Japan honors its 'god of wrestling' 10 years after his quiet death in Tampa

Jody Simon of Tampa, alongside Japanese wrestler Osamu Nishimura, holds the ashes of Karl Istaz during a wrestling event honoring Istaz on July 24 in Tokyo. Istaz, known in Japan as wrestler Karl Gotch, was honored through the efforts of his former student Simon. [Courtesy of Jody Simon]
Jody Simon of Tampa, alongside Japanese wrestler Osamu Nishimura, holds the ashes of Karl Istaz during a wrestling event honoring Istaz on July 24 in Tokyo. Istaz, known in Japan as wrestler Karl Gotch, was honored through the efforts of his former student Simon. [Courtesy of Jody Simon]
Published Aug. 2, 2017

Karl Istaz lived quietly in the Tampa area for 30 years. When he died, his friends followed his wishes and scattered his ashes without ceremony over Lake Keystone in Odessa.

But the European-born Istaz — or more to the point, his alter ego Karl Gotch — was revered across Japan as a hardnosed, professional wrestler whose style so influenced the industry that fans and peers nicknamed him "Kamisama," or deity.

"He was their god of wrestling," said Jody Simon of Tampa, a student of Istaz.

Fast forward 10 years, to Friday, the 10th anniversary of Istaz' death in 2007. Simon had saved some of the ashes scattered over the lake and they were brought to Japan so fans there could finally pay respects to their hero.

This time, there was plenty of ceremony.

Twenty Japanese media outlets attended the Tokyo funeral and the unveiling of a black onyx tombstone, both funded by Antonio Inoki — the biggest star in the history of Japanese wrestling and now a national political leader best known internationally for his wrestler-versus-boxer match against Muhammad Ali in 1976.

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In addition, a wrestling event featuring some of Japan's biggest stars was held four days earlier in Istaz' honor.

Off and on for 10 years, Simon worked to see his mentor honored in Japan. Istaz' best friend in Tampa was Simon's father Larry Simon, known in the U.S. professional wrestling world as the evil Russian Boris Malenko.

But Simon got nowhere until he got the ear of Inoki, through the intervention of Japanese wrestler Osamu Nishimura.

"Karl didn't win a Nobel Prize," said Simon, 61. "But in professional wrestling he did amazing things and made a lot of people happy in Japan."

Born in Belgium and raised in Germany, Istaz represented his native country at the 1948 Olympics in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

He sought to leverage that legitimacy into success in professional wrestling. He performed in Tampa and across the United States but never achieved much fame in a market where glitz and glamor count as much as athletic ability.

"He wasn't as flashy as other wrestlers of his day," wrestling historian Barry Rose said. "He was serious."

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What's more, Istaz was known to have a temper. Outside the ring, he once beat up National Wrestling Alliance world champion Buddy Rogers.

"Those who knew him called him the toughest guy they knew," Rose said.

In Japan, toughness comes first.

Fans of U.S. professional wrestling find a lot that's familiar in Japanese wrestling, including the kind of popularity that draws big audiences and money. Promotions sell out stadiums. Grapplers become A-list celebrities.

But U.S. fans also find the differences to be striking.

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Rather than hooting, hollering and cheering, Japanese fans watch silently and break out only occasionally in cheers to let the wrestlers know they appreciate their skills. And while they know the conclusion is predetermined, they expect it to look authentic.

"It is a different type of respect there for what they do," Rose said. It played to Istaz' strengths. "They would watch his ability in awe."

In his heyday, from the 1960s through the early 1980s, Istaz was every bit as popular in Japan as top U.S. wrestler and movie star John Cena is today, Simon said — but without the flamboyance.

Istaz held the New Japan Pro Wrestling world title twice, climbing to the top with the help of submission holds that would cause opponents to cry out in actual pain.

"He changed wrestling across Japan," Simon said. "He cultivated that down and dirty wrestling on the mat with submissions."

Istaz' approach looked real because it was based on what would happen in an actual fight and not on a stunt show, Simon said.

Wrestlers from all over Japan came to him for training during the '60s, '70s and '80s. His style remains the basis of Japanese professional wrestling.

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Others credit Istaz' realistic style with inspiring the rise of mixed martial arts in Japan, and later in the United States, combining the theatre of wrestling with actual fighting.

MMA stars such as Josh Barnett and Ken Shamrock trained in grappling and submissions under Istaz.

"You cannot deny the mark he left on mixed martial arts," Simon said.

Istaz moved to Tampa in the early 1970s. He lived in a simple home with wife Ella and daughter Janine. He had a small circle of friends including Simon and his wrestler father, and never boasted about his success.

"He was more than just my teacher," Simon said. "He was my second father."

When Simon turned 14, Istaz agreed to become his wrestling coach.

"For seven years I was with him nearly every day. He taught me more than wrestling. He taught me a code of ethics and how to be a man."

A favorite saying of Istaz: "A liar is a thief and a thief is a murderer."

"He tied murder to lying," Simon said, adding with a laugh. "I have fallen well short of living how Karl proposed we should."

Simon would go on to wrestle in Japan and win two junior heavyweight titles. Still, he said, his career high was hearing Istaz say once, "I am proud of you."

"I was floored. He never complimented people."

Istaz died at 82. His wife died before him and their ashes were scattered together over the lake.

At his request, there was no funeral and no marker was placed.

"You never know who lives next door," Simon said.

"Here was this guy who lived in Tampa who most people didn't know about. But in Japan he was a god."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.