Soon after the turn of the 20th century, thousands of fans bought into the hype of the "Russian Lion" George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch. They would have two confrontations with great publicity, but ultimately, both Gotch and Hackenschmidt’s affairs would fail to meet public expectations. Their rematch, in particular, would damage the perception and credibility of professional wrestling for decades to come.
Frank Gotch vs. George Hackenschmidt – A Different World
One of the ugliest secrets of professional wrestling isn’t that it’s a work but rather how long it’s been a work. Many fans and historians revere "real wrestlers" like Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt for their legitimate toughness and grappling abilities. But even at the turn of the 20th century, our beloved form of entertainment was a questionable sport at best and cunningly predetermined by its participants.
Depending on which source you turn to, the Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt rivalry is overflowing with anecdotes that often contradict each other with alleged eyewitnesses, firsthand accounts, and newspaper reports that are hard to prove. It is nonetheless a fascinating and important chapter in wrestling worth exploring.
However, one thing is certain: When Gotch and Hackenschmidt met, the world was vastly different.
Of course, there was no internet. And imagine a world without televisions. Radio was in its infancy. World War I occurred six years after their first bout. Only the wealthy could afford automobiles, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, just five years before in 1903, successfully flew a motorized aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Paved roads were a rarity outside of the cities, and in 1908, fewer than 200,000 automobiles were circulating in the United States.
At present, there are close to 300 million.
The favored method of long-distance travel was by train, while overseas travel was limited to ships.
The Titanic sank eight months after the Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt rematch.
And Chicago, which became the host city of this rivalry, had a population of less than two million (compared to the nearly 9 million today when counting the entire metropolitan area).
What about sports of the time?
Baseball was the most popular spectator sport in the early 1900s; believe it or not, professional cycling was too. There was no National Football League, and the sport at the collegiate level was trying to shake off its image as a brutal and violent pastime.
Professional basketball (not the NBA, which would be founded 38 years later in 1946) was only just beginning and not well-known.
Many states outlawed professional boxing, while amateur wrestling had somewhat of an elitist image and was mainly found in northeastern colleges, athletic clubs, YMCAs, and Ivy League institutions.
Names like Evan "Strangler" Lewis, "The Solid Man" William Muldoon, boxer John L. Sullivan, Dan McLeod, Martin "Farmer" Burns, and later "Rough" Tom Jenkins often traveled as part of troupes taking on all comers.
These mighty brawlers shared headlines in newspapers worldwide. They featured in the lurid and scandalous Police Gazette (think men’s fitness mixed with modern tabloid/sensational journalism) alongside stories of vicious murders and sex scandals.
At this time in history, the general public saw professional wrestling as a legitimate sporting activity and ardently placed bets on the matches. The first encounter between Gotch and Hackenschmidt garnered the public’s attention.
Still, as we soon shall see, the eagerly awaited rematch between the two would become one of the most infamous controversies in all of sports history.
When Gotch and Hackenschmidt first met on the night of April 3rd, 1908, at the Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago in front of 10,000 fans, it was the clash of the deceivingly powerful American farmboy versus the astonishing physical specimen forged in the old continent.
Impressive wins over various opponents preceded both, and the public widely considered them two of the best wrestlers in the world.
Who Was “The Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt?
George Hackenschmidt was the strongman equivalent of Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. He was a super athlete who dedicated his time solely to physical fitness and possessing a laser beam focus on becoming the best.
The prodigy is said to have been able to lift a horse upon his shoulders and hold a wrestling bridge while supporting 311 lbs.
At a young age, Hackenschmidt became noticed by the Russian Tsar’s physician Dr. Von Krajewski, who was an eccentric millionaire bachelor interested in wrestling and similar activities like weightlifting.
The doctor is rumored to have done his exercises in the nude and often housed Russia’s strongmen. He took a keen interest in the powerhouse Hackenschmidt once he’d moved to St. Petersburg.
Although nicknamed the "Russian Bear," George Hackenschmidt was actually born in Dorpat in the Governorate of Livonia, which was part of the former Russian Empire at the time but is now known as Latvia and Estonia.
At the age of twenty and under the tutelage of Dr. Von Krajewski, like a beast, Hackenschmidt was set free into the world, winning many matches, including a forty-day wrestling tournament in 1900.
He soon began dominating outside of Russia when touring Finland and England, where he defeated local English favorite Tom Cannon, even though Hackenschmidt was unfamiliar with the catch-as-can style practiced there. Soon later, he would easily dispose of the Prussian bodybuilder Eugen Sandow. Thereafter, he found no equals for many years.
