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1.5 | The Karl Gotch Root | Under the Learning Tree

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

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

1.5 | The Karl Gotch 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 the first three parts of this tale of Sammy Guevara's Learning Tree, we learned about three regional roots of his training lineage, in Texas, Japan, and Mexico, and the one globetrotting wrestler who brought those roots together, Hiro Matsuda. In the fourth part we discussed what drove H. Matsuda to take a sabbatical from his wrestling gig in Florida and drive across the country to seek out a technical wizard known as Karl Gotch and subject himself to months of intensive training. We also learned about the background of the man who was born Karol Istaz in Belgium and how he went from concentration camp, to representing Belgium in the Olympics, to training in Lancaster's notorious "Snake Pit" catch-as-catch-can wrestling gym, to taking the name "Karl Gotch" as a wrestling star in the Midwest USA.

This section will focus on one of the most notorious, yet opaque and poorly understood incidents in pro wrestling history: a backstage assault involving K. Gotch and the World Heavyweight Champion, which could be argued to have had effects that are still being felt today. And we will also focus on K. Gotch's late-career resurgence to become Japan's "God of Wrestling"—the work he remains best known for.

 

Haft began billing Istaz as "Karl Gotch'' at the beginning of 1961, and the renamed grappler main-evented Haft's shows for the first half of the year. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Haft gave some consideration to the promotional value it would've had for his scientific grappling star to claim and defend some form of World Championship. But Haft's promotion was a member in good standing of an organization called the National Wrestling Alliance, so recognizing one's star wrestler under some kayfabe pretext as "World Champ" was not something he could decide unilaterally.

The NWA was a committee of a dozen or so regional promotions with the purpose of recognizing a singular World Heavyweight Champion, who (in theory) would then visit all of the member promotions reasonably regularly to defend this title. The advantage to this was the perceived legitimacy of a Word Champion recognized as such by many (perhaps most) different regional promotions throughout North America and the Pacific. The drawback was the expectation on the champion to tour everywhere: a burden on the champ's time and stamina, and an indignity to their home promotion which had been accustomed to having their star's services mostly to themselves. Likewise, the other promotions had the complaint that they were compelled not to promote their own top drawing attractions with the valuable label of "World Champ." And that the compensating benefit of the recognized World Champion touring to visit them was too seldom. [1]

For example, when Fred Kohler's top star, two-time NCAA Champion Verne Gagne, decided to leave the Chicago NWA affiliate to start his own promotion back in his hometown of Minneapolis, he bought out the current Minnesota NWA affiliate with his business partner Wally Karbo, but he had no intention of continuing as "bridesmaid but never bride" for the World title. He declared (purely within kayfabe) that the current NWA Champion, New Zealander Pat O'Connor, had 90 days to defend the title against him, or the Champion would forfeit, thus creating the pretext for crowning himself the first American Wrestling Association World Champ in August of 1960. [1]

Minnesota's Own: AWA World Heavyweight Champion, Verne Gagne

Meanwhile Buddy Rogers's new patron, V. J. McMahon, was beginning to push for Rogers to displace O'Connor as NWA Champ. Traditionalists bemoaned that Rogers was a showman who would not represent the tradition of great legitimate grappling that the NWA Championship supposedly symbolized. But a more serious concern was that Rogers and VJM would not take seriously their responsibility to make the Champion available to all members. VJM pushed past these concerns based on Rogers's undeniable drawing power, and the "Match of the Century" was set for June 30, 1961. The epic battle between Rogers and O'Connor headlined the biggest-drawing wrestling card ever at Comiskey Park in Chicago. [2]

Handbill for "Match of Century" O'Connor vs. Rogers


Karl Gotch (pt 2)

"Why, Oh Why, Did I Ever Leave Ohio?"

