George Hackenschmidt– The Russian Lion
Although our website is dedicated to all those who created the golden years of wrestling from 1946 until 1988 we do feel it appropriate to offer recognition to a man who played such an important role in establishing professional wrestling as the greatest spectator sport of the twentieth century.
Hackenschmidt, or to give him his full name, Georges Karl Julius Hackenschmidt, had arrived in England in 1902, already recognised as European Champion. The idea of touring the country appearing at variety theatres may well have come from Hack himself who had seen an American named Jack Carkeek doing something similar. The success of the tour was no doubt enhanced by the influence of his manager, a theatrical impresario named C.B. Cochrane.
George Hackenschmidt had come a long way since his humble beginnings in Estonia. Although known as “The Russian Lion” Hackenschmidt was born in Tartu, now Estonia’s second city, on 2nd August, 1878. His sporting career began with an interest in athletics and weightlifting. As a teenager George moved to St Petersburg and continued to lift weights in the gymnasium of Professor Krajewski. Following advice from a local sporting dignitary, Count Ribeaupierre, he turned his attention to wrestling, and by the turn of the century was one of the top wrestlers in Europe. His newly found interest in wrestling was given a boost when he received guidance from the professional wrestler George Lurich. Despite knowing little about wrestling Hackenschmidt challenged Lurich in an open competition, and almost beat the Russian professional by strength alone. Krajewski, himself an accomplished wrestler, also encouraged Hackenschmidt and invited him to accompany him on tour to wrestle Austria and France. George continued to improve and won the Greco Roman amateur wrestling championship of Europe in Vienna in 1898.The same year he won the Russian weight lifting championships After defeating world title claimant Paul Pons (picture right), who was allegedly nine inches taller than Hackenschmidt, the young Estonian decided, in June 1901, it was time to give up his engineering job and wrestle professionally.
One of George’s first engagements as a professional wrestler was a forty day tournament in Moscow. Again the Russian came through with flying colours and was an easy winner. Hack, as he became known throughout wrestling circles of the World, then departed on a tour of Europe. In November, 1901 he won a tournament for the “Official World heavyweight Championship” in Vienna. In his first bout of the tournament, one which he amazingly won in twenty-three seconds. Hack faced John Piening of the United States of America. The young Russian, still in his early twenties, battled his way through much more experienced wrestlers to gain a place in the final. George Hackenschmidt was just one step away from becoming the international heavyweight wrestling champion. The one man who threatened to keep the coveted crown and former weightlifter apart was a Turk, whose name was Halil Adali. The bout, arranged to take place over three days was to be decided by the wrestler who gained the best of three falls, that is, one fall each day. There were no rounds, it was continuous wrestling until one of the contestants scored. On the first day of the contest it took Hackenschmidt twenty-eight minutes to gain a one fall lead over the Turk. On the second day when the wrestlers returned to the ring to decide the second fall it took forty minute, but the result was the same, and George Hackenschmidt was heavyweight champion of the World.
There were two other World title claimants at the time. Ghulam Singh, who had beaten Kadar Ali for the championship in Paris, and American Tom Jenkins. Ghulam Singh’s title was soon absorbed, but Hack would have to wait until July, 1904, before he could add Jenkins belt to his collection and become undisputed champion. Having found success in Europe hack decided, in 1902, that it was time to pack his bags, and move to Britain.
About this time a smooth talking American, Jack Carkeek, issued nightly challenges to “all-comers” from the stage of the Alhambra, Leicester Square. George Hackenschmidt publicly issued a challenge to the American. Hack’s reputation was well known and the challenge was turned down. In fact Hackenschmidt found it difficult to get any work in Britain until he met the man who was to become his manager, C.B. Cochrane. Cochrane, a master of publicity, organised a tour of the country and taught Hackenschmidt the art of showmanship. Despite wrestling in bouts that were often legitimate, Hackenschmidt learned the skill of playing to the crowd. His muscular physique and outstanding skill helped to revive the sport of wrestling at a national level.
One notable bout was against Lancashire coal miner, Tom Canon, at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Liverpool (pictured left). The bout itself ended predictably with another Hackenschmidt victory. It was what happened outside the ring that made the match memorable. The theatres management, having reservations about staging the contest tried to get it stopped by disconnecting the gas supply and announcing the match had been cancelled. At one point there was a public brawl, known locally as the Battle of Clayton Square, between the men hired by the management to advertise the cancellation of the match, and those hired by Cochrane to announce it would still take place.
