled a man who identified himself as a traveling salesman but was actually professional wrestler Dan McLeod. Although McLeod won the two-hour bout (wrestled outdoors on a cinder track), he was impressed with the young farmer, and arranged for Gotch to meet Martin "Farmer" Burns, a legendary Iowa wrestler who was well into his fifties at the time. Burns became Gotch's trainer and mentor for the rest of his wrestling career.

Frank Gotch
In the early days of the 20th century, Frank Gotch first made a name for himself -- and a sizeable fortune -- wrestling in the gold rush country of Alaska and the Yukon, then traveling the US, taking on all comers. In his climb to the top, the Iowa farm boy had a series of eight matches over a number of years with the Cleveland ironman and wrestling champ Tom Jenkins, Gotch won five of them, and, by 1906, had become the US Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.

It was destined that George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch -- the two wrestling champs of the same age but vastly different backgrounds -- would meet in the ring not just once, but twice.

The build-up to the first bout

The first title match between the champion George Hackenschmidt and the challenger Frank Gotch was held the night of April 3, 1908 in Chicago at Dexter Park Pavilion, a shed-like structure seating 10,000 fans on the southwest side of the city, in the area where the Windy City's famous stockyards once were.

The general consensus among sportswriters and fans was that the match would be typical for Hack; he usually dispatched his opponents in ten minutes or less, either by submission from his powerful bearhug, or by pin. In fact, some of Gotch's friends actually feared for the Iowan's physical well-being. These fears were not totally groundless, at least when comparing the two men's physical attributes, and their levels of experience. Although Gotch was the same age as Hack (30 years old), the Russian Lion had reportedly wrestled over one thousand matches compared to about one hundred professional bouts for the Iowan. What's more, Hackenschmidt outweighed the challenger by twelve pounds (208 vs. 196), and, in terms of the "tale of the tape," had the farmer beat in just about every measurement other than height (Gotch was 5' 11", while Hackenschmidt was 5'9").

In his prime in 1908, George Hackenschmidt had the same neck, chest and waist measurements as Brock Lesnar when he wowed college crowds as the University of Minnesota heavyweight (though Lesnar was nearly a half-foot taller and sixty pounds heftier). Fans in the stands for the 1908 title bout reportedly ooh'ed and ahh'ed when the muscular Russian stripped off his robe to show his massive chest and v-taper torso. Teddy Roosevelt -- who wrestled and boxed in his youth -- said upon meeting the champion at the White House, "If I weren't President, I'd want to be George Hackenschmidt."

Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt shake hands prior to their match in 1908
Even Gotch was in awe of Hack's physique: "Picture the most perfect man, and you've described George Hackenschmidt," said the Iowa Plowboy, who, while lacking the muscular definition that was the Russian Lion's hallmark, was no slouch himself in terms of body-build. Gotch had a 44" chest and 36" waist developed from years of farm chores, miles of roadwork, and long workout sessions with Farmer Burns and other top US wrestlers.

To put these wrestlers' measurements in perspective in the early 1900s, the typical American man stood about 5'6" to 5'8", weighing in at about 135-145 pounds, with a lean, wiry body-build gained from the physical demands of farming or factory work so both Gotch and Hack were considered physical specimens -- and even "supermen" -- by the standards of the day.

"Clash of the Titans"

After an evening of preliminary matches, George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch met in the ring at Dexter Park Pavilion after 10 p.m. on an unusually warm early spring night. The two men were cautious at first, with Gotch trying to remain out of the reach of the champion and his powerful bearhug. The Iowan kept Hack at arms' length, wrapping his hands around the champ's powerful neck, exerting downward pressure in an attempt to wear him down.

According to accounts of the match, there was plenty of hand-fighting and tying-up in the stand-up position, with some successful takedowns and throws that brought the action to the mat ... but, from most reports, the match had long periods of tying up and pushing each other around the ring, punctuated by bursts of tremendous action.

Because it was a warm night -- and the match was contested under intense lights for film cameras -- both wrestlers broke out into a sweat early. (Both men were stripped to the waist; Hackenschmidt wore trunks, while Gotch wore full-length tights.) After about an hour of wrestling, the champion straightened out of his familiar crouch position, complaining to the referee that he couldn't get a grip on Gotch's body, alleging that the Iowan was "oiled up." Hack proposed that the match be postponed so that both men could take a hot bath. The referee refused, telling Hack, in essence, he should have raised the issue earlier, and the match continued.

Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt in 1908
A few minutes later, Hackenschmidt again straightened up, and said to the challenger, "We shall declare this a draw." Gotch laughed, saying, "Let's wrestle" and tore into the champion. The Iowan later said that he knew at this point he had won the match, that Hack was pretty much admitting defeat. Then again, the Russian Lion usually didn't have to wrestle for more than an hour!

At about the two-hour point of the match, Gotch brought the Russian muscleman to the mat on his stomach, and clamped on his favorite submission hold, the step-over toehold, with the Iowan grabbing his rival's ankle, and pulling it up along his back. The pressure would force the opponent onto his back for the pin ... if he didn't cry uncle first.

Hackenschmidt was in tremendous pain ... but refused to submit, and fought off attempts to turn him to his back. However, after a few minutes of struggle, he realized there was no way out, other than to say, "I surrender the title to you, Mr. Gotch." The referee told the farmer to release the hold. With that, after a match that lasted two hours and three minutes, there was a new world heavyweight wrestling champ and his name was Frank Alvin Gotch.

The Russian Lion's post-match allegations

In interviews immediately after the match, George Hackenschmidt was gracious in defeat but his tone changed once he was back in Europe, where he accused the Iowa Plowboy of unsportsmanlike behavior. Hack alleged that Gotch had soaked his body and hair in turpentine to make it impossible for him to get a grip -- a claim that is hard to fathom, since turpentine would have been even more toxic to the Iowan as for the champ.

George Hackenschmidt
Hackenschmidt also claimed the new champ was abusive both physically and verbally. From various accounts, Gotch did rough up the champion with headbutts, slaps to the face and other "ungentlemanly" behavior, though Hack engaged in some of this rough stuff, too. Reports at the time also indicate that the Iowan taunted the Russian Lion during the match with statements such as "Who taught you to wrestle?" and "You're going home without the title." (While there are some accounts that have Hack responding to some of Gotch's jibes, his quoted comments were generally not of a taunting nature.)

Was this typical behavior in a professional wrestling match of a century ago? From reading accounts of matches of the era, it almost seems as if there were two types of bouts: those that were seemingly "gentlemanly" affairs, held in men's clubs, hotel ballrooms and other places of refinement, strictly adhering to Greco-Roman rules -- the kind of matches George Hackenschmidt normally wrestled in Europe ... and the more freewheeling type matches, held just about anywhere indoors or outside, where there were few rules, and submission holds were allowed -- the kind of matches that were Frank Gotch's bread and butter. While Hack's matches tended to be brief and "polite," he easily defeated Tom Jenkins, the Cleveland steelworker who was known for his brutal, no-holds-barred style of combat ... so it's not as if Hack had never encountered this type of wrestling.

It's most likely that Hack was frustrated that the match with Gotch didn't go his way. The Russian Lion was accustomed to a bit of Greco-Roman hand-fighting, then putting an opponent in his powerful bearhug and securing a quick win -- either by having his rival submit from the crushing pain, or throwing him to the mat and pinning him. Most of Hack's matches were over in ten or fifteen minutes. He was unaccustomed to wrestling a two-hour match, and, despite his incredible musculature, lacked the stamina to battle that long, while Frank Gotch was trained for this type of long, grueling match, incorporating miles of roadwork in the rolling Iowa countryside into his daily workout routine to build endurance.

The new champ

Meanwhile, as the new world champion, Frank Gotch continued his wrestling career and was the star of a playlet "All About A Bout" for the vaudeville circuit in which he played a college wrestling champ called in as a last-minute opponent for a muscular European champion named Atlas. The play concluded with a climatic wrestling match on stage, giving theatergoers an opportunity to see the Iowa Plowboy stripped for action on the mat. Plays like these were common at the time; for instance, boxing champions often appeared on stage in star vehicles designed to showcase their physiques and athletic ability, not necessarily stretch their acting muscles. In addition, films of the Gotch/Hackenschmidt match were also shown in movie theaters.

