Gotch, Frank Alvin

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GOTCH, Frank Alvin

(b. 27 April 1878 near Humboldt, Iowa; d. 17 December 1917 in Humboldt, Iowa), professional freestyle wrestling champion considered one of the greatest in the history of the sport.

Gotch was the last of nine children born to Frederich Rudolph and Amelia Gotch. His parents were farmers who were married in 1855 and moved to the United States from Germany in 1863. Gotch attended a one-room schoolhouse in north-central Iowa, but like most children of the day he spent much of his time working on the farm. Gotch gained a reputation wrestling against other farm boys; his big break came when he was twenty-one years old.

In those days, big-name professional wrestlers would travel from town to town challenging local tough guys to matches. They would take bets on the outcome and pocket the winnings. On 18 June 1899 Dan McLeod, once considered the heavyweight champion of the United States, came to Luverne, Iowa, and challenged Gotch. There were no formal sanctioning bodies for wrestling, so champions were declared by newspapers, and title matches were arranged by promoters. Gotch accepted McLeod's challenge, and the two wrestled on a cinder track for nearly two hours before McLeod prevailed.

McLeod arranged for Gotch to meet Martin "Farmer" Burns, a smaller wrestler who was a master of holds and considered to be the top wrestling coach of the time. Burns decided he could turn Gotch into a champion. After training with Burns, Gotch traveled to Alaska to compete in the booming mining towns. He wrestled under the name Frank Kennedy and became the champion of the Klondike. Gotch earned $30,000 in his six-month stint in Alaska, an enormous sum in those days.

Gotch returned to Iowa to prepare for a bout for the U.S. championship with Tom Jenkins, and resumed the use of his given name. Jenkins had been recognized as champion since 1899 when Gotch met him in a match in 1903. Jenkins won the 1903 match, but Gotch eventually defeated Jenkins for the title on 8 January 1904 in Bellingham, Washington. The two met a total of eight times, with Gotch winning five of the matches.

Gotch's next challenge was George Hackenschmidt, an Estonian who held the world championship. Hackenschmidt was a former weightlifter who switched to wrestling at age twenty because it offered greater earning potential. He was a major star in Europe and had defeated Jenkins twice, once in Europe under Greco-Roman rules, a traditional style that allowed holds above the waist only, and once in the United States under freestyle rules.

Gotch met Hackenschmidt in a freestyle match on 3 April 1908 at the Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago. Gotch, age twenty-nine, was five feet, eleven inches tall, and weighed 196 pounds; he had a forty-four-inch chest and a thirty-five-inch waist. Hackenschmidt, also twenty-nine, was five feet, nine inches tall, and weighed 218 pounds; he had a fifty-two-inch chest and a thirty-five-inch waist. Hackenschmidt's reputation was so great that PresidentTheodore Roosevelt, a wrestling fan, was quoted as saying, "If I couldn't be president, I'd want to be George Hackenschmidt."

Gotch's training regimen had included running to improve his stamina. In front of 8,000 spectators he wore down Hackenschmidt to win the title after a two-hour best-of-three fall match. Hackenschmidt conceded the first fall and refused to lock up for the second, quitting the match. He later accused Gotch of oiling himself so he would be difficult to hold on to.

A rematch was scheduled for 4 September 1911 in Comiskey Park. The heavily hyped rematch drew 33,000 fans and plenty of controversy. Gotch won the match relatively easily, winning the first fall in twenty-seven minutes and the second fall in just six minutes. It was rumored that Hackenschmidt had suffered a serious knee injury in training and that he went into the ring with no chance of winning. It is still debated whether Hackenschmidt used the injury as an excuse for the loss, or if a training partner was paid by gamblers to injure him, or whether he threw the match. Hackenschmidt denied this accusation and even as an old man would get angry at the mere mention of Gotch's name.

The speculation was also a product of the times. Wrestling had a carnival background, and rigged matches had already soiled the reputation of the sport. But Gotch was largely free of question because of his dominance, and continued to defend his title through 1914. He won eighty-eight consecutive matches to end his career, finishing with a record of 154–6. In 1915 he also wrestled hundreds of exhibition matches without a loss, offering his opponents $100 if they lasted more than fifteen minutes.

Soon after Gotch's retirement, the nature of wrestling changed. Promoters had grown impatient with the long and sometimes overly technical matches and desired both greater control over champions and the opportunity to earn larger purses. The result was a sport in which the outcome of each match was entirely predetermined.

In 1916 Gotch became ill and started losing weight. Despite rumors that he had syphilis, his official death certificate indicated his condition as kidney failure. A year later Gotch died at age thirty-nine at his home in Humboldt, just three years after his retirement.

Gotch was one of the first sports heroes to cross over into show business. He starred in a play that toured the world and wrestled in front of President Roosevelt in the White House. Gotch was married to Gladys Oestrich; they had one son.

A biography of Gotch is Mike Chapman, Gotch: An American Hero (1999). Bob Kurson, "Real Mayhem," in Chicago (Sept. 1999), is a story about the Gotch-Hackenschmidt matches. The most complete audiovisual collection on Gotch is at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Newton, Iowa.

Ray Krueger