The Peerless Champion
Frank Gotch, often called “the peerless champion,” is credited with being the outstanding of all the modern day grapplers. He was born in Humboldt, Iowa, on April 27, 1878, of German-Indian-Austrian parentage. He made his professional debut in 1899, and within a few years, according to authority Frank Menke, “he scaled the heights from obscurity to greatness.”
Gotch gained the title in 1904 by throwing Tom Jenkins. He lost the crown in 1906 to Fred Beall, when Beall pitched him against a ring post and Gotch was knocked unconscious. This bout was one of the first of the many “business” matches in which Gotch was to engage afterwards with various opponents.
Previous to this time, the late William Muldoon, so-called “greatest Roman of them all,” had tangled in many a business contest with Ernie Rober, Tom Jenkins and others, but Gotch started the ball rolling which was, in later years, to spawn our present wrestling business.
In commenting on Muldoon’s part in the mat game, the Saturday Evening Post said that in the Muldoon period, fighting was illegal in all except the most loose and licentious localities, while wrestling was considered a just and civilized test of skill and strength.
Muldoon profited by the outlawing of the brutal boxing game and amassed a fortune at his profession; he died in 1933, full of honors and deep in his eighties, a member of the New York Athletic Commission, the proprietor of a famous health resort for renovating tired tycoons, and immortalized in fiction by Theodore Dreiser as “Culhane, the Solid Man.”
In Muldoon’s day the stage was an additional avenue of profits for a champion. Muldoon made large weekly salaries with vaudeville and variety turns, and turned definitely to art when Modjeska made her triumphal Shakespearean invasion.
Muldoon toured America with Modjeska as Charles, the wrestler, in As You Like It. So sport discovered Shakespeare long before Gene Tunney went into culture and several decades before Bernard Shaw discovered the men of brawn.
To Muldoon goes the credit of engaging in one of the first mixed matches on record, being that of a combination wrestling and boxing bout between “The Solid Man” and John L. Sullivan.
The bout was staged in a Gloucester, Massachusetts ball park in 1887, before a crowd of many thousands. Sullivan started out with an edge, punching Muldoon to the ground, but “The Greatest Roman” scrambled to his feet, wristlocked Jawn, then shifting to the hold now known as a body slam, hurled the Boston Strong Boy to the earth, where he lay stunned for several seconds, unable to toe the scratch. The spectators then prevented the bout continuing, best two out of three, and Muldoon was acclaimed the victor, to Sullivan’s rage and chagrin.
For the readers’ information it might be noted here that oftentimes fans have argued whether a wrestler could defeat a fighter in a mixed bout. It is the opinion of such stalwarts as “Strangler” Lewis, Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard and Dean Detton, that the contest would be unequal, with the matman having the upper hand.
A recent bout of this kind took place when King Levinsky, heavyweight boxer, and Ray Steele, heavyweight wrestler, met in St. Louis, Nov. 20, 1935, before twelve thousand persons, to determine what would happen if a boxer met a wrestler. Each man to his own trade. Levinsky swung for Steele’s chin, missed, Steele grabbed him, dumped him, pinned him—total time of bout thirty-five seconds. That should answer that.
Gotch took the mat title back from Beall in 1906, having just put the crown in moth balls, as it were, so he could dispose of several opponents. He reigned as heavyweight king until 1912, when, after defeating Lurich, the Russian giant, Gotch retired and announced:
Through all my years as champion, I have wrestled every man who had ambitions to become champion—and I have defeated every foeman. I have given as many chances to all of them as they wanted. There seems no one left for me to wrestle, so, after 13 years on the mat, I am retiring to my farm.
He never did wrestle again, although some time afterward he was induced to attempt a comeback, went into training, broke a leg and returned to his farm where he died a few years later. It is odd, indeed, that Gotch’s ring career should have come to an end by a broken leg, the same kind of an injury he had so often inflicted on hapless opponents.
Before passing from Gotch, it might be well here to note that the Humboldt, Iowa thunderbolt was the first of the wrestlers to employ a policeman, or a protector, to curb and test tough opponents before Gotch met them in grappling combat.
“The Peerless Champion,” as so many are wont to term him, had at his beck and call Doctor Benjamin Roller, capable enough as a matman, but totally lacking in the color necessary to pull the fans in at the box office. Emil Klank, manager of Gotch, therefore used Roller as a buffer.
Harking back to the usually accurate Saturday Evening Post, that journal says Roller was a very skilled athlete, versed in all the cunning of his trade, but he lacked the poundage necessary for the exigencies of championship matters. In 1910 he and Gotch toured the country for four months, meeting all comers. Doctor Roller then was fifty years of age, but he wrestled 191 men, threw each of them within fifteen minutes, and won the $250 stake offered for each contest.
In the same year, Doctor Roller wrestled Stanislaus Zbyszko in Vienna and was pinned to the mat. During his training period, however, Doctor Roller managed to find time to study under Professor Ehrlich at Frankfort. He returned to America without victory, but with his scientific knowledge increased.
Doctor Roller was always an enigma to his managers and opponents. He regarded wrestling with a lukewarm eye and would wander away from the railway station in any tank town to argue with the village doctor about infections and contagious diseases. After Gotch’s definite retirement, the good doctor returned to medicine.
It would be nice to say that Gotch was a kindly and equable gentleman who held his own ability in intellectual contempt. The fact is that he was short-tempered, and as irritable as a hibernating bear. He considered himself as important as a United States senator and his manners were very little better.
Suffice to say here that time has added to the aura of Gotch’s mat glory. While there is no disputing the fact Gotch was capable enough to handle most opponents, there is considerable doubt as to whether his ability transcended that of Joe Stecher, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Joe “Toots” Mondt, and others who followed him along the scrambled ear pathway.
Gotch, according to the old timers, was a supreme bluffer who went his merry successful bonebreaking way because he did “business” with the more capable bonecrushers whom he met and dominated the lesser lights through a fiendish delight in breaking bones and maiming less fortunate and skilled adversaries.
Passing up Gotch without first recounting the highlights of his amazing career would leave the reader befogged as to later whys and wherefores in the wrestling business.
Gotch not only made the world sit up and take notice of grappling, but as the best managed and best protected of any bonecrusher who ever lived, he was enabled, at his death in December, 1917, to leave a fortune of nearly half a million dollars and a fine farm.
“The Peerless Champion” came to the attention of Farmer Burns, famous trainer of athletes and a wrestler of no mean ability himself, during April, of 1899, after Dan McLeod, a topflight matman of the era, ventured into Gotch’s hometown of Humboldt to tangle with the rural pride and was soundly trounced for his pains.
Burns decided to have a look at “the pride,” and in December of the same year he matched himself with the Humboldt Thunderbolt at Fort Dodge, Iowa. The Farmer won, but Gotch pressed him to the limit. Burns and his wrestling board of strategy decided to take the youngster under their wings and train him for bigger and better fields. Gotch had many minor bouts under the Burns aegis, until in 1900, the Farmer received word of great monies to be cleaned up in the Klondike, where the miners were “bugs” on grappling and a Dawson City pride named Anderson was meeting and throwing all comers. Bert Collyer, later a Chicago sports editor of note and now publisher of the Collyer’s Eye, racing and sports sheet, and Joe Ollie Marsh (of whom we shall hear more in later chapters) were barnstorming in Alaska with Anderson, and wrote back glowing accounts to various wrestlers regarding the gold dust to be acquired by a good matman who might give Anderson a tussle.
Burns and his partners decided to act, so, under the name of Frank Kennedy, the peerless champion was shipped to the Yukon. But by some devious means, Collyer and Marsh received advance word of the caliber of the man expected, and as Gotch’s boat, bearing him into Alaskan waters, was making ready to dock, a ship passed them on the way out with Anderson aboard.
Collyer and Marsh had spread the word of Gotch’s coming and the luckless Humboldt, Iowa lad found himself unable to secure worthwhile mat contests with lucrative side bets.
