Paul Pons: The Colossal Sports Star of France
by Pat Laprade
Paul Pons was born Hyacinthe Pont in Sorgues, France, a small town 400 miles south of Paris. His exact birthdate is unknown, as various reports have it listed as February 7, February 9, and June 23, 1864. In his late teens, he entered his first wrestling tournament. He was 6 foot 4, weighed 260 pounds, and was extraordinarily strong from the years he spent working as a blacksmith. He made a name for himself by winning two amateur tournaments, before turning pro.
His very first pro wrestling match was described by Pons himself in a series of articles to celebrate Pons’ 20-year career. The description was extremely detailed, especially by the standards of the time. Pons went so far as to write that the outcome of the matches was predetermined, with a time limit, that wrestlers were playing characters, and that he was a plant in the crowd for his first match, putting over the main guy from the troupe.
Pons continued to wrestle in carnivals and moved to Paris in 1890, where he wrestled twice against Tom Cannon, one of the great champions of the era. Unfortunately for Pons, the timing was off, and the local scene had a down period between 1891 and 1895. So, he managed to buy a small gym and started training young guys. It took the Turkish invasion to revive the local scene in France, when wrestler and promoter Joseph Doublier brought Kara Osman, Nurullah Hasan, and Yusuf Ismail to France. Pons feuded with the three famous Turks over the next several years.
In 1898, Andre de Lucenski, the director of sports newspaper Le Journal des Sports, created the first World Greco-Roman Heavyweight Championship tournament. At the time, the World Greco-Roman title was mostly defended in North America. Therefore, Lucenski went to Pons’ gym and told him about his idea to have a huge tournament at the Casino de Paris and to have Pons as the first wrestling champion of France. Pons happily accepted. The event was so successful that they sold out the venue and turned away fans.
That marked the beginning of Pons’ legacy.
The Journal des Sports tournament became the precursor of what the European wrestling scene would look like for the next two decades. Many countries would hold a wrestling tournament and Pons started getting more offers to wrestle internationally.
In April 1898, he wrestled against a young George Hackenschmidt in St. Petersburg, Russia in what was said to be Hack’s first notable match. Pons had also wrestled in Liverpool, England, where a match against Cannon drew 7,000 fans. It was the biggest wrestling crowd in Europe that year, third in the world. The following year, he wrestled Magnus Bech-Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, drawing a crowd between 10,000 and 12,000 fans. It was, by far, the biggest crowd in wrestling that year.
After a year of anticipation, Pons finally arrived in the United States in October 1900. He was publicized a lot throughout the country, dubbed as ‘The Colossal’, ‘The European Giant’, and more frequently ‘The French Giant’. In 1901, at the Garden in New York, he wrestled World Greco-Roman champion Ernest Roeber in front of 7,000 fans. It was the second biggest crowd that year.
Being from France, a stop had to be made in Montreal, Canada. Therefore, in March, Pons wrestled George Little (Dan McLeod) in front of 4,000 spectators. It was the biggest wresting crowd in the history of Montreal and considered as one of the best wrestling matches ever held there up to that point. However, Pons left for France shortly after, disappointed and discouraged by the low payoffs he received in North America. Although it was frequently rumored that he would be back to wrestle in the states one day, he would never return.
Back in France, Pons won the Gold Belt tournament in Paris three times. That tournament had replaced the Journal des Sports one. Also, Pons started travelling a lot in Brazil and Argentina to help develop wrestling in South America. But in 1910, at 46 years old, Pons had slowed down his pace. His last tournament was, rightfully so, the big December tournament at the Casino de Paris.
Out of the ring, Pons loved hunting and fishing, and chose a place deep in the countryside and next to a river to retire.
On April 14, 1915, he went out on his boat not far from his home. While he was fishing, Pons caught his net on a rock, and it dragged him from the boat. Even if he was an expert swimmer, he had tied the cord attached to the net to his wrist and, although he tried to escape, the current was too strong that day. Sadly, he was not able to free himself and drowned. He was either 50 or 51 years old, depending on his actual birthdate.
Pons retired having won over 40 tournaments throughout Europe between 1898 and 1909. He won the December Paris tournament a record of six times.
Paul Pons was considered by many as the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler at the end of the 19th century. Between 1898 and 1901, he was also among the best drawing cards in pro wrestling. Pons was France’s first influential wrestler and gets some recognition still to this day. Every year, the Paul Pons Trophy is awarded to the best sports organization in Sorgues and, in 2003 (more than a hundred years after his wrestling debut) he was voted in the France Sports Hall of Fame, capping a tremendous career.
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