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1.4 | The Karel Istaz Root | Under the Learning Tree (revised)

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Under the Learning Tree Season 1: Jericho & (mostly) Guevara

1.4 | The Karel Istaz Root

1.8 | Taproots of Pro Wrestling

Under the Learning Tree is a series that follows the story of professional wrestling backwards from a current star performer in AEW Wrestling, back in time to their trainer, to their trainer's trainer, ad infinitum. The first stars we've been giving this treatment to have been kayfabe mentor and mentee Chris Jericho and Sammy Guevara. Explaining Jericho's Tree only took a couple of paragraphs, but Sammy's is in the midst of taking several installments, (weekly, every Saturday!) If you have time, the story is better appreciated from the start, so please follow this link: part 1, and from there, follow links forward at the bottom of each page to each successive installment.

In part one of the story of Sammy Guevara's Learning Tree, we learned about the main trunk, primarily in his native Texas. In part two, we learned about the key branching point in the person of Hiro Matsuda, and about those roots in Japanese traditions. In part three, we learned about the Mexican lucha libre roots of this Learning Tree.

In this section, we will learn about how H. Matsuda sought out advanced grappling training from a notorious German-Hungarian émigré from Belgium to the United States living in Ohio, and how this connected H. Matsuda (and by extension Guevara,) to a rich training root of catch-as-catch-can wrestling native to the Lancashire region of Northern England.

Our previous installments have each profiled several trainer/trainees in the pursuit of venturing deeper into the root system of Guevara's learning tree. But in the next two sections, we will focus on just one man: born Karel Istaz, known at times as Karol Krauser or Pierre Le Marin, famed as Karl Gotch, the "Kamisama" (or "god") of puroresu. The reason for this is that a great deal of context of the milieu in which K. Gotch lived and worked is necessary for any understanding of his life beyond a bewildering list of contradictory incidents and allegations, acclamations and accusations. This is his story.


Hiro Matsuda (pt 4)

Seeking Out the Master of Catch

In late October of 1963, H. Matsuda informed his boss in the Florida wrestling territory, Cowboy Luttrall, that he needed a few months off to train with the European technical-grappling master, Karl Gotch. [1]

It should be kept in mind that H. Matsuda was already making a great living at wrestling and being presented as a technical virtuoso, himself, on par with widely-acknowledged experts of technique such as his career rival, NCAA Champion and Olympic silver medalist, Danny Hodge. [2] There was nobody in Hiro Matsuda's ear telling him that he needed to improve his wrestling skills, even if it meant spending the winter losing out on good money doing grueling training and wrestling in front of nobody in harsh Ohio, rather than making good money wrestling in front of big crowds in temperate Florida. Unless it was himself.

Danny Hodge and Hiro Matsuda, contract signing, early 1960s

So, what possessed H. Matsuda to call up K. Gotch on the telephone out of the blue, convince the older grappler to let him train with him, drive up to Ohio, rent a hotel room, and dive into tough, exacting training in all kinds of weather, six days a week, all that autumn and winter?

The urban legend is that H. Matsuda had gotten the competitive itch to get a fall in on his Olympian rival, Hodge, in a shoot spar behind the scenes and not only in the predetermined matches for the ticket-buying customers. The Mephistophelian wrestling villain, Ox Baker, would have been a raw rookie in 1964 when H. Matsuda came back through Oklahoma for his rematch series with Hodge after training up with K. Gotch. So it's possible that he was an eye-witness. But it's also possible that he was only relaying the locker-room rumors, or perhaps simply a self-deprecating just-so story that H. Matsuda had made up or exaggerated to tell on himself as a funny anecdote. But this is how Baker relays the story:

Hiro Matsuda spent about ten thousand bucks with Karl Gotch to learn all the shooting holds, the wrestling holds. He wanted to try Danny Hodge out. After about five minutes with Danny, Matsuda looked up and said, "I just wasted $10,000." [3]

Ox Baker:

for those who may not know why I call him "Mephistophelian"

(It should be noted that K. Gotch is quoted as having said that he "never took one cent" to train anyone at wrestling. [4] But this is not necessarily a contradiction: perhaps H. Matsuda really did say "$10,000," but was only estimating his lost earnings and travel expenses for his training sabbatical.)

