Karl Gotch: The God of Wrestling
by C. Nathan Hatton
Amateur champion. Olympian. Wigan Snake Pit Gym Alumni. Kamisama (God of Wrestling). Over the course of his career, Karl Gotch earned many superlative accolades. By his own description, however, he was just a kid from the waterfront.
Born Charles Istaz on August 3, 1924, in Antwerp, Belgium, the future star began his athletic career in combat sports at the age of 10.
At the encouragement of his grandfather, he recalled in later interviews, he took up wrestling and boxing with the United Strength Testers, which operated out of a tavern in the port city. Large for his age, Istaz was granted little mercy by the men in the club who had few qualms about chasing an aspiring young athlete away. Not to be deterred, he persisted, travelling the long distance to and from the gym on foot several days a week.
As one of the largest port cities in the world during the Great Depression, Antwerp witnessed the constant comings and goings of people from all over the world. This fluid, cosmopolitan, working-class environment often bred interpersonal conflict, and a young Istaz was regularly called upon to adapt his budding skills as a boxer and wrestler to street− or as the case may be, dock− fighting. During his early life, he also picked up skills in savate, stick, and knife fighting, the latter two likely born of necessity.
By 1940, Europe was in a state of total war, and in May, Hitler’s forces turned their attention toward the conquest of Belgium. Following its takeover and occupation, Istaz was conscripted into forced labour and taken to Hamburg, Germany, where he worked shovelling coal on the railroad. After being released, he was rounded up by the Nazis a second time and interned for eleven months at the concentration camp near Kahla in the German province of Thuringia. He was ultimately liberated by American soldiers on April 28, 1945. Istaz’s prevailing memory of the wartime period was being in a state of constant hunger and sleep deprivation.
The tribulations of war robbed Istaz of much of his physical strength, deprived him of years of athletic training, and, he later noted, significantly diminished the available pool of talented wrestling coaches in Belgium. They had not, however, dulled his competitive ambitions. When the Second World War ended, Istaz took up paid work as a blacksmith, and resumed his amateur athletic career, with a focus on GrecoRoman and freestyle wrestling.
Training out of the United Athletes of Antwerp club, Istaz earned his first national amateur wrestling title in the light heavyweight ranks in 1946 under Greco Roman rules. The next year, he moved up to the heavyweight division, where he repeated the feat three more times, winning the Belgian championship in 1947, 1948 and 1949. In 1950, he added the heavyweight freestyle title to his list of national accolades. Istaz’s impressive showings on the national stage netted him a spot on the Belgian Olympic wrestling team in 1948. The biggest international competition on the sporting calendar represented a considerable step up, and although Istaz did not medal at the London games, he was not shut out either, winning bouts in the light-heavyweight (under 87 kg) class in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. He finished middle-of-the-pack.
The years after the Olympic Games were, on the whole, the most successful of Istaz’s amateur career. However, by 1950, then married and with the added financial obligation of a child, he made the decision to transition into the paid ranks. Istaz made his professional debut on September 26 at Antwerp, defeating Adolf Porizek.He initially plied his craft close to home, but a series of matches against British wrestler Alf Robinson in Brussels and Mechelen shortly before Christmas, proved to be a critical turning point in his career.
At the urging of Robinson, uncle to famed British wrestler Billy Robinson, Istaz accepted the proposal to travel to Wigan, England, and continue both his professional wrestling career and his apprenticeship in the art of wrestling at Riley’s Gym.
The idea of a decorated amateur champion once again becoming a student in a sport they had evidently mastered seems counterintuitive. Yet, upon hearing Robinson’s tales concerning the skills of the Wigan wrestlers, Istaz was compelled to make the trip.
Riley’s Gym provided the Antwerp-born grappler with a new appreciation for wrestling. There, he learned the art of professional Lancashire catchas-catch-can, with a focus on not only throwing and pinning an opponent, but also applying painful and debilitating submission holds. In particular, he credited heavyweights Joe Robinson and Bob Robinson (Billy Joyce) with teaching him the ins and outs of the art.
Istaz’s dedication to a complete mastery of wrestling was accentuated by his almost fanatical dedication to physical training. During the 1950s, he immersed himself in weightlifting. During a public exhibition at Kings Hall, Belle Vue in Manchester, he squatted 540 lbs. in the middle of the ring. Ultimately, however, he switched his focus toward a system of bodyweight and gymnastic exercises adapted from wresting cultures from around the world. His complete devotion to technical wrestling and conditioning remained unwavering for the rest of his life.
Between stints wrestling in Manchester and training at Riley’s Gym, Istaz plied his trade across Continental Europe, participating in numerous tournaments. Although he wrestled in Italy, Austria, and his home country of Belgium, he made his most frequent, and significant, impact on the German wrestling scene. During the mid-1950s, under the promotional guidance of Gustl Kaiser, he became a top attraction. After making it to the finals of tournaments in Karlsruhe in May 1954 and Krefeld in June 1955, he achieved victory at the Monchengladbach tournament later that month. Despite his many successes, Istaz took a step back from heavy participation in the professional wrestling scene during the second half of the decade. However, by 1959, new opportunities were opening up.
