“I never took one cent from a boy to show him how to wrestle, all I asked for is guts … I can make you strong, fast, agile and train you for endurance and reflex, but guts you get when you are born.” – Karl Gotch (August 3, 1924 – July 28, 2007)
Over the last few on years on Bloody Elbow, we’ve covered the biography of the late Karl Gotch to varying degrees of detail, which you’ll be able to read on the links below. Cageside Seats will likely have a piece up this weekend as well due to the significance of Gotch bridging the gap between exhibition show wrestling and the competitive MMA prototype that emerged in Japan in the 1980’s.
It is worth pointing out for posterity that Gotch’s uniqueness in combat sports history resulted in the time and circumstances he was born and raised in. 1924 — the year of his birth in Antwerp, Belgium — was just a few years shy of the great economic depression that was felt almost the world over, spurred on by the infamous Wall Street Crash in 1929.
His German Father and Hungarian Mother moved the family to Germany, at a time when the country was undergoing radical change in the wake of its own hyperinflation caused economic struggles, and the fallout from the Treaty Of Versaille formed at the end of the first World War.
Poverty and depression helped cultivate the fascist National and Social German Workers Party — or Nazi party — which would take power in Germany and turn the nation into a dictatorship. Many know of the atrocities the Nazis caused with their ethnic cleansing of Jews, Slavs and other non-Arean races, but they would also intern German citizens that refused to work for them when asked. Gotch’s father was one such citizen, and both he and his father were imprisoned in a labor camp as a result, while Gotch’s mother had managed to avoid arrest while not being in the area at the time.
It’s unknown how long Gotch was in one of these camps, but he had nearly died of starvation before his camp was liberated by one of the allied forces.
Gotch grew up in poverty and endured the horrors of World War II that nearly cost him his life, yet he was able to compete in the London 1948 Olympic Games for Belgium in both Freestyle and Greco Roman Wrestling, just 3 years after World War II had ended, and just shy of his 24th Birthday.
Gotch’s reputation of being hard-nosed, stubborn, difficult to work with and an alleged bully within Professional Wrestling has to be taken into consideration with his history of fighting and surviving for much of his early life in real times of hardship and conflict. He had little patience for those who hadn’t worked hard or had the ‘amateur spirit’ of competition within them, which is largely why he was never able to find success in the United States since the ability to make money through promotion and theatrics never appealed to him.
The famous incident between him and NWA champion Buddy Rogers didn’t help matters either, with Rogers accusing Gotch of serious assault while Gotch and his training partner Dr Bill Miller were thought to have just slapped him around a bit for refusing to work with them. New Zealand wrestler Abe Jacobs who was also a part of the NWA believed had Gotch and Miller really wanted to hurt Rogers, “… there would have been nothing left of Buddy Rogers,”.
Japan and its martial tradition allowed Gotch’s style of scientific mat wrestling as well as work ethic — Gotch liked to say “Conditioning is your strongest hold!” — to flourish and influence generations of athletes, though Gotch remained highly opinionated of what would become MMA and the state of wrestling, often stating the grappling that was permeating MMA was ‘garbage’. Gotch didn’t like the use of the guard because the pin had been negated, believing those that pulled guard did “half the work” for him, and referring to the staple of modern Jiu Jitsu as ‘The Whore Hold’. Gotch also mocked the use of the Gi, as he liked to say “I only wear pajamas when I go to bed”.
Underneath this hard looking exterior for the few that got to know him was a man with passion for wrestling and a dry sense of humour. As the opening quote of this article says, he looked for guts in a man before he would teach him, and admired fighters like Minoru Suzuki for the guts they had in competition. He preferred those who could walk the walk than talk the talk, and had a humorous saying of “Talk is cheap, but money buys whiskey!”.
The legacy of Gotch is without question. Having trained a lot of first generation New Japan Pro Wrestlers that included Antonio Inoki, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Satoru Sayama, Akira Maeda, and Tatsumi Fujinami, to the resulting lineage that produced Yori Nakamura, Erik Paulson, Greg Nelson, and the fighters they coach today on the Sayama side, to Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki on the Fujiwara side coaching Ken and Frank Shamrock, Matt Hume and Bas Rutten in Pancrase and all the great names of the sport they have in turn coached (Ken Shamrock and the Lions Den, Frank Shamrock and AKA, Matt Hume and AMC Pankration, Bas Rutten and his own pancrase gyms).
The Promotions of Shooto, Pancrase, RINGS, and Pride could all be attributed to the influence of Gotch and played host to to many of the sport’s early legends such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko, and Kazushi Sakuraba.
Some of the landmark moments in MMA history have an element of the ripple effect Karl Gotch caused. Would there have even been a Ken Shamrock if not for the lineage of Gotch? Maurice Smith beating Mark Coleman was in part down to his training with Frank Shamrock, who had developed under his brother Ken and Minoru Suzuki. Bas Rutten becoming a well rounded fighter who could submit as well as strike started with Masakatsu Funaki training and cornering him from his first fight with Ken Shamrock in Pancrase. The rise of AKA in producing top flight contenders and even champions was in part to Bob Cook helping develop AKA as a coach, where Cook took over the grappling side from his teacher Frank Shamrock. Sean Sherk becoming the first UFC Lightweight champion of the modern era, with his long time coach of Greg Nelson, a CSW coach under Erik Paulson himself. The possible connections no matter how indirect are endless.
Gotch is unlikely to be remembered as well as the Gracies, despite efforts to the contrary. Victors often write the history books and the success of Rorian Gracie carrying his father Helio’s take on Jiu Jitsu from obscurity to global permeation is remarkable. Helio Gracie deserves his own week of dedication, perhaps five years on from his passing in January 2009, though doing so would be expected. Gotch will likely remain an unsung forefather by comparison, but at least less unsung than he would have been.
The legacy and influence of Gotch has helped put Catch Wrestling on the map and made the various elements of Mixed Martial Arts more interesting, captivating and fruitful as a result, and I’m thankful and appreciative for the role he played as a catalyst for this wild and chaotic sport we know and love.
I’ll leave you with perhaps Karl Gotch’s last recorded interview, an informal video that’s nearly an hour long called “My Cigar With Karl”. Rest In Peace Karl Charles Istaz, gone but not forgotten.
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