George Hackenschmidt: The First Pro Wrestling Champion

A wrestling fan’s thoughts of a world champion depend on which era of wrestling they watched. For modern audiences, when they think of champions, names such as John Cena, Roman Reigns, Triple H, Edge, and Randy Orton often come to mind. For fans of wrestling in the 1990’s, they might think of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Undertaker, The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart, or Goldberg. Even before that, there were champions like Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage, and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Wrestling historians might come up with names like Lou Thesz or Verne Gagne. Yet, all of these former title holders owe the opportunity of being called a champion to one man: George Hackenschmidt.

George Hackenschmidt was born in 1877 in the Russian territory of the Governorate of Livonia (now modern-day Estonia). Hackenschmidt found himself focusing on fitness from a young age, taking part in cycling, gymnastics, swimming, running and jumping while he was in school.

After graduation, Hackenschmidt apprenticed in the blacksmith trade. During his apprenticeship, he continued his pursuit of fitness. He found himself training as both a strongman and a Greco-Roman wrestler.

While Hackenschmidt was in Europe, pro wrestling was just getting off of the ground in the United States. In the late 1800’s, shortly after the Civil War, carnivals and their side attractions became popular forms of entertainment. One of these side attractions were strongmen wrestling each other to see who could win. The promoters would charge tickets for the crowds to watch, as well as collect wagers on who would win the match.

Today, professional wrestling is seen as a fixed form of entertainment where it’s known as much for its spectacle as it is for its athleticism. At the beginning, however, there was more athleticism than spectacle. There was a drive to entertain the crowd in the young days of pro wrestling, but the strongmen were trying to win at all costs.

As the popularity of pro wrestling grew, promoters were able to move wrestling events away from carnivals and into arenas. This led to a growth in both revenue and popularity in the sports entertainment venture. This also meant more money and fame in pursuit of the profession and a growth in the amount of people wanting to become pro wrestlers.

As professional wrestling was growing across the world, Hackenschmidt was perfecting wrestling and weightlifting in Europe. Many considered him a natural in both the weight room and on the wrestling mat. He was credited for inventing both the bench press and the hack squat in weightlifting, as well as the bear hug in wrestling. He hit the ground running in competitions, where, in 1898, he won the European Greco Roman amateur wrestling championship in Vienna and the Russian weightlifting championship. It was at tournaments like these where Hackenschmidt earned the nickname “The Russian Lion.”

Hackenschmidt decided to move to professional wrestling in 1900. That year, he won his first competition, a 40-day tournament held in Moscow. As a result, he was crowned both the Moscow and St. Petersburg pro wrestling champion.

As the popularity of professional wrestling kept rising, each promoter came up with their own championship belts. These were seen as the top prizes in each promotion. But, with every promotion having their own championship, who was considered the true champion?

In 1901, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was formed. This was an attempt to unite all wrestling promotions across the globe. This also allowed professional wrestling, for the first time, to declare a true world champion.

Over the course of four years, tournaments were held across the world unifying different titles in the hopes to come out with only one champion. After winning his two titles in Russia, Hackenschmidt went to defeat Tom Cannon in Liverpool, England, on September 4, 1902, to win the European Greco-Roman Heavyweight Championship. On January 30, 1904, he defeated Ahmed Madrali in London to be declared the World Heavyweight Champion. Over one year later, on May 4, 1905, Hackenschmidt defeated American Heavyweight Champion Tom Jenkins to become the official undisputed World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.

Original World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship, 1905 / Mike Rodgers

Shortly after being declared World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, Hackenschmidt jumped to the forefront of American fame and popularity. Theodore Roosevelt, who was president of the United States for the duration of Hackenschmidt’s reign, was once quoted as saying, “If I wasn’t president of the United States, I would like to be George Hackenschmidt.”

Hackenschmidt held on to the title for over 1,000 days before dropping it to rival Frank Gotch on April 3, 1908 in Chicago for his first loss in professional wrestling. He would challenge Gotch again on September 4, 1911, at the newly-built Comisky Park in Chicago in front of 30,000 fans, only to once again fall to the American.

A panoramic view of Hackenschmidt’s second match against Gotch at Comisky Park / The MMA Community Forum

A knee injury would force Hackenschmidt to retire from professioal wrestling shortly after his second match with Gotch. It is believed Hackenschmidt wrestled in over 3,000 matches, and his only two losses were the two to Gotch.

Hackenschmidt’s stardom continued after his wrestling career was over. He became an author, public speaker on weightlifting, and philosopher. He was a mainstay in the weightlifting community, known for his forward-thinking on lifting techniques and diet. Hackenschmidt died in 1968 at the age of 90.

The World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship that Hackenschmidt helped to create still has its lineage tied to some of the biggest professional wrestling championships in America today. The World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship was retired on July 24, 1957, and its lineage was carried over to the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship, which is still in existence today.

From there, most major North American wrestling company’s world championship branched off from the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship. In 1963, after a dispute with the NWA, Vincent J. McMahon, owner of World Wide Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE) decided to declare Buddy Rogers, who he believed to be the true NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion, with the brand new WWWF World Heavyweight Championship.

In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) had an association with the NWA and used their title until creating their own WCW World Heavyweight Championship in 1991. Just a few years later, Eastern Championship Wrestling (later Extreme Championship Wrestling, or ECW), who used the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship for a few years, decided to create their own ECW Heavyweight Championship. Both titles would exist until the companies were bought by WWE in 2001. The ECW Heavyweight Championship was deactivated, while the WCW World Heavyweight Championship was unified with the WWE Championship.

The most recent wrestling organization to branch off of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship was Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (Now Impact Wrestling) in 2007. For the first five years of its existence, the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship was exclusively defended in Impact Wrestling until the Impact World Heavyweight Championship was created, with partial lineage of the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship being carried over to the new belt.

There have been a total of 222 champions between the NWA, WWE, WCW, ECW, and Impact. If it wasn’t for George Hackenschmidt leading the way as a proper first World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, these 221 men and one woman may have never had the opportunity to hold the grand prize of their respective promotions and declare themselves world champion.

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