George Hackenschmidt

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Georg Hackenschmidt
Georg Hackenschmidt ca. 1905.jpg
Hackenschmidt ca. 1905
Birth name Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt
Born 1 August 1877
Dorpat, Governorate of Livonia, Russian Empire
Died 19 February 1968[1] (aged 90)
London, England[1]
Professional wrestling career
Ring name(s) George Hackenschmidt
Billed height 175 cm (5 ft 9)
Billed weight 99kg (219 lb)
Trained by Georg Lurich, Ferdinand Gruhn
Debut 1896
Retired 1911

Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt (1 August [O.S. 20 July] 1877 – 19 February 1968), usually credited as George Hackenschmidt in English-speaking contexts, was an early 20th-century strongman, professional wrestler, writer and philosopher.[2] He was the first free-style heavyweight champion of the world. He launched his professional career in Reval, Governorate of Estonia, and lived most of his life in London, England, where he gained the nickname of 'The Russian Lion'.[3] Hackenschmidt is believed to be the creator of the professional wrestling version of the bear hug as well as the person who popularised the hack squat, a deadlift with arms behind the body.[4] He was known for his impressive strength, fitness and flexibility and, later in life, wrote many books on physical culture, training and philosophy.

Early life[edit]

Hackenschmidt ca. 1900

Georg Hackenschmidt was born in Dorpat, Governorate of Livonia, on 1 August 1877, where he lived with his parents, Baltic German Georg Friedrich Heinrich Hackenschmidt and Estonian Swede Ida Louise Johansson,[5] and a younger brother and sister. He later admitted that neither of his parents were particularly robust in stature with any unusual physical characteristics, although his maternal grandfather was said to have been a huge and powerful man.

From his earliest years, Hackenschmidt devoted himself to physical development, particularly at the Secondary Science School (Realschule of Dorpat, as Tartu was then known), where he took advantage of the gymnasium. He excelled in cycling, gymnastics, swimming, running, jumping and weightlifting. His feats of strength were astounding for his teachers. He lifted a small horse off the ground and lifted 276 pounds overhead with one hand. In a wrestler's bridge, he could reach out and grasp a 335-pound barbell, pull it to his chest from off the floor, and bench press it overhead, bridging on his neck. In 1902 he jumped 100 times over a table with his feet tied together. He set several records in weight lifting and was considered both the strongest and the best-developed man in the world.[6]

Graduating from school in 1895, he entered the Lausmann factory, a large engineering firm in the city of Tallinn (then known as Reval), as a blacksmith's apprentice. He joined the city's Athletic and Cycling Club. He became an ardent cyclist and won prizes, but also developed a keen interest in wrestling and weight lifting. The turning point in his life was in 1896 when Georg Lurich, Hackenschmidt's compatriot Greco-Roman wrestler and strongman, came through the area with a small company, challenging any and all comers. Hackenschmidt took up the challenge and was beaten. German wrestler Fritz Konietzko came to Tallinn in 1897, and Hackenschmidt fared better this time.

Wrestling career[edit]

Hackenschmidt left Tallinn in 1898 for the St. Petersburg Athletic and Cycling Club under the training of Dr. Vladislav von Krajewski, who convinced young Hackenschmidt that he had the potential to become the strongest man in the world. Beginning his wrestling career, he defeated the famous French wrestler Paul Pons in April 1898; but in January 1899 he had army duty, being commanded to join the Preobrashensky regiment, the first life guards of the Czar. Released after five months, he defeated Mr. von Schmelling for the Russian championship of 1899 on 19 May that year.

In June 1900 he entered a 40-day wrestling tournament in Moscow and captured the championships of both Moscow and St. Petersburg. His career as a professional wrestler was on the rise, he won many tournaments and matches, and in 1901 he won the championship of the world tournament in Vienna as well as a championship of the world tournament at the Casino de Paris. He won tournaments everywhere he wrestled, and toured England in 1903 to confront the country's best wrestlers in the new catch-as-catch-can style which was becoming popular. Managed by the flamboyant C. B. Cochran, he would face and defeat up to five men in one evening. They created a music hall boom in wrestling, and Hackenschmidt became a major superstar and drawing card.

