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History of Belgian wrestling

Prior to the ‘Golden Age’ of professional wrestling (1890/1914) Achille Mouchon (born Ghent 1855 died 1900) his baraque and troupe of wrestlers toured Belgium, The Netherlands and France with moderate success but the glorious days of wrestling in Belgium were still to come. Constant Lavaux was born in in Florennes in the province of Namur in 1877; he was a farmer’s son and worked in agriculture until he was 17 when he took up the trade of butchering. At the age of 20 he journeyed to Paris to practise his trade and in his leisure time he practised wrestling wherever he could find a gym. Eventually he found the gym of the great wrestler Paul Pons (1864/1915) and his professional career began. I can find no record of where he learned to wrestle but believe it to be in Florennes since his subsequent progress was too rapid to have been possible for a beginner, no matter how strong and gifted. 

Constant Lavaux is better known to wrestling historians as Constant le Boucher (Constant the Butcher) not to infer any brutality as some later ‘official’ historians have claimed (see Prof. Raiko Petrov of FILA) but because of his trade. While these developments were gathering pace an enterprising Swiss/Italian wrestler turned promoter called Battaglia (born 1852 at Vira Gambarogno) organised a wrestling and strength tournament in Brussels, which he declared to be a ‘World Championship’. Prof. E. Desbonnet (1868/1953) wrote in Les Rois de la Lutte in 1910, “Ce fut seulement en 1897 qu’un championnat vint remettre en honneur ce sport ci interéssant.” (It was only in 1897 that a championship came to be held in honour of this so interesting sport.)

the ‘Golden Age’ of professional wrestling (1890/1914) 

The tournament which was the first ever tournament claiming to be a championship in either Free style or Greco-Roman took place in the Cirque Royale De Bruxelles from 7th to the 18th August and attracted 118 competitors; Maurice Gambier of Bordeaux won the wrestling competition and Noël Rouveirolis of Sète (1864/1939) better known as Noël Le Gaulois (on account of his huge moustache) won the title of World’s Strongest Man. Albert de Laitte of Sprimont a respected Belgian historian of strength sports describes this tournament as a World Championship, which was also the opinion at the time of Professor Desbonnet of Lille.

When Constant Lavaux arrived in Paris the wrestling craze, which was sweeping Europe and making Greco-Roman the main public spectacle in all the principle cities was about to reach its apogée. Constant le Boucher was about to become one of the most famous athletes in Europe if not the world and he would create a record, which cannot be repeated in the history of modern sport.
Théodore Vienne another very enterprising promoter and Director of the Vélodrome de Roubaix organised the first ever National Championship of France in a magnificent sport which France has gifted to the world and which should be recognised as its national sport; la lutte á mains platte, la lutte Francaise, la lutte Grecque, la lutte Romain, Classical wrestling, or, to use its modern name Greco-Roman style.
The championship final, which took place outdoors on 30th May 1898, was a hard fought bout but eventually the youth, vigour and stamina of the young Belgian, despite some very close shaves brought him victory over the veteran Félix Bernard (1857/1900) from Maubourget in the Hautes-Pyrénées. Constant Lavaux had become the first Champion of France

Lavaux was not the only famous Belgian wrestler in this period; there were others as famous and successful. Omer Garritte was born in La Louvière on 18th November 1874 and was a blacksmith to trade, in 1898 he and his friends founded L’Athletic Club du Centre and wrestling training took place on grass behind the ancient Salle du Bouillon. When Omer Garritte turned professional he adopted the name of De Bouillon to honour the place where he had perfected his skills. He normally placed very high in the prize list of major tournaments; in 1901 he placed third in the World Championship as noted above and in London in 1902 he placed second to Jacobus Koch, “Le Grand Car” of Germany and placed fourth in the 1903 championship in Paris.
In 1907 he and his wife travelled to South America with a troupe of wrestlers and in Buenos Aires he defeated Paul Pons in the final of the World Championship tournament. He retired in 1914 but continued to train young wrestlers and with his wife opened a swimming pool and dance studio, which he called ‘Le Salon Du Bouillon’ (despite his bulk Garritte was a very fine dancer). Omer Garritte/De Bouillon died as a result of a tragic accident on October 3rd 1936 at the age of 62. He was in full and robust health and was working in the courtyard of his house when he decided to sharpen a pair of secateurs on an electric grinding machine. A fragment broke off the stone and struck him on the head, he walked to a Doctor’s surgery and said, “Doctor, I have a piece of mill stone in my head.” He was immediately transferred to hospital but died several hours later.

