By Mike Mooneyham
Aug. 5, 2007
He wasn’t flashy or flamboyant, didn’t cut money promos, and didn’t care much for gimmicks.
But he didn’t have to. He was Karl Gotch.
Never heard of him? Then chances are you haven’t followed the business very long.
In the hallowed halls of wrestling history, Karl Gotch has a special place at the front of the line. None were ever tougher, none likely ever will be.
Gotch, an Olympic standout whose success in the pro ranks was limited only by his reluctance to adapt to the changing landscape of the industry, passed away July 28, a few days shy of his 83rd birthday, in his hometown of Tampa.
Born Karl Charles Istaz in 1924 in Antwerp, Belgium, of German and Hungarian ancestry, Gotch was an international star who was an icon in Japan where he was regarded as “the God of Professional Wrestling.”
It was overseas where Gotch achieved his greatest success – first as a wrestler and later as a coach and trainer who influenced a generation of Japanese stars ranging from Antonio Inoki, Hiro Matsuda and Tatsumi Fujinami to Satoru Sayama (Tiger Mask), Akira Maeda and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Unlike fans in the United States, mat enthusiasts in Japan related more to pure, technical wrestling, and Gotch’s workmanlike, athletic-based approach became the prototype for New Japan’s popular strong style wrestling and later for the realistic, shoot-oriented Japanese UWF, which spawned Pancrase and other mixed martial arts promotions.
A Holocaust survivor who learned the art of submission wrestling at the fabled Wigan “Snake Pit” gym in England, Gotch represented Belgium in the 1948 Olympics in London in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, and parlayed his amateur success into a lengthy pro career.
Gotch, not to be confused with turn-of-the-20th-century wrestling champ Frank Gotch, remained somewhat of an enigma throughout his professional life. He was idolized and respected, but also feared and misunderstood, among those he wrestled and those he trained. Although he was considered a recluse in the latter stage of his life, Gotch’s long-standing reputation as one of the toughest men in the world never waned.
Gotch, who didn’t train with weights and believed that real strength was achieved when one worked at mastering his own body weight from every conceivable position, was a trendsetter who revolutionized numerous conditioning techniques for wrestlers and constantly traveled throughout the world in search of new exercises and drills.
His array of workouts was known as “The Karl Gotch Bible,” a method advertised as requiring only a deck of normal playing cards and some time to kill. What it really entailed, however, was a grueling and brutal routine with an alarming level of difficulty, including squats, push-ups, pull-ups and climbing a rope upside down – all done at a fierce intensity and an incredibly high number of repetitions.
Only the very strongest of heart and mind were able to endure such a challenge. Gotch, a superb example of physical conditioning, mastered the exercise with relative ease.
“I never took one cent from a boy to show him how to wrestle, all I asked for is guts,” Gotch once said. “I can make you strong, fast, agile and train you for endurance and reflex, but guts you get when you are born.”
Gotch was the nearest thing to a true “uncrowned champion” in the sport’s history. But with good reason. Some promoters feared that once Gotch was given a run with a major title- particularly one as prestigious and valuable as the world’s heavyweight championship – no other wrestler would ever be able to legitimately wrest the belt from him.
Everyone knew that Gotch, with a thousand different submission locks in his vast repertoire, was highly skilled and dangerous. Gotch did little to assuage those fears when he and mat star Dr. Bill Miller, a friend and workout partner, roughed up then-NWA world champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in a 1962 backstage fight in Columbus, Ohio. Rogers, who was never fond of “shooters” such as Gotch, filed assault charges against both men, and the incident further isolated Gotch from a number of U.S. promoters.
Longtime friend Abe Jacobs doesn’t buy the story that Gotch played much of a role in the affair.
“If they had both jumped on Buddy Rogers, there would have been nothing left of Buddy Rogers,” says Jacobs. “Buddy would do one of two things. He would either sit down and cry or he’d run. Buddy was a great professional but he couldn’t wrestle. The real story is that Buddy tried to run out, and Bill Miller shut the door on him to keep him from getting out. And Karl couldn’t have done too much to him, because Karl would have broken his arm. I think he just slapped him around.”