He wrestled in opera halls, music halls and theaters. As the wrestling boom took hold in England and wrestlers came in from all around the world for the grand tournaments that had become the rage, he remained the dominant grappler, rather easily defeating every man he met. Cochran polished his act until the Russian Lion was a major showstopper. He might take on five wrestlers in the same evening, defeating them all with ease.

Handsome as well as beautifully built, he was adored by women and admired by men, and became the darling of society. Personally a soft-spoken, cultured and intellectual young man, Hackenschmidt could speak seven languages fluently and became a noted author, speaker and philosopher. He moved well in social circles and was a credit to the sport. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, himself a proponent of physical culture and exercise, proclaimed, "If I wasn't president of the United States, I would like to be George Hackenschmidt."[7]

Hackenschmidt continued touring England and defeated the local favorites Tom Cannon, Tom Connors, Tom MacInerney and Tom Clayton. But when he defeated Antonio Pieri twice, the Italian sought revenge by trying to find a wrestler who could beat the Russian Lion. He thought he had found such a man in Ahmed Madrali, called the "Terrible Turk," who tangled with Hackenschmidt at the Olympia in London on 30 January 1904. Because of all the ballyhoo, traffic was jammed from the Olympia back to Piccadilly, and the Olympia was packed. Hackenschmidt picked up Madrali and threw him down onto his arm, dislocating his shoulder. The contest had lasted about two minutes.

Madrali recovered, and the two would face each other again, with Hackenschmidt winning just as easily. But this was his big year. Only on 2 July at the Royal Albert Hall the Russian Lion faced the American champion Tom Jenkins, a vastly underrated wrestler who would prove to be Hackenschmidt's toughest opponent to date, under Greco-Roman rules. Nevertheless, he pinned Jenkins in two straight falls.

Hackenschmidt left Cochran's management to tour Australia, and then sailed to America for an extended tour and a rematch with Jenkins at the Madison Square Garden under catch-as-catch-can rules, which Hackenschmidt by now preferred. Jenkins put up a hard battle, but Hackenschmidt again won in two straight falls, the first in 31 minutes, 14 seconds, and the second in 22 minutes, 4 seconds, and could now claim to be the rightful free-style heavyweight champion of the world. He then wrestled in Canada, did some sightseeing and returned to England for a long list of music hall engagements.

Hackenschmidt defeated the Scottish champion Alexander Munro and Madrali in a return bout at the Olympia, and on 6 February 1908, defeated the American wrestler Joe Rogers in straight falls inside of 14 minutes. He then sailed to America to fulfill his obligation to meet a new challenger from Iowa by the name of Frank Gotch.[8][9]


Frank Gotch vs. Georg Hackenschmidt during their rematch at Comiskey Park (4 September 1911)

Wrestling historian Mike Chapman wrote, "In all of athletic history, there are a mere handful of rivalries between individual stars that have become almost as large as the sport itself. In boxing, such matchups as SullivanCorbett, DempseyTunney, LouisConn and AliFrazier are a part of boxing folklore. In wrestling, there is only one: Gotch–Hackenschmidt."[10]

After defeating Jenkins in 1905, Hackenschmidt held the world title and remained undefeated until he and Frank Gotch finally squared off on 3 April 1908, at the Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago. Showing his contempt for Gotch and for American wrestling in general, Hackenschmidt was not in the best condition. Refusing to train publicly at the Chicago Athletic Club in spite of arrangements having been made for him to do so, he was barred from the club and spent his time either in his hotel room or taking long morning and evening walks along Lake Michigan. By neglecting his training, he lost his endurance, which had never been a factor in his previous matches because he ended them so quickly. Against Gotch, who was in peak condition, it would be decisive.[11]