Crowds would gather to watch Hackenschmidt wrestle and perform feats of strength. His matches were usually around three minutes, relying on his enviable upper body strength to dominate and overpower his opponents. This strategy would prove detrimental against the Iowan Frank Gotch, who was accustomed to working the whole body and had a crippling, feared toehold in his arsenal.
London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1905 saw the scrappy "Rough" Tom Jenkins (who had one good eye, and the other was made of glass) challenge Hackenschmidt.
Jenkins, who had previously collided in an epic, violent contest against Frank Gotch, lost in front of a rabid crowd of 3,000 spectators. Despite that, he proved to be Hackenschmidt’s toughest opponent to date.
Nevertheless, the Russian Bear pinned Jenkins in two straight falls under Greco-Roman rules in front of 6,000 people.
Before losing to Gotch and then to Hackenschmidt, Jenkins held the American Heavyweight Championship for six years but was now at the tail end of an incredible career that wrestling historians admire to this day.
The Build For Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt
Stateside, Frank Gotch dropped the American Heavyweight Championship to Tom Jenkins two falls to one amid accusations of fixing.
Russian wrestler George Lurich who wanted to wrestle Hackenschmidt after he had defeated Tom Jenkins, claimed that there would be an arrangement between Jenkins and Gotch once they faced each other again in the United States. He also accused Jenkins of taking the fall against Hackenschmidt in their Royal Albert Hall match.
But now, with Jenkins out of the picture, the much-anticipated clash between Gotch and Hackenschmidt approached.
Did you know: The Jenkins vs. Gotch rivalry included nine memorable bouts and are considered some of the most influential encounters witnessed by wrestling fans of any era. They are pivotal to the foundation of today’s modern product.
George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch were the two biggest stars in wrestling. However, fans were almost denied the clash between the two supermen after Frank Gotch fell and dropped his American Heavyweight Championship to the 165 lbs Fred Beell.
Some historians point to the Gotch vs. Beell fight as an obviously worked match, while others naively point to it as the first worked match in an era when the sport was 100% legitimate. But the possibility of this being a once-in-a-lifetime upset is there too.
A month later, Gotch took the title back, and Beell became a frequent fall guy for Gotch and never regained the title.
After this strange match, Gotch only conceded one more fall for the rest of his historic career.
Meanwhile, leading up to the match, and perhaps due to the demanding weight training he put his body through, Hackenschmidt’s body was breaking down.
In 1907, his already-operated knee again troubled him and hindered his rigorous training. Unbeknownst to the fans, the Russian Bear was not in his physical best shape entering the match. But "money talks," and the show must go on.
Gotch and Hackenschmidt – Their First Super Bout in 1908
With promoter William Wittig offering a $10,000 purse ($290,276.00 in today’s money), the showdown between Frank Gotch and George Hackenscmidt was on but ultimately ended in controversy like many of the professional wrestling bouts of today.
It was a clash of two worlds, featuring the educated and chiseled Hackenschmidt, who favored the power approach and Greco-Roman wrestling, versus the rugged no-nonsense farmer from Iowa who had adopted an American form of the imported catch-as-catch-can style that targeted the upper and lower body and setting them up for his crippling toehold.
Months before their match, they had tune-up bouts. Hackenschmidt decisively toppled the massive 250 lbs American Joe Rogers in straight falls in one of these. However, when Gotch faced Rogers, he surprisingly struggled. So, would this not indicate that Hackenschmidt was the clear favorite in his upcoming match against Gotch?
Well, it seemed that Hackenschmidt bought into his own hype and barely trained while in Chicago. He later claimed that the owner was less than polite to him, obligating him to work out in his hotel.
Still, when he arrived at the match, the Russian Bear’s physique didn’t fail to impress. But looks alone rarely win matches.
The Russian Lion That Couldn’t
George Hackenschmidt found it increasingly difficult to grip Frank Gotch from the start and even more as the match progressed. He was taken aback by Gotch’s roughhouse methods when he avoided attempts of him poking his eyes out and using open hand slaps to keep him at bay.
Gotch’s strategy consisted of keeping the Russian Bear at a safe distance while also tiring him out. So be it if this meant giving him a blow or two to frustrate him. Even if it wasn’t pretty to watch, speed and defense were Gotch’s game.
For two hours, both men remained on foot. Hackenschmidt, who was used to much shorter bouts (think Brock Lesnar), began to fatigue quickly as Gotch thwarted any advance. And because of his ailing knee, he feared falling prey to any attack on his legs, especially Gotch’s dangerous toehold, which some called a "torture hold."
Most sources report that Hackenschmidt asked on three separate occasions that the match be declared a draw once he realized the dire straits he had found himself in. But referee Ed Smith said that the match had to continue.
Once on the ropes, Gotch took Hackenschmidt to the ground, who rode him hard for three minutes, working to apply the feared toehold.
