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Yousouf Ishmaelo, or Ismail, or many other variations of that name, is affectionately known today as Koca Yusuf (the Great Yusuf). It’s thought he was born in 1857, but could be up to a decade later, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Much of his early life is shrouded by lore and fable. In the history books Yusuf is remembered as one of the most heralded Kirkpinar wrestlers ever.
When we talk about someone who transcended wrestling, chances are it's the same names that are going to come up every time. Ismail is not one of them. He should be. To work out what is fact and what is fiction about his life is a task in itself. In Turkey especially, Ismail is almost like a mythical figure, held on the highest of high pedestals. Thus causing his story to be often exaggerated.
It seems pretty safe to say that he started wrestling as an adolescent. Some accounts state he actually started off wrestling young bulls, while just nine years old. As he matured into a teenager it's said his reputation had already began to spread far and wide, most importantly it had traveled to the Kirkpinar area. An annual oil wrestling tournament had been held since the 1300s. To this day they still hold the event each year, these days it has been moved to Edirne, Turkey, however, it retains the name "Kirkpinar."
Legend has it as a “hairless boy,” he took on the winner of the tournament for the prior twenty-six years, Kel Alico. They wrestled all day until the Sun was setting, when the following exchange of words took place, ”Here is called Kirkpinar. This place is the place of the brave. Wrestling continues here until the winner is known. Why are you not burning the tar barrels and firewood? Let them start burning. How could you abandon a hot wrestling match? If it is in my destiny to be defeated by this boy, let it be so, I'll also withdraw from these fields of the brave. How will Yusuf find the fortune again to defeat the Alico?”
Ismail replied, "Master of the masters, the greatest wrestler of all wrestlers, my brave master! Come on, let’s quit this match. You defeated me with your own words. You made me lose my strength. I can't hold you after hearing your words. If you want, please, hold me and hit my back to the ground."
Moved by the sentiment Alico uttered, ”This field is yours from now on. I would quit wrestling without any concern after seeing a pehlivan like you. The prize and the title of head wrestler is yours. Take both of them happily. Son, you deserved both of them."
American newspapers reported with his local fame he was summoned to appear before the “King” of the Empire, and was honored there as the best wrestler in all the land. With this he was said to be given permission to travel to countries close to the region such as Egypt, Algeria, Greece, and the Ionian Islands. When he returned to the home of Kirpinar he always helped in training the young wrestlers, many of which would follow near enough identically in his footsteps. Around 1894 it's said he was first contacted by European promoters who wanted him to compete in their areas, realizing the value of pitting their local heroes against this monster of man with extreme strength. During his tour across Europe it is thought he never lost. Only ever drawing on a single occasion when he met another “Turk” named Memlik. It was also said he traveled to Asia where he took down Japanese judo experts. As you'll see late some of this is inaccurate. There has never been any verification of him touring Europe in 1894.
What we do know from other sources, is that two men were primarily responsible for bringing Yusuf to France. One man called Jean/Joseph Doublier. The other, another Bulgarian wrestler called Nicolai Petroff. The story tells of Petroff and Doublier facing each other at a circus show in Romania. Doublier seeing potential in the then amateur, recruited Petroff into his troupe. Both Turkish and French newspapers claimed Petroff suggested they travel to Turkey to find potential wrestlers. There they found Yusuf, Nourlah (Ali Nurullah Hasan) and Mehmed who agreed to embark on a trip to France. None of the three “Turks” were familiar with any style of wrestling other than Turkish Oil Wrestling. Turkish journalists say the group of five wrestlers arrived in France during December 1894. The French press made no mention of them until March 1895.
Wrestling in Paris had been kind of dormant for a couple of years. In mid March wrestling made its return to Folies Bergere theatre, which was a popular music hall in Paris and had a capacity of about 1,500 people. The theater director/promoter was Marchand. The wrestling bouts were going to be part of the variety program presented each day at Folies Bergere and they were to get top billing. Initially, Marchand built the wrestling portion of the program around the return of "The Terrible Greek" Antonio Pierri. Pierri had wrestled in Paris previously and was a top name. Pierri's first bout was on March 16, and then on March 20 the Turkish wrestlers made their debut. They became the top attraction straight away. One article, for example, claimed it was the first time the Sultan had allowed his wrestlers to wrestle outside of Turkey. That they must win all their matches against the European champions, otherwise they would be forbidden from returning to Turkey. They would be met with the death penalty should they return as losers. Such ballyhoo surely added to their aura and was partly what made them such an attraction.
