George Hackenschmidt (1878-1968) 

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George Hackenschmidt

George Hackenschmidt

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George Hackenschmidt - known as the "Russian Lion" was born of German & Swedish descent in Estonia, once part of the USSR, now independent and rightly proud of its famous countryman.

A 'strong-man' from the age of 18 he became a champion wrestler by 1900. He then continued an unrivalled career as a word-class wrestler, winning many prestigious awards. His career culminated in a match with the renowned Frank Gotch which he lost.

He retired in 1911 and went on to write several books on both philosophy and physical culture. He remained in contact with the fight and strength fraternity.

George Hackenschmidt: The Russian Lion by David Gentle


Back in an age when, with the exception of a few music hall acts of JU JITSU, when Yoko Tani introduced the 'Gentle Art' to Great Britain, opening the first school of this early martial art in England few if any Far Eastern Masters of Martial arts were known to the rest of the World.

One man in particular, a master of his own most ancient fighting skill, more than sheer coincidence possessed the same qualities of the later to be recognized Japanese/Chinese martial arts masters, He had the total formula for combat domination, winning over 3000 bouts between 1889 and 1908.

Photo:  George Hackenschmidt, Champion Strongman and Wrestler. (date:nd)

That man, George Hackenschmidt was destined to become famous throughout the World and take his place in fighting arts history as THE RUSSIAN LION and unlike many of his opponents and contemporary wrestlers, 'Hack' was never mean, vindictive or unnecessarily rough in his wrestling bouts, contrasting his physical prowess and fighting skills with a quietness of spirit. George Hackenschmidt was the epitome of calm, self-assurance and inner peace, with full awareness of his own capabilities and thus like all masters of combat found NO NEED FOR MACHOISM or outward aggression. His tactic to win was skill and speed, born of confidence in his own ability and fighting prowess.  at right - from the Postcard collection of Jenny Dickson

He spoke softly, so that you were forced to listen and pay attention, rather than raise his voice to be heard. His serenity was 'catching', calming all those in attendance at his lectures...and it was a developed calmness. A true warrior has to struggle and EARN the wisdom to do battle, with not only his adversities, but with LIFE ITSELF.

Of German/Swedish descent,(which accounts for his un Russian name) the fighting legend Georges Karl Julius Hackenschmidt (aka Hack or The Russian Lion) was born 2nd August 1878, or using the older style Russian calendar July 20th 1872, at Dorpat in Estonia. Genetically favored from his grandfather's physique, he soon excelled at gymnastics, athletics and weight lifting. Beginning a career in the oldest martial art of all, wrestling. which was to bring him a fortune and enduring fame.

Saying, "I was from my earliest days a devotee of books on body exercises and by the time I was ten, I was stronger than any of the boys with whom I played". By the time he was 18 years old, he could raise overhead single handed well over the bodyweight of a heavyweight man (200lbs plus) Later in life he actually beat the famous old time strongman Eugen Sandow's one arm lift of 255lbs, lifting aloft with one hand 269lbs in 1898 - and all for just a bet to win a pair of trousers. Long before the bench press was a popular exercise Hack could pullover and press on back WITHOUT ASSISTANCE 361.5lbs.

George was also very active in swimming, cycling, running and jumping. The latter expression of explosive power he excelled at even in late life. By his late 'teens, George met up with the Tsar's physician Dr Von Krajewski, a millionaire bachelor interested in wrestling. Under his guidance, living in the Doctor's sumptuous apartment in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) George made rapid progress and in due course won the Greco Roman amateur wrestling championship of Europe in Vienna in 1898. The same year he won the Russian weight lifting championships. Just one demonstration of his power at this period was his single handed Deadlift of a 660lbs stone. He could also lift and carry a horse. By June 1900 Hack had become a professional wrestler, with his first appearance in a tournament in Moscow that lasted 40 days. He earned a salary of 2,500 Francs per month - despite lowly beginnings, his rewards were eventually great, such that in the midst of his career he went on to make more money on ONE month than the average (British) worker could EARN IN A LIFETIME!

Hack was a natural wrestler. His superiority came from the spontaneous way he could always avail himself of opportunities for holds using courage and aggression (in the ring only), speed and great strength. He tore into his rivals much as would his namesake THE LION.

In the brief but intense years of between 1900 to 1914, hit like most things by World War I, professional wrestling was THE MAJOR SPORT - dwarfing all other athletic activities, including boxing. It was almost literally the Golden Age of Wrestling with grand wrestling tournaments at one time all the rage in London. Thus in the early 1900's Hack was a box office sensation with his All Comers Challenge. Night after night he would beat all opposition attempting to win the tempting high purses on offer. On many occasions he would pin to the floor six or more ambitious opponents in just one performance. He fought the roughest and toughest men in the world. Strongmen capable of lifting enormous poundages, ex boxers, Savate (kick-boxing) experts and Far Eastern fighters. All met the same fate and hit the dust in rapid succession and he toured the world, UK., Europe, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and America.