There also were aesthetic reasons for Gotch’s lack of a push. He had a healthy aversion to the theatrical side of the business and was unwilling to embrace the “performance” aspect of the sport. He disdained the more colorful, showmanship-oriented aspects that had taken hold in the post-World War II era. Promoters felt Gotch was more suited in a mid-card role despite his superiority over just about anyone who ever stepped into the ring with him.
In many ways, Gotch was a throwback to a previous generation of wrestling, whose participants were mostly shooters who shunned those who didn’t possess similar skills. Times had changed, though, and Gotch found himself in a business where “performers” and “workers” outnumbered the shooters and hookers.
Gotch acknowledged as much in a 1964 interview.
“My only disappointment is the strong reliance on gimmicks. I am at a disadvantage, because I don’t dye my hair, I don’t wear elaborate costumes and I don’t have any funny names for the holds I use. My only gimmick is a knowledge of wrestling.” Jacobs maintains Gotch, who many regarded as the greatest scientific ring technician of his day, could have drawn big money in this country had he been given the opportunity.
“A lot of people said that Karl couldn’t draw, but if you work things right, you can draw money with anybody. Karl could have drawn a lot of money if he had been used right. It wasn’t his work, even though his work was a little different and had a European style, but it shouldn’t have mattered. There were guys who couldn’t work making plenty of money. They couldn’t do anything but brown-nose the booker or the promoter. That was a common excuse made by promoters when the guy was a pretty good performer or they couldn’t trust him or he wasn’t a brown-noser. They’d say the guy couldn’t get over.”
But some colleagues considered Gotch to be stubborn, self-indulgent, condescending and a poor businessman as far as the wrestling business was concerned.
“Promoters thought he was too hard to handle. Karl would lose his temper. All they needed was to have somebody who could sit down and talk to the guy,” said Jacobs. “And if he had held the belt, he probably would have said, ‘Bring in somebody who can beat me.’ And that might have been a problem.”
Gotch’s name often was mentioned in the same reverent tones used to describe six-time NWA world champion Lou Thesz. Although their credentials inside the ring were impeccable, Gotch was denied the lofty level of success Thesz achieved.
“Lou admired Karl’s wrestling knowledge, talent and amateur spirit but was frustrated at his lack of understanding about making money,” says Charlie Thesz, Lou’s widow. “I think Karl admired Lou’s wrestling knowledge, talent and ability to make money and sell tickets, but was frustrated with Lou’s lack of amateur spirit.”
The two also shared a German-Hungarian heritage.
“They were both German-Hungarian, with Karl’s father being German and mother Hungarian. Karl would come to dinner at Lou’s parents’ home when they were in St. Louis together. Their lives paralleled up until the point where Ray Steele said to Lou, ‘If you don’t make money at it, it is just a hobby.’ Karl never made that leap into the reality of professional wrestling. It was all about pride and competition with Karl. Professional wrestling became a business to Lou, and wrestling became about the perception of the ticket buyer.”
Gotch left an indelible mark on anyone who ever met him.
Ole Anderson, a tough, no-nonsense individual in his own right, had heard all the tales about Gotch and was impressed when he first met him nearly 40 years ago in the Carolinas.
“I thought it was peculiar when Gene (Anderson) picked me up, and (Boris) Malenko was in the front seat which was where I always sat. There was a guy sitting in the back seat with his head straight up, and I got in the back seat, not knowing why Malenko had taken my position. But I didn’t say anything. After talking to him a few minutes, I finally realized it was Karl Gotch. He looked like a perfect German officer who wasn’t going to take (stuff) from anybody.”
Anderson figured it was a “rib” since he had made comments to Malenko earlier about Gotch.
“I told Malenko that I didn’t know how tough Karl Gotch was, but I had already gone through Danny Hodge, and I thought he was a pretty tough guy. I don’t know if Karl Gotch was better. I was just impressed by Karl Gotch. Danny Hodge was the toughest guy I ever wrestled. I got beat by Danny Hodge. If Karl Gotch was any better, I don’t know, because how much better could Karl Gotch have been because Danny Hodge could have killed me.”
