According to Mac Davis, author of the 1954 book 100 Greatest Sports Heroes, when Frank Gotch died in 1917, “thousands of weeping mourners, gathered from many parts of the land, trudged the icy path to the little rural cemetery on a cold December day to bid a final farewell to the farm boy who had been the greatest wrestling champion in history.”
Some 95 years later, on July 4, some 400 fans endured brutally hot temperatures to see a magnificent statue of Gotch unveiled in his hometown of Humboldt, Iowa. The eight-foot tall bronze statue shows Gotch in black tights and top, with hands on hips, gazing out over the land. It stands on a three-foot pedestal in Bicknell Park, the very spot where Gotch trained for his epic match with George Hackenschmidt, The Russian Lion, in 1911.
The statue is surrounded by a brick walkway, with four thick benches at each of the corners. Behind the area, the Des Moines River flows peacefully, just thirty yards away and down a steep bluff – offering a very picturesque setting.
“It was a day that anyone who was there will never forget,” said Scott Casber, owner/founder of Takedown Wrestling Radio. “July 4, 2012, was a great moment in the history of wrestling.”
Gotch was born on a farm three miles south of Humboldt and became world heavyweight champion of professional wrestling on April 8, 1908, when he defeated Hackenschmidt in Dexter Park Pavilion in Chicago. An estimated 10,000 fans saw the match, and when news was telegraphed back to Humboldt, the town went wild in celebration.
Gotch was a bigger-than-life figure from that point on. He was invited to the White House by President Teddy Roosevelt, starred in a play that toured the East Coast and Europe, and was in demand for public appearances and wrestling matches all over the nation.
“As the idol of millions in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Gotch made wrestling a big-time sport in his day,” wrote Davis in 100 Greatest Sports Heroes. “Babies had been named in his honor, as had building, toys, farm implements and a hundred other things. The word ‘Gotch’ was a synonym for quality and strength.”
Gotch’s rematch with Hackenschmdit also took place in Chicago, but in 1911 at the new Comiskey Park. A crowd of 30,000 saw the bout, and it is still considered one of the seminal moments in wrestling history. Gotch won the match in under 30 minutes, scoring two falls against Hackenschmidt.
In 1915, Gotch retired from wrestling, with an official record of 154-6. He had not lost a single fall since winning the American title in 1906, and won his last 88 matches in a row. He also took part in hundreds of unofficial contests, offering to pay anyone who could last a certain amount of time with him. He never paid off once.
Gotch’s fame started Iowa’s love affair with the sport, and also had a huge impact on the growth of the sport nation-wide, according to Nat Fleischer, the top boxing and wrestling writer of the 1930s and ‘40s.
“It was Gotch’s victories over the hitherto invincible Hackenschmidt that made him the most popular mat star in America and started a movement among college men to take up wrestling,” wrote Fleischer.
Fleischer, who saw every professional champion from 1910 to 1960 in action, rated Gotch as the greatest wrestler in history, with Hackenschmidt second. The Russian Lion’s only two losses were at the hands of Gotch.
The Frank Gotch statue committee was formed in 2010. “A group of us felt it was time to honor Frank Gotch and what he has meant to the city, the state and the sport of wrestling, “ said Steve Reimers, co-chairman of the committee, and a state high school champion for Humboldt in 1981. “We felt Bicknell Park was the perfect place for the statue.”
When Gotch was training for the second Hackenschmidt match, he set up a training camp in Bicknell Park. He erected a ring and handball courts, and many days there were over 1,000 people in the park to watch him train.
“It’s one of the finest statues I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Foster, a native Iowan who broadcasts college and USA Wrestling events with Casber on Takedown Wrestling Radio. “The entire evened was very powerful, very emotional. Everyone in my group felt like we were a part of wrestling history by just being there.”
Among the guests were Bill Smith, 1952 Olympic champion who lives in Bode, a small community just 12 miles form Humboldt. Smith was also a two-time NCAA champion at Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa).
“It was a tremendous day, very moving,” said Smith after the ceremony. “I’m proud than I was able to be here and be a part of it. Frank Gtoch is an integral part of our wrestling history, in Iowa and the entire country.”
Brad Rheingans, a two-time Olympian (1976 and 1980) and World bronze medallist, was also on hand. Rheingans won seven national titles in Greco-Roman wrestling and later was a professional star for Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association (AWA) in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“I have heard about Frank Gotch ever since I was in college, but really didn’t know much about his impact on the sport until the last decade or so,” said Brad. “It was a great event from an emotional standpoint. The statue is so good that you almost expect Frank to step down and offer his hand, saying, ‘Hi, I’m Frank Gotch.”
Jeff Adams of Mount Morris, Illinois, was the sculptor. He was at the event to say a few remarks, as was Reimers and Mike Chapman, author of three books on Gotch.
“My grandpa gave me the book 100 Greatest Sports Heroes when I was ten years old, in Waterloo, Iowa,” Chapman told the crowd. “Ever since reading that chapter, he has been my No. I sports hero of all time.
“Today is one of the most memorable days of my life. I’ve dreamed of seeing a statue of Frank Gotch in Humboldt for 40 years. I hope that somewhere my grandpa and Frank Gotch are watching and sharing a big handshake.”
Reimers called the event “one of the top ten moments in Humboldt history.”
There are other Gotch spots of interest in the city of 3,000 situated in north central Iowa. The old Gotch farmstead is still in operation south of town, and Frank Gotch State Park borders its north side, with a river running through the park area. It is used for camping and picnics.
The home Gotch built in 1911 for him and his wife, Gladys, is a private home in the center of town. Frank, Gladys and other family members are buried in a huge mausoleum in Union Cemetery visit north of town.
In addition, the street running past Bicknell Park was recently named Frank Gotch Boulevard.
. Over 200 bricks surrounding the statue have the names of donors on it, and some bricks are still available. Anyone wishing information on how to purchase a brick can still do so. Money raised was used for the sculpture, landscaping, purchase of bricks and the names etched in, as well as the placing of the bricks and the concrete seats. More money is needed for lighting and security cameras.
For more information, call Tonya Harklau in Humboldt at 515-332-3285.