There seemed to be no one to match George Hackenschmidt. Matches became harder to come by, and Cochrane’s promotional skills were as important as Hackenschmidt’s wrestling skills. A serious challenger appeared in 1904 with the emergence of Ahmed Madrali. Whether Ahmed Madrali was ever the threat to Hackenschmidt that legend states, or whether this was just the Cochrane publicity machine at its best we will never know. We do know that Hackenschmidt took the match very seriously. At the back of his mind was an earlier bout with another Terrible Turk, Kara Ahmed. This man had been his toughest opponent to date, holding out when they had fought in Budapest for over three hours before losing to the Estonian. Hack’s preparation, at a public house in Shepherds Bush, consisted largely of weight training, and walking around the gym with a huge bag of cement over his shoulders.
Ahmed Madrali (right), known as the Terrible Turk, was actually a 16 stone French wrestler from Marseille. He had been trained by Antonio Perri, an old adversary. The publicity for the match, held at Olympia on January 30th, 1904, was massive. The match caused the largest London traffic jam recorded at the time. The winners purse, if it is to be believed, was also immense, £1000. The match itself was something of an anti-climax, Hackenschmidt crushed Madrali with his favourite hold, a bearhug, and then tossed him to the ground and dislocated his shoulder. It was all over in less than two minutes.
Following this victory there was no one in Europe disputing Hack’s claim to be the best in the world. Across the Atlantic, though, American Tom Jenkins (left) was still claiming to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Later in 1904 Jenkins was tempted to Britain to face Hackenschmidt in a Graeco Roman bout. The two met at the Royal Albert Hall, on 2nd July, 1904. By the end of the night Hackenschmidt had easily beaten Jenkins and was claiming that his recognition as World Champion had been confirmed. Jenkins had other thoughts. He claimed that Hackenschmidt could not defeat him under “Catch as catch can” rules, and that Hackenschmidt would have to travel to the United States to meet him again for the title. Undaunted, Hackenschmidt did just that. Georges Karl Julius Hackenschmidt became wrestling’s first undisputed World Heavyweight Champion on May 4th, 1905, when he beat Tom Jenkins by two straight falls in the Catch as catch can style.
In an age when few people left their home town, and overseas travel was slow and expensive, George Hackeschmidt defeated the best that the world could offer. His three thousand victories over a ten year span included giants such as Turkey’s Halil Adali and Gotch Mehmet; Frenchmen Ahmed Madrali, Paul Pons, Maurice Gamble, and Laurent le Beaucairais; Belium’s Omer de Bouillion and Clement le Teraassier; Germany’s Jacobus Koch and Micael Hitzler; India’s Buttan Singh, and Gunga Brown; Dutchman Dick vande Berg and Australi’s Clarence Weber. He was an international star in every sense of the phrase.
A return victory over Jenkins, again in New York, was notable only because it was one of the few occasions that Hackenschmidt lost his temper and threw his stool across the ring.
In the weeks and months that followed George Hackenscmidt defeated all those who opposed him. It was clear that there was only one genuine challenger for Hack and his world championship. Frank Gotch, a farmer from Iowa, had beaten Tom Jenkins in May 1906 and was the American champion. Gotch had a reputation as a brutal fighter.
The match was arrange took place at the Dexter Park Pavilion, Chicago, and was promoted by Jack Curly.
Hackenschmidt started the match, in front of ten thousand spectators, as favourite for a quick win. Hackenschmidt try to wrestle his opponent. Gotch’s tactics were to move quickly and keep out of trouble. Gotch is reported to have wrestled roughly, with referee Ed Smith turning a blind eye to his underhand tactics. Others say that such claims are a misrepresentation of the events, spread by Hack’s supporters, and that Gotch simply outwitted Hackenschmidt.
Following more than two hours of wrestling Gotch moved in and managed to secure an ankle lock submission hold to take the first fall. A ten minute break was scheduled between each fall. After ten minutes the wrestlers were called back to the ring. Only Frank Gotch emerged. George Hackenschmidt quit the contest and the World Heavyweight championship was awarded to Frank Gotch
George Hackenschmidt returned to Britain without his title. He made it known that he felt Gotch had won the championship unfairly. These tales angered Gotch when he visited Britain.
It was three years before a return contest took place, and on the 4th September, 1911, 27,000 people assembled to watch the Estonian try and re-gain the title. Again the referee was Ed Smith. Hackenschmidt entered the ring with an leg injured (some say deliberately) in training. Gotch won the bout by two submissions, each following work on Hack’s injured leg. This was George Hackenschmidt’s final active appearance in the wrestling ring.
George Hackenschmidt remained one of wrestlings most famous and respected pioneers and died in London on 19th February, 1968. Was Hackenschmidt the greatest professional wrestler of all time? The answer to that question seems to lie in which side of the Atlantic you were born. He was a genuinely great wrestler who learned the art of showmanship, but Gotch proved he was vulnerable. Frank Gotch managed to get past Hack’s power advantage and become the only man who could dispute Hackenschmidt’s claim to being the greatest of all time.