However, the version of the story that H. Matsuda passed on to his daughter for his memoirs was quite different. It is true that H. Matsuda's journey to the US to become a professional wrestler had been about going to live somewhere that he had always seen from afar as a sort of promised land, and about achieving his dreams. But ahead of all of that, it was about getting away from those who had been holding him back at home, proving those detractors all wrong, and then coming back later to rub their noses in it. As he was leaving Japan, he told his parents: "I have a one way ticket. If I never make a success of my dream, I will never step on Japanese soil again." [1] First and foremost among the obstacles and detractors back home whom he felt the need to prove incontrovertibly wrong from the start by returning a conquering hero, was Rikidôzan.

The words H. Matsuda passed on to his daughter for his memoirs were:

I wanted to prove to him that he was wrong, and that I had been right. I did not have to make my name as a sumo wrestler or a judo master or whatever in order to be a successful professional wrestler. I had made it on my own...
I wanted the opportunity to say to Rikidôzan, "If you want to try to wrestle with me, you can try anytime, anyplace. I will prove my skill to you. I will beat you anytime, anyplace you want." [1]

Did the experienced worker truly put that much stock in the importance of beating Rikidôzan in some secretive backstage shoot? Or had he planned to "go into business for himself" and go for a surprise real win in a public show fight against his erstwhile mentor, as Rikidôzan had once done to Kimura? Or was he merely speaking in a half-kayfabed way to his daughter, still habitually "protecting the business" on his deathbed? It's hard to say, but one thing is certain: one way or another, proving himself to the mentor who had never truly believed in him was a driving force in his life and the biggest reason he was running through the woods of Ohio, with his sweat freezing to his body, with an over-six-foot, two-hundred-forty pound [5] European man sitting on his shoulders like Yoda.

Hiro Matsuda and Karl Gotch, training together in 1963

Six days a week they would train: rain, snow, or shine. They would start with 90 minutes of running through a wooded park—alternating sprints with running piggyback, and with pushups. Then they would spend the rest of the day practicing holds, counters, throws, and pinning maneuvers in a wrestling ring in a barn owned by Ohio wrestling promoter, Al Haft. [1] Over the weeks, K. Gotch passed on to H. Matsuda all that he could of what he had learned in the legendary "Snake Pit" catch-as-catch-can style wrestling gym in Wigan, England, including his difficult but unique and devastating-looking finishing maneuver—which K. Gotch called the Atomic Suplex, but a wrestling announcer today would call a bridging German suplex.

Karl Gotch performing his Atomic Suplex

By mid-December of 1963, H. Matsuda had been living in Ohio and training every day except Sunday with K. Gotch for several weeks, when he received a letter from a grade-school friend who he had kept up correspondence with since leaving Japan. The letter said that Rikidôzan had been stabbed at a nightclub, but that the wound wasn't serious and he was in the hospital expected to recover soon. A newspaper clipping was enclosed. But a letter followed a week or so later informing him that the wound had gotten infected and Rikidôzan was dead. H. Matsuda's dreams of returning to Japan with amazing skills to show up his unsupportive mentor turned to ashes in his mouth. He stayed on in Ohio long enough to celebrate Christmas with the Gotches and their friends, then returned to his adopted home of Florida. About a year later, H. Matsuda indeed had his return visit to Japan as he had intended, and he got the hero's-welcome homecoming he had always dreamed of, but it could never be what he had imagined without Rikidôzan there to prove wrong. [1]

Japanese newspaper coverage of Rikidôzan's stabbing


Karl Gotch (pt 1)

The Evolution of "Karel Istaz" to "Karl Gotch"

Karel Istaz was born in 1924 in Belgium, of one German and one Hungarian parent. Financial troubles after the worldwide crash of 1929 led the family to relocate to Hamburg, Germany, where Karel would grow up. He excelled at amateur wrestling from a young age. [4]

Accounts of what wartime was like for young Karel and his family vary greatly. According to most interviews, his family were freethinkers who ran afoul of the Nazi regime. But according to one source, his father was executed and young Karel sent to work with prisoners of war. [6] Another story claims that man and son were sent to a concentration camp, and almost starved before being liberated by the advancing Allied forces. [4] Yet another tale posits that the two of them escaped, but became seperated, and Karel never saw his father again. [7] Other sources give a far more prosaic account of this time: trade school, followed by working on the docks, all while pursuing a passion for wrestling in the athletic-club taverns of Hamburg, but with little coaching and guidance available due to the more experienced athletes being off to war. [6] It is possible that the discrepancies of these stories are due to a game of "telephone" between Istaz , friends relaying his anecdotes, and journalists. But the combination of the discrepancies and the fact that all of these accounts come from the time when Istaz was wrestling as a "good guy" in the Midwest of the US leads me to suspect that the accounts of his conflicts with the Nazi regime were kayfabe intended to make the German-accented competitor more sympathetic to postwar audiences in the US.