From March 16, 1895, les lutteurs turc (the Turk wrestlers) were advertised as appearing at the Casino de Paris. They were advertised almost daily to appear there up until around April 23. Though the identities of these Turks were never revealed, what are the chances of two different groups of Turkish wrestlers appearing in the same city at the same time?
Yusuf was presented as the top of the Turks. During their first run in France, Yusuf was treated as more of a special attraction. Nothing made that clearer, than the way the shows all built up to a confrontation between the top star in Paris, Paul Pons, and Yusuf. Before Pons could start his series with the Turks though, he already had a date set with Antonio Pierri. It’s unclear if that match ever actually came off or not though. Pierri later became the manager of the Turks. He even played a big part in Yusuf’s tour of America in 1898. For much of his career, Pierri was known as “The Terrible Greek”, and after the Turks arrived, “The Horrible Greek.”
There is no record of Yusuf being defeated during this time, plus sometimes he was referred to as "unbeatable." As of April 12 he was also being called "The Terrible Turk", at present time, nobody is known to have used the moniker earlier. The Turks were a sensation. From April 8, 1895, the clowns for a appearing at Nouveau Cirque started parodying the Turks as part of their act. The comedy routine continued on into the middle of May.
Pons and Yusuf got their program underway on April 13. Pons defeated Nourlah in a match. Yusuf unhappy with Pons' win challenged him to a match. Thirteen days later the two squared off for the first time. A "great crowd" was in attendance and they wrestled to a reported time-limit of fifty minutes. Another draw was reached between the two on May 4, 1895. They wrestled one more time during this initial run in France, but the result is unknown. He and the rest of the Turks finished up on May 19, 1895. It's thought Yusuf returned home or maybe went to some part of France during the next few months.
On November 26, 1895, Yusuf and the Turks returned to Paris. Yusuf and Nourlah were joined by Kara Osman this time, although it's often said he was a part of the first trip, and has raised questions as to whether he was Mehmed. Only one result is known from this run and that happened on December 4, 1895.
At the Cirque d'Hiver, Koca Yusuf took on a fellow Turk. Between 200 and 800 fans were in attendance that night. By all accounts the match was brutal. At it's conclusion Yusuf jammed his fingers into his opponents nose, all the while choking him with his other hand. The referee could not get the giant man to stop. The fans unsettled by the whole ordeal threatened to riot. At that point the police broke up the affair. What's very important about this match is, French newspapers didn't do long write-ups of matches at the time. They rarely even printed the results. This match got long write-ups and was widely covered. It's also the first known example of Yusuf behaving in the way he was later portrayed in America. There is some confusion about who Yusuf's opponent was. Kara Ahmet was advertised and reported as being involved by the majority of newspapers. One in particular, which followed the bout extensively, and a later account claimed Ahmet was actually substituted for Ibrahim Mahmut.
Following what is thought to be Yusuf's final ever match in Paris, he toured some of central France with the other Turks and Paul Pons during January 1896. A year later they were touring smaller cities and towns in France again. Then Yusuf was gone from the wrestling scene in France for good, as far as current records show. Pons himself stated the Turks were responsible for the revival of pro-wrestling in Paris. A bold statement by one of the biggest names ever in French professional wrestling.
What Yusuf did inbetween those French runs or after them is not sure. Later recounts of his life say he returned home and trained upcoming wrestlers. Whether that's true or if he wrestled elsewhere in Europe we will likely never know. One thing is for sure though, no report of him wrestling in England has ever been found. Although many places will tell you he definitely did wrestle there. There were other Turks who wrestled there though.
"YOUSARF, THE SULTAN'S WRESTLER.
He Is Coming to the United States to Tackle Roeber and Evans.
Chicago, Dec. 15.-Ernest Roeber the champion Graeco-Roman wrestler of the world, who is with the Bob Fitzsimmons show, will have a chance to win new laurels after New Year's. Ismail Yousarf, champion wrestler and favorite athlete of his imperial majesty Abdul Hamid II, sultan of Turkey, is coming to the United States in search of wider fame than he has been able to find in his own country. It is stated specifically in the announcement of Yousarf's plans that he is after glory alone and wishes matches with the best men he can find, simply to satisfy his royal patron that he is the best wrestler in the world.