With Rogers fully in the orbit of VJM in the Northeast and, in theory, busy meeting the travel responsibilities of the World Heavyweight Champion, (although Rogers hadn't actually worked a Haft show for months even before the title change,) one would logically expect Haft to lean all the more on K. Gotch, the star he'd spent the previous year building up to be his main event. However, instead, despite the fact that K. Gotch continued to maintain his home in Ohio, and there is significant reason to believe that he continued to look to Haft as a patron and mentor, he rarely appeared on one of Haft's cards from this point forward. Assertions have been put forward as to why this should have been so, but those theories have deficiencies, as we shall see, and the truth remains elusive.

Possibly recommended by Thesz, (who we should remember from Part 2, wrestled a series in Japan versus Rikidôzan in 1957,) Miller and K. Gotch spent the summer of 1961 competing in a massive two-month round-robin tournament in Japan—the third annual World Big League tournament, a round-robin precursor to the NJPW G1 Climax tournament of today. K. Gotch was returned to his more established name "Krauser" and Miller was billed as "Dr. X," (a sinister masked villain he had portrayed while wrestling in Nebraska previously.) Two months of nightly wrestling among a dozen competitors, each taking a shot at each of the others over the course of it, with the competitor with the best overall record getting to face (read: "lose to") the prior, (in fact, every) year winner, Rikidôzan for the World Big League trophy. "Dr. X" and "Krauser" came in 1st and 2nd, respectively, so it was Miller with the privilege of losing the final—one fall to two, final fall by disqualification—to Rikidôzan, This was the first of many trips to Japan for K. Gotch, who would eventually be best known for his work and legacy there. [3]

Miller in "Dr. X" mask, "Krauser" in lederhosen, the Great Antonio behind, in Japan, 1961

During this Japan tour, K. Gotch and Miller were involved in a shady but mostly forgotten incident with the eccentric Croatian strongman out of Montreal, the Great Antonio. They are reputed to have roughed him up backstage, with the intent of teaching him a lesson regarding being conceited and difficult to work with. The story is that this was tolerated by the promoter/star, Rikidôzan because he agreed that Great Antonio's boastfulness and selfishness was a problem. [4] However, is it possible this action was not just overlooked, but actively encouraged or directed by the boss? Other reports of the incident suggest that it was brought on by Antonio working "stiff"(ie, not pulling punches and such well enough,) against Rikidôzan himself, making that interpretation all the more likely. [2] I bring up the possibility because this relatively obscure incident prefigures a far more notorious one that would later cast a long shadow over the careers of both Karl Gotch and Buddy Rogers.

The Great Antonio performing one of his feats of strength, c 1950

After completing the tour of Japan, K. Gotch returned to Ohio and worked one show for Al Haft in Cincinnati on August 5th under the new "Gotch" name, [5] but then joined Miller in Karbo & Gagne's Minnesota-based promotion, spending the remainder of the year feuding with each other—K. Gotch as "Krauser" still, and Miller under the new masked identity: "Mr. M." [6]

Clipping from Minneapolis Star, 1961

During this Fall spent mostly in Minnesota, K. Gotch did return to Ohio once, appearing on a show in Cincinnati on September 30th. But this show was not for Al Haft, but for invading promoters, Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle. K. Gotch had worked in a couple of the pair's shows before his sojourn to Japan, but only out-of-town before this, not in direct competition with his patron. Notably, NWA Champ Rogers was also on this card, defending his title in the main event. [7] Barnett & Doyle's American Wrestling Alliance was a single promotion running television shows and arenas in several farflung cities, in a forward-thinking first attempt at a truly national wrestling promotion, not only competing with Haft in Cincinnati and Columbus, but also running in Detroit, Indianapolis, and Denver. [8] So it was noteworthy that Rogers was defending his title as a main event for Barnett & Doyle, who were definitely not members of the NWA, rather than for Haft, who was!

