George Lurich: The Art of Wrestling
by Ian Douglass
Simply by virtue of the fact that he is credited with training fellow Estonian-Russian George Hackenschmidt – through which both the original world heavyweight wrestling championship of professional wrestling and several principles of bodybuilding and weight training can be traced – George Lurich can lay claim to being one of the most important and influential figures in both worlds. Ironically, this titan of multiple strength-based expressions that often blurred the lines between sport and art had an origin story that belied his eventual accomplishments and forecasted his eventual fate.
Right in the middle of his most prolific tour of the United States, Lurich spoke about being refused admission to his school’s gymnasium when he was only 10 years old because he was considered too weak. His mother was in such fear for her son’s life due to his frail figure that she assumed he would die at a relatively young age. Unfortunately, she would be proven correct in the latter respect, but not for the reason she envisioned at the time.
Rather than succumbing to any form of physical weakness or ailment in his youth, Lurich instead discovered both wrestling and weightlifting, and developed himself into an all-purpose strongman and superbly conditioned wrestler. What followed was a 180-degree pivot in the way Lurich was treated by his peers and others who beheld him.
“I developed every bit of my strength, and if I could, anybody could,” Lurich told writer Reginald Foster when interviewed in 1916. “I was so weak that I was the butt of every little bully in the school. I got mad and made up my mind I was going to fight them, and I worked so hard and got strong so fast that before long all the boys were my friends – they were afraid to fight me, and I was afraid to hit them for fear I might kill somebody. I was too good for the whole school.”
As self-made a man as there ever was, Lurich became one of the foremost advocates of both all-around fitness and wrestling. In terms of his physical prowess, Lurich became a weightlifter of such efficiency that his single arm jerk record of 266 pounds was still believed to have been the established world ceiling several years after his death. Rather than thinking himself special, Lurich attributed his overwhelming success in all forms of power displays entirely to his own hard work and believed that anyone could replicate his accomplishments if they simply endeavored to put forth the same effort he had.
“Everyone who meets a good athlete naturally asks how he became one, and if the questioner is weak, he complains of the unequal distribution of strength among mortals,” wrote Lurich in his book ‘The Art of Wrestling.’ “If he who is less fortunately endowed with physical advantages were to go in for a regular system of training and utilize to the full that modicum of strength which has been given him, he would find that he would soon become very much stronger.”
In this same book, which was translated into several languages and sold throughout Europe, Lurich provided a similar glimpse into just how disciplined his approach to everyday living was in his efforts to become the premier wrestler of his day.
“To be an accomplished wrestler, a man must have had systematic training from his youth,” explained Lurich. “He must have lived a regular life, and observed all the rules of health. Sometimes the strong porter, locksmith and brewer provide examples of how quickly indulgence in strong drink undermines bodily health. The public desire living illustrations of the advantages of moderate living, and the wrestler provides this.”
When Lurich finally reached North American soil in early 1913, his muscular physique invited comparisons to his wildly popular Estonian protege.
“He is not so powerful appearing as [George] Hackenschmidt, and from the waist down looks slender, but those who have seen him perform declare his foot and leg work is equal to that of the ‘Russian Lion,’ while his strength in torso and arms is phenomenal,” printed The Elmira Gazette.
Indeed, in comparison to Hackenschmidt, Lurich’s prodigious muscles seemed to sneak up on onlookers and catch them unaware.
“When he sheds his clothes, a wonderful athlete appears,” described a writer from The Arizona Daily Star in 1913. “Five feet eight inches in height, he looks much taller. This fellow who looked to weigh 165 pounds burdened with all of his outdoor scenery steps on the scales and to the surprise of all present, he tips the beat at 214 pounds. The scales must be wrong. No, they have been tested. That fifty-six inches around the chest accounts for the poundage.”
While other journalistic accounts describe Lurich as being as tall as 5’11”, such anecdotes were typical in Western reports on the Estonian’s activities, as the tremendous girth of Lurich’s chest was consistently observed, “Lurich is a Greco-Roman expert who never knew what it was to get a hold below the waistline until he came to America,” suggested a stringer from The Chicago Examiner. “His depth of chest is enormous, almost as great as is its width, but his muscles lie far beneath the surface, and his strongman stunts surprised.”
Although Lurich cut a striking figure up close, as far as his in-ring performances were concerned, Western sportswriters were often far less awed by the Estonian.
“We would hardly call George Lurich a hustling wrestler,” wrote one Kansas City reporter. “He even talks slow. George says that it is just as well to win in 60 minutes as to flop his man in 15 seconds. It is all in an evening’s work.”
However, hidden within the colorful descriptions of Lurich’s wrestling presentation are several indications that he understood the value of appealing to the viewing audience, and providing them with something beyond a straightforward exhibition of grappling.
“Lurich must have been working by the hour, for it was apparent to those close to the mat that he purposely allowed his bulky opponent to wiggle out of several holds,” reported The Chicago Examiner in January of 1913. “The Russian showed some knowledge of the toe hold, inasmuch as he was careful not to allow [Bob] Managoff to get it on him. The toe clutch he used himself would have caused Frank Gotch to indulge in a mild giggle. When George wasn’t busy securing and releasing his holds, he was grinning at the audience, making passes at innocent reporters, and conversing with Referee Ed Smith.”
When indulging in this method of performance, Lurich was also able to use his ingenuity to separate himself from other chiseled muscle men.
“Between speech making and burlesquing, George Lurich, the Russian grappler, last night found time to wrestle in his finish match with Demetrias Tofalos, the Greek strong man, in the international Greco Roman tournament at the Manhattan Opera House, New York, and as a result the former Olympic weightlifting champion suffered his first defeat of the meet,” described a reporter from The Asbury Park Press in November of 1915. “Lurich did little wrestling until the opening of the fourth period, but after that stage it was apparent that the Greek was a weight lifter, when compared as a wrestler to the amusing Russian.”
These details are critical because few Americans were likely to have ever seen the very best of George Lurich in the ring. When the European catch-wrestling champion finally initiated a full-fledged tour of the United States, it was arguably a decade since Lurich had peaked overseas, 17 years since his ballyhooed victory over George Hackenschmidt that stoked the interest of American wrestling fans, and seven years since the heart of his European feud with Stanislaus Zbyszko. In essence, Lurich appeared to have primarily ventured to the United States at that juncture to put over key people – including Frank Gotch – and to make money.
“In coming to America, I expected to meet the very best of the wrestlers over here,” Lurich told sports writer Sandy Griswold in December of 1912. “I am in very comfortable circumstances and am paying my own expenses, so there are no strings attached to me and I am not under obligations to anyone. I would especially like to wrestle Zbyszko, who is just landing I
understand. To show that I do not think so much of the money, I would be willing to make a match with him, the first one I take on in this country. Already I have beaten him on the other side, in much the same manner that I beat all of the other great stars over there.”
No matter what the outcomes of Lurich’s North American matches were – and he absorbed several losses on American soil between 1913 and 1917 – he was presumably compensated handsomely for his services. In January of 1918, Boston wrestling promoter George V. Touhey estimated that Lurich was one of only four wrestlers by that time – owing heavily to his international success – to surpass $1 million in career earnings, with Alex Aberg, Viovannio Rajcevich and George Hackenschmidt being the other three.
If Lurich indeed earned that much money during his wrestling career, it appears that he tragically never lived to spend it all. After returning to Europe during 1917 while the continent was still largely gripped by the turmoil caused by the first World War, Lurich and his close friend Alex Aberg eventually became trapped inside of Russia during the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution. In February of 1919, Russian writer Ivan Norodny published a story alleging that Lurich and Aberg had been executed by a Red Army firing squad in Petrograd. This was false information; wrestler Ivan Michaeloff later received a postcard from Lurich in May of that year stating that the pair were just fine. However, they wouldn’t be for long.
In early 1920, Stanislaus Zbyszko was able to get the tales of his adventures in Europe published and circulated through the American press in a syndicated format for a full year. The story Zbyszko told was not only unflattering in its portrayals of Lurich, and especially Aberg, but it also distracted readers from their actual deaths. In fact, the deaths of Lurich and Aberg were casually and offhandedly reported by some news outlets and filtered through the lens of Zbyszko’s tale.
“Zbyszko recently had a letter from a friend in Russia, where the big Pole spent some very disagreeable years during the war, in which is narrated the death, several months apart, of those two famous wrestlers, Lurich who succumbed to typhoid fever, and Aberg, who died of pneumonia,” printed an October edition of The Buffalo Morning Express sports section as a wrap up to a much larger segment on Zbyszko’s exploits.
The truth was that Lurich and Aberg had found themselves trapped in the city of Armavir during the Russian Civil War, and Lurich succumbed to typhoid fever on January 20, 1920. Aberg passed away from pneumonia nearly one month later, on the 15th of February. Unfortunately, when the reporting of the wrestlers’ unflattering deaths finally reached the United States, they elicited such little ink from the newspapers that Zbyszko’s colorful account of his professed mistreatment at their hands continued to circulate for months absent the information that the pair had been inadvertent casualties of war.
While the unceremonious passing of Lurich was minor news in the United States, his legacy has achieved matchless significance in his homeland of Estonia. Multiple statues and sculptures in the likeness of Lurich now decorate appropriate locations within his native country, fittingly celebrating the accomplishments of a man who carved a monumental legacy out of the very little material he had to work with at the outset, and who encouraged anyone within earshot to take up their proverbial chisels and begin crafting their own masterpieces.
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