No man ever threw Yousarf, and his place was secure while he held his record, but the Turkis wrestler, confident of his strength and skill, determined to risk the loss of all by competing with all comers among the champions in foreign countries. He expects to reach New York some time this some time this month or early in January. Yousarf is of Yourauk parentage and about 32 years of age. For nearly ten years he has met all comers at every style of wrestling and for several years has been under the patronage of the sultan, whose fondness for wrestling has kept the big Turkish champion busy."
Two months later on February 19, 1898, Yusuf arrived in New York on the steamer Lahn. His agent, Antonio Pierri and his manager Monsieur Doublier had traveled with him. He came with a challenge of $500 to any man in America for a Graeco-Roman bout. Ernest Roeber and "Strangler" Evan Lewis were his main targets. Back in France the offer to face the Turks had been 1,000 francs.
"A GIANT TURK.
He Wants to Wrestle for the Championship of the World.
The sporting element of Gotham seems considerably exercised over the recent arrival there of Yousouf, a giant Turkish wrestler, who has avowed his intention of returning to the Ottoman Empire with the scalps of all the 'unbelievers' from every section of the globe.
Up to the present time this giant from the Orient has an unbroken record, and unless some of America's mighty men succeed in throwing Yousouf, he will probably succeed in his desire to secure the championship of the earth. He has thrown all English and French wrestlers of note and comes here to meet Ernest Roeber or Evan Lewis, the two most prominent of America's wrestlers.
Both Roeber and Lewis are anxious for the first chance at the favorite of Abdul Hamid II, but according to Muldoon, the retired ex-champion, Roeber should have the first chance.
Physically the Turkish wrestler is a marvelous specimen. He stands 6 feet 2 inches in his stocking feet, and weights 250 pounds. His dress is that of an attendant at the imperial palace at Constantinople, and as he moves along he reminds one of pictures of giants made famous in fairy tales. His shoulders, his arms and his legs display wonderful muscular development, but the size of his stomach is apt to make one skeptical as to his ability as a wrestler. His manager declares that it is this portion of his anatomy that is worked on and decreases while training.
Yousouf's chest measures 68 inches, and it's expansion is five inches. His neck is 19 1-2 inches in circumference, his biceps 16 1-2, his forearm 14 1-2, his wrist 9 1-2, his thigh 26, his calf 17, and his ankle 9 3-4. He seems awkward and ungainly, but Le Petit Journal is authority for the statement that when in the roped arena he is as agile as a cat. If the mere sight of a dangerous-looking man ever fills the wrestler with fear and trembling, the American accepts Yousouf's challenge had better prepare himself for a surprise party in the way of strangle feelings."
After a month and a half of newspaper coverage, Ernest Roeber and Yusuf met on March 26, 1898 at Madison Square Garden. Yusuf had taken on another manager called William A. Brady, while Roeber was managed by Martin Julian. What's interesting about that, is Brady had been the manager of Jim Corbett when he lost the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship to Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897. Fitzsimmons had been managed by Martin Julian, and Roeber was in the corner and a trainer for Fitzsimmons.
Between 6,000-15,000 people attended the show that night to see the "World Graeco-Roman Championship" match. Fitzsimmons, the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, was in the corner of Roeber. The match was a disaster. Controversy erupted in the arena. After only one minute and fifty seconds of bell time, the match was over. Some papers claimed Roeber ran away from Yusuf and in the process fell or jumped off the staging area. Others insisted Yusuf maliciously pushed Roeber off the stage. Either way Roeber was awarded the victory via disqualification.
Over the next couple of weeks Yusuf began touring the various vaudeville theaters and other entertainment venues to take on all comers. On April 30, 1898 Roeber and Yusuf met again. This time at the Metropolitan Opera House. Unsurprisingly after the previous fiasco the house numbers were down considerably. Only 3,000-4,000 people turned up. The fans got more action this time, but not necessarily how the expected.
Roeber could do nothing with the Turk. Around ten minutes into the match, a fight broke out in the audience. It was quickly broken up by the police captain. By eighteen minutes in both Roeber and Yusuf resorted to pushing and hitting the other one. Brady and Julian crying out for a foul on behalf of their man. After about twenty minutes Yusuf had enough and jabbed his fingers into the face of Roeber. Then forced Roeber into a wooden post with great force.