In early 1962, Miller and K. Gotch parted ways for a while. Miller remained in Minnesota and feuded with the AWA champion, Verne Gagne for the early part of the year, trading that title back and forth multiple times. [9] Meanwhile K. Gotch returned to Ohio for a couple of months and worked a few shows for Al Haft. The February 20th show in Dayton would be the last Haft show K. Gotch would appear on for several months, and would also be the last time he would ever share a card with NWA Champion Buddy Rogers. [10]

Immediately afterward, K. Gotch left town again, this time spending March through May in Eddie Graham & Cowboy Luttrall's Florida promotion, missing H. Matsuda's debut there by only a few months. The wrestlers he worked with in Florida included Don Curtis, the Great Malenko, and the Assassins masked tag team. [11] Curtis's tales of K. Gotch's amazing grappling skills are what would lead H. Matsuda to seek him out for his training sabbatical a year and a half later. [12]

With K. Gotch in Florida and Miller in Minnesota, Haft was in shambles, scrambling to put together any kind of a drawing main event. He went hat in hand to V. J. McMahon to mend fences just to bring Rogers back to his old stomping grounds from time to time. [2] Meantime, Haft's crosstown rivals, Barnett & Doyle, began to exploit the primary advantage of not being in the NWA, crowning their own version of a World Heavyweight Champion. In March of 1962, they suddenly started to bill one of their top regulars, Mormon giant Don Leo Jonathan, as defending the American Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight Championship. Fans were told that Jonathan had won the title by beating Killer Kowalski in the finals of a World Championship tournament in Denver. [13] Barnett & Doyle claimed this occurred in a city they genuinely did run shows in, but there is no record that this event or match ever actually happened—the tournament is almost certainly entirely fictitious. This is not the first or last time that a title lineage in pro wrestling would be founded on an invented tournament.

Don Leo Jonathan with championship belt

On August 12, 1962 K. Gotch returned to Ohio to challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship in the main event of a show in his old mentor Haft's backyard of Columbus, in the local minor-league baseball team's stadium, but not for the committee's championship held by Rogers, or Gagne's title belt held by his friend Miller. (Miller was elsewhere on the card, but with no acknowledgement of the "Mister M" persona that claimed a World title in the Minnesota region.) Rather, he competed for the newly invented championship held by Jonathan, and took the newly-crowned Champ of Barnett & Doyle's promotion to his limit in a 60-minute time-limit draw. [14]

Karl Gotch (pt 3)

Who Was Wrestling's "Keyser Söze"?

On August 31 of 1962, there was a notorious incident between Buddy Rogers and Karl Gotch backstage at the Columbus Fairgrounds Auditorium that cemented a certain reputation for each man that neither would ever really live down. [2] At the same time, while there have certainly been many incidents in pro wrestling where the facts and motives have been disputed, I would argue that none has been more thoroughly clouded by dubious accounts and opaque motivations than Karl Gotch's backstage attack on Buddy Rogers.

One of the reasons for this opacity is the very small set of eyewitnesses. Only Buddy Rogers and Al Haft were present when Karl Gotch and Bill Miller barged backstage to confront Rogers. Something very few people knew before Tim Hornbaker's recent authoritative biography of Rogers was the likelihood that this dearth of witnesses was no accident. Rogers was traveling with his manager, Bobby Davis, and his "policeman," Fred Atkins. ("Policeman" is pro wrestling jargon for a tough guy with high-level skill in real wrestling entrusted with protecting a top star from double-crosses, irregularity, or embarrassment.) Right before the incident, they had both been escorted away by event security due to a "misunderstanding" which in retrospect can only be characterized as a thin pretext. [2]

Bowtie-clad manager Bobby Davis consults with Champion Buddy Rogers

The most dubious of the "dubious accounts" of this incident is the one given by Bill Miller decades later, in a telephone interview with Lou Thesz's biographer, Kit Bauman, in 1988. I have included this extraordinary statement in its entirety:

