Karl Gotch: Hooker ... Outsider

By The Phantom Of The Ring

On July 28, 2007, one of the greatest hookers ever to don a pair of tights passed away. But don’t look for any mention in the media, for Karl Gotch died of natural causes and didn’t take anyone with him.

Not that Karl Gotch wasn’t controversial in his own way. Over the years, I’ve discovered that, of those wrestlers who knew him, none were neutral in their assessment of him. One either admired him as a great wrestler or detested him as a self-indulgent jerk. Ring Wrestling always did highly admiring pieces on his life and work. Dom DeNucci liked him personally, Bruno Sammartino admired his wrestling skills (“I always learned something from watching him in the ring.”), and Lou Thesz trusted him as far as he could throw him in a ring. For someone who didn’t make much of a splash with the wrestling public in America, there was much more than met the eye.

He was known among serious wrestling fans for his signature finisher, which he dubbed the “atomic suplex.” Today, it is known to us in a truncated form as the “German suplex,” but that is where the resemblance ends. Gotch finished his suplex with a fantastic neck and back bridge, practically bending his body into an inverted “u.” The only wrestler I’ve seen to come close to that sort of physical torture was Tatsumi Fujinami and his “dragon suplex.” Interestingly, Fujinami was a protégé of Gotch.

That he rates no mention in the American media is truly a shame, for Karl Gotch represented the very highest pro wrestling has to offer in the way of technique and pure athleticism. Not only was he a master technician, but also a superb example of physical conditioning. Gotch was not an advocate of weight training, which he felt made one over muscled in a sport where flexibility was a necessity. Instead, he learned a series of calisthenics from an Indian wrestler and stuck with them over his career. In an interview with Bob Leonard for Ring Wrestling (December 1968), Gotch stated that he typically did 300 Hindu squats and 75 to 100 tiger-bend push-ups, followed with front and back bridges and abdominal exercises.

To look at Gotch in his prime (6'2", 230 pounds) one would never guess that the very fact he was around to ply his trade was somewhat of a miracle. Karl Gotch was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on Aug. 3, 1924. He was of German-Hungarian descent, and at about the age of four, his parents moved to Hamburg, Germany, where Karl grew up. At about the age of nine he discovered the world of amateur wrestling and was a regular at the various wrestling clubs in and around Hamburg.

Now here’s where it gets murky. According to some sources, Gotch was interred in a concentration camp during the war years. Why, we do not know. It could have been his Hungarian side; perhaps there was a Jewish connection. Some sources have him returning to Belgium before the war and interred as a traitor, and yet others have him as a seven-time Belgian national champion, beginning at age 18, which would make the year 1942 and highly unlikely given the war in Europe. At any rate, had he stayed in Germany and was found racially pure, he would have ended up in the Wehrmacht, and I have no source stating that it was the case. To my knowledge, Gotch never mentioned these years in any interview, and it seemed that no one took the time to ask.

Postwar, Gotch was back in Belgium, working as a laborer rebuilding his country, and wrestling in his spare time. He represented Belgium in the 1948 Olympics in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. Though he did not medal he did well enough to earn a place finish.

After the Olympics, Karl decided to try his hand at making a living by wrestling and began training with German wrestlers. During a gym session, Gotch ended up being totally humbled by an English wrestler. Afterward, Gotch asked the wrestler about his background. The wrestler, in turn, steered him to Billy Riley’s gym in Wigan (known as the Snake Pit), a small town outside Manchester, England. It was the Snake Pit that made Gotch into the hooker.

Billy Riley was one of pro wrestling’s true characters. A coal miner and devotee of “Lancaster-style” wrestling, he was taught the ropes for the pro game by Pops Charnock, a local legend in that part of England. As a pro wrestler, Riley managed to hold his own, except in America, where he apparently got his clock cleaned, according to a Gotch interview, and soon headed back to England. The highlight of Riley’s career was his defeat of Jack Robinson in South Africa for the British Empire Championship around 1933. In the late Forties, Riley was looking for a place to teach the game to aspiring students. He purchased a lot on Vine Street in Wigan and built his gym. Honestly speaking, the place was a dump, lacking even toilet facilities. It was heated during the winters by an antiquated coal stove that always threatened to spew carbon monoxide throughout the building.

