Frank Gotch: An American Superstar
by Mike Chapman
Born on a farm near Humboldt, a small town in northern Iowa, on April 27, 1878, Frank Gotch became a superstar for his times. Handsome, articulate and with a charisma unmatched by any other athlete in the early 1900s, he was adored by the American media and fans everywhere.
He won the world heavyweight championship on April 3, 1908, when he defeated ‘The Russian Lion’, George Hackenschmidt, in a grueling match of two hours and three minutes in Chicago. The fans clamored for a rematch between the two warriors, and it was held September 4, 1911, in Chicago’s brand new Comiskey Park.
Gotch stayed in the Morrison Hotel, and the night before the match an estimated 1,000 fans stood outside the hotel and shouted his name, refusing to leave until he made a brief appearance. A crowd of nearly 30,000 showed up for the epic match, which Gotch won in easier fashion than the first time.
He later attended a Chicago Cubs baseball game at Wrigley Field and took his seat down front. After the game, nearly every member of the Cubs team came to his private box and asked for his autograph. On another occasion, he was walking down a street in Chicago and ran into Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion. They stopped to chat and so many people gathered to gawk at the two athletes that police
had to come to break up the crowd.
It was well known that Teddy Roosevelt, President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, was a boxing and wrestling enthusiast and he invited Gotch to the White House on two occasions.
Gotch was in demand for public appearances in many major cities. He starred in a play called All About A Bout, and when he walked on stage he was greeted by a standing ovation. Gotch traveled overseas with his play and was a huge hit there, as well. It seemed everywhere he went, fans wanted to see the world wrestling champion. He made the sport ‘big time’ almost overnight.
“The story of American wrestling at its greatest is the story of its most illustrious champion, Frank Gotch,” wrote Nat Fleisher, publisher of The Ring magazine and an acknowledged boxing and wrestling authority. “He dominated the field. through his extraordinary ability, he gained for wrestling many converts. It was Gotch's victories over the hitherto invincible Hackenschmidt that made him the most popular mat star in America and started a movement among college men to take up wrestling.”
Over the past century, many other writers have echoed Fleischer’s assessment of Gotch.
“No breath of suspicion ever attached itself to Frank Gotch,” wrote Graeme Kent in his book, The Pictorial History of Wrestling book. “But by 1913 Gotch had run out of opponents and retired. When he left the ring, the golden age of wrestling came to an end.”
“As the idol of millions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Gotch made wrestling a bigtime sport in his day. He drew larger audiences than did the heavyweight champion of boxing when defending his title,” stated the book, 100 Greatest Sports Heroes. “Babies had been named in his honor, as had buildings, toys, farm implements and a hundred other things. The word ‘Gotch’ was a synonym for quality and strength.”
Gotch was one of the first athletes to appear on sports cards, which can bring very high prices today, and to endorse products in advertising. In 1916, Gotch was invited to Hollywood to talk about starring in a movie. And he was also being courted by Iowa political officials to consider a
run for governor.
But tragedy was looming. Suffering from a rare kidney ailment, the retired champion began to lose weight and lose his balance. He spent the last week of his life in bed and passed away on December 17, 1917, four months before his 40th birthday.
Frank's death was front page news in sports sections from New York to Chicago, from Kansas City to Los Angeles. But despite his death, the Gotch legacy lived on: He was far from forgotten. Here are a few examples of how his legend has endured:
In 1924, a newspaper in Iowa conducted a poll to see what Iowan the state's citizens admired most, in any field of endeavor. Frank Gotch was an easy winner.
A 1928 poster entitled Celebrities in the World of Sports had photos of 88 athletes, including Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Red Grange, Knute Rockne and Jack Dempsey. Frank Gotch was included... even though he had been dead for 11 years.
A 1934 advertisement for motorcycles in Popular Mechanics magazine boasted that, “Frank Gotch had the power that wins and so does the 1934 Harley-Davidson.” The ad appeared 17 years after Frank had passed from the scene.
In the best-selling Book of Lists, published in 1977, Gotch is ranked as the No. 1 professional wrestler of all time. The list was taken from a 1934 article written by Nat Fleischer, dean of boxing and wrestling writers. Hackenschmidt is rated No. 2.
A ten-acre park south of Humboldt bears his name. The area is near where he grew up on his father’s old farmstead. On the large stone marker in the park is an etching of a smiling Frank Gotch and the following words: “The sports world has never known his equal.”
And in 2012, a statue of Gotch was unveiled in Humboldt, at Bicknell Park, the very spot where he had trained for his epic 1911 match with Hackenschmidt. The eight-foot statue stands on a large pedestal, with the Des Moines River flowing in the background.
It is a magnificent tribute to the man that many consider the greatest wrestler of all time.
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