Andre The Giant vs. Hulk Hogan. Bret “Hitman” Hart vs. Shawn Michaels. Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat. The pro wrestling world is filled with iconic rivalries that have fuelled the imaginations of wrestling fans for decades and propelled the industry as we know it. But arguably the most important rivalry of all time was the very first one, featuring the reigning World Champion George Hackenschmidt from Russia against American Frank Gotch in 1908, that catapulted professional wrestling into the upper echelons of sporting spectacles. It was on this day in 1968 that George Hackenschmidt, also known as “The Russian Lion”, passed away at the age of 90.
Born in Dorpat, Livonia, Hackenschmidt began wrestling in 1898 and was a natural from the get go. A legit strongman, who combined his unparalleled strength with a quick learning of catch style wrestling, he became Russian Champion in his first year and European in 1901. He worked extensively in England, facing challengers from all over Europe, disposing of all of them. In 1904, he faced and defeated American Champion Tom Jenkins to become the first true World Heavyweight Champion of pro wrestling.
But it was his first match on US soil that set the stage for pro wrestling as the spectacle as we know it. He travelled to Chicago for the match up, at Dexter Park Pavilion, to face the United States’ strongest challenger, Frank Gotch. The match was a rough and tumble contest, and one that was full of controversy. Gotch repeatedly used rough housing tactics, like thumbing him in the eye and punching his nose, and Hackenschmidt routinely asked the ref to pay closer attention, as well as send Gotch back to the showers – Gotch had covered himself in oil – but it fell on deaf ears. Hackenschmidt ultimately lost the matches and the championship and America had it’s first World Champion in Frank Gotch. Hackenschmidt was furious and demanded a rematch in Europe, as he felt betrayed by the American referee.
He got his rematch, but it wasn’t held in Europe. In 1911, it was held at the brand new Comiskey Park, again in Chicago, drawing a then-record 35,000 spectators to the match of the century. Once again, the match was mired in controversy as Hackenschmidt was injured during sparring just prior to the match. During the match, Gotch targeted the injured leg and won in two straight falls, cementing himself s the undisputed World Heavyweight Champion.
Hackenschmidt returned to Europe to train himself for future opportunities at the World title, but just prior to a match against Stanislaus Zbyszko in England, his knee injury had worsened to the point that his only real option was an early retirement. A champion weight lifter and physical fitness guru, Hackenschmidt spent the rest of his days writing books on physical fitness as well as working the public lecture circuit. He retired to London, England following his wrestling career, where he passed away in hospital on February 19, 1968 at the ripe old age of 90.
George Hackenschmidt will forever be remembered as pro wrestling’s first World Heavyweight Champion and one half of the rivalry that made pro wrestling a stadium filling spectator sport that captivated the headlines and hearts of fans around the world.