The rules for the Snake Pit were simple: no children, no women, and Billy was always right. Riley had an excellent staff of teachers, headed by the Robinson brothers, Joe and Bob. Joe wrestled under the name “Billy Joyce” and was known as a feared shootfighter. It was Joe who took a shine to the young Gotch and taught him the ins and outs of Lancaster-style wrestling. (While training at Riley’s gym, Gotch lived above a launderette in Wigan.) Gotch worked various cards in Liverpool and Manchester under his real name while picking up his education, and, when finally deemed ready to fledge in 1955, he was christened Karl Krauser and sent to work tournaments and carnivals in France, Belgium and Germany. It was here that Gotch made the acquaintance of Edouard Weicz, who soon left for America and a new career as Edouard Carpentier.

Gotch kept in touch with Carpentier, and in 1959, accepted Carpentier’s invitation to come to Quebec and work for Eddie Quinn. Though technically skilled, Gotch was hampered by a heavy German accent and lack of ballyhoo skills. This combination limited him to mostly working curtain raisers for Quinn, although there was the occasional mid-card appearance. He was one of the soldiers who spearheaded Quinn’s invasion of Fred Kohler’s Chicago territory in 1959. His television work caught the eye of Columbus promoter Al Haft, who brought him to Ohio in 1960. Haft always had an eye for good workers and, to him, Gotch was a diamond in the rough. Haft worked on Gotch’s delivery and interview skills while giving him a slow push on undercards and on television. Haft also dropped the name Karl Krauser, which he thought too German, and replaced it with the handle Karl Gotch, establishing a link of sorts to the hallowed Frank Gotch. (Also remember that, during his early career on the mat, Haft worked under the moniker of Young Gotch.)

It was while toiling for Haft that Gotch became embroiled in the biggest controversy of his day. Buddy Rogers was the reigning NWA champion and if there was one person Buddy didn’t like, it was Karl Gotch. Rogers often compared Gotch with Lou Thesz, whom he also distrusted, and let anyone within earshot know his feelings. Gotch, for his part, hated gimmicks and performers, feeling them inferior to a skilled shooter such as himself. When Gotch got word of Buddy’s feelings toward giving him a title shot, he confronted Rogers in the dressing room. Rogers told him straight out that not only didn’t he trust Gotch not to double-cross him, but that there was no money to be made in a match with Gotch. Gotch suggested that they have it out right there and then. Buddy demurred and began to leave the locker room only to find his way blocked by Bill Miller, Gotch’s friend and another wrestler snubbed by Buddy. Gotch began to pummel Rogers with his fists, and Miller, for his part, played the part of goalkeeper, in that he kept Buddy in play when the champ tried to run.

When it was all said and done, Buddy was bloody but unbowed, except for a broken hand, which limited his appearances for the next couple of months. He filed assault charges against the pair, who turned themselves in the next day to the Franklin County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Office, where they were released after posting a $25 bond each. Haft was livid, but managed to smooth things over with the authorities, using the old “boys will be boys” canard. The real damage, however, was done in the eyes of other promoters, who quickly listed Gotch as Trouble Personified, one reason why he mainly kept to Haft’s promotion until 1965, with only a stop or two in Japan.

In two interviews before his death, Miller said he and Gotch each slapped Rogers in the dressing room before Buddy ran out, according to the book, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. But Miller somewhat contradicts himself. In a 1992 radio interview with Mike Lano, he said Gotch slapped Rogers first. In a 1964 interview with Larry Matysik for Big Time Wrestling, Miller said he slapped Rogers first followed by Gotch.

My version of events comes from the late NWA champ Dick Hutton, who knew both Buddy and Karl and kept up with doings in Haft Land, where he toiled before getting his big break. “Buddy didn’t like guys with shooter reputations,” Hutton said. “He liked me because I had no axe to grind. I simply liked making money. But Buddy despised Thesz for not dropping the belt to him in the 50s, when Buddy was in better shape, and he distrusted guys like Ruffy Silverstein and Karl Gotch, whom he thought would double-cross him and make him look bad. I can’t say I blamed him because that would hurt his earning power. I remember hearing about the fight and I remember Fred Blassie laughing as he gave me the details. Fred said that every wrestler who ever had to work with Buddy would’ve gladly paid to see that match.”

