Greatest Wrestlers of the Twentieth Century Series - Frank Gotch

Discussion in 'Old School Wrestling' started by Bernard de Hattrix, Nov 2, 2018.

  1. Bernard de Hattrix

    Bernard de Hattrix Dark Match Jobber

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    You don't know me, as I'm kind of new here. Just an armchair wrestling historian spending hours researching the greatest historical topic known to man, professional wrestling. Pro wrestling is an industry long steeped in almost as much myth and uncertainty as prehistoric times, as legend and hyperbole was valued more than historical accuracy by the old school power brokers.

    As a wrestling mark―and let's face it, we are all marks, why else would we consign to watch people pretend beat each other up for x hours of a given week or month?―I find myself more fascinated with wrestling history than I am in the modern wrestling scene. Which is why we get to why I'm suddenly here, to begin writing a series of posts that really just occurred to me a few hours ago, featuring the greatest wrestlers of the twentieth century. I write a post about a dead wrestler, we all discuss, you all know the drill. I don't have to draw a picture.

    We'll start with the beginning of the twentieth century, and who better to begin with than the acknowledged greatest wrestler of the early-1900s, Frank Gotch?

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    Name: Frank Gotch

    Height: 5’11”

    Weight: 195 lbs.

    Born: April 27th, 1877, Humboldt, IA

    Died: December 16th, 1917, Humboldt, IA

    Career: 1899-1917

    Top Earning Years: 1908-1913

    Titles Held: World heavyweight title, American freestyle title (3 times), Iowa heavyweight title (twice), Canadian Greco-Roman title

    What Made Him Great: Frank Gotch was the second world heavyweight champion of record, winning the title in a 1908 encounter with George Hackenschmidt that lasted more than two hours and carrying the belt for a reign lasting five years. Upon announcing his retirement in 1913, and having never lost the title, Gotch remarkably continued to be acknowledged as champion in sports print, a condition that remained unchallenged for more than two years before Joe Stecher officially continued the lineage. Nevertheless, Gotch was regarded as the true champion in many circles until his death because he had never been defeated. Gotch was also a 3-time holder of the American freestyle title (one of only two wrestlers to achieve that benchmark) at a time when it was considered the leading championship in North America.

    What Held Him Back: Gotch was regarded as the greatest wrestler of all-time for decades after his death, yet his shady political maneuverings, coupled with a sadistic streak and rumors that he succumbed to syphilis, rather than uremic poisoning as was reported in the press, tainted the once-proud façade he had carefully erected for himself. Today, Gotch is remembered as a manipulative conniver who swindled millions in shady wrestling matches alongside manager Martin “Farmer” Burns and a spotlight hog who refused to put anyone over as much as he is hailed as the most prolific hooker of the early-20th century.

    Greatest Rivalry: Versus Tom Jenkins. Gotch characterized Jenkins as the strongest and toughest wrestler he ever met in the ring. Whereas most wrestlers of the period stuck to the mat, the competitive personalities of Gotch and Jenkins would prompt both to stand toe-to-toe with each other in bouts that resembled prizefights as much as they did pure wrestling matches. Gotch first met Jenkins in a private match around 1901, lost, and then dedicated himself to exceeding the man who, at that point, was widely considered the greatest wrestler in the world. Both wrestlers were up to their worst in their February 1905 meeting; in that match, Jenkins removed his glass eye, a move he would sometimes resort to in order to outpsyche and nauseate an opponent. Undaunted, Gotch is said to have stuck his fingers in the aperture, provoking an angered Jenkins to later state in the press, “A gent what gouges out a gent’s eyes ain’t no gent.” Gotch and Jenkins met on five occasions in the years between 1903 and 1906, trading the American freestyle title back and forth.

    Greatest Match: April 3rd, 1908, vs. George Hackenschmidt, Chicago, IL. Gotch, backed by manager Farmer Burns and likely aided and assisted in his endeavors by referee Ed Smith (a close associate of the Burns trust) toppled Hackenschmidt after close to three years of chasing “The Russian Lion.” His world championship victory was made all the more vindicating by the fact that Gotch controlled the complexion of the match for much of the two hours they were in the ring. He ostensibly could have defeated Hack at any time in the match, but drew it out to give the crowd a show. Gotch later claimed to have shed eight pounds over the duration of the encounter.
     
    #1 Bernard de Hattrix, Nov 2, 2018
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2018
    Bernkastel and tdmoon like this.
  2. RIPbossman

    RIPbossman Occasional Pre-Show

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    I heard pro wrestling used to be a complete shoot before Ed "Strangler" Lewis took a dive in the 30's. Are you saying that Frank Gotch had predetermined matches long before that?
     