At first Hack a super wrestler, but no 'showman', defeated his opponents so quickly that the matches proved no real spectacle. Later his 'act' was polished by 'showmen' and he was persuaded to allow his challengers to 'look good' for a while before he eventually threw them.

Photo:  George Hackenschmidt wrestling his opponent. (date:nd)

Powerfully developed although not huge, especially when compared to today's behemoths and Powerlifters, Hack stood but 5ft 9 in. at around 200lbs bodyweight. Hack once told Nat Fleischer how at school he excelled at gymnastics, winning his first prize at 14 as Dorpat Grammars schools best gymnast when he was then only 4ft 7in. and weighed only 120lbs. He then specialized in broad jumping, doing sixteen feet and could jump five feet high. He said his love for bodily exercises was inherited from his grandfather, which caused him to go into weight lifting. He was also an expert cyclist.

When fully matured his massive neck was the greatest giveaway of his chosen profession. His neck was so strong, that he was capable of taking the well known 'wrestlers bridge' position and then pulling over and pressing to arms length a barbell weighing 311lbs.this he did for two reps, a feat unbeaten for over 50 years, (until achieved by Jack Walsh the strongman in 1950).  


In 1896 George Hackenschmidt met George Lurich, a famous European wrestler, learning useful holds and experience for his craft. And in 1899 he pressed a bar of 279lbs overhead - a remarkable feat in those early times.

He then went on tour along with his friend Dr Von Krajewski, also an expert wrestler, taking part in amateur championships in Vienna. Despite an injured shoulder, which forced him to take time out of the ring, he turned professional in June 1900. In April 1901 after polishing off formidable opponents almost all taller and heavier than himself. Hack won the World Greco Roman Wrestling Championships (no holds permitted below the waist). In 1902 he took 3rd place in World weight lifting championships in Vienna, with the giant Wilhelm Turk coming first. He took on and beat all the fighting champs of Europe and Asia, including Antonio Perri, aka The Terrible Greek. Kara Ahmed from Turkey considered World Champion. Rasso from Germany, Lurich of Russia, Paul Pons, the 6ft 5inch giant from France, Adaldi The Turk at 6ft 3ins and near 300lbs bodyweight and many others. One of the Russian Lions most famed battles took place on January 1904 when he fought Ahmed Madrali the Terrible Turk no 2. who, compared to Hack, was a giant being 6ft and 16 stone+.

The night he fought Madrali interest was so high that the largest traffic jams ever recorded up to that date were created from Olympia to Picadilly. However the fight was a little too short and none to sweet as Hack threw the Turk in 2 minutes dislocating his arm in the process. An earlier battle with the Turk Kara Ahmed took a far longer time of 3 hours 2 minutes before Hack defeated him. This fight was considered by George as the toughest contest of his life.

Photo:  George Hackenschmidt, Champion Strongman and Wrestler. (date:nd)
Gil Waldron's photo collection.

Hack trained for the fight with Turk no 2 at a public house in Shepherds Bush in London and part of the fight preparation consisted of him walking around the gym with a huge sack of cement on his shoulders, i.e. using the overload principle of training, on which a 16 stone training partner sat for a total estimated at near 900lbs. He also practiced his favorite standing jumps exercise. His training also included other power building exercises for the simple reason that if two contestants have equal skills, then luck aside - and we all need a little of that - the STRONGER MAN WILL WIN.

He could support an averages size horse on his shoulders and walk with it and equally resist the pull of opposing horses. He made many weight lifting records some of which lasted for over 50 years, but continued to practice most of all wrestling which in itself built up great power especially in his neck and lower back.

In weightlifting circles he is perhaps best known for' his' version of the squat, I.e. 'Hack squats' where the barbell is held behind the thighs. Back in 1902 he made 550 reps with 110lbs in this difficult style. The name 'Hack lift'' however originally came from the word 'hacke' or heel according to his own account in his classic tome 'The Way To Live'.

Equally powerful in the shoulders he could hold out sideways at shoulder length in a style called the Crucifix, 2 x 90lbs dumbbells. Much in line with Martial arts thinking he paid particular attention to leg power and speed and in 1902 for a wager, he jumped over a table, i.e. standing jumps, 100 times in succession. This ability lasted with him even when 85 years of age, he could still do standing jumps over a chair back. George had many adventures during his fighting career both in and out of the ring. Once on tour in Samoa he so impressed the local King, that he was offered a royal title, and a whole bunch of nice fat wives of his choice. George politely declined. In Manchester U.K. a gang of thugs in their ignorance decided to rob him. He made short shrift of 6 or 7 of them in as many minutes.

In a tough Northern town when he toured GB. Hack defeated a local rough rugged policeman who up until then had thrashed every touring wrestler by the sheer impudence of threatening to use his powers of law and order to close down the music hall if he lost the bout. Hack refused to be intimidated, gave the 'bent copper' a beating and rapidly became hailed as a hero.

