The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Gotch, Frank Alvin
(April 27, 1878–December 17, 1917)

–professional wrestler—was the youngest of nine children of Frederick and Amelia Gotch. During the Civil War, Frederick fought in the Army of the Potomac under General Ulysses S. Grant. After the war, he settled on a farmstead six miles south of Humboldt, Iowa.

    While growing up on the farm, Frank enjoyed all sports but showed a particular aptitude for boxing and wrestling. As a young man, he wrestled the local heroes and eventually defeated them all. By the age of 21, he was ready to test some of the nation's finest wrestlers. When the American champion, Dan McLeod, came to the area, Gotch and McLeod wrestled for two hours on a cinder track in Luverne. McLeod won the match but not without a tremendous struggle. He recommended that the young farmer contact the legendary Martin "farmer" Burns and become his protege.

    On December 19, 1899, Gotch wrestled Burns in Fort Dodge. He lost once again, but impressed Burns enough that Burns took Gotch under his wing. Gotch learned all he could from the master wrestler and then embarked upon what would become the greatest career in the history of professional wrestling. In 1901 Gotch traveled to Alaska and wrestled in the mining camps. He returned to Humboldt with an estimated $30,000 in earnings, a fortune in those days. Soon after, Gotch won the Iowa heavyweight championship and then began chasing the American champion, Tom Jenkins, a powerful and rugged wrestler from Cleveland, Ohio.

    The Gotch-Jenkins series is one of the most talked about in the history of wrestling. They met on the mat eight times, with Gotch winning five times. Jenkins eventually became the boxing and wrestling coach at West Point, teaching cadets for 37 years. With the American title locked up, Gotch set his sights on the world championship held by George Hackenschmidt, also known as "the Russian Lion" for his prodigious strength.

    On April 3, 1908, Gotch defeated Hackenschmidt in a grueling, two-hour match in Chicago. The victory made Gotch one of the best-known athletes in the world. President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House, and he starred in a play that toured the East Coast and Europe.

    Gotch and Hackenschmidt had a rematch on September 4, 1911, in the new Comiskey Baseball Park in Chicago. A crowd estimated at nearly 30,000 saw Gotch win two falls in less than 30 minutes, cementing his fame as the greatest wrestler of all time.

    According to Mac Davis in the 100 Greatest Sport Heroes, "As the idol of millions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Gotch made wrestling a big-time sport in his day. He drew larger crowds thandid the heavyweight champion of boxing when defending his title. Babies had been named in his honor, as had buildings, toys, farm implements and a hundred other things. The word "˜Gotch' was a synonym for quality and strength."

    From 1908 through 1915 Gotch won 88 straight matches, without losing a single fall. When he retired in 1915, his record was estimated at 200 bouts with only six losses, all early in his career. Added to that were hundreds of exhibition matches without a single defeat. Gotch was also a very rich man. He had invested heavily in farmland all over the Midwest, was part owner of an automobile dealership, and had other business dealings.

    Gotch was being mentioned as a possible candidate for governor of Iowa when he was struck down by a kidney ailment. He died at age 39 in his Humboldt home. His passing was front-page news on sports sections all across the nation. He left behind a widow, Gladys, and a young son, Frank Jr. Today, Frank Gotch Park is located near the farmstead where he grew up, and wrestling fans from around the nation still come to Humboldt to learn more about his sensational career.

    Although Gotch wrestled as a professional, back when the sport was real, he had a tremendous impact on amateur wrestling. According to Nat Fleischer, in his Milo to Londos, "There was a glamour about Gotch that made huge crowds willing to pay to see him perform. His fame made college men want to take up the sport all across the nation."His fame also made thousands of young Iowa boys want to try the sport of wrestling and laid the foundation for the state's great wrestling legacy.
Sources Items from Gotch's career are on exhibit at the International Wrestling Institute and Museum in Waterloo, Iowa. A number of items are also on display at the Humboldt County Historical Society in Dakota City, Iowa. For more on Gotch, see Mac Davis, 100 Greatest Sports Heroes (1954); Nat Fleischer, From Milo to Londos (1936); and Mike Chapman, From Gotch to Gable (1981).
Contributor: Mike Chapman