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The Turkish wrestlers that Coutalianos faced

When the Sultan’s money builds wrestlers’ careers

“I never had a conversation with living obstacles that I encountered on my way, they are part of life too, that is how they make their living, only when you see them as such do they have some value, we owe victories and experiences to them. What would life be without hurdles. Deadly silence on a cardiograph.

V. Palaiokostas (Α normal life, p.248)

When in 1883, Coutalianos returned from the American continent to Europe, he already had the reputation of being the strongest man on the planet. After some stops for a few days at the ports of Barcelona and Marseilles, the Greek athlete ended up in Constantinople where his arrival was accompanied by a huge wave. The first performances he gave there were marked by incidents between Greeks and Armenians, because the first and strongest competitor who appeared was an Armenian wrestler named Simon, about whom unfortunately we know little. We do know, however, that this wrestler had the reputation of being the strongest man in Constantinople and was a professional porter, with the distinguished ability to lift enormous weights. The Sultan Abdul Hamid II, learned about the advent of Coutalianos in the capital of his Empire as well as about the clashes that took place between Armenians and Greeks in the streets of the City. Coutalianos bearing the title of “New Hercules”, openly challenged anyone to face him and doubt him. National passions were strongly rekindled and the Sultan found himself in an dead-end, because the reputation of the Turkish state was at stake. He first requested that the long-awaited confrontation between Panagis and Simon take place before him. The fight would be fought behind closed doors, with what this entails for the management of its result from the palace loudspeakers. If Panagis won there was a way to hide the fact by spreading false and confusing news, while if he lost they would trumpet the fact in all tones, so that it would be known in every way that the rumored “New Hercules” Panagis Coutalianos, was defeated by an Armenian or Turkish wrestler. In the various biographical excerpts in circulation, Panagis vividly describes his experience inside the Sultan’s palace, where he was called upon to wrestle not just one, but a series of wrestlers who tried in vain to take him down. By studying the various sources, one understands that various unsolved issues arise which gives us the scope to expand our research

1) The Greek newspapers of the time, as well as the Turkish Stamboul, refer to the much-anticipated fight between the Greek Coutalianos and the Armenian Simon, giving us to understand that Simon was the main contender for the title and perhaps the undisputed champion of Turkey. Nevertheless, Simon is lost from the records of Turkish literature, precisely because he was Armenian and not Turkish. This fact in itself weakens the validity of the Turkish sources because it already proves their bias.

2) In the newspaper “Marmarina Nea” (March 1952) it is written that Coutalianos faced a Turkish wrestler who was an officer of the Ottoman army and a second wrestler who was Bulgarian and was called Alico. The truth is that the Turkish soldier and Alico are the same person. As confirmed by Turkish sources, Kel Alico (note the “bald: Alico, because Kel in Turkish means “bald”), was indeed a high-ranking officer, a member of the Sultan’s personal guard and he came from a village in the Bulgarian province of Pleven. Why is he characterized by Panagis as a Bulgarian? Did Alico himself introduce himself to him like this, or was Alico Bulgarian-speaking, so Coutalianos was led to this conclusion by himself?

Pictured in this photo are wrestlers Kel Alico (left) and the “unknown” Samdanci Ibrahim (right) who has to be none other than Coutalianos himself. As for the background of this photo we have made an extensive dedication in the chapter “A strange photo”.I never had a conversation with living obstacles that I encountered on my way, they are part of life too, that is how they make their living, only when you see them as such do they have some value, we owe victories and experiences to them. What would life be without hurdles. Deadly silence on a cardiograph
In the above photo, the same person who is next to the wrestler Alitso is said to be the wrestler Kara Ibo. The obvious editing of the photos, which one can understand from the shadows of the athletes (compare the two photos above), makes distinct the Turkish attempts to falsify the history of wrestling. This fact alone makes them completely unreliable.
rare photograph from the late 19th century. They depict famous wrestlers of the Ottoman Empire who were born in the lands of present-day Bulgaria. From left to right are: Katranci Mehmet, Kurtdereli Mehmet, Rustem και Kucuk Yusuf. Today in Turkey there is a monument dedicated to Katranci, two monuments dedicated to Kurtdereli and a sports hall also named after Kurtdereli. None of these athletes defeated Coutalianos while he was performing in their country.