After the war, we begin to see more confirmable life events, with Istaz returning to Belgium, and representing his nation of birth in Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling competition in the 1948 Olympics. [4] After the Olympics, Istaz decided to go professional, wrestling in tournaments all over the Continent. It was in one of these tournaments that he happened upon a British wrestler named Alf Robinson whose skills impressed him.


When Istaz asked the man where he had learned to grapple like that, Robinson pointed Istaz in the direction of Wigan, just outside Manchester, and to the trainer there: Billy Riley.[8] Istaz sought out Riley's gym, that would later become infamous as the "Snake Pit," and trained there under both Riley and his previous protégés and co-trainers: the brothers Bob & Joe Robinson, (Bob being better known by his nom du guerre, "Billy Joyce.") [9] Bob & Joe were of no relation to Alf, "Robinson" just being a common surname in that region, but Alf was uncle to Billy Robinson, a local teenage student at the gym. Over the decades, Karl and Billy would go on to rival one another as the two greatest exponents of the "Snake Pit" style on the global stage. [8]


A German, a Frenchman, and an Englishman in Japan,

(Karl Gotch, Andre, and Billy Robinson, 2 decades later)

Riley's gym was notorious for being grueling, gritty, and no-frills, to say the least. [6] There they taught the wrestling folkstyle known as catch-as-catch-can wrestling. Catch, (for short,) originated in that region in the early 19th century, and spread through the backlots of pubs in the more hardscrabble parts of Britain, and also to the carnivals and doings of the windswept American Midwest, where it evolved over the decades into the slam-bang style of American professional wrestling. [10]

Istaz trained with the Lancashire men for months that stretched into years while working the occasional local card, until 1955 when he left the nest and began touring Europe under the name "Karl Krauser." While traveling Europe, he met and made a good impression on fellow competitor, Édouard Weiczorkiewicz. Perhaps they bonded over their mixed heritage: Weiczorkiewicz was raised in France of half-Russian and half-Polish extraction. Or perhaps over their respective conflicts with the Nazis as teenagers—Weiczorkiewicz had been honored for heroism in the French Resistance. Or perhaps they had already met at the 1948 Olympics, where Weiczorkiewicz had been on France's gymnastics team. [11]

The "Flying Frenchman" Édouard Carpentier

Weiczorkiewicz soon moved on to Montreal and met with great success there under the performing name "Édouard Carpentier," as one of the first great high fliers, acclaimed for his agility and defiance of gravity. In 1959, "Krauser" took "Carpentier" up on his offer to join him in Eddie Quinn's promotion in Quebec. [9] Istaz did not exactly set the world on fire in Montreal, possibly partly because they attempted to pretend that the very obviously German-accented grappler was a local boy, repackaging him as "Pierre Le Marin." [12]

Working for Quinn led to Istaz's first experience as a soldier in one of the intermittent turf battles that characterized professional wrestling in North America for most of the 20th century, (until the 1980s, when cable TV nationalized broadcasting to the point that regional promotions could no longer hold sway as they once had over the hearts and wallets of each given region's local wrestling fans.) Quinn made arrangements with a Chicago stadium owner and TV station to bring his wrestlers there to work shows, effectively "invading" a region that had been monopolized by Chicago promoter Fred Kohler up until that point. [9]