When Hackenschmidt first fought at the Prince of Wales theatre in London, his manager C.B. Cochran sent out hundreds of men with placards advertising the event. The theatre manager in a sudden bout of panic as to what might occur, decided to cancel the arrangement and in turn sent out rival gangs with their own boards canceling the event. Feelings ran high and thus opposing factions fought each other in the streets. Some say the bouts were better than some of those 'professional ones' on display. But despite further attempts at delaying the wrestling, eventually Hack made his appearance and the show went the ring.

Photo:  George Hackenschmidt wrestling his opponent. (date:nd)

Despite large bribes, the Russian Lion, still roaring we are assured, never faked any of his real matches, not to be confused with exhibition matches. Hack remained undefeated until the first of his controversial bouts with American pro wrestling champ Frank Gotch in 'catch as catch can', free style. Gotch was a hard man, a former farmer from Iowa. and never bucked a challenge. On April 3rd 1908, at Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago. Gotch defeated Hack who had parted from his manager Cochran and was, if anything, more nervous than with previous opponents. Gotch, using a tear away style, never gave Hack the time or opportunity to get into his own stride.

The fight went on for 2 hours 3 minutes, during which neither man had gained a single fall. However, after considerable unfair tactics by Gotch, allegedly oiling his body, rubbing oil into Hacks eyes, scratching, gouging and hitting. At one time he even punched the Russian on the nose (and Hack was no boxer). Hack refused to further tolerate the conspiracy of foul tactics overlooked by the referee and quit, conceding the victory to Gotch (sounds like your run of the mill 'fight' now featured on WWF T.V. videos and similar shows).

Re. the hit on the nose, Hack was once considered as a possible 'White Hope' by the boxing world taking boxing lessons in Australia, from Gunner Moir, visiting old time bare knuckle Australian fighter Larry Foley, who had once fought Jem Mace. Foley had also trained Bob Fitzimmons and other old time boxing greats. After a trial, with the suggestion of a possible fight between Hack and Jack O'Brian for then unheard of huge amount of 50,000 USA dollars, in 1907, the old time boxing champ, who could outbox and out punch Hack at will, advised Hack to "Stick to wrestling" which he wisely did.

The return match with Gotch took place on 4th Sept 1911 at Cormisky Park Chicago, and seized the imagination of the sporting public, securing the largest gate at that date for a wrestling match in the USA of 10,000 spectators. However the return was a disappointment to say the least. Hack had injured his right knee (something he had problems with before back in 1904 when he toured Australia being hospitalized with what for want of better explanation is known as 'housemaids knee) tearing the cartilage in training.

Photo:  George Hackenschmidt wrestling Frank Gotch. (date:1911)

To prevent the match being postponed Gotch said he too had 'injured his neck' but "was sportsman like enough to continue". Hack fell for it, soon to discover Gotch suffered from no such disability and the American retained his title with ease, taking 2 falls. Experts at the time in attendance all agreed that without the injury George Hackenschmidt would have remained supreme, but it was not to be.  

George paid great attention to his diet, as becomes an athlete and king of combat, consuming great quantities of fruit, nuts and raw vegetables in preference to the meat he once ate in abundance. Later in life, he preferred to obtain muscle building proteins from the eleven pints of milk he drank daily. When aged 56 he could jump over a 4.ft 6in high board 10 times and even up until his mid 80's he continued to practice similar exercises i.e. jumping over his chair for 50 reps at least once a week.  

George retired in 1911 after the Gotch episodes, yet never lost any esteem or bore any grudges. He lived with his French wife Rachel in England.(being at one time a P.T. instructor for the House of Lords) and also in the South of France studying and lecturing. An excellent conversationalist and master of several languages and author, he published at least 5 books on philosophy as well as his physical culture works. Hack who had become a naturalized Frenchman in 1939, after 40 yrs of trying, also became a British subject at the age of 74. He continued to remain in contact with the fight fraternity and strength athletes, being one of the judges at the 1948 Mr. Universe show in London, which was won by the late John Grimek. Among his many hobbies he loved gardening.

It is a paradox of true fighting men that it leads to an increase awareness and enlightenment and actual dislike of violence. Right up until his demise, Hack continued to recognize the importance of regular exercise and could still bench press 150lbs for 5 reps and several times a week ran at a lively pace for 7 miles in 45 minutes. Aged near 90 remember. His most popular book was the classic 'The Way To Live' and in that delightful work, his last words befit a true warrior, saying "Throughout my whole career I have never bothered as to whether I was a Champion or not a Champion; The only title I have desired to be known by is simply my name - George Hackenschmidt". This enduring master of combat, winner of over 3000 fights died on Feb 19th 1968 at St Francis Hospital Dulwich, England. He was 90 years of age.

©George Hackenschmidt: The Russian Lion by David Gentle 

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George Hackenschmidt (1878-1968)

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