Anderson says the business was much more than just about being well-conditioned, tough or even capable in the ring, and that may have explained why Gotch was commercially underappreciated in this country.
“On the way back, he made the comment that if he had known what he knew then, he would have never let anyone know that he was that tough,” says Anderson. “Being a tough wrestler didn’t really translate to being able to make money in the wrestling profession. If you didn’t have that ability to draw as a pro, which I suspect he didn’t have, then he still wouldn’t have made any money. It took someone like me who was just a little tough but had a lot of bullshit.”
Rene Goulet, who shared the WWWF tag-team title with Gotch from December 1971 until February 1972, fondly recalls the wrestling wizard.
“He was incredible. As far as shoot, nobody could touch him,” says Goulet. “He was the top of the top. I don’t even think any of today’s guys could have done anything with him.”
Goulet says all he could do was marvel at Gotch’s workout regimen.
“”He was 245 pounds, built like a piece of concrete and fast like a cat. He worked out all the time, but he didn’t work out with the weights. I never saw him work out with the weights. He was more into conditioning. When we were partners in New York, he was doing a thousand full squats before every match. His workouts were incredible.”
Goulet first crossed paths with Gotch in 1968 while working for promoter Ed Francis in Hawaii. The two met at wrestler Dean Higuchi’s gym. “He came in with a pit bull,” recalls Goulet. “He loved this dog. When I asked him why a pit bull, he said, ‘They’re like me. When they fight, they fight to the death.'”
“Karl had just quit wrestling,” says Goulet. “He was ticked off at Ed Francis because he was asked to job to some of the guys who (weren’t at his level). It was an insult, and he told Francis that he’d rather quit and be a garbage collector. And that’s what he was doing. He was working with the garbage crew. He did that for five or six months.”
Even as a garbage collector, says Goulet, Gotch was impressive.
“They’d get up at 4:30 or 5 in the morning, and he’d be running behind the truck, picking up garbage. He’d have the crew working out with him.”
Jacobs says Gotch, who moved to Hamburg with his parents at the age of 4, had a tough upbringing. He recalls Gotch telling him how he and his father escaped from a German prison camp during World War II, but they got split up and he never saw his father again.
“He told me about things that happened after the war. There was no food in Germany. Some of his friends had to get rid of their dogs, since the only thing they had to eat was dog food. He had a pretty damn tough life.”
Gotch, who originally used the name Karl Krauser in Europe during the 1950s, changed his name shortly after arriving in the United States in 1959 at the age of 35. Columbus promoter Al Haft felt the name Karl Krauser sounded too German, and the name Gotch already had a link to early wrestling history.
But he never changed his European-based, catch-as-catch-can approach, despite the fact that the business had begun to place more of a premium on style and less on substance.
Surprisingly, though, the lack of a push and titles never killed the legend of Karl Gotch. In some ways, it made it stronger, as new generations of wrestlers would regale in stories about “the master.”
Gotch sometimes served in various territories as a “policeman,” a role reserved for the toughest wrestlers in the company, whom promoters would use to keep disgruntled wrestlers in line.
“Karl was a straight shooter,” says Jacobs. “He didn’t like snitches and guys who went to the office and talked. He was very quick-tempered. You might say he was a hard guy to get along with for most people.” “He was very interesting,” says Goulet. “He spoke several languages and liked talking when you were on a trip with him. He’d talk to you for hours.”
Gotch left the American wrestling scene in 1972 after his abbreviated run with Goulet as WWWF tag-team champs and never looked back.
“He got an offer to become the booker in Japan for Inoki,” says his former partner. “We were wrestling in Philadelphia, and some of his guys came up there to make the offer to Karl. He accepted, and that was the end of our tag team. When McMahon (Vince Sr.) found out about it, he was really (ticked). We dropped the belts at the following TV to King Curtis (Iaukea) and (Baron) Mike Scicluna.”