He managed to toss a few camp bullies, but himself came a cropper when he agreed to a mixed wrestling and boxing bout with a saloon hanger-on, unheralded in the gold gulches, named Frank Slavin. It was a winner-take-all proposition, with a wealthy sourdough backing Gotch to the limit. The Humboldt Thunderbolt went to the cleaners, Slavin administering a terrible beating to him and then knocking him out.
Gotch took the first spring boat back to Seattle.
Returning home, Burns again took the greenhorn in hand. After wrestling his protege in several matches as a buildup, Burns was defeated in one at Bellingham, Washington, on October 5, 1903. Gotch defeated Burns again in December of the same year, in January of 1904 defeated Tom Jenkins, then one of America’s greatest matmen, had several minor buildup bouts between and then came into international prominence in August and October of 1904, by decisively beating Dan McLeod. With these victories under his belt, Gotch was established as a drawing card and the mat game developed into the greatest attention getter of all sports prominent in that era. With Farmer Burns and Emil Klank, another wrestler, as his managers, and Jenkins, McLeod, and Yankee Rodgers to run interference against tough opposition and to prevent “The Thunderbolt” from falling into traps set by grappling enemies, Gotch soared to heights from which he has never tumbled.
In the years that followed he frequently met Burns, Jenkins, McLeod, and Klank, in advertised matches, but so well was he exploited, and so sold was wrestling fandom on his prowess, that his earnestness and sincerity of purpose were never questioned.
Examination of his record shows almost a thousand championship bouts and many more exhibitions engaged in with his record almost unsullied. No other grappler of modern times can produce a mat history equally impressive.
Gotch won the American title on January 28, 1904, from Tom Jenkins, at Bellingham, Washington. A huge crowd witnessed the bout, with both contestants dishing out liberal doses of fouls and roughhouse slugging, hardly coming under the head of scientific wrestling.
Present day wrestling enthusiasts reading newspaper accounts of Gotch’s many bouts will realize that the Humboldt Horror differed only slightly from his present day prototypes, with the exception that Dean Detton, Everett Marshall, Lee Wycoff and Ed Don George use more wrestling holds and appear more scientific. Today, with wire services giving newspapers daily accounts of wrestling results, the modern bonecrushers must perforce wrestle with more caution.
In Gotch’s day the result of a bout usually remained the private property of the local fans and newspaper readers. Only the biggest matches were covered by the nationally prominent newspapers and wire services.
Gotch continued his merry way with the American title, breaking the legs of setups, maiming luckless inferior grapplers, and striking terror into the hearts of foreign foemen through advance buildups. He was not only the greatest drawing card in wrestling, but the most feared.
“The Peerless Champion” see-sawed back and forth with his mangled ear bauble, generally being acclaimed champion, with only George Hackenschmidt of Europe to dispute his claim of world champion. Inasmuch as Gotch had cleaned up all opposition in America, and in his day there were no state athletic commissions to dispute his claim to the world title, he was pretty generally accepted by the American public as world titleholder.
Gotch wrestled through tournaments, appeared in handicap bouts, threw various opponents all in the same ring in the same night, and generally barnstormed throughout America, cleaning up in side bets and purses. Only the limited means of transportation of that era prevented him from emulating present day bonecrushers and wrestling every night in the week.
Consummate showman was Gotch, and nothing better illustrates this than his matches with Beall and Stanislaus Zbyszko.
Gotch was running out of opponents when he met Beall in New Orleans on December 1, 1906. The bout ended with a victory for the lighter Marshfield, Wisconsin, opponent when Gotch was “pitched” against a ring post and was unable to continue. The newspapers went to town on the popular badger state grappler’s victory, and just sixteen days later, both met again, this time in Kansas City - even to this day, a great wrestling town - on December 17, 1906, before a capacity house, and Gotch won back his laurels after a “Titan” struggle.
Wrestling today, ruled over by state athletic commissions, and conducted on a more business-like plane, causes sports writers to lift their eyebrows with suspicion whenever any undue excitement attends a mat contest. But in the days of “The Peerless Champion,” he and his stalwart cohorts literally “got away with murder.”
