I: Karel Istaz

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Karel Istaz

Many readers of Wrestling Heritage are of an age when they have vivid memories of American magazines of the 1960s, where they read of the exploits of Thesz, Sammartino, Gagne, and a man called Karl Gotch. In those days the magazines arrived weeks after their American publication but nonetheless contained details of matches that appeared more exciting, and far more violent,  than anything we saw on our tv screens or in the halls.

Few at the time were aware that  less than a decade earlier Karl Gotch had been a regular feature of Northern rings. In those days he was still known by his Belgian birth name of Karel Istaz, born 3rd August, 1924 in Antwerp. 

Karel Istaz came to Britain in 1950, bringing impressive amateur credentials as a Belgian representative in the 1948 Olympics. He had competed in both the freestyle and Greco Roman styles in the light heavyweight division, eliminated in the third round of both competitions.

Two years later Karel Istaz turned professional, using the name Karl Krauser. Soon he  headed to Britain. He later stated his  mission when he came to Britain was to learn to really wrestle in the old fashioned professional style developed in Lancashire, Catch as Catch Can. He was destined to become one of the last great exponents of the style.  He became a visitor to the Billy Riley gymnasium and he was a devoted student.  

Although we have been told that he was the closest friend of Joe Robinson, much of his time  Wigan was spent living with Joe’s brother Bob, known as  Billy Joyce, who was also making his way in the professional ring at that time.
Billy and his wife Edna opened their home Karel whenever he came over to Wigan.

Billy’s daughter, Dorothy, has fond memories of the visitor to her home whilst a child. She  told us a moving story of the time  she and her husband Jimmy visited the USA in the 1990s. Unknown to Bob (Billy)  they sought out Karel Istaz, who was surprised but delighted when they turned up unexpectedly at his home in Florida after all those years. They videoed their visit, with Karel sending a special message to his old friend and mentor. No mention of this was made to Billy and back home in Wigan he watched his daughter’s holiday recording and was astonished to suddenly find himself greeted by his dear friend.

During his time in Britain Karel was a raw novice, remembered by Bernard Hughes,  "I saw Karel Istaz at Newcastle, early 50's. Quite honestly I wasn't too impressed with his style but I remember that at the time I was amazed at the strength of his wrestlers bridge. Nothing else stands out except for his new brown leather holdall.He asked me to show him the way to Newcastle Central station and I remember the holdall more than his performance."

Karel was destined to remain a student at Wigan for eight years.  Our earliest encounter of Karel Istaz in Britain is in April, 1950, losing to the masked wrestler The Bat. Further  opponents included Ernest Baldwin, Bill Benny, Alf Robinson and  Dave Armstrong. He may have been a raw professional but he had the potential for promoters to give him the push he needed and by 1953 was being touted as one of Europe’s top heavyweights. 

He came and went each year until 1955, basing himself in Wigan and working in the north of England. 

In 1960 he emigrated to the USA, where he adopted the name Karl Gotch. It was here that he   became one of the few Europeans to reach the top of the profession. He won a version of the World Heavyweight title but we  have to rely on internet reports readable by anyone that disagreements with promoters limited his long term  success.

Our impression from afar is that his greatest acclaim came in Japan, where he wrestled  for a prolonged period, meeting up with his good friend Billy Robinson, and had a lasting influence.

In retirement he returned to America, where he died on 28th July, 2007 in Tampa, Florida. 

Page added: 21/07/2020