That sound of the ring bell before an epic match, two athletes putting on a spectacle for the millions (altogether now) AND MILLIONS, of wrestling fans. Yes, us adults will face the non-believers, the ever so interesting ‘You know wrestling is fake right?’. Well yes, so is Eastenders and the Walking Dead. Does it stop those shows entertaining millions? Wrestling today is the ultimate show. Pyrotechnics that you couldn’t see anywhere else, athleticism the likes of which you couldn’t even witness in most Olympic sports, storylines so enthralling that even the most famous Hollywood script writers get jealous. So where did this multi-million industry come from? The less knowledgeable fan will tell you it all started with the different territories in America. Some might even be convinced that it all started with Vince McMahon (really?). Even the more hardened fans might believe that professional wrestling all began in the early 20th century. Well sit back, relax and absorb hours of knowledge as I take you on a journey over several articles of professional wrestling, from this one exploring the true beginnings of the sport all the way to Roman Reigns (sorry).
He held the title for 2 years before finally losing to a big Bulgarian Brut (no not him), Nikola Petroff in 1900 in front of a record setting sporting crowd at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Pons continued to wrestle up until the age of 44. In his final match in 1909 he was defeated by local hero Giovanni Raicevich in Milan. He published a book in 1912 on the history of wrestling which quickly became a bestseller before he passed away 3 years later in 1915. He is still considered to be one of the greatest Greco-Roman wrestlers of all time, especially in his native France, where he was inducted into the French Sporting Hall Of Fame in 2012.
Georg Hackenschmidt was not only the most popular wrestler in the United Kingdom at the time, he also won the first ever ‘free-style’ heavyweight champion of the world. Born in Livonia, Georg started his professional wrestling career in Estonia but lived most of his life in London. Nicknamed ‘the Russian lion’, he actually has more of an impact on wrestling as we know it than you might think. In a match in 1906, Hackenscmidt grabbed his opponent in by the hair in the centre of the ring, pulled him close and wrapped his huge arms around the body. He proceeded to lift him up and squeeze as tight as he possibly could (which I’d imagine was quite tight given the size of those biceps). His opponent then dropped to the floor, with Georg being declared the winner. Does that move sound familiar? Yes, Georg Hackenschmidt invented the bear hug. As if that wasn’t innovative enough, in another match he decided to something similar except from behind. And rather than grabbing the around the midriff, he lifted his opponent from underneath the arms and slammed him down.
ank Gotch is to this day widely seen as the most illustrious wrestler of all time, he was almost undoubtedly the most popular. He was the first American Wrestling hero, well before Hulk Hogan and his influence on the sport should not be underestimated. After Hackenschmidt had beaten Tom Jenkins to successfully retain his World Heavyweight Championship, Gotch, who had already been champion by also defeating Jenkins a year before in 1904 wanted his opportunity at the title again, only to be told that he hadn’t proven himself as worthy by Hackenscmidt. Gotch was furious but regardless, the bout never happened with the Russian lion opting to sail back to England instead as the first ever undisputed champion (sorry Jericho). However, 3 long years later, Gotch got his match. The bout happened on April 3rd 1908 at the Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago and Hackenschmidt maintained that the popular American was going to be an easy opponent.
Gotch went on to reign supreme with a then record 5-year title reign. In fact, the only people in history to hold a world title longer than him are Bruno Sammartino, (WWF World Heavyweight Championship, 7 years and 8 months) Lou Thesz (NWA Title, 7 years and 7 months) and Verne Gagne (AWA World Heavyweight Title, 7 years and 3 months). Despite Hackenschmidt’s previous comments that he would not wrestle Gotch again, a rematch did happen September 4th 1911 at the newly opened Comisky Park in Chicago.
After the retirement of Wrestling’s biggest stars, the popularity of the sport began to slow down. Although still a favoured pastime, fans started to grow tired of the current stars, feeling as though there was a lack of innovation from the performers. The London City Council then banned professional wrestling in the late 1930’s, which appeared to have killed the sport in England leading in to World War 2. The American scene however, was about to pick up, thanks to 3 men and a lot of innovation…
But that story is for next time! Now you know the origins, you can relax in the knowledge that wrestling is a traditional as it gets and you can prepare for the next stage of our journey on the history of professional wrestling!