  3. Bernard de Hattrix

    Bernard de Hattrix Dark Match Jobber

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    Yes. Most of Gotch's matches, hell most matches of the early twentieth century, were in fact works. That is not to say Gotch couldn't legitimately defend himself. He was an incredibly dangerous wrestler, made more so by his appetite for sadism.

    To further expand on worked matches early in professional wrestling's development, the wrestling industry was largely worked even as early as the 1870s (and in the carnivals probably long before that). Hell, the whole reason we have amateur wrestling today is because a couple guys got together around 1888 to form the first amateur wrestling group. They explicitly forbade their competition to known professionals, because the professionals of the time had already developed a reputation for deciding the outcomes of their matches privately ahead of time. Contrary to popular belief, the fix wasn't in to entertain anybody. Legitimate shooters would work matches to control where the gambling dollars went, as there was a very intense gambling epidemic in wrestling prior to gambling being abolished during the twenties. Gotch was affiliated with Farmer Burns, who ran a trust that controlled wrestling matches throughout the midwest, and who himself may have had ties to the Maybray Gang and Million Dollar Bunco Gang, two nationwide syndicates that illegally controlled the results of a number of sports.
     
  4. Bernkastel

    Bernkastel Reaper of Miracles
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    Gotch is one of my favorite historical figures as well. I subscribe to the belief that most of the controversial stuff written about him was ballyhoo. Like how he was a ripper that intentionally hurt opponents that he didn't like, or that he rubbed himself down with oil during his 1908 match with Hack, or that his backers paid Ad Santel to injure Hack in a training bout before the 1911 match. I've heard takes from both Lewis and Thesz, and I have to take their world with some salt, because neither one of them were active in that era. Gotch had a larger than life personality that preceded him. He was a lot like Jack Johnson. He knew he was the best, and let everyone know it.

    As far as his matches went, Gotch wrestled plenty of worked contests, especially while barnstorming up in Alaska. Gotch had amassed a fortune even before becoming the world champion. From what I've gathered, it seems like all him major title bouts [vs Roller, McLeod, and Tom Jenkins were legit.] The 1908 match against Hack also seems legit. The 1911 rematch seems like an obvious work. He was also a vaudeville star, and engaged in many exhibitions. To my knowledge, it was his work on the vaudeville stage that helped spread the popularity of wrestling in the early part of the 1900's.

    By the time Lewis and Stecher hit their strides, those practices of trying to dupe gamblers led to matches that lasted for hours. They were bore-fests that led to near riots. Lewis, Mondt, and Sandow later figured out that they could make more money by paying someone to take a fall, and building up a rematch with a planned winner, then they could trying to control gambling dollars.
     
    #4 Bernkastel, Nov 10, 2018
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2018
  5. Bernard de Hattrix

    Bernard de Hattrix Dark Match Jobber

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    You've been reading the Mike Chapman book, and the reason I can tell is because you subscribe to the idea of Frank Gotch as this champion of fair play. And I can tell you that, aside from the basic chronology of Gotch's life, the Chapman book is utter drivel. Strictly speaking, Chapman demonstrated a level of hero worship directed at Gotch that completely robbed him of his objectivity. In Chapman's glass bubble, Gotch was a person who could never do wrong, a man who was touted as this good-natured do-gooder. Chapman would also have you believe that every match Gotch wrestled was on the level, and that he was a well meaning family man to boot. The individual Chapman depicts Gotch as is a guy almost without character flaws, who didn't have a dishonest bone in his body, who thought only of other people before himself. All of it is utter nonsense.

    The truth of Frank Gotch is far from Chapman's wet dreams of this stereotypical good guy champion who was loved by all. His 1899 match with Dan McLeod (one of his few confirmed shoots) is our first example. It was preposterous for any two wrestlers to get together in a local match and wrestle on a bed of cinders. When McLeod heard Gotch insist it, he was dumbfounded. Gotch did it for a lark. He knew McLeod would get hurt doing it, and it was incredibly alpha of him. Afterward, he bragged about it to sportswriters like it was a minor thing.

    Farmer Burns was Gotch's mentor, and Burns, quite simply, was an individual who amassed a small fortune by deceiving small communities for stakes of money. When he sent a ringer into a region, it wasn't to lead a group of nuns in choir practice, it was to rip off a community. The 1901 Klondike tour is the perfect example. Every match that was arranged between Gotch and Burns cronies Ole Marsh and James H McLaughlin were fixed to lure legitimate challenges from prospectors who had spent their last penny to try to make a fortune spending hours crouching by a river. Gotch was so honest that he had no problem entering the region as a ringer and ripping off Dawson City for approximately $30,000, a huge windfall in any era.

    As far as shoot vs. work, in wrestling at the turn of the century, wrestlers would arrange shooting matches in one of two ways: They would barnstorm and fleece a community, as Gotch did in the Yukon. Or they would meet in private matches held in front of twenty or so insiders in an effort to build or to defend status. Aside from this, any other match would have been fixed. A wrestling match in front of a large crowd was almost always fixed, because a large portion of the crowd were gamblers. Burns had cornered the gambling market from the 1890s, and he didn't do it by honest measures. He did it by employing two like-minded parties that were pitted as rivals but always divided the proceeds afterwards by whatever the terms of the agreement between the men were.

    The 1908 encounter between Gotch and Hackenschmidt was a work. We can deduce this because it lasted two hours. How long did the rematch last, after Hackenschmidt had angered Gotch by slandering him in the press and pressuring promoters to postpone? It lasted twenty minutes. This was not because Hackenschmidt had fallen out of top form in the three years it took to sign the rematch, "The Russian Lion" was in impeccable form and a guy who very much took his training seriously (he last appeared in a wrestling exhibition in 1949, after all, and did live to be in his nineties). Why would Gotch stoop to covering himself in oil if a match he had was fixed to begin with? I'm convinced he did it to frustrate Hackenschmidt, as kind of a joke or prank, as wrestlers do today. Hackenschmidt was highly descriptive in recounting the events, he said in interviews that after just a few minutes of tussling with Gotch on the mat, he felt sticky and had the impulse to quit the match so that he could shower. Hack was even able to identify the type of oil he alleged Gotch used by the scent.

    There was a huge irony in both Hack-Gotch matches. The first one, which the public largely believed was on the level, was almost certainly worked. Hack was used to wrestling five or ten minute matches, then he meets Gotch and takes him to the limit in a shoot? I doubt it. The 1911 match everyone assumed was a work because of the breaking newspaper reports of what was going on behind the scenes was so jarring it rendered hardcore gambling addicts more alert by the merest mention. Yes, Hackenschmidt asked to be given a fall to save face. And what happened instead? Gotch ended up taking both falls in order to disgrace Hack's legacy. This one sounds like a shoot to me.

    Gotch broke Leo Pardello's leg in an unannounced shoot. He is said to have injured "Yankee" Joe Rogers under similar conditions, in addition to his own manager, Emil Klank. All three of those men were members of the Burns faction. This is how Frank Gotch treated his friends. If you were around him in public, he was normally fine. As soon as you were his opponent, you were an adversary to be destroyed.

    Another problem with Gotch was that he was an egomaniac who enjoyed his celebrity. And at some point after 1906, we see a new Gotch who is becoming more assured of his untouchable place in the wrestling industry, because that is the last year he loses a match. The guy basically decided he was king shit, and from December 1906, he will not agree to lose to anybody. The manner in which he refused to put anyone but himself over would be punishing to the wrestling industry in later years. Upon his fall from grace, there was no one the public deemed worthy enough to succeed him, which was a big part of the reason he was still recognized as world champion long after he had stepped down from regular competition.

    Then there's the dalliances around his wife's back―and the rather suspicious circumstances they met under. Let's just say she was rather young. There was the case recorded in which a woman took him to court for breach of promise also, so it is pretty firmly established that Gotch liked the ladies and didn't hold his marriage in the highest regard. Some reports insinuate that Gotch died of syphilis, a product of his womanizing. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't, it's impossible to say. Most established biographies have Gotch dying of uremic poisoning.

    The Ad Santel story is almost certainly true, and I'll tell you why: Ad Santel was a man down on his luck when he encountered Gotch around 1911. The firing of Santel by Hackenschmidt's camp is documented on the Hornbaker site (which is a pretty good source of good wrestling information), and when discussing it with Thesz years after the fact, Santel was remorseful. Given that remorse, haven't you ever wondered why a guy who displayed remorse would make up some bullshit tale slandering Gotch? Wouldn't it make more sense to craft a story that made him look better? Also, as far as we know, Santel had no grudge against Gotch, and thus had no real motivation to drag his name through the mud. Unless he was telling the truth.

    Lastly, fans were not riotous over 5-hour matches lacking a conclusion because they were bored; they were riotous because their earnings were on the line in the form of gambling dollars. Money wouldn't only change hands on a match's outcome, it could also change hands if certain conditions were met in a match, like if the first or even both falls ended within a certain time frame. People can get pretty intense when their week's earnings are on the line for a bout they paid $3 to see in the first place. Of course, professional wrestling was moving away from its gambling roots by the late 20s in large part because the state was cracking down on the gambling epidemic in sports. With the gamblers moving away, professional wrestling had to change to cater to a new type of fan.
     

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