Today a ring-around-the-rosy like the Beall matches would be termed by present sports oracles as mere gate hypos, in that time nothing untoward was suspected.
Gotch pulled one of his many showmanly stunts, similar to the Beall thing, when he lost a one fall handicap match to Stanislaus Zbyszko in Buffalo, New York, in November, 1909. The praise agents got to work on that one and beat the ballyhooey drums. Almost any town would have been willing to see a return between the titleholder (Gotch’s had not been at stake, by agreement, in the Buffalo fiasco), but Chicago got the “plum.”
Frank made short work of his Polish adversary when the title was put on the line in the Chicago Coliseum on the night of June 1, 1910. Walking to the center of the ring after the referee had given his instructions, Gotch stretched out his hand as if to shake that of Zbyszko, the latter fell for the ruse, and next thing the booing and jeering spectators, who filled the house to capacity, knew, the luckless Pole had been hurled over Gotch’s head with a flying mare and pinned to the canvas in the record time of six seconds.
Controversy rages to this day, however, around the two bouts Gotch engaged in with George Hackenschmidt. The first took place in Chicago, at the Dexter Park Pavilion, in the Stock Yards, on the south side of the windy city, on April 3, 1908. The olfactory odor from the Yards has never since equaled that left by the contest’s aftermath. It was one of the most disgraceful exhibitions ever witnessed by a capacity audience of enthusiastic mat devotees, and it started the ball rolling down through the years toward the general discrediting of wrestling and grapplers.
The late Ed Smith, famous Chicago sports editor of the American, and noted throughout America as a referee of ability, acted as arbiter. Hackenschmidt received the rawest deal ever accorded a visiting foreign athlete defending his leg of the championship title. It was evident the Gotch crowd wanted to win an undisputed claim to the championship, and the Humboldt Horror started right out for blood by gouging, heeling, slugging, biting and kneeing his foreign adversary.
The match went slightly over two hours, and broke up in a riot, with “Hack” walking off the mat and refusing to continue the contest. In the dressing room, the half-blinded Hack exhibited his brutal injuries and showed his inflamed eyes, caused, so he said, by Gotch’s penchant for poking his thumbs into them during the bout.
Though the partisan Gotch press at the time termed Hackenschmidt a quitter, the Russian Lion claims to this day he was jobbed in his two bouts with the vicious American kingpin.
In a recent statement in the Manchester News of England, Hackenschmidt, after all these years have passed and Gotch has gone to whatever reward wrestlers receive, said:
I never thought I would have to cope with foul means to gain my ends. After our match started I found it was impossible for me to get a grip on Gotch’s body, he was so well oiled. I asked the referee to stop the match and make us both take hot baths before we continued. Smith just signaled for me to continue the bout. Gotch was so oily it was impossible to get a hold on him, and handling him was like coping with a well-buttered eel.
He was a slippery mass of mountainous flesh. What bothered me was the referee was indifferent to what was being put across on me. The only thing I could do was to go on and make as good a showing as possible under such conditions. From the start to the end of the bout I had to rub my hands on my tights to get rid of the grease that came out of Gotch’s hide. My wrestling costume was soon as greasy as Gotch’s body, but I couldn’t rid myself of the oil which was oozing out of his pores.
Gotch’s thumbs and fingers were constantly hovering near my eyes and when our heads came together he rubbed his hair into my eyes so that some terrible chemical exuded from his hair and trickled into my eyes, causing intense pain and blinding me.
And the match went on with Gotch getting worse in his tactics. He gouged me and pulled my hair and yet no word of protest was raised by the referee, in there presumably in the interests of fair play and American sportsmanship.
After two hours my body was exhausted, I could scarcely breathe or swallow, I was done in, trying to cope with conditions that were a disgrace to Gotch and his country. So in the end I pushed Gotch aside and walked off the mat and Gotch won, but I wasn’t beaten by Gotch, but by the oil which had been rubbed into his body during his many months of training for the bout with me.
As for Gotch, when Hackenschmidt made the same statement in substance (as given years later) after the bout, the Humboldt Horror sneered and went his merry wrestling, betting way.