3) According to Coutalianos, he was called to fight in front of the Sultan with two additional fighters who were Bosnian brothers. Hassan and Mehmet were their names. For these two athletes only assumptions can be made because we do not know their last names. We know of course that two very famous wrestlers in Turkey at that time bore these names and they were Kurtdereli Mehmet and Nurullah Hasan, but we also know that these names were and remain the most popular among Turks so we cannot be sure of the identity of the two athletes. One more reason, of course, that Panagis mentions that his two opponents were brothers, which is not the case for the aforementioned wrestlers. But perhaps Coutalianos was confused either because they were presented together, or because they themselves may have jokingly introduced themselves to him as many Balkans are used to when they want to imply the deep friendship that connects them.

4) After the successive triumphs of Coutalianos in Constantinople, a movement is noticed in the ranks of the wrestlers of the Ottoman Empire. We see them form a team and travel to the countries of Europe and the USA, with the French wrestler Doublier as their manager. These athletes who came from villages in Bulgaria were such poor people that under normal circumstances they could not even travel as far as Athens. It is obvious that they went abroad with money given to them by the Sultan and this money was not only used for travel tickets but also for fixing matches in order to build a myth around their name. Through the pages of the newspapers of that time we learn that the scandals related to fixed wrestling matches were not few. Within such a corrupt system it is easy to understand that a group of wrestlers sponsored by the leader of an empire has enough money to set up as many matches as they needed to construct a myth entitled “Turkish Invasion / Paris, 1894”.

The members of the “Turkish invasion” (from left to right): Kara Osman, Nurullah Hasan, French promoter Joseph Doublier, and Yusuf Ismail.

5) Various Turkish sources that refer to the history of Turkish wrestlers often write self-evident exaggerations to expand their legend. In a text entitled “Who is Kel Alico” (https://www.yeniakit.com.tr/biyografi/kel-alico) we read the way this particular wrestler handed over his championship to his successor Koca Yusuf “the terrible Turk”. The two athletes who are presented as “undefeated”, fought a final wrestling match. In this match which lasted for 6 full hours the two athletes emerged as equals but Kel Alico with a complimentary gesture crowned Koca Yusuf the new champion. Through these descriptions one can understand the author’s attempt to magnify the legend and not to harm the reputation of Alico who should have handed over the champion’s crown to his younger Yusuf.

6) Another Turkish source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nurullah_Hasan , 10 Eylül 2006) states that the wrestler Nurullah was powerful on a worldwide level and that the only one who managed to defeat him was his compatriot Koca Yusuf. In general, the Turks don’t even keep the pretenses in their lies. Their athletes are presented as invincible by anyone other than their own gender who award each other the championships after matches lasting up to a whole day. We typically mention the example of the case of the wrestler Katranci Mehmed, whom Turkish authors mention that he fought against important opponents who are ONLY Turks (Dönemin kızın pehlivanların’dan Koca Yusuf, Kurtdereli Mehmet Pehlivan, Adalı Halil, Ahmet Kara, Büyük Yaşar Pehlivan, Hergeleci İbrahim, Karagöz Ali, Filiz Nurullah ile güreşleri belübülü/ https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katranc%C4%B1_Mehmet_Pehlivan ). The chivalry and compliments between them are obvious so as not to tarnish their pride, but from so many lies that have been told about them no serious historian can take seriously what is written by the Turkish gossip writers.

