Some of you may know that I am slowly working on a book that is yet untitled and so dubbed “Project Legends” for now. This is an excerpt from the project that is still very much in the early goings.
The original “Terrible Turk,” Yusuf Ismail hailed from the village of Karalar, located near Shumen, Özü Eyalet, Ottoman Empire, where he was known as Şumnulu Yusuf and first gained prominence as a Turkish oil wrestler.
Yusuf was discovered by French wrestler Joseph Doublier, who after being defeated by rival Sabès traveled to Turkey and returned with three wrestlers who he believed could defeat Sabès. Only one was needed, as the 6’2” 300+ pound Yusuf defeated Sabès in his debut match in Paris in 1894. The match lasted only four seconds.
Yusuf spent the next three years dominating the wrestling in scene in France where he remained undefeated and once boldly proclaimed that he would slit his own throat if he were ever beaten.
At the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, Yusuf battled his fellow Turk Ibrahim Mahmut in what was described as one of the “most brutal bouts ever seen on the mat.” Ibrahim refused to submit to the bear like Yusuf, and because of this, Yusuf exploded with rage and began tearing at Ibrahim’s nostrils, broke some ribs, and attempted to break his arms. It took six police officers and some spectators to get Yusuf separated.
Doublier brought Yusuf’s brand of carnage to the United States in 1898, offering up $100 to anyone who could stay in the ring with the Terrible Turk for more than 15 minutes. A famous young lightweight wrestler known as George Bothner was the only person to accept the challenge, claiming “no man alive could pin him on his back in 15 minutes.” A few days later, the two had their match and Bothner was soundly defeated. He described his run-in with the Terrible Turk years later in the book From Milo to Londos (1936) by Nat Fleischer.
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.
— George Bothner, From Milo to Londos (1936) by Nat Fleischer.
Yusuf remained undefeated until he was disqualified in a match at Madison Square Garden against World Greco-Roman Heavyweight Champion Ernest Roeber. During the bout, Yusuf pushed Roeber out of the ring sending him falling head first five feet to the ground. The impact left Roeber left unconscious for several minutes. The aftermath led to a near riot as some fans in attendance tried to storm the ring believing Roeber had been killed. The storming fans were blocked from entering the ring by a small unit of New York City police officers. Yusuf was escorted to his dressing room by police as some fans screamed “Kill the Turk!”
On June 20, 1898, Yusuf defeated Evan “Strangler” Lewis to capture the American Heavyweight Championship and a prize pot of $2,800. Yusuf demanded that he paid in gold coins.
On the morning of July 4, 1898, Yusuf was on-board the SS La Bourgogne, the first ship back to Europe after his match against Lewis. The ship collided with the British sailing ship Cromartyshire. Half an hour after the collision, the La Bourgogne sank. The starboard lifeboats were damaged and the crew panicked, rushing for the remaining lifeboats instead of helping passengers. At the time of the collision, the La Bourgogne was carrying 506 passengers and 220 crew members. In total, 549 people perished including Yusuf Ismail.
Yusuf Ismail jumped overboard in an attempt to get in a lifeboat but drowned, despite reportedly being a good swimmer, because he was carrying over $2,800 in gold coins in a money bag on his belt. The weight of the gold dragged him under the water.
Yusuf’s body washed ashore in Sable Island, outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia on September 10th according to an article in the October 9, 1898 edition of The Chicago Sunday Tribune. The body was described as that of a “powerfully built man with a leather built which contained a large sum in gold. Part of the belt had become detached from the body, and, from its appearance, no doubt a large portion of the gold the belt contained had fallen into the water. The amount discovered was large, and included $10 and $20 gold pieces in French and American coins.”