Hackenschmidt trained to escape and avoid the maneuver at all costs but was out of gas.
Once up again, Hackenschmidt surrendered the fall to Gotch.
Both went to their dressing rooms to repose and regroup.
When it became time for the second fall to begin, only Gotch appeared. Hackenschmidt stayed in the dressing room and refused to continue the bout.
Gotch was the new world champion, and America was elated!
Hackenschmidt declared Gotch the winner. However, when he returned to London, he sang a different tune.
George Hackenschmidt, The Heel
While George Hackenschmidt concurred that he had lost to Frank Gotch in Chicago after their first match, he claimed to the London press that Gotch had used dirty tactics and was covered in oil, making it impossible to gain any offense.
As quoted in the London Daily Mail per the book The Squared Circle by David Shoemaker, "The tactics by which I was defeated on American soil would not have been tolerated in England. Gotch’s body was literally soaked in oil to prevent my holding him. All the world knows this to be unfair and against the rules of wrestling. He dug his nails into my face, tried to pull my ear off, and poked his thumb into my eye."
And here again in the London Daily Mail, but this time per the book Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling by Johnathan Snowden, Hackenschmidt added, "The people at ringside were all prejudiced against me and unfair. I concluded the best thing to do was to keep silent and do my best."
Hackenschmidt mentions Gotch digging his finger into his eye, pulling his ear, and scratching his face to the point of tearing his skin off. He then emphasized that Gotch grabbed his big toe and tried to sprain it with the object of crippling him.
He continued, "I saw that it was not a wrestling match but a butchery match. He kept up the ‘bloody work’ on my face, so I said, ‘I’m done.’"
Wrestling historian and author David Shoemaker believe that there was a great possibility that someone other than the Russian Lion said the above passages. Perhaps it was one of wrestling’s first fictional storylines?
In their match recap, the New York Times did mention that Gotch "roughed his man’s features with his knuckles, butted him under the chin, and generally worsted Hackenschmidt until the foreigner was at a loss how to proceed."
And Lou Thesz once said, "Gotch was a man who succeeded at his business primarily because he was, for lack of a kinder description, a dirty wrestler."
Thesz continued, "That’s not to say that he wasn’t competent because everyone I ever talked with said he was one of the best. But those same people described him as someone who delighted in hurting or torturing lesser opponents, even when they were supposed to be working out. He was always looking for an illegal edge when he was matched against worthy ones."
Of course, Frank Gotch scoffed at the accusations rained upon him, attributing his win to technique and not allowing Hackenschmidt to get close. He also defended his toehold, claiming it was all about leverage and not hurting anyone.
Is this not very similar to the drama seen every week in today’s wrestling?
Frank Gotch, the International Celebrity
Frank Gotch became an international star. The film of his bout against George Hackenschmidt traveled the world with Gotch touring for 38 weeks with a play called All About a Bout, where the audience gave him standing ovations. He also became a product pitchman for everything from whiskey to massage products.
However, when promoter Jack Curley became involved, things really got confusing.
Wrestlers, boxers, and baseball stars toured the country as part of "The Band of Champions," where Gotch wrestled Dr. Benjamin Roller nightly and collected an easy payday.
Although Gotch was cashing in on these tours, he thought about retirement, but promoter Jack Curley insisted that a rematch against Hackenschmidt needed to happen.
By 1910, he promoted several Gotch matches and became George Hackenschmidt’s manager.
Does this not remind you of boxing promoter Don King who often represented several boxers on a card?
The press wasn’t buying the legitimacy of Gotch’s matches against Dr. Roller or Hackenschmidt’s against wrestler Jess Westergaard, whom he had been feuding with at the time. The press sensed that these questionable bouts led to an inevitable Gotch versus Hackenschmidt rematch.
They were spot on.
Gotch faced Tom Jenkins for a ninth and final time during these months while preparing for his Hackenschmidt rematch.
No exposé seemed to deter fans from their eagerness to buy into and see a rematch between them. Despite the signs of foul play, fans continued to attend the shows and continued to wage bets on the outcomes.
In the lead-up to their anticipated rematch, Gotch missed few opportunities to repeat to the press that Hackenschmidt quit his last match and manifested a personal dislike for the former champion.
Hackenschmidt himself seemed to get fired up by these comments and worked himself back into superb shape and trained with Dr. Roller.
But five days before the rematch, Hackenschmidt injured himself while training. He could barely walk.
In the years that followed, a rumor spread that noted shooter Ad Santel (Adolph Ernst) injured Hackenschmidt’s knee at the instruction of Martin "Farmer" Burns.
Although Santel was in Hackenschmidt’s camp, this is still considered a false rumor that gained momentum and was taken as truth by many.