Gotch took "All About A Bout" to England, with the hope of setting up a return match with George Hackenschmidt. But no meeting took place -- on the mat, or anywhere else. Reports in the Australian press claim a rematch was arranged in the Land Down Under for 1909, but there is no record of Gotch ever traveling to Australia, let alone planning the trip.

Frank Gotch
Even with the play and touring the country taking on challengers, Frank Gotch found time for other endeavors. In the summer of 1910, Gotch and Farmer Burns were asked to help their friend, former heavyweight boxing champ Jim Jeffries, come out of retirement in an attempt to take back the title from Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champ, but "the Great White Hope" was knocked out by Johnson in a July 4, 1910 title bout in Reno, Nevada. (Some in the boxing community wanted Gotch to put on the gloves vs. Johnson, but he refused.) In January 1911, Gotch married Gladys Oestrich of his hometown of Humboldt.

After many attempts at trying to arrange a Gotch/Hackenschmidt rematch, the champion, who was torn between not granting a second match after the Russian Lion's allegations of cheating and foul behavior, and yet wanting the opportunity to once and for all prove to the public that he was the better man in the wrestling ring -- finally came to terms with promoters. The rematch was set, for September 4, 1911 -- Labor Day Monday -- at Chicago's then-new Comiskey Park straight south of downtown, home of the Chicago White Sox until the late 1980s.

The 1911 rematch

This time, the pre-match build-up was even more intense than it was three-and-a-half-years earlier. The press camped out at each man's training headquarters, much to the consternation of George Hackenschmidt, who did not want the media attention, and, in fact, broke a contract with the Chicago Athletic Club where he was scheduled to train. Instead, the Russian Lion conducted his training in the weeks prior to the match in the privacy of his hotel ... doing his roadwork late at night on the beaches of Lake Michigan.

To avoid a repeat of some of the problems of the 1908 match, both parties approved a detailed set of rules published for all to see in the Chicago papers. The rules mandated that both men wrestle bare-chested, but there was a specific rule outlawing either wrestler from applying oil, grease or other lotions to his hair or body. The rules also stipulated a best-of-three falls format, with the requirement that a match be ended by a fall, not by a submission, to avoid any confusion as to when a match was over.

The stands at Comiskey Park were packed with 35,000 spectators -- the most ever to see a wrestling match
On a sunny, warm Labor Day afternoon, the stands at Comiskey Park were packed with 35,000 spectators -- the most ever to see a wrestling match. To the resounding cheers of the fans, the two wrestlers strode out separately from the home team baseball dugout to the ring set up on the baseball diamond. (The only seats around it were apparently for the press, which numbered nearly 500.)

The champion, Frank Gotch, came first to the ring ... then, a few minutes later, the challenger, George Hackenschmidt. Those in attendance were startled to see that the Russian Lion was not quite in the same shape as he had been in 1908, now carrying a 40" waist, and tipping the scales at 224 pounds -- sixteen pounds heftier than in the first match, and nineteen pounds heavier than the Iowan. More than one newspaper mentioned Hack's larger, softer physique; one of the boldest, the Ames (Iowa) Intelligencer declared, "Hackenschmidt, untrained, was hog fat." Astute observers also noticed that Hack was wearing full-length tights, with padding around his left knee; the former champ normally wrestled in trunks without tights.

Frank Gotch pins George Hackenschmidt at 14 minutes 18 seconds of the first round
Once the customary pre-match photos were taken, the bell was rung, and the battle was on. The action was much faster than in the 1908 bout, with Frank Gotch being the more aggressive of the two. After Hack scored a takedown and was on top of Gotch's back, the Iowan managed to escape and bring the Russian Lion down with a heel-pick. Having Hack on his back, the champ feinted his famous toehold; the Russian went to his left side, making it possible for Gotch to grab the left leg with a bar hold, locking his right arm. Pulling up on the leg forced Hack onto his shoulders for the pin at 14 minutes 18 seconds of the first round.

Hackenschmidt went back to his dressing room for the fifteen minutes between rounds, while Gotch sat ringside, wrapped in his robe, smiling and waving to the crowd.

Newspaper reports indicate that Hackenschmidt started the second round with more confidence than on display in the first ... but Gotch was even fiercer in his attacks on the former champion. Gotch pulled Hack to him by an arm hold, spun the Russian around and down to the mat, landing on top. The Iowan tried for the toehold, with Hackenschmidt yelling, "Don't break my foot" according to the referee Robert Smith, who informed the former champ that there would have to be a fall. After a few seconds of thought, Hack rolled onto his back for the fall at just five minutes 32 seconds into the second round. Frank Gotch was still the world champion!