Karl and I were working the outlaw promotions in the Columbus, Ohio, area because Rogers had gotten us blackballed when he was the NWA champ. Rogers came to Columbus for a match with one of his traveling partners, Johnny Barends, and Al Haft was dumb enough to give Karl and I tickets to the show. Haft was a weasel who liked to stir up trouble among the wrestlers, and he probably figured he'd see some action if Karl and I confronted Rogers.
So we go backstage to talk to Rogers about the blacklist. We find him, and he's obviously nervous when he sees us, which he should have been, because Rogers couldn't wrestle a lick and was certainly no match for either one of us. We told him that we wanted the blacklist lifted, and he's nodding his head and going, "Sure, sure, sure," and trying to walk away.
I stopped him—I put my hand on his chest—and told him, "If you don't get us off the list, we'll make it impossible for you to work this area. We'll go to the newspapers and TV stations all across this territory and tell them you're scared of us. We'll force a match. The next time you come to Columbus, you'll have to wrestle me or Karl, and you know how that'll go."
Rogers was still nodding his head, refusing to look me in the eyes, and he's still saying, "Sure, sure, sure," and edging away, so I slapped him, hard, just to get his attention.
Rogers ran back to his dressing room, and Karl followed him. He slapped Rogers once, maybe twice, and that was it. Rogers was bawling like a baby—he wouldn't fight either one of us. So we just left.
There were a lot of witnesses, so I'm not sure where the story came from that we intentionally broke Rogers's arm by slamming a door on it. It might have happened when Rogers ran back to his dressing room and was trying to keep Karl out, but if that's when it happened, it certainly wasn't on purpose. Knowing Rogers, I'm not even sure his arm was ever broken. It always sounded to me like an excuse not to work that night. He just wanted to get out of town. [15]

I call this an "extraordinary statement" because it almost hangs together logically if you know a certain amount about the backstage politics of the time and place, but every single claim falls apart completely if you know just a bit more. I don't necessarily mean to accuse Miller of making up the story out of whole cloth to test Bauman's credulity, though that's certainly one possibility. It's possible that much of that story is genuinely how he remembered it by that point, from some combination of tales and alibis supplanting real memories after more than a decade, and maybe Karl and Al keeping him in the dark about some of the shadier aspects of what went down.

Miller's statement is a straightforward confession of assault, but I consider it more of an alibi, in a sense. Not of the facts, mostly, but of motive... and likely of an unnamed co-conspirator.

Rogers's side of the story, from contemporary newspaper clipping

In Miller's telling, he and K. Gotch had confronted Rogers because he had "blackballed" them, so that they were stooping to working "outlaw" shows. An "outlaw" promotion refers to one that isn't affiliated with the NWA. The implication was that, as NWA Champ, Rogers had the clout to prevent them from working within it. So they were stuck working for little fly-by-night promotions without the opportunities and pay they would otherwise have had access to. Basically, the two men were being denied their livelihood on a whim via shady politics, so when they got into a confrontation, things got out of hand, but they certainly never set out to injure anyone on purpose!

As mentioned earlier, the last time K. Gotch and Rogers had shared a card had been for a Haft show six months prior. It is true that K. Gotch suddenly left town after, and it might seem reasonable to guess that Rogers might have driven him out of town. However, K. Gotch had been working out-of-town more than in-town for over a year before the February show in question. And the Florida territory he went to work for for a few months after that was an NWA affiliate, [11] so if there was a blacklist it clearly didn't apply to the NWA as a whole.

But could Miller have meant instead only that Rogers had used his clout as Haft's primary draw to blacklist Miller and K. Gotch specifically in their hometown NWA affiliate? It sounds logical, but the logic is circular–Rogers can be assumed to have had the clout to blacklist a couple of wrestlers from Haft's shows, as Haft's top attraction. But if Haft were booking K. Gotch, he could have used him as his top attraction instead, the role he had clearly been grooming him for for years.