"Again Yousouf deliberately pushed Roeber's face in. Which was more than the German could stand. So the latter got away and shook his fist in the Turk's face. Yousouf's teeth bristled like rapid fire guns at this breach of etiquette, and he swung his fists dangerously close to Roeber's head. The referee got between the men, but he was thrown aside by them in a jiffy. They squared off like pugilists, and the house was in uproar." Reported the New York Times.
Brady, on behalf of the Turk, attempted to get into the ring, but Fitzsimmons grabbed his coattails. Brady wriggled free and took a swing at the heavyweight boxing champion's head! Brady ran and Fitzsimmons caught him. Picked him up like a baby and dropped Brady on the reporters table. Everyone seemed to be fighting by now. One man pulled a revolver out of his pocket, but was quickly and thankfully pounced upon. Antonio Pierri tried to throw a dozen police officers to get to Yusuf. Eventually Yusuf was dragged out of the Opera House, but half a dozen or so fights remained in progress throughout the building. Oh, and the match was declared no contest.
Yusuf then went on tour of North America. He had a notable match on June 4, 1898, when he wrestled for two hours and thirty-four minutes against Charles Wittmer, for a locally recognized version of the World Graeco-Roman Championship in Cincinnati, Ohio. He returned to Madison Square Garden on June 11. No audience members were allowed on the floor for the show, no chances were being taken to prevent a riot. Yusuf won two falls, one Catch-as-Catch-Can and one Graeco-Roman, easily in just three minutes and forty-two seconds.
The other big match happened at Tattersall's in Chicago, Illinois on June 20, 1898. Yusuf and "Strangler" Evan Lewis wrestled for the "World Catch-as-Catch-Can Championship", Lewis was the defending champion. The match lasted just three minutes due to Yusuf being disqualified due to a misunderstanding of the rules. Lewis agreed to brand new match, but the title wouldn't be on the line and the purse was already won by Lewis. Lewis managed to win one fall (due to another foul), but in the end forfeited saying, "He is too powerful for me." Between 6,000-10,000 fans saw that bout take place. One of which was Jack Curley, who grew up to become one of the most important wrestling promoters in all of America. He recalled the Turk swinging Lewis round by his ankle until he made a merry-go-around only dropping Lewis when he saw fit; it left him dizzy for two weeks apparently.
Just seven days later Koca Yusuf wrestled his last known match. On July 4, 1898 he was traveling home on the La Bourgogne steamer when it collided with another boat. Upon impact all the passengers were awoken by the crash and reportedly mayhem broke loos with people fighting to get off the sinking ship and the crew of the vessel totally ignoring any duties to help the passengers, instead they got themselves life boats to escape and attacked those trying to join them with oars, boat hooks, and their fists if no weapons were available preventing them from being saved.
Only 163 of the 725 passengers survived. As for Ismail the story goes he had earned the amount of $8,000 ($250,000 plus in today's money) during his time in America and insisted only being paid in gold, which he always carried in a money belt around his waist. It is said he strapped it on when he realized the sink was swimming and jumped overboard figuring he could just swim to one of the lifeboats, however, with the weight of the gold around his waist he simply sank to the bottom to the ocean with his fortune still attached to him. Whether that story is true or not we will never know. It is actually told to children as a kind of fable, to explain the perils of greed.
Another tour was expected to happen later that year. A third match between Yusuf and Roeber had been talked about, as had a second with Lewis. It's impossible to speculate with any kind of accuracy if a follow-up tour would have been received well. There was a lot of controversy surrounding his big matches, but often that drew more money than pure wrestling, if the fans weren't feeling cheated by it.
Instead another Turk, a pupil of Yusuf's, traveled to America and the legend of "The Terrible Turk" lived on. He wasn't the first wrestler to have a reputation as a rough wrestler, or even a foreign rough wrestler, but he did reach heights no-one else had by living up to the terrible name. The foreign menace became a staple of pro-wrestling for a hundred years and it can all be traced back to Koca Yusuf. He is a folk hero in his native land and a legend to professional wrestling.
Unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society.
Biography of Koca Yusuf.
Author: Jimmy Wheeler, with research from Phil Lions.
Published: July 2014.
Editor: Jimmy Wheeler.
Updated: May 25, 2021.