Aftermath

Immediately after the 1911 Labor Day title match, newspapers were full of negative reports. For starters, it was reported that the Chicago police chief had declared "All bets off" before the match even started, apparently because betting action was so lopsided in favor of Frank Gotch. Many of the newspaper articles alleged that Hack had quit cold, commenting on his "yellow streak." Later it was disclosed that Hackenschmidt had accidentally injured his left knee in a training session with professional wrestler Benjamin Roller, but had been persuaded to go out and wrestle by the promoter who appealed to the former champ's pride and desire to settle the score with Gotch. (The promoter no doubt had visions of his own payday slipping away if there had not been a match.)

A few years later, another professional wrestler, Ad Santel, claimed that he had been hired by someone in Frank Gotch's entourage to purposely injure Hack's knee in training, assuring that Gotch would retain the title. Because it sounds like a plot line on a modern-day WWE broadcast, this story has taken on a life of its own in recent times, being presented in many books and websites as gospel truth. The story was given added credence by the late Lou Thesz, a highly-respected, long-time pro wrestling champ, who said that his mentor Santel told him all the details. Hackenschmidt made no such allegations; in fact, Hack had a long history of knee problems and wrote about them in his books. What's more, the Australian newspapers reported that Hackenschmidt was forced to have knee surgery upon arriving in Sydney in 1906, delaying his wrestling tour of Australia.

Frank Gotch battles Farmer Burns
Frank Gotch remained the world champ until he retired in 1913. In late 1916, his health took a sudden turn for the worse. He died in December 1917 of kidney failure at age 40. He left behind his wife Gladys, and their only son, Robert Friedrich Gotch, who, despite legends to the contrary, never wrestled at the University of Iowa.

George Hackenschmidt retired from wrestling after the second loss to Gotch, but continued to be a major force in strength training and bodybuilding, writing and lecturing on the subject for decades. He was a learned man fluent in many languages, tangling with issues of philosophy, man's place in the cosmos, and other scholarly subjects. Hack died of natural causes in London in 1968 at age 90, leaving behind his wife Rachel.

The world of professional wrestling started to change not long after these two men left the ring. By the mid to late 1920s, pro wrestling had started to take on more of the showbiz aspects today's WWE fans would recognize -- good guys vs. bad guys (often playing on ethnic stereotypes and nationalistic pride), shorter matches with predetermined outcomes, and more spectacular moves like jumping off the top rope that were never part of the repertoire of George Hackenschmidt or Frank Gotch. Promoters of the era thought pro wrestling had to change to compete for audience attention; by the 1920s, it was competing with superstars in other sports, like Babe Ruth in baseball, and Jack Dempsey in boxing. College football and basketball were also gaining in popularity and organized amateur wrestling was also gaining a foothold. By this time, a number of state athletic associations had established state wrestling championships ... and the National Collegiate Athletic Association set up its first national college wrestling championship event in 1928 at Iowa State in Ames, about 60 miles from Gotch's hometown of Humboldt.

Despite professional wrestling no longer bearing much of a resemblance to the real wrestling that takes place in high school gyms and college arenas, over the years a number of amateur wrestlers have entered the pro ring. Among the amateur champs who found fame and fortune in pro wrestling: Nat Pendleton, Earl McCready and Ed Don George in the 1920s and 1930s Dick Hutton, Verne Gagne, and Dan Hodge in the 1950s Jack Brisco and Dale Lewis in the 1960s ... and, in more recent times, Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle. These guys -- and, in fact, all amateur wrestlers in the US -- owe a debt of gratitude to the original superstars who helped make organized amateur wrestling the sport that it is today in America -- George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch.

To see exhibits on Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt -- and watch the Caddock-Stecher films -- visit the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, Iowa. http://www.wrestlingmuseum.org/ or (319) 233-0745. And visit the Web site http://www.frankgotch.com.

To learn more -- and to see more photos -- check out the Yahoo group FrankGotchvsGeorgeHackenschmidt:

http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/FrankGotchVsGeorgeHackenschmidt/

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