Gotch won New Japan’s “Real” world heavyweight title that same year and worked his final match 10 years later, on Jan. 1, 1982, in Tokyo, defeating Yoshiaki Fujiwara. As his wrestling career came to a close, he put more of his efforts into training Japan’s future stars, an elite group that would form the foundation of the future mixed martial arts promotions in that country.
Gotch. who was bestowed the everlasting title of “the God of Professional Wrestling” in Japan, was in Inoki’s corner for his wrestler vs. boxer match with Muhammad Ali in 1976. He continued to train wrestlers into the ’90s near his Florida home.
“Conditioning is your best hold,” Gotch was wont to say. Fiercely independent and living life on his own terms, the master still entertained select visitors and wrestlers with his physical feats until the very end. Among those he trained in Florida was Joe Malenko (Joe Simon), son of the late Boris “The Great” Malenko (Larry Simon) and brother of current WWE road agent Dean Malenko (Dean Simon).
“They eventually had a falling out,” says Jacobs, who noted that Gotch alienated many of his friends in the business.
“I once said to him, ‘Karl, you haven’t got any friends left.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, you’re the only one I’ve got.’ Like I said, he was a hard guy to get along with. He had a quick temper and could get madder and madder by the minute.”
Even though Gotch had lived for years in Tampa, a major wrestling city during the territory days where many former and current wrestlers still reside, Jacobs says Gotch “didn’t like a lot of those guys.” “He didn’t care for a lot of the guys who couldn’t wrestle,” says Jacobs.
Jacobs recalled Gotch telling him about one of his first meetings with Thesz.
“I don’t remember who Thesz was working with, but everybody was watching the match and Thesz was eating this guy up. Thesz would do that on occasion to people who couldn’t wrestle. Karl said he went back down to the locker room where everyone was putting Lou over. He went up to Lou and told him that he ever tried doing that with him, he’d break both of his arms and legs. It was kind of ironic because later on they got to be pretty good friends.”
There was no doubt, however, that Gotch was one of Thesz’s biggest fans. “There can be many princes but only one king. To me, the king always will be Thesz, so long as there is wrestling on this earth,” he was quoted in a 1964 interview. Thesz liked Gotch, says Jacobs, because Gotch shared his vision of what a true professional wrestler should be and both were extremely confident in their ability to legitimately handle anyone in the opposite corner. They both learned their craft from the “old-timers,” although they were half a world apart.
Gotch and Thesz engaged in a series of matches throughout the country during the ’60s. Jacobs witnessed a bout between the two in Tampa.
“Karl told me later that (promoter) Eddie Graham wouldn’t tell Karl what he wanted him to do. Karl was there in the locker room getting hotter and hotter by the minute. He went looking for Graham, and he finally caught up with him and told him, ‘Look, you white-haired, one-eyed SOB, I know what’s going to happen. I can give him the first fall and I can take the next two falls if I want to.’ Eddie knew what type of guy Karl was, and he was afraid to tell him (the finish).”
Thesz suffered several broken ribs in a 1964 match with Gotch when he threw his weight forward to block a suplex attempt. Thesz immediately hooked Karl with a double wristlock for the finish. Some claim Gotch had attempted to double-cross the six-time NWA world champ, but Charlie Thesz doesn’t buy it.
“I truly believe they had so much mutual respect, neither wanted to shoot on the other. I think they both enjoyed not being sure who would win. It was an ‘any given day’ situation.”
And, she adds, “if Karl had been shooting on him, Lou would not have been able to get out (in a jiffy).”
“I never met him, but Lou spoke of him often and with respect and affection,” she says. “I kinda think of them as opposite sides of the same coin. I do know Lou had immense respect for Karl as a wrestler. I would laugh out loud when Lou would talk about him being so stubborn. I am sure Karl felt Lou was the stubborn one. Lou missed him in later years when he became reclusive, but he never pushed seeing him.”
Lou Thesz once described Gotch as “first and foremost a wrestler.”
And that’s exactly how Karl Gotch would want to be remembered.