Henri Herd began formal wrestling training in a small gym in la Rue Pierreuse in 1901 and had an enormous appetite for work. Two years later he reached the final of the annual Amateur Championship of Liége only to be beaten by his coach, Jules Depireux. The following year he competed among hundreds of other contestants in a tournament, which lasted from 24th February till March 3rd and won the heavyweight category. His first professional competition was at the Exposition Universelle de Liége in 1905 where adopted his pseudonym of Constant le Marin; the reason seems to have been that he would be a sporting ambassador for Wallon on land and sea but he used the name Constant in honour of his hero Constant le Boucher.

Constant le Marin’s fame and success mounted and he was in great demand at tournaments all over Europe and the Americas. He won the 1907 World Championship in Paris and in Buenos Aires in 1910 he won the World Championship and gold belt before 35,000 spectators. When the German invasion began in August 1914 he was in Paris but immediately returned home and volunteered for the army. He was quickly promoted to sergeant and when the Belgian machinegun corps was founded he transferred to it and saw service between 1915 and 1917 in Russia. Henri Herd was frequently cited in the ‘Orders of the Day’ and was decorated by King Leopold. At the Battle of Svitselniki in Galicia on September 16th 1916 he was in charge of an armoured car, which was destroyed by Austrian/German fire. The Czar immediately donated a newly developed Russian vehicle, which was later destroyed and Herd was hit in the thigh by two bullets, and another in his arm. His driver Godefroid was killed and the other two crew members were seriously injured in this incident in Koniouki in July 1917 but Henri Herd was saved by his sixteen year old nephew Fernand Houbiers who had followed his famous uncle into the army. Herd/Le Marin was awarded Russia’s highest military award the Cross of St. George four times by Czar Nicholas II.
After the war it took some time for Henri Herd to recover from his wounds but according to his nephew he used ‘natural’ training methods to recover from his injuries and resume his professional career. In 1921 he won the World Championship in Paris and in 1924 he once again won the World Championship in Buenos Aires. When the Second World War began he was too old for the army and when the Germans approached he headed for Bordeaux to give assistance to Belgians in exile, when this proved impractical he abandoned his huge Buick on the pier and boarded the last ship for South America and only returned in 1946. During the war collaborators announced on the radio the death of this famous man in Chile complete with a minute’s silence in his honour.
Henri Herd died in 1965 and on Sunday 14th August 1988 a commerative plaque was unveiled in his honour in rue Puits-en-Sock in Liége by the Bourgmestre at a ceremony, which was attended by his nephew M. Lambert Grailet. The city also renamed the entrance to the street where he was born as rue Henri Herd  

 The regulated era
At the Antwerp Olympics of 1920, there were 10 wrestling events: 5 weight classes in freestyle and 5 in Greco-Roman.
Lutte libre : Sport nouvellement inscrit au programme des Jeux olympiques Conformément à la décision du Congrès de Paris, les règles furent établies par M. Percy Longhurst, secrétaire de la Fédération Internationale de Lutte Libre.
Finland returned home with 12 wrestling medals, of which 5 were gold. Sweden and the US took 2nd and 3rd place with a total of 6 wrestling medals each. The wrestling competition took place in the Grande Salle of the Antwerp Zoo ("Zoologie")
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Belgium & Greco-Roman Wrestling


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