Haft was a lot more forgiving than others, because on Sept. 11, 1962, Gotch defeated Don Leo Jonathan for Haft’s AWA Heavyweight championship. He would hold the title for almost two years before dropping it to Thesz in a unification match on Sept. 9, 1964. Gotch’s next venture was outside of the United States, as he signed on for a tour of Australia, working for Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle’s IWA. Using the name Karl Krauser, he defeated Spyros Arion for the heavyweight title on Aug. 18, 1965 in Melbourne. Gotch’s reign was short-lived, however, as he dropped the belt back to Arion a week later in Melbourne. He also visited Japan for the second time, renewing acquaintances that would later pay off for him.

Next stop for Gotch was California. He first worked for Roy Shire in San Francisco, where, frankly, he was a bust. A title match with Ray Stevens only grossed $24,000, while Dom DeNucci grossed twice that with Stevens a month later. DeNucci relates a story of Gotch talking things over with him in a bar, wondering why, with all his talent, he wasn’t going over with the fans like DeNucci. DeNucci explained that there was more to wrestling tan just knowing the holds; one had to sell the holds, sell the story of the match, and Gotch wasn’t doing that.

After San Francisco, Gotch traveled to Los Angeles, where he worked mainly in tag matches, the highlight of which was winning the WWA World Tag title with Mike DiBiase. They later lost the belts to Pedro Morales and Victor Rivera. Again, Gotch proved to be less of a draw than expected and so the next stop was Florida, where, besides wrestling, he took part in training young wrestlers, including Hiro Matsuda, Kurt Von Stroheim (Kurt Rutkowski) and the Bavarian Boys, Harry Wenzel and Rudy Jacobs.

Karl’s next stop would prove to be his last in America. In 1971 he surfaced in the WWF, packaged in a tag team with Rene Goulet, himself an excellent tag wrestler. They went over with the fans and received the necessary push to win the tag belts from Luke Graham and Tarzan Tyler on Dec. 6, 1971. But they would not have that long of a reign, for Gotch was contacted by Antonio Inoki, a wrestler whose style he helped polish. Inoki was seeking a good opponent and trainer to position his New Japan promotion in the forefront of Japanese wrestling. Gotch had always found his tours of Japan most enjoyable. His first was in 1962, where he wrestled Japanese headliner Michiaki Yoshimura to a 45-minute draw. His style, so stultifying here in America, caught on with the more technically savvy Japanese fans. His legend grew with each subsequent tour, and to even be in the ring with him brought a certain cache to a Japanese wrestler.

Gotch’s first match for New Japan was also the promotion’s first card, and he went over Inoki in the main event. But it was a tag match with Gotch and Thesz facing Inoki and Seiji Sakaguchi that made the bones of the new promotion. Inoki pinned Gotch for the win and gained the adulation and publicity necessary to get New Japan over with the fans. Gotch was rewarded for his good work by going over for the New Japan “Real” World Heavyweight championship in 1972, the last title he would hold. His last match saw him defeat Yoshiaki Fujiwara in Tokyo on Jan. 1, 1982.

As Gotch’s ring career wound down, his work as a trainer moved to the forefront. The list of wrestlers he trained read like a Who’s Who of Japanese wrestling: Fujinami, Saturu Sayama (Tiger Mask), Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Akira Maeda, Osamu Kido, Masanobi Fuchi, and Killer Khan, among others. He also trained Barry Darsow, proving that you can’t win ‘em all.

Maeda and Fujuwara, in turn, founded the UWF in 1984, the granddaddy of today’s mixed marshal arts promotions. Is it any wonder, then, that Karl Gotch was nicknamed “Kamisama” - the god of professional wrestling, by the Japanese fans? It’s interesting that a wrestler who worked in one country basically as a journeyman should be so honored as a god in another country while engaged in the same sport. I often thought that, were Karl Gotch in his prime today, he would be at the forefront of MMA fighting, as it is results oriented instead of performance oriented like pro wrestling. Given his training and dedication, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One could say that since the gods of wrestling were so unkind to Karl Gotch, he had no choice but to become one himself, the ultimate existential irony of the absurd.

Posted August 2, 2007


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