The Russian Lion to Hall of Famer: Spotlight on George Hackenschmidt

The Russian Lion, the innovator of the bear hug, the creator of the bench press, the first ever World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. All of these describe George Hackenschmidt. George Hackenschmidt was born on August 1st, 1878 in what is now Tartu, Estonia, to a Baltic German father and an Estonian Swede mother, neither of whom were athletic.

George took particular interest in athletics and physical development during secondary school, age would impress those around him with his strength, setting records along the way, and considered the strongest man in the world at the time. After school, George would go on to become a blacksmiths apprentice, while also joining the local athletics and cycling club, winning prizes in cycling.

It was around this time that he would develop an interest in wrestling and weight lifting. In 1896, George would try his hand in wrestling, accepting the open challenge of Greco-Roman wrestler and strongman, Georg Lurich, in a losing manner, before facing off against Fritz Konietzko with a much better result. Georg Lurich would go on to help train Hackenschmidt in professional wrestling.

During this time, George would injure his hand would seek treatment from Dr Vladislav Krajewski in Russia. Dr Krajewski was the founder of the Dt Petersburg Athletic and Cycling Club, and had noticed the physique of the young Hackenschmidt, inviting him to St Petersburg in order to train. In 1899, George joined the army, where he was assigned to the Preobrazhensky Regiment.

On May 16th 1899, George would be crowned Russian wrestling champion of 1899 by defeating Alexander von Schmelling. George would go on to defeat von Schmelling again 3 days later to retain Russian champion of 1899. In September of 1899, George would travel to Paris for the World Wrestling Championships, despite having injured his arm.

This is when his “The Russian Lion” moniker was coined. He would go in to reaggravate his injury, sending him home for treatment, which worsened it. In 1900, George would start training again and would tour all through Europe wrestling, winning tournaments everywhere he went.

In 1903, George would tour England, being managed by C. B. Cochran, to have the best catch-as-catch-can wrestlers, helping usher in a boost in popularity, becoming a draw. In 1904, George would defeat American Heavyweight champion Tom Jenkins in a Greco-Roman wrestling bout in 2 straight falls.

He would go on to tour Australia, where he would defeat Australian Cornish wrestling champion Deli Nelson, and others, before heading back to the United States for an extended tour, including a rematch against Tom Jenkins at Madison Square Garden, but under catch-as-catch-can rules, which George had preferred.

George, again, would win in 2 straight falls. It was at this time, George would be declared the inaugural World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, a championship that all other current major World Heavyweight Wrestling Championships trace their roots to. George would go to Canada, and return to England, defending his title against all challengers.

After fulfilling his European obligations, George would go back to the United States to meet up with a new challenger, who would go on to be George’s greatest rival, Frank Gotch. George would hold the World Heavyweight championship, and remain undefeated, until his first match up with Frank Gotch on April 3rd, 1908, in Chicago, holding the championship for 1065 days.

George had neglected his training Regiment, due to contempt of the American wrestling style and for Frank Gotch, who was in peak fitness. Frank would wear George down that he would submit the Champion, who would then refuse to return for the second fall, declaring Frank the champion.

The two would face off again in 1911 with the same result, this time due to George having knee surgery. George would go on to retire shortly after this match and would live the remainder of his life in England with his wife, where he would maintain his exercise and fitness until his final days, passing away on February 19th, 1968 in London.

Between 1996 and 2021, George Hackenschmidt would be honoured posthumously by being inducted into 5 separate Wrestling Hall of Fames, and remembered as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of the Golden Era of the sport.

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