The American used his speed, defense and rough tactics to wear the champion down and then assume the attack. The wrestlers stood on their feet for two full hours before Gotch was able to get behind Hackenschmidt and take him down. While on their feet, Gotch made sure to lean on Hackenschmidt to wear him down. He bullied him around the ring, and his thumbing and butting left Hackenschmidt covered in blood. At one time, Gotch also punched Hackenschmidt on the nose.[12] Hackenschmidt complained to the referee of Gotch's foul tactics and asked that Gotch be forced to take a hot shower to rid his body of an abundance of oil, but the referee ignored the complaints and told Hackenschmidt he should have noticed the oil before the match began. The match continued. At the two-hour mark, Hackenschmidt was forced against the ropes. Gotch tore him off the ropes, threw him down and rode him hard for three minutes, working for his dreaded toe hold. Hackenschmidt had trained to avoid this hold, which he did, but the effort took his last remaining strength. Hackenschmidt quit the fall. "I surrender the championship of the world to Mr. Gotch," he said, and stood up and shook Gotch's hand. The wrestlers then retired to their dressing rooms before coming out for the second fall, but Hackenschmidt refused to return to the ring, telling the referee to declare Gotch the winner, thereby relinquishing his title to the American.[13][14]

Although he at first called Gotch "the greatest man by far I ever met," and explained how his muscles had become stale and his feet had given out, and that he knew he could not win and therefore conceded the match, Hackenschmidt later reversed his opinion of Gotch and Americans in general, claiming to have been fouled by Gotch and victimized in America, and calling for a rematch in Europe.[15]

Hackenschmidt and Gotch met again on 4 September 1911, at the newly opened Comiskey Park in Chicago, which drew a crowd of nearly 30,000 spectators and a record gate of $87,000. The rematch is one of the most controversial and talked about matches in wrestling history, as Hackenschmidt claimed to have injured his knee against Roller, his chief training partner. Years later, wrestler Ad Santel told Lou Thesz that he was paid $5000 by Gotch's backers to cripple Hackenschmidt in training, and make it look like an accident.[16] However, according to Hackenschmidt himself, the injury was accidentally inflicted by his sparring partner, Roller, when trying to hold Hackenschmidt down onto his knees in the down position. Roller's right foot struck Hackenschmidt's right knee, which in 1904 had developed "Housemaid's Knee," requiring treatment, and had acted up again in 1907. Furthermore, according to Hackenschmidt, his sparring partners for this match were Americus (Gus Schoenlein), Jacobus Koch, Wladek Zbyszko and Dr. Roller. Ad Santel is not mentioned in any account of Hackehschmidt's training by either Hackenschmidt or Roller, both of whom offered their insights and accounts.[17]

Whatever the case may be, Dr. Roller did not consider the injury to be serious and referee Ed Smith dismissed it as inconsequential. Hackenschmidt himself ignored it completely in declaring, the day before the match, that he was "fit to wrestle for my life" and was "satisfied with my condition and confident of the outcome." However, Gotch, tearing into Hackenschmidt with a vengeance, discovered the weakness quickly and took advantage of it. The Russian Lion was easy prey for the champion, losing in straight falls in only 20 minutes. Gotch clinched the match with his feared Toe Hold, which forced Hackenschmidt to quit.[18][19]

Program from Hackenschmidt v. Gotch, 4 September 1911.


Following his second defeat at the hands of Gotch, upon returning to England Hackenschmidt was preparing for a match with Stanislaus Zbyszko to take place the following June, but when he began working out he felt such pain in his right knee that it was painful even to walk. It necessitated surgery, but Hackenschmidt decided at that point to retire and pursue his other interests in philosophy, physical culture and gardening.[20]

Hackenschmidt was a pioneer in the field of weightlifting. He invented the exercise known as the hack squat, whose name is a reference to his own. Hackenschmidt also helped to popularize many other types of lifts common within the modern training regimen, such as the bench press. During his career he established numerous weightlifting records, which were improved upon by others in ensuing decades.