Istaz's Chicago TV appearances caught the eye of Ohio promoter Al Haft. Haft had always had a liking for scientific workers, like he had been in his own day, four decades earlier. He brought Istaz to Ohio and made a project of him. [9] Throughout October 1959, Istaz (now billed as "Karol Krauser") would build up wins in the undercard of shows all over Ohio being headlined by Lou Thesz [13] or Buddy Rogers. [14] Thesz was a past (and future) World Champion and the exemplar of scientific wrestling in the USA, whereas Rogers was a major drawing attraction and future World Champion, and the original "Nature Boy"—the model of future flashy showmen in pro wrestling. Thesz was a hometown hero in St. Louis, Missouri, as well as part owner of the regional promotion centered there, but he also had the international fame to travel the world to promotions like Haft's that were willing to pay to bring in a drawing attraction. [11] (And, a few years later, to far-flung Japan, as we learned in Part 2). Rogers was originally from Camden, New Jersey, and, like Thesz, he also had the star power to travel to promotions all over, but throughout the 1950s he had made his home base in Haft's Columbus, Ohio headquartered promotion. Rogers had been Haft's primary star for a long time, and Haft generally entrusted him with booking and running the shows. However, Rogers would soon begin an awkwardly gradual transition to making Vincent J. McMahon's promotion in the Northeast US his primary home base. [5] Both men would have major impacts on the future of Istaz's career, but in very opposite ways!

Buddy Rogers sends Lou Thesz flying though the air

Thesz being the first to do so, by wrestling Istaz in his first main event that November. They split the first two falls in a best of three match-up, and drew the deciding fall with a double count-out—a massive display of confidence in Istaz's potential by the established star toward the relative nobody. [15]

After being "made" by the great man being unable to best him, "Krauser" became the main star of Haft's shows, picking up the slack of the increasingly absent Rogers. For the following year, Istaz was in the main event of almost every show in Ohio. In October of 1960, about a year after coming to Ohio, Istaz won his first wrestling championship, the Ohio Heavyweight Championship. About a month later, he dropped that title to one Dr. Bill Miller. [16]

Krauser vs Miller program from Ohio

Miller and Istaz made for an odd pairing. Miller was a hometown Ohio State collegiate athletic star: lettering in football, wrestling, and several other sports, all while studying veterinary medicine, (thus the "Doctor" in his name.) Meanwhile, Istaz was this vaguely European outsider with a strong foreign accent. And yet Miller was portrayed as the contemptible brutal cheater, while "Krauser" was the honorable scientific grappler. As counterintuitive as it may have seemed, it was a pairing that seemed to work, and they fought often throughout their careers, while, (in deathly secret from the ticket-buying public,) they became good friends and training partners in real life. [17]

A final step in evolving from the European shooter to the Ohio local hero, was switching to a ring name with Midwest appeal, changing "Krauser" to "Gotch." Ostensibly this was to associate him with the legendary first American to win the wrestling World Championship: Frank Gotch of Iowa—the biggest star ever in pro wrestling at the time, back in the first decade of the century—for their similarities in toughness and scientific technique. But it was equally a tribute to Haft, himself, who had been nicknamed "Young Gotch" back in the 1920s due to his own similarities to the former champion. [9]

Newspaper clipping of Al Haft back when he was billed as "Young Gotch"

(A promoter giving Karl a new last name from Frank Gotch, a German-American star wrestler beloved in the US in the pre-war days is very reminiscent of Hiro being given by a promoter a new last name from Manny Matsuda, a Japanese-American star wrestler beloved in the US in those days, also. I wonder if, during the time they trained together, either man ever made note of the fact that now Karl Gotch was training Hiro Matsuda in catch wrestling, just like decades ago, Frank Gotch had done the same for Manny Matsuda?)

In this installment, we have covered the evolution from Istaz to “Gotch”. There is much more to tell about Karl's fascinating life, but we are out of space for this week. (As the song says: "He's a complicated man.") Next time, we’ll explore the mystery of a notorious backstage incident between Gotch and the new World Champion that would change the course of pro wrestling and shadow the rest of both men's careers. As well, we'll learn about K. Gotch's legend-making late-career resurgence in Japan that earned him the adoring nickname there: “Kamisama.”


Link to Part 5!



Learning Tree Lineage Diagram



Work-in-Progress Learning Tree Hypertext Document


Sources

  1. Samurai Spirit by Stephanie Kojima

  2. Master of the Ring: The Biography of Buddy "Nature Boy" Rogers, by Tim Hornbaker

  3. Billy Riley - the Man, the Legacy by Dr. Stephen Greenfield and Mark De Courcy

  4. The Story of Catch: The Story of Lancashire Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling, by Ruslan C. Pashayev

  5. National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling, by Tim Hornbaker

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