Besides which, the implication in the loaded phrase “outlaw promotions,” (that Rogers’s supposed “blacklist” had them working for shady promoters who would otherwise be beneath them,) was clearly nonsense in any case. “Outlaw,” in this context, was an NWA propaganda term intended to imply that any show without the NWA “seal of approval” would be a sideshow packed with silliness and knock-offs, with no quality grappling or star power. Promotions like that did exist–the archetypal example was eccentric promoter Jack Pfefer’s oddball traveling troupe of rip-off artists, (like “Jumping Rococo” and “Bruno San Martino”,) and weird gimmicks, (like “the Zebra Kid,” and “the Blimp.”) [1] But the local promotion that Miller and K. Gotch had been working with instead of Haft—Barnett & Doyle’s AWA—wasn’t anything like that, featuring top-level grappling stars and drawing massive audiences. [8]

Jack Pfefer's Troupe of Oddballs

An interpretation that makes more sense was that Rogers was blacklisting Miller & K. Gotch, not from appearing in NWA promotions, but specifically from competing for his NWA World Championship. On the one hand, both men were notorious shooters who could win in a double-cross situation against showman Rogers if they chose to—as Miller said: “you know how that would go!” But on the other hand, both men had been trusted to go to planned losses or draws to champions and top local attractions around the world: from Lou Thesz for Haft, to Rikidôzan in Japan, to Verne Gagne in Minnesota, to Don Leo Jonathan across town. Was it simply that Rogers believed that they could only be trusted in the ring facing someone whose prowess they respected? Or did Rogers have some specific reason not to trust the two men to abide by the customs of their profession and not embarrass a fellow professional?

Haft's in-house newspaper hyping a match the champ did not want??

Rogers’s loyalty had switched to his new primary patron VJM, with his powerbase on the East Coast, but he still made his home in Ohio and had a strong fanbase in the region. Two weeks before this incident he had wrestled another bout in Ohio, against up-and-coming star Bruno Sammartino, in Steubenville. But this was not an Al Haft show, but instead sponsored by VJM’s Capitol Sports. [16] Along with Rogers, Haft could, in a way, be considered an injured party in the assault. K. Gotch and Miller had abused his hospitality, wrecked the advertised main event of that night's show, and done irreparable damage to his relationship to one of his main draws in Rogers. But according to wrestling historian Tim Hornbaker, Rogers considered all of that to be a smokescreen, and believed Haft himself to be behind the attack, as a counter to what Haft believed to be, (with some credibility,) VJM’s intention to invade Ohio and put Haft out of business with the star that he had built as a draw in Ohio himself. [2] The incident with the Great Antonio in Japan supports the idea that K. Gotch and Miller might not have been averse to being used as deniable enforcers by a promoter wanting to send a physical and violent message to a wrestler they had issues with. [4]

Less than two weeks later—possibly to cash in on the notoriety of beating up the NWA Champion—in a rematch with Jonathan, this time K. Gotch was crowned World Heavyweight Champion for Barnett's AWA. But the title run didn't set the world on fire and the championship was shelved before long and never referred to again until many years later, when K. Gotch would pull the old thing out and claim to be the "real" world champion, since nobody had beaten him for it. [13]

One might claim that as support for the collusion theory, the fact that K. Gotch was back working shows for Haft despite all of this only six weeks later, defending his AWA Championship against Jonathan for Haft, in spite of it being an NWA sponsored show. [17] But on the other hand, the same was true of Rogers—despite his words to the press, ("I've had all I want of Ohio for wrestling purposes," [2]) Rogers was back working a Haft show defending the NWA Championship just a few days after K. Gotch's return. [18] But—even if we chalk both men working for Haft a few more times as "money talks," or as a "make good" for the spoiled main event the night of the incident—there is further evidence that Haft's relationship with K. Gotch went beyond business—that he was more of a mentor, patron, and friend: remember how one year later in the fall of 1963, when H. Matsuda came to Ohio to train with K. Gotch, they used Haft's training facilities. [12]

The “just so” version of this story might claim that this incident was a turning point for both men’s careers, the perception of Rogers not being authentically tough and that K. Gotch was a loose cannon leading to Rogers's downfall and to K. Gotch never reaching those heights of stardom. But the truth of the matter is, Rogers’s career wound down in the following few years due to unrelated health issues, specifically a heart condition. [2] And K. Gotch never succeeded as a big-market main-event attraction in the US due to a style that wasn’t popular with the masses. [19]

