Hackenschmidt — Remember Him?

The Sydney Morning Herald – December 30, 1950
by James Holledge

George Hackenschmidt, the greatest wrestler of the classic school in modern times, has become a philosopher.   At the age of 74, “Hack” spends his time in a small London flat meditating not on his past triumphs, but on his own ideas for composing the problems of mankind.

To his callers the bald-headed ascetic known as George Hackenschmidt attempts to expound a philosophy that has been described as “an all-in system of physiology, psychology, and philosophy that makes existentialism seem like ‘Reading Without Tears’.”

He is not impatient at the lack of comprehension that is usually evident on their faces.   Many others have experienced difficulty in understanding what he is driving at!   Even Bernard Shaw, after a long and intricate session with him, was forced to admit that although he personally could not quite follow his reasoning the man was certainly no fool.

Hackenschmidt appeared before thousands all over the world from Stockholm to Sydney.   His name has endured for more than half a century.

Born in 1876 in the Estonian town of Dorpad, which was then part of the Russian Empire, he is perhaps best known by his nickname of “The Russian Lion.” He was the greatest wrestler — in the Greco-Roman style — the modern world has ever known.   A professional at 18 he went to England in 1902 as the acknowledged European champion.   His unsurpassed physique and the ease with which he defeated his opponents revived a sport that until then had been virtually dormant.   “The whole country went wrestling mad,” says that shrewd showman, C.B. Cochran, who wasted no time in getting Hackenschmidt’s name on a contract.

Then just as “Hack” was running out of competition, and audiences were tired of seeing him slam down his innumerable opponents almost before they had got properly settled in their seats, the promoters’ prayers were answered by the timely advent of Ahmed Madrali, an enormous, hirsute ex-stevedore from Marseilles who answered to the name of “The Terrible Turk.”

One night at the Canterbury Music Hall, where Hackenschmidt was appearing in a weight-lifting act and one or two exhibition bouts, there was a sudden but no doubt not entirely unexpected commotion in the stalls.   Two wildly gesticulating and shouting “foreign gentlemen” (as one paper described them next morning) were pushing their way to the stage.   One was recognised by some of the fans as Antonio Pierri, a veteran wrestler known in his prime as “The Terrible Greek.” In quaint broken English he announced that this was his protege, “The Terrible Turk, the Sultan’s favourite wrestler,” on whose behalf he challenged Hackenschmidt.

Press and public clamoured for the match, and Cochran arranged what was then the biggest wrestling contest ever staged in England.   The purse was 1,000 pounds for the winner and 500 pounds for the loser.   Even in boxing that sort of money was big news in those days.   It took place at Olympia on January 30, 1904.   Pierri had proved himself an astute publicity man, for Madrali emerged as the popular pick.   Many good judges were so bemused by his propoganda that they were already proclaiming that “poor old Hack” would be massacred.

Even “The Russian Lion” himself seemed to be affected.   Cochran says he had such a bad attack of nerves in his dressing room that Eugene Corri, the famous boxing referee, gloomily stated, “He’s licked already!”   But he was a different man when he emerged and bounded confidently down the aisle to the ring.   Probably not one of the thousands in the audience had ever seen a better physical specimen.   Hackenschmidt was not tall and he then weighed not much more than 14 stone, but he carried “the smooth rippling muscles of a greyhound.”

His opponent was a giant who logically assumed that no wrestler living could give him two stone in weight, a foot in height and a beating as well.   The public had similarly reasoned, “A good big ‘un’ll beat a good little ‘un any day.”   It took “Hack” exactly 44 seconds to prove them wrong.   He lifted the “Turk” bodily, high above his head, then slung him down on the other side of the ring, where he lay inert and groaning.   The “favourite of the Sultan” was finished for the evening, with three broken ribs and a broken arm!

Hackenschmidt went on his way unbeaten.   World-wide tours were undertaken but not one wrestler could be found to extend him.   Lack of competition forced him onto the vaudeville stage to earn his keep.   Harry Rickard imported him into Australia to appear at the Tivoli at the highest figure ever paid to a performer in this country at that time.   In 1908 and again in 1911 the world was astounded to hear that Hackenschmidt had been defeated by an American wrestler named Frank Gotch.   On both occasions “Hack” was forced to withdraw because of an injured leg, caused by his frantic attempts to overcome a strange toehold Gotch had perfected.   Even today he will not say much about it, but many believe the hold was unfair and should have been illegal.

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