He was a tremendously educated and cultured man who spoke seven languages. He went on to write several books, including Complete Science of Wrestling (1909), Fitness and Your Self (1937), Consciousness and Character: True Definitions of Entity, Individuality, Personality, Nonentity (1937), The Way To Live In Health and Physical Fitness (1941), and The Three Memories and Forgetfulness: What They Are and What Their True Significance is in Human Life. He also taught physical education to members of the House of Lords and served as a judge at the 1948 Mr. Universe show in London won by John Grimek.[12]

Throughout his life Hackenschmidt paid strict attention to his diet. While a meat-eater earlier in life, he later consumed huge quantities of fruit, nuts and raw vegetables, as well as drinking 11 pints of milk a day. He also remained physically fit. At 56 he could jump over a 4-foot, 6-inch high board 10 times. Even through his mid-80s he would jump 50 times over a chair once a week, bench press 150 pounds and run seven miles in 45 minutes.[12]

Hackenschmidt was already hospitalized at St. Francis Hospital in Dulwich, a suburb of London, when he died on 19 February 1968. He was 90 years old.[21][22] He was cremated at West Norwood Cemetery, where his memorial plaque records him as George Hackenschmidt.[23]

Personal life[edit]

Hackenschmidt became a naturalized French citizen in 1939, and then became a British subject in 1946.

He lived with his French wife Rachel in South Norwood, London.

He was a great friend with famous magician Harry Houdini[24] and playwright George Bernard Shaw.[25] As he aged, Hackenschmidt also expressed a high regard for his old opponent, Tom Jenkins, by then the wrestling coach at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Hack visited Jenkins in 1939 and the two got along splendidly, Jenkins accommodating Hackenschmidt in his home and giving him a tour of the West Point training facilities. In their mutual admiration society, they never publicly expressed any credit to Frank Gotch, and Hack spent the rest of his life complaining about Gotch's foul tactics and his knee injury in explaining his "inexplicable" losses.[26]


In his entire professional wrestling career, Hackenschmidt engaged in about 3,000 matches, losing only two. Powerfully built, Hackenschmidt's measurements for his 1905 match with Alexander Munro were: Age – 28; Weight – 204 pounds; Height – 5', 9 1/2"; Reach – 75"; Biceps – 19"; Forearm – 15 1/2"; Neck – 22"; Chest – 52"; Waist – 34"; Thigh – 26 3/4"; Calf – 18".[27] He also rose to prominence when the governing style of wrestling was the slower, more ponderous Greco-Roman style that emphasized muscle power more than speed, agility and ring generalship, and involved holds only above the waist. Being bulkier of build than his sleeker opponents, and slower of movement, Hack’s style and temperament were not geared as much to the newly popular catch-as-catch-can style.

Nor was he a natural showman. Honest, straightforward and serious, he would finish off his opponents quickly. His manager, C. B. Cochran, had to convince him to extend his matches and put on a show, which in turn ensured more bookings and sold-out shows. This did not mean the matches were fake. Excluding exhibitions, his matches were all on the level. But he might allow a local wrestler to last ten minutes and collect his £25 prize, and set up a highly publicized match for later in the week, where he would naturally defeat his foe handily.[28]

Which reveals one of Hackenschmidt's finest qualities. Unlike many other wrestlers, including Frank Gotch, Hackenschmidt was neither mean, vindictive nor unnecessarily rough in the ring, "contrasting his physical prowess and fighting skills with a quietness of spirit," David Gentle explained. "George Hackenschmidt was the epitome of calm, self-assurance and inner peace, with full awareness of his own capabilities and thus like all masters of combat found NO NEED FOR MACHOISM or outward aggression. His tactic to win was skill and speed, born of confidence in his own ability and fighting prowess."[12]

He had, however, three weaknesses. Against a first-class opponent, of which he faced extremely few, he could be slow to adapt. Gotch reported after their first match that “every move the Russian made he telegraphed me in advance, which shows that he thinks too slowly.”[29]

Hack was also given to depression and irascibility. When he came to Chicago to train for his first match with Gotch, promoter Jack Curley had arranged for Hack to work out every day before a paying public, which Hack refused to do. Barred from the athletic club, he spent his time before the match either exercising in his room or taking morning and evening walks along Lake Michigan, but no serious workouts. The more depressed he got, the more difficult he was to work with. This all worked against him because, for the first time in his professional career, Hackenschmidt faced a foe fully capable of defeating him.

Finally, and worst of all, in both matches with Gotch, Hackenschmidt was accused of lack of heart. Referee Ed Smith, following the 1908 match, said that "deep down in my own mind, I decided that George Hackenschmidt had quit – quit quite cold, as a matter of fact – because there was nothing about Gotch's treatment of him in that first encounter that could by a stretch of the imagination call for a disqualification. There was some face-mauling, just as there always is…but at no time did the vaunted Hackenschmidt ever make a serious move toward slapping down his opponent, never showed much in the wrestling line during the entire two hours… Again, I say, that as the referee of that match, I thought that the 'Russian Lion' quit."[30]

Following the 1911 rematch, one newspaper described Gotch's easy victory and then added that "In the parlance of the sporting world, Hackenschmidt is yellow… He quit when his position became dangerous."[31]

Perhaps the most frustrated was Hackenschmidt's second, Dr. Benjamin Roller, who himself had lost several times to Gotch but had displayed the utmost gameness and courage. "Hack did not get started," Roller explained. "That's largely a matter of gameness." Hack's injuries had not been serious enough, Roller felt. "I have tried my best to make a winner out of him and put him into the ring in the best possible condition, but…gameness is something you can not put into a man."[32]


The years spanning Hackenschmidt's professional career are called the Golden Age of Wrestling. Not only were professional wrestling matches mostly honestly contested, but wrestling was the most popular sport on every continent. But it was Hackenschmidt who brought wrestling its great popularity in the United Kingdom, and it was he and Gotch together who brought it to entirely new heights around the world. "The Hackenshmidt-Gotch matches were the pinnacle of professional wrestling during the time period and received much attention from media, fans, and celebrities," Andrew Malnoske observed. "They were even described in the 1937 book Fall Guys-The Barnums of Bounce by famed writer Marcus Griffen. To this day, the Chicago Public Library receives requests to view the newspaper accounts and files on the bouts.[33]

As Mark Palmer pointed out, “For starters, George Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch were major sports superstars of the early 20th century. Fans of all ages collected cabinet cards and postcards with their images, read their books, and devoured articles about them in newspapers. Their epic matches were front-page news around the world – akin to today's Super Bowl or soccer's World Cup in terms of garnering global attention – and helped to launch organized amateur wrestling in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. In fact, a large number of high school and college wrestling programs can trace their roots back to the 1910s and 1920s – the era when Hackenschmidt and Gotch were still household names, and highly respected athletes.”.[34]

Having already made his mark in bodybuilding, Hackenschmidt caused the major surge in the popularity of wrestling in England, and he was considered unbeatable. But Hackenschmidt probably would not be so well remembered today were it not for two things: 1) His enormous standing in the world of physical culture, and 2) his two defeats at the hands of Frank Gotch.

Hackenschmidt's name remained in the public eye because he had become an icon in the world of physical culture, a legendary bodybuilder as well as health addict, and a world champion wrestler central to a movement that was now increasingly popular. He spoke and published widely on a wide range of subjects, but most notably on health and fitness. His most popular book was the classic The Way To Live, the last words of which befit this warrior: "Throughout my whole career I have never bothered as to whether I was a Champion or not a Champion; The only title I have desired to be known by is simply my name – George Hackenschmidt.”[12]

But it was his matches with Gotch that ensured the growing popularity of catch-as-catch-can wrestling over the more laborious Greco-Roman that had previously dominated, and this is the style that enjoys popularity at all scholastic levels, private clubs and the Olympics to this day. Hackenschmidt was a major reason for this.

The H. J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the Todd-McLean Library and Special Collections in Austin, Texas, has a digitized version of a nearly 600-page scrapbook owned for decades by Hackenschmidt and bequeathed to them by his widow, Rachel.[35]

The international Georg Hackenschmidt Memorial in Greco-Roman wrestling is held in Tartu from 1969.

In wrestling[edit]

  • Finishing moves

Championships and accomplishments[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Power Slam". This Month in History: February (SW Publishing). January 1999. p. 28. 55. 
  2. ^ "George Hackenschmidt– The Russian Lion". Wrestling Heritage. 
  3. ^ Markie, Arnie. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. pg. 340. Simon and Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-684-80663-0
  4. ^ "Hackenschmidt’s Great Strength Due To Work". Classic Wrestling Articles. Retrieved 30 August 2015. 
  5. ^ Hackenschmidt Genealogy Network.
  6. ^ Chapman, p. 3.
  7. ^ Chapman, pp. 146–55.
  8. ^ Fleischer, pp. 153–77
  9. ^ Kent, pp. 148–61.
  10. ^ Chapman, p. 57.
  11. ^ Chapman, pp. 60–61.
  12. ^ a b c d e Gentle, David. George Hackenschmidt – The Russian Lion.
  13. ^ Fleischer, pp. 98–104
  14. ^ Chapman, pp. 65–70.
  15. ^ Chapman, pp. 68, 73–74
  16. ^ Thesz, Lou, & Kit Bauman, Mike Chapman, editor, Hooker, The Authentic Wrestler's Adventures Inside the Bizzare World of Professional Wrestling (Wrestling Channel Press, 1995–2000), p. 67
  17. ^ Fleischer, pp. 122–24.
  18. ^ Fleischer, pp. 114–120
  19. ^ Chapman, pp. 91–102.
  20. ^ Hackenschmidt, George (2011) The Way to Live (Modern Reprint Edition). ISBN 1466466308. p. 136.
  21. ^ Boston Globe, “Hackenschmidt Dies, Old-Time Mat Star 91,” 20 February 1968, p. 24
  23. ^ George Hackenschmidt. Find-a-Grave
  24. ^ Houdini Defeats Hackenschmidt' and other revelations.
  25. ^ Langsepp, Olaf (1968) Georg Hackenschmidt. Tallinn. Lk. 69.
  26. ^ Chapman, pp. 43–44.
  27. ^ Fleischer, p. 172.
  28. ^ Kent, p. 153.
  29. ^ Fleischer, p. 102.
  30. ^ Fleischer, p. 131.
  31. ^ Chapman, p. 98.
  32. ^ Chapman, p. 100.
  33. ^ Malnoske, Andrew. "George Hackenschmidt," The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum
  34. ^ Palmer, Mark (28 August 2007) “InterMat Rewind: Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt”. Intermat
  35. ^ Todd, Terry (July 2011). We Give You…The Hackenschmidt Scrapbook.
  36. ^ "French Heavyweight Title". Puroresu Dojo. Retrieved 23 April 2009. 


  • Chapman, Mike (1990). Frank Gotch, World's Greatest Wrestler. William S. Hein & Co., Inc. ISBN 0899417515. 
  • Fleischer, Nat (1936). From Milo to Londos, The story of wrestling through the ages. The Ring, Inc. 
  • Kent, Graeme (1968). A Pictorial History of Wrestling. Hamlyn. ISBN 0600031098. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]