At the encouragement of French-born Edouard Carpentier (born Édouard Ignacz Weiczorkiewicz), who had become a huge star in Montreal a few years earlier, Istaz was brought to North America by Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn. Similar to Carpentier, who took his name from French boxer Georges Carpentier, Istaz adopted the surname of well-known Belgian wrestler Constant LeMarin by performing as
Pierre LeMarin. It didn’t stick. For a while, he wrestled as Karol Krauser. By 1961, however, he finally settled on a ring name that would have lasting significance: Karl Gotch.
Istaz’s choice of the Gotch surname made sense on two fronts. First, as an athlete who stressed technical precision above all other attributes, he could live up to the example set by the athlete whose accomplishments had made him a household name half a century earlier, Frank Gotch. Second, by then, the newly minted Gotch was working under the promotional banner of Columbus-based Al Haft, one of several wrestlers who had himself wrestled as Young Gotch earlier in the century. Haft, who appreciated professionals with real ‘shooting’ ability, no doubt influenced the decision.
Gotch had some of his greatest successes as a professional wrestler in North America while wrestling out of Haft’s booking office. In September of 1962, he defeated Don Leo Jonathan for the Indiana/Ohio version of the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship. He held it until 1964 when he lost to Lou Thesz. The title was thereafter unified with the National Wrestling Alliance World Championship. Beyond championship laurels, Gotch also found the opportunity to continue to hone his formidable shooting skills under the tutelage of Frank Wolf.
Gotch wrestled throughout United States, but despite his unquestionable physical abilities, never made to the top rank of professionals in the country. His technical approach to the sport was often lost on the audiences, and his persistent hesitance to fully embrace showmanship impacted his box office appeal (he did, however, concede to wearing a mask under the guise of the Mysterman at one point in his career). Just as he was becoming a Haft mainstay, though, he found a receptive audience for his brand of wrestling on the other side of the world.
In May of 1961, Karl Gotch (as Karl Krauser) made his first trip to Japan, debuting against Michiaki Yoshimura in Tokyo. He wrestled throughout the country until July and made a lasting impression on the nation’s fan base. Footage of Gotch’s match against Yoshimura survives, bearing testimony to the incredible athleticism and fluidity of movement that he possessed during that time in his career, especially in the execution of his famed German suplex. Gotch returned to America, but thereafter remained in high demand in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Gotch’s final major title run in the United States occurred in 1971-72, when he held the WWWF Tag Team Title with Rene Goulet. To Goulet’s chagrin, however, the reign was cut short when Gotch answered the call to return to Japan, this time as the booker and trainer for Antonio Inoki’s fledgling New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He also became the promotion’s first champion.
In Japan, Gotch truly found his niche. An upand-coming cohort of young, disciplined athletes proved to be the perfect fit for Gotch’s austere, hard-nosed, and minimalist approach to training. Driven by the mantra of “Conditioning is your best hold,” the Belgian-born grappler prescribed a rigorous daily routine of dands (push-ups), bethaks (squats) and wrestling bridges, supplemented by jori (Indian clubs), rope climbing, skipping, plyometrics, and other exercises. Athletes who were able to meet Gotch’s conditioning requirements were instructed in what he considered to be the art of real pro wrestling. Tatsumi Fujinami, Osamu Kido, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, and Antonio Inoki were among his protégés.
Stateside, Gotch took up residence in Tampa, Florida. When his services were not in demand in Japan, he provided his coaching expertise to American wrestlers, although few were able to meet the gruelling demands that he put upon them and remain long time students. His most longstanding American pupil was Joe Malenko (Jody Simon), son of wrestler Boris Malenko. Hiro Matsuda also learned from Gotch.
Karl Gotch wrestled his last match in 1982 in Japan against top student Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Although Inoki did much to propagate a more realistic version of professional wrestling during the 1970s, including staging a series of protoMMA matches, by the 1980s, the next generation of wrestlers were looking to bring pro wrestling even closer to something that we now recognize as MMA. The recently retired Gotch was once again enlisted to teach the art of wrestling to members of the UWF (Universal Wrestling Federation) promotion. His students included Satoru Sayama, Akira Maeda, and Nobuhiko Takada. Later on, he also had a hand in training Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki, cofounders of Pancrase. Over two decades of training the best wrestlers in Japan earned him the honorary title of Kamisama.
In his later years, Gotch continued to lend his expertise to training athletes. Among them was Tom Puckett, an early MMA competitor, who also worked with Gotch to put his conditioning methods on to video. Although years of wearand-tear ultimately took their toll on the seemingly invulnerable wrestling master, Gotch remained steadfast in his devotion to fitness. Even when immobilized by severe hip pain, requiring a bilateral hip replacement, he continued on, doing the muscle control exercises advocated by early twentieth century physical culturalist Maxick.
Karl Gotch died on July 28, 2007, just short of his 83rd birthday. His ashes were spread across the water at Lake Keystone in his adopted state. Some of his ashes were saved, and a decade after his passing, they were taken to Japan. The event was covered by a score of media outlets. It was also attended by a cohort of his Japanese students who paid their final respects to the one-time kid from the waterfront whose skill and undying devotion to his craft earned him recognition as the God of Wrestling.