Grappling with Tragedy is a series of articles that deal with unfortunate, tragic incidents that have occurred throughout the history of professional wrestling. It is unlike the ‘Wrestling with Sin’ series that deals more with the seedier side of wrestling like arrests, murders and suicides. Grappling looks more at particular tragic incidents that have in some instances altered pro wrestling in some way.
The Terrible Turk
Yusuf Ismail was a Turkish strongman that was brought to France to become a professional wrestler in 1894. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing approximately 250 pounds…Ismail was quickly considered a monster of the mat. His sheer brute strength carried him to quick victories in his matches. Ismail was given the nickname of ‘The Terrible Turk’ to add a bit of pizzazz to his wrestling career.
The Terrible Turk was challenged by many on his legitimacy as a true monster of the ring. His promoter William A. Brady, would offer $100 to anyone in the audience to survive just 15 minutes with the Terrible Turk. One man named George Bothner (who was a well known wrestler himself) was the only one with the courage to accept the challenge. Here is Bothner’s account of the match….
He was a modern Hercules and he knew how to apply his punishing strength, as he was as quick as a jungle cat and master of all holds. Youssuf came at me like a bull. He rushed me right off the mat into a bunch of chorus girls in the wing. The first thing I knew I found myself helpless. The Turk picked me up as if I was a kitten. Never before have I felt such terrible strength. Before I could give a wiggle or squirm he dashed me down on the boards with terrific force, knocking all the strength and wits out of me… They told me that after I had landed, Youssuf rolled me over with his foot, looked out over the audience, gave a contemptuous snort and walked off the stage. When I came to, I was a sadder, but wiser young man. Somehow or other I got into my clothes, hobbled out into the street and started to walk up Third Avenue towards my home. Youssuf had given my neck such a wrench that he almost tore it from my shoulders. It was several days before I could look in the direction I was headed.
As Ismail’s popularity grew, he ventured to the United States to make his great fortune. The Terrible Turk compiled an amazing undefeated record during his entire career. He would defeat Evan ‘The Strangler’ Lewis for the American Heavyweight title in 1898 in Chicago, Illinois. At the time, that title was considered extremely prestigious and was the precursor to the creation of the world title. Having made thousands of dollars in the U.S. and being a bonafide star….Ismail took his fame and fortune back overseas where he was opening up a coffee shop in Bulgaria.
Yusuf Ismail boarded the French ocean liner called the SS La Bourgogne. While enroute back to Europe, the ship collided with another vessel on the morning of July 4th, 1889. The damage on La Bourgogne was so severe the ship sank within a half hour of being struck. Of the 726 passengers and crew that were aboard, 549 perished including ‘The Terrible Turk’ Yusuf Ismail. It is believed that Ismail drowned after falling overboard. There are rumors that Ismail always carried a money belt with him and never took it off. It was rumored that the weight of the belt is what caused Ismail to go under and drown.
After his death, several promoters and wrestlers tried to capitalize on Ismail’s popularity by wrestling under the Terrible Turk name. A statue and museum opened up in Bulgaria to honor the life and career of Yusuf Ismail. He was just 41 years old at the time of his death.