He was the Russian Lion, a great champion in the early days of modern professional wrestling. He was one of the most admired athlete of his time and renowned the world over for his skill in the ring.
Real Name: George Hackenschmidt
Stats: 6′ 0″ 230 lbs.
Born: July 20, 1878
By Steve Slagle
“The Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt is one of wrestling’s original great champions, and his story took place at the dawn of what has become modern professional wrestling era. His turn of the century, marathon battles with Frank Gotch over the World Heavyweight Title have become nearly as legendary as the man himself. As one of the sport’s early superstars, he was a celebrity worldwide and a huge box office draw for the early pro wrestling promoters. As a shootfighter/wrestler, the heavily muscled champion was vulnerable…but only if you could get past his extreme power advantage and effective wrestling skills. Not many wrestlers of the day could, and “The Russian Lion” was one of wrestling’s most successful men in the sport during his era, while at the same time firmly entrenched himself in wrestling history…
After establishing himself as a champion weightlifter, he began his professional wrestling career in the late 1890’s, and quickly became a major wrestling celebrity in Europe. By the turn of the century, he was the premier wrestler in Europe and is credited for selling out the London Opera House — a highly prestigious venue — in 1904. His muscular physique was quite an attention grabber, and his massive body was easily the most developed specimen in the sport at the time. As a result, people flocked to arenas throughout Europe to see him wrestle. His massive physique would, years later, be cited as a model for many muscular wrestlers to come. But in addition to being a genetic wonder, Hackenschmidt was a formidable opponent for anyone he was matched against, and he possessed a painful and effective finisher in a version of the contemporary Bearhug maneuver. Realizing the value of showmanship, despite having to deal with bouts that were often true, legitimate contests, Hackenschmidt would often play up to the crowd, making him even more popular. He was known to perform elaborate exhibitions of strength before his matches, creating yet another reason for people to attend his matches.
Hackenschmidt won the European version of the World Heavyweight championship in November of 1901 in Vienna, Austria by defeating Ahmed Madrali. A few months later, “The Russian Lion” added the European Greco Roman Heavyweight title, another early version of the World Title. He held both European title for 3 years before he defeated American Heavyweight champion Tom Jenkins on May 4, 1905 in New York City. That victory, in addition to his European championships and World Title tournament victories, solidified Hackenschmidt as the true owner of the unified, undisputed World Championship belt (pictured). His other titles were declared vacant, and George Hackenschmidt was recognized as the original World Heavyweight Wrestling champion.
So when he finally made his way to America in the early 1900’s, Hackenschmidt’s reputation was such that many Americans believed the European powerhouse was unbeatable, much like Mike Tyson’s aura/reputation preceeded him during his prime eight decades later. However, reigning American Champion Frank Gotch (pictured, standing on the left side) felt differently, and since he was the only legitimate challenger for “The Russian Lion,” their imminent match-up was highly anticipated. Their first encounter, held at the Dexter Park Pavilion on Chicago’s south side, was an epic struggle that lasted over 2 1/2 hours. However, in the end, Hackenschmidt surrendered his title to Gotch, who had managed to secure an ankle lock submission hold. After the match, Hackenschmidt let it be known that he felt Gotch had used some unscrupulous methods to obtain the victory, and challenged him to a rematch. The match was signed to take place on Labor Day, 1908 at the brand-new Commisky Park. The event drew well over 30,000 fans for a record (at that time in history) gate of $87,000, and was easily considered to be the sporting event of the year. Hackenschmidt once again lost, primarily because Gotch had paid off the legendary hooker Ad Santel to make sure Hackenschmidt was not at 100%. Santel did just that, by seriously injuring Hackenschmidt’s knee during what was intended to be a simple training session.
According to many wrestling historians, a pre-bout arrangement was made wherein Gotch would drop one fall to Hackkenschmidt, allowing him to appear strong in defeat, but still win the other two falls, thus retaining the World title. Both agreed, but, according to legend, only one man intended on keeping his word — and it wasn’t Frank Gotch. The 30,000 on hand in Chicago witnessed a truly historic title match, one that was simultaneously a work and a shoot, which saw Gotch go over (the unsuspecting and highly vulnerable) Hackenschmidt in two straight falls.
Hackenschmidt, who had been the crowd favorite, was well compensated monetarily, but the loss was still nevertheless a bitter defeat for “The Russian Lion” to accept. Not long after his second loss to Gotch, Hackenschmidt retired from the sport he had been so instrumental in popularizing. However, the heights of fame and popularity he achieved during his nearly 15-year long career, and his admirable role as a fighting champion, set a standard for future champions which can not be denied. With this in mind, we proudly induct the pioneering World Champion, the world-famous “Russian Lion” George Hackenschmidt into the T.R.C. Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame…