HUMBOLDT, Iowa -- The name Frank Gotch probably doesn't ring a bell but the stories told about the Iowan are fantastical -- and true.
“President Teddy Roosevelt invited him to the White House,” says historian, Mike Chapman.
Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands says, “He was as popular in this country—and maybe the entire planet—as some of the best athletes that we know today.”
But the hardest part to believe is that he could have been a screen legend. “Hollywood wanted him in the worst way,” says former state wrestling champion, Steve Reimers of Humboldt.
“He was handsome, articulate, the media loved him," says Chapman. "You could make the argument that Frank Gotch was America’s first sports superstar because the media loved Frank Gotch.”
Gotch was a Humboldt County farm boy when the fair rolled into Fort Dodge. A main attraction was legendary wrestler, Martin “Farmer” Burns.
“He would pay $25 to anybody who could last 10 minutes with him," Chapman explains. "Well Frank Gotch came out of the audience, almost went the 10 minutes with him, didn’t quite make it, but afterwards, Farmer Burns held up his hand and said ‘I’ve never met an amateur like this fellow here. If he’ll come train with me, I’ll make him the heavyweight champion of America, and maybe of all the world.’ So Gotch began training with the legendary Farmer Burns.”
As a coach, Burns is still remembered for his severe methods, which seem unthinkable today.
“You would probably be called abusive," says Brands. "They would put a rope around them and they would hang themselves and flex with the rope around their neck to build neck strength.”
For Gotch, it worked. Pro wrestling then was very real and Gotch won every local match he could find. When the competition dwindled, he went north to find more.
“He actually went up to Alaska in 1899 and worked the gold mine camps for about six months,” says Chapman.
“His advice from his trainer was ‘Don’t tell anybody who you are--just go up there and use a fictitious name,” adds Reimers.
Under the name “Frank Kennedy” Gotch won countless matches in the gold mining camps and, placing side bets on himself, came home with the equivalent of nearly a million dollars.
“He bought a lot of Iowa farm land," Chapman says, "some Minnesota farmland, and he paid off his parents’ farm, south of town.”
And he returned to building his own legend in the ring; perfecting his infamous toe-hold.
“It’s extremely painful. Once you get it on somebody, it’s impossible to get out of,” says Chapman.
“It was one of those things where you grab and kind of…" Brands explains while enacting the hold, "like a bent-leg Turk.”
It helped him gain the American heavyweight title in 1904 and four years later, he bested world champion, George Hackenschmidt in Chicago.
“At that moment, Frank Gotch’s reputation in wrestling history was secured,” Chapman claims.
In 1910, Gotch was introduced to the giant boxing crowd in Reno before Jack Johnson’s "Fight of the Century" with James Jeffries. Professional wrestling stood with boxing as one of America’s top spectator sports at that time, and Gotch was its brightest star.
That star wouldn’t reach its zenith until he booked a rematch with Hackenschmidt the following year.
“The newspaper accounts of the day say as many as a thousand people were in the park on a daily basis watching him train,” Chapman says.
Training at Bicknell Park in Humboldt, Gotch was fueled by the hometown crowds.
“He’d wrestle for two hours against somebody who was bigger," Reimers explains, "and then he’d wrestle against somebody who was smaller and quicker, and then he’d wrestle somebody his size. Then, he'd finish up with a five-mile run.”
For the rematch itself, a bigger venue was called for.
“Comiskey Park in Chicago," says Brands, "where there’s 40,000 people watching a wrestling match.”
Though these matches could last two hours, Hackenschmidt fell quickly to the stronger champion.
“Gotch finally took him down and rode him for 3-4 minutes, just beating on him,” says Reimers.
Gotch retired four years later but continued to build his fortune through endorsements and sound investments. He was wooed by Hollywood and bigger cities, but never left the home that he built in Humboldt.
In 1917, he was stricken with kidney poisoning and by the end of the year, he was dead at age 39.
“Thousands of weeping mourners, gathered from many parts of the land," Chapman reads from the book America's Greatest Sports Heroes, "trudged the icy path to the little rural cemetery on a cold, December day to bid a final farewell to the man who had been the greatest champion in wrestling history.”
Gotch’s fame likely played a part in the creation of the Iowa High School Wrestling Tournament in 1921, but his legend would fade with time and the erosion of professional wrestling as a true sport. But thanks to the work of historians like Chapman, the Gotch story has reached new fans.
“For me it captured my imagination,” Brands says.
Brands and Dan Gable did their part to help Humboldt erect a statue in 2012.
“When we took the cover off, you could’ve heard a pin drop," Reimers remembers. "They didn’t realize how big it was going to be and how good it was going to look.”
Once again, Frank Gotch stands out in Humboldt. But this week, there will be a piece of him in Des Moines too, where small-town boy look to become the newest links in a chain of champions tracing all the way back to an Icon.
“He was just such a phenomena and he deserves to be remembered,” says Chapman.