On the other hand, the missed dates due to injury did lead to the end of Rogers’s NWA Championship reign, rubbing just enough promoters the wrong way to shift the tide back to returning to Thesz as the old-reliable champion just a few months later in January of 1963. Which then led to VJM splitting off from the NWA and crowning his preferred champ, Rogers, as the first WWWF “World” Champion for his Northeastern states territory that April, [2] much as Verne Gagne had done in Minnesota 3 years prior. (VJ McMahon would claim that Rogers won this World title in a tournament in Rio De Janeiro. As I mentioned earlier, fictional tournaments are a bit of a trope in pro wrestling!) This outcome may well have been exactly what Haft had been aiming for by having his boys injure Rogers—ending VJM’s dominance of the NWA. Since the WWWF was the precursor of today’s WWE, a case could be made that this notorious incident led to the very existence of the biggest and best-known global wrestling promotion of all time.

Straight line from Rogers / Gotch incident to WWE?

Meanwhile, K. Gotch’s hard-hitting, flash-eschewing style that left audiences lukewarm in the US, got a very different reception in Japan. In 1968, K. Gotch coached some promising young talents during a visit to Japan. One of those young men was named Antonio Inoki, and K. Gotch made such an impression on him that when he decided to start his own promotion in 1972, he brought K. Gotch over to help him build his "New Japan Pro Wrestling" as trainer, booker, and special-attraction wrestler. Both the wrestling he did in showcase bouts against Inoki, and the many great Japanese wrestlers that he trained in his style, including icons such as Tatsumi Fujinami, Satoru Sayama (the first Tiger Mask), Yoshiaki Fujiwara, and Akira Maeda, led to him being remembered as the father of Strong Style and as the “Kamisama” of Puroreso. [19]

K. Gotch training Inoki

So that's the complicated story of a complicated man who changed the world of wrestling in more ways than one, and arguably could be said to be greatly responsible for how both the WWE and NJPW turned out, to this very day. Next time, in the penultimate installment, we’ll dig up some of the deepest roots of Sammy Guevara’s Learning Tree by exploring the catch-as-catch-can style underpinning all in the hardscrabble Lancaster region of Britain, with a detour to a French style of wrestling in Finland!


Link to Part 6!


Learning Tree Lineage Diagram


Work-in-Progress Learning Tree Hypertext Document


Sources

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

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

  3. Puroresu System Wiki, "World Big League"

  4. The Great Wrestling Venues, Volume 4, Japan: The Rikidozan Years, by Haruo Yamaguchi

  5. Wrestlingdata, "Match Statistics for Karl Gotch" August 1961

  6. Wrestlingdata, "Match Statistics for Karl Gotch" November 1961

  7. Wrestlingdata, "Show @ Cincinatti" 9/30/1961

  8. Legacy of Wrestling, "The Rise of Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle," research by Tim Hornbaker If site is down: Archive file

  9. Wrestlingdata, "Match Statistics for Bill Miller" January 1962

  10. Wrestlingdata, "Show @ Dayton" 2/20/62

  11. Wrestlingdata, "Match Statistics for Karl Gotch" May 1962

  12. Samurai Spirit by Stephanie Kojima

  13. Wrestling-Titles, "AMERICAN WRESTLING ALLIANCE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE"

  14. Wrestlingdata, "Show @ Columbus" 8/12/1962

  15. Wrestling Classics messageboard, "Bill Miller Speaks about Rogers Incident in 1988"

  16. Wrestlingdata, "Show @ Steubenville" 8/19/1962

  17. Wrestlingdata, "Show @ Dayton" 10/16/1962

  18. Wrestlingdata, "Show @ Akron" 10/20/1962

  19. Wrestling Perspective, "Karl Gotch: Hooker ... Outsider"

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