This would’ve been similar to Verne Gagne allegedly offering the Iron Sheik $100,000 in 1983 to break Hulk Hogan’s leg.
With a promised $11,000 ($309,220 in today’s money), Hackenschmidt fought.
Again, unbeknownst to the betting public, this injury severely disadvantaged him (looking at you, Mayweather versus Pacquiao!)
Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt – Their 1911 Rematch
And so, Frank Gotch and George Hackensmidt met for the second and last time on September 4th, 1911, in front of 25,000 fans (some sources say it was closer to 30,000 while others claim up to even 35,000) at the newly opened Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois.
At the time, this was the largest gate in history, with some estimating it at $87,000 ($2,445,652.42 in today’s money). Unfortunately, the "Rematch of the Century" fell short of expectations.
Quickly, rumors started spreading that something wasn’t right and that Hackenschmidt entered the match in less-than-ideal conditions.
The Reno Evening Gazette reported at the time, "Three days before the match, it became evident that something was wrong. There had been an abortive effort to put across a great betting coup- and the public refused to come in."
The report continued, "The rumor persisted that Hackenschmidt suffered from a badly sprained leg and had agreed to wrestle only if Gotch did not touch that leg or use the famous toehold. Friends of the promoters angrily denied this."
Rumors persisted, and a Chicago paper warned all its readers to avoid the match.
An hour or so before the men were to enter the ring, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey held a conference with the promoters, wrestlers, and referees, informing them that he wouldn’t allow them to stage this robbery of the public in his park.
The Chief of Police ordered to call off all bets. Referee Smith was entrusted with the job, and once making the announcement, the crowd answered with an angry roar followed by a confused silence as to what was happening.
Besides 20 yards of rubber bandages around his knee, Hackenschmidt had ordinary bandages covering his ankle and leg. Presumably, to cover these, he wore full-length tights for the first time in his career.
With the ring placed between the pitcher’s mound and second base, the rematch was underway!
The first fall went easily in Gotch’s favor.
"Gotch put Hack off his guard, raised his leg, grapevined his far one, and then reversed it into a half nelson and crotch, with which the ‘Lion’ was pinned in the first fall in the bittersweet defeat of his career."
The second fall didn’t fare any better.
After the 15-minute intermission, Hackenschmidt submitted to Gotch’s toehold, and the match was finalized after 19 minutes.
Gotch retained his world championship, and the fans yelled in disgust after witnessing another unspectacular showing by Hackenschmidt.
Some accounts claim Hackenschmidt allowed himself to be pinned after Gotch promised to release the painful toehold that threatened to break his foot, but the posted newspaper article mentions that the bout was secured with the toe lock.
And still, others say that Gotch promised to make Hackenschmidt look good (a worked match) and would allow him to win one fall, but instead, defeated him in two straight, thus embarrassing him in the process.
We have no way to prove or disprove any of those claims.
The Aftermath of the Controversial Second Bout
Back in London, a humbled George Hackenschmidt admitted that any novice could have beaten him in his condition.
He said, "Frank Gotch is among the most powerful opponents I ever met. I could not put my left knee on the ground or even bend it, and my left foot was worse than useless because every lateral movement gave me intense pain. Without his feet, the wrestler is useless."
This second match did more damage to wrestling than the hundreds of wrestling exposés in the press. It was an end of an era, and this irreparable harm destroyed much of the public’s faith in wrestling for many years to come.
This was Hackenschmidt’s final-ever match, but he lived a long life far away from wrestling after, eventually passing away in 1968.
Hackenschmidt remained a strong proponent of exercise, nutrition, and physical fitness throughout his later years. His most popular book is The Way To Live: In Health and Physical Fitness.
Frank Gotch continued wrestling on and off until 1913 and unfortunately died young at 40 in 1917 of what was rumored to be syphilis (though the official cause of death was uremic poisoning).
Gotch’s career record was 154-6. Early in his career, he lost to Martin "Farmer" Burns and Dan McLeod. Then three times to Tom Jenkins, and the stunning upset to Fred Beell in New Orleans, Louisiana.
In 1905, U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt appointed Tom Jenkins to be a boxing and wrestling instructor at West Point and maintained that position until 1942. He passed away in 1957.
Joe Stecher and Ed "Strangler" Lewis would rise to become America’s next mat stars.
If you enjoyed this article, you can learn about other controversial screwjobs in wrestling here:
- Gorgeous George and the Don Eagle ‘Chicago Short Count’ Screwjob
- Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers – The 1963 WWWF Title Screwjob
- How Vince McMahon and Fabulous Moolah Screwed Wendi Richter
- Montreal Screwjob – Everything There is to Know
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