Too Many Terrible Turks.
One of wrestling’s standbys to liven up the ring, was to have on the main bill, a “Terrible Turk”. The tradition goes back a long way, long before “masked men” or other villains of the mat game. Some of these “Terrible Turks” were terrible in the meaning not frightening, but awful, history will decide.
We begin way back before the last century when a French man by the name of Sabes, who came from Bordeaux, did very well in the square ring, and had an impressive record beating the best the continent could offer, becoming somewhat of a celebrity and idol of many, with his success. Others envied Sabes and the small fortune he made from wrestling and so his contempory opposition , searched far and wide,( and that’s quite a long way to go) to beat Sabes. One of the people Sabes had previously beaten was a man called Doublier a wrestler from Lyons, who took his defeat badly and began searching for someone to knock the wind out of Sabes. With no luck finding anyone of merit in his close surroundings, Doublier looked up an old wrestler, then acting as the manager to a troupe of wrestlers at the famous Folies Bergere in Paris. Eager to help, the manager suggested he look for a decent wrester in Turkey at that period becoming well known for its fighting men.
After a prolonged search, during which he found many notables in the Turkish wrestling world, he chose three men who he believed would best suit his purpose of being able to beat Sabes. Returning back to Paris, his trio of Turks caused a minor sensation for many reasons one basic reason being simply the size of the men. The three Turks were Nouriah, who was over 6ft 6ins and weighed 350 lbs, Kara Osman, smaller at just under 6ft ,weight 225 and highly muscled, and the third, who was to become the most famous , Youssouf Ishmaelo, born Jan 1st 1857 in Bulgaria, part of the Turkish Empire. (who’s name was spelt in several ways) who stood 5ft 11ins, or 6ft 2inches according to publicity, bodyweight 250 to 300lbs.(After he had eaten his favourite cakes perhaps.?) with a neck measurement in old money of 20 inches. Youssouf also had a good record, according to the New York World of April 30th 1898, he had 115 wins and no defeats in previous wrestling contests. Almost immediately the three Turks began to throw out challenges in the wrestling world, and Sabes took up the challenge immediately.
The long awaited match took place in Paris the venue overcrowded as the punters wanted to see their champion Sabes overcome the Terrible Turk Youssouf. For once The Terrible Turk lived up to his publicity, with the match over almost before it began, Youssouf smashing Sabes to the mat and taking the contest in just “four seconds” according to the referee . Later Kara Osman and Nouriah disposed of their opponents with almost as sudden contempt. By the third day, no one turned up to take on the Turks such was their now frightening reputation.
With no one in France willing to fight the trio, manager Doublier was forced to go further afield , so he took his Turks on a wider tour of Europe, and wherever they went, so they defeated all comers. This may ring a bell or two, but the manager, although making considerable wealth from his team of wrestlers, was none to generous with paying them out , Doublier taking the lions share of the profits, whilst he paid his team of Turks just five francs a day, along with giving them free food and lodgings. Only on rare occasions did he lash out and buy them wine or similar luxuries.(sounds familiar?) Despite trying to keep his athletes (?) on a training diet, every opportunity they had, they would find out the nearest confectioners and indulge in their love of cream cakes by the plate full. Leaving the bill to their manager, the wrestlers at least gained back something of the rewards they deserved.
By now, running out of opponents, Youssef decided to travel to America, arriving in 1898 in New York he was by now managed by Antonio Pierre himself an ex wrestler. The advanced publicity re. Youssef was “ the favourite wrestler of the Sultan of Turkey”. Around this time a challenge was out, offering anyone $100 if they could stay in the ring with Youssef for 15 minutes.As for being the “Sultans favourite” Graeme Kent in his Pictorial History of Wrestling, begs to differ, saying he was in fact “a dock labourer from Marseilles. The Terrible Turk arrived in USA in 1897 when he was matched with Evan Lewis, the original “Strangler Lewis”, real name Henry Clayton. The next victim of Youssef was Ernest Roeber, with Roeber lasting literally seconds. Pierre enlisted help from showman James William Brady and a match was made between Youssef and Ernest Roeber a tough New Yorker, originally from Germany, who had taken the title from Muldoon, a former great champion who had amongst others, beaten Donald Dinnie the famous Scotch Athlete.
Roeber had two matches with The Terrible Turk, in 1898, March 28th , fighting at first in Madison Square Garden on a raised platform (so the huge audience could all see) problem was the “ring” had no posts or ropes. Really just a push and shove match, Youssef went mad and pushed Roeber out of the ring, to be instantly disqualified by the referee Hugh Leonard, it was all over in 75 seconds. The return match on April 30th at the Metropolitan Opera House NY, was just as disappointing. Although this time there were post, they didn’t last long, nor did the match which again the referee stopped, leaving a near riot in the crowd, stopped by the police before someone was killed in the melee. Soon after the Opera House decided it would no longer hold “wrestling matches” Months later Youssef defeated Evan “Strangler” Lewis taking the American Heavyweight title in Chigago, on June 20th 1898 witnessed by a record 10,000 crowd, with the Turk taking $3.500 in prize money, all converted into gold. Ironically the strangle hold was banned.
Soon after Youssef decided to return to Europe, booking on the ill fated French ship La Burgoyne which was struck by a British sailing vessel the Cromartyshire, the Burgoyne going down on July 4th 1898 , just off Nova Scotia, Canada, with the loss of about 560 passengers, out of 785 people on board, amongst them Youssef, who was then just 41 years of age. “Frightful Disaster at Sea “ headlined the NewYork Tribune.
Here is where the popular myth comes into being. Without proof, the story goes that , Youssef overloaded with his gold belt, carrying at least $4000, (some say $16000 )was so greedy that he drowned sooner than release his money belt. (If I knew the exact spot, I would dive for it myself ) Other newspapers at the time and many magazine articles since, carry the story, that Youssef, mad with panic, when the shop was sinking, cut and thrust his was through the crowds of women and children to jump into a life boat, which promptly sank due to his immense weight. As most drowned, we will never know the truth . A far more friendly report was “that he had saved a child from under a bulk of irons, but lost his own life”. What is true is that since Yousef, many other pretenders have arrived on the colourful wrestling scene American Robert Manoogian used the name “Terrible Turk”, Ghafoor Khan supposedly trained on camels milk. Pinetzky another TT.Hali .Adali, Karkanoff, who showed up circa 1905 in Frank Gotch’s era,(Gotch did once meet another TT. Name of Yussiff Mahmout, taking all of nine minutes to beat him.) Nouriah ,who was supposed to be 6ft 6ins and 350lbs,etc, some just fat and others in better shape and Holuban who was so fat he couldn’t even bounce and didn’t stay on the circuit for long. Still it all makes a good story, and wrestling has always been a good tale of bad against good, with the good always winning in the end. On a personal note, I remember Bert Assirati taking on a Terrible Turk, down in Southampton circa 1948. Bert of course won with his Boston crab, the Turk could just have well been Les Dawson’s mother in law with a tea towel on her head for all I know. Just one world of advice, if you must go sailing on your luxury yacht, don’t wear your gold laden belt. By David Gentle. ED.H&S mag.
My sources include, Graeme Kent and Pictorial History of Wrestling, William Baxter, Graham Noble, Ring magazine, Strength and Health magazine 1939, Health and Strength magazine 1933, and David Willougby’s Super Athletes1968.