7) More generally, reading the biographies of Turkish wrestlers that have been posted online by Turkish sources, it is easy to ascertain that the matches between them are dominated by draws, while in their matches with foreign wrestlers they always appear as undisputed winners. These sources are the following: i) Kel Alico: https://www.yeniakit.com.tr/biyografi/kel-alico ii) Koca Yusuf: https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koca_Yusuf iii) Kurtdereli Mehmet: https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurtdereli_Mehmet_Pehlivan iv) Katranci Mehmet: https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katranc%C4%B1_Mehmet_Pehlivan v) Nurullah Hasan: https://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Nurullah_Hasan vi) Ali Adali: https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adal%C4%B1_Halil.

Sketch of the famous wrestler Koca Yusuf who is publicized by the Turks as the strongest wrestler in the world and in fact undefeated during his career. Despite this, there are sources that state that the athlete in question was defeated.
The Turkish wrestler Halil, was one of the “victims” of Coutalianos, when the latter visited the Yildiz Palace. Halil was a horse keeper in the Sultan’s palace stables and when he was old, he got Kemal Atatürk’s carriage driver.

8)  The later famous Turkish wrestlers, whose fame was launched by their Sultan-paid tours in Europe and America, were ordinary Bulgarian festival wrestlers, without fame and without credit. They were discovered by the Sultan’s need to find a capable wrestler to take on Coutalianos, who arrived in Constantinople in 1883. Coutalianos, of course, was a creation of his own self. He traveled around world alone, without any financial support, and reaching the heart of the Ottoman Empire – of which he himself was a subject – he was invited to fight against any wrestler presented to him by the Sultan. The Greek athlete coped with all the challenges, but as our readers already know the environment in which the games were held was completely sealed so nothing was allowed to leak.

9) After the fights that Coutalianos gave in Constantinople, the Sultan was jealous of his worldwide fame and tried to have his athletes imitate his glory, sponsored of course by the Sultan himself.


 French wrestler J. Doublier in a strength demonstration  in Istanbul.
April 19, 1883. The logo of Stamboul newspaper.
The Turkish newspaper Stambul describes the wrestling matches between the three wrestlers Coutalianos, Halil and Simon. It is obvious that the newspaper is biased since it praises Halil at the end, while showing indifference to the other two athletes. Simon has completely disappeared from the bibliography, although he was apparently the undisputed star in Constantinople. Alico was perhaps the most famous among the empire’s Muslim wrestlers, with Halil coming in second.
The above article was published in the Greek language newspaper “Atlantis”, which was published in the USA. The article is titled “Press Freedom in Turkey” and describes the censorship prevailing at that time in Turkey. The conclusion that any reasonable person can draw is that the information one derives from the Turkish press is definitely not reliable. Atlantis, Dec. 14, 1913
A nice sketch depicting the censorship of the press and perfectly suited to the conditions that prevailed in Turkey at the time Coutalianos toured it. Atlantis, Jan. 26, 1919.
In the newspaper Marmarina Nea (1952), the matter of Coutalianos’ matches in front of the Sultan is mentioned in the March (above) and April (below) pages.
“Marmarina Nea”, April 1952
An American newspaper describes Nurullah Hasan as the strongest Turkish wrestler to come through the US. This fact contradicts the claims of many Turkish historians who consider Koca Υusuf as the strongest Turkish wrestler of that time.
American newspaper article confirming the participation of wrestlers in fixed wrestling matches. The W. Demetral (Dimitrelis) mentioned in the specific article was a wrestler of Greek origin.
Another article referring to the holding of fixed wrestling matches. In this corrupt environment the money that the Sultan gave to the Turkish wrestlers, was the appropriate means of obtaining their glory.
The great corruption in the wrestling matches with the fixed games and betting, resulted in the enrichment of many of those who participated in them. The above article mentions the names of some famous wrestlers of that era who managed to become rich.
June 6,1900. Lowell Sun MA, page 22. The following article was found in this particular newspaper.
This article refers to Coutaliano’s victory against the Turkish champion Koca Yusuf. Manager Tom O’ Rourke recounting his experiences admits that Coutalianos was an invincible athlete who had no rival.
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