Catch Wrestling

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Catch wrestling is a popular style of wrestling. Catch wrestling is arguably the ancestor of modern professional wrestling and mixed martial arts competitions. Catch wrestling’s origins lie in a variety of styles, most notably the regional wrestling styles of Europe, particularly the British Isles (e.g. Collar-and-elbow, Lancashire catch-as-catch-can submission wrestling etc.) and Asia (e.g. pehlwani). The term is sometimes used in a restricted sense to refer only to the style of professional wrestling as practiced in United States carnivals just before and after 1900. Under this stricter definition, “catch wrestling” is one of many styles of professional wrestling, specifically as practiced in carnivals and at public exhibitions from after the US Civil War until the Great Depression. There are a number of modern submission wrestling enthusiasts whose foundation lies in catch wrestling as well as no small number whose training “lineage” traces back to catch-wrestling.

Rules

The Lancashire phrase “Catch-As-Catch-Can” is generally understood to translate to “catch (a hold) anywhere you can”. As this implies, the rules of Catch Wrestling were more open than its Greco-Roman wrestling counterpart which did not allow holds below the waist. Catch players can win a match by either submission or pin, and most matches are contested as the best two of three falls. Often, but not always, the stranglehold was barred. Just as today “tapping out” signifies a concession, back in the heyday of Catch Wrestling rolling to one’s back could also signify defeat. Frank Gotch won many matches by forcing his opponent to roll over onto their back with the threat of his feared “famous” toe-hold. The rules of Catch Wrestling would change from venue to venue in the same way that the rules of mixed martial arts can change from promotion to promotion (e.g., Pride and UFC have different rules but are both referred to as “MMA”). Matches contested with side-bets at the coal mines or logging camps favored submission wins (where there was absolutely no doubt as to who the winner was) while professionally booked matches and amateur contests favored pins (catering to the broader and more genteel paying fan-base).

Origins and popularity

Folk wrestling has a long pedigree in the United States, famous practitioners of such folk wrestling have included US Presidents George Washington (collar and elbow), Abraham Lincoln (catch-as-catch-can), and Teddy Roosevelt (who appointed catch wrestling champion Tom Jenkins to the position of Head Wrestling coach at West Point Military Academy). Catch wrestling became immensely popular across both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the carnivals in the United states of America during the late 19th and early 20th century. The carnival’s wrestlers challenged the locals as part of the carnival’s “athletic show” and the locals had their chance to win a cash reward if they could defeat the carnival’s strongman by a pin or a submission. This eventually led to the carnival’s wrestlers preparing for the worst kind of unarmed assault and aiming to end the wrestling match with any tough local quickly and decisively (i.e. via submission). A hook was a technical submission which could end a match within seconds. As carnival wrestlers traveled, they met with a variety of people, learning and using techniques from various folk wrestling disciplines, many of which were accessible due to a huge influx of immigrants in the United States during this era. Catch wrestling contests also became immensely popular in Europe involving the likes of the national wrestling champion Great Gama, Imam Baksh Pahalwan, Gulam from India, Swiss champion John Lemm, Americans Frank Gotch, Ad Santel, Ed Lewis and Benjamin Roller, Mitsuyo Maeda from Japan and Estonian Georg Hackenschmidt. Travelling wrestlers and European tournaments brought together a variety of folk wrestling disciplines including the Indian variety of Pehlwani, Judo and Ju-Jitsu from Japan, et cetera. Each of these disciplines contributed to the development of catch wrestling in their own way. A colleague of Frank Gotch, Martin ‘Farmer’ Burns offered a particularly popular correspondence course in catch wrestling called Wrestling and Physical Culture.

Frank Gotch vs. Georg Hackenschmidt at Comiskey Park

Frank Gotch vs. Georg Hackenschmidt at Comiskey Park

Catch wrestling and judo

Although catch wrestling did not normally include kicks and blows, it is credited as one of the two disciplines involved in one of the 20th century’s first major cross-cultural clash of styles in Martial Arts, occurring between the American catch wrestler Ad Santel and the Japanese Tokugoro Ito, a 5th degree black belt in Judo. The match in 1914 was one between two prime representatives of their respective crafts, Ad Santel was the World Light Heavyweight Champion in catch wrestling while Tokugoro Ito claimed to be the World Judo Champion. Santel defeated Ito and went on to be the self proclaimed World Judo Champion. The response from Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan was swift and came in the form of another challenger, 4th degree black belt Daisuke Sakai. Santel, however, still defeated the Kodokan Judo representative. The Kodokan tried to stop the legendary hooker by sending men like 5th degree black belt Reijiro Nagata (who was defeated by Santel by TKO). Santel also drew with 5th degree black belt Hikoo Shoji. The challenge matches stopped after Santel gave up on the claim of being the World Judo Champion in 1921 in order to pursue a career in full time professional wrestling. Although Tokugoro Ito avenged his loss to Santel with a choke, thus setting the record between them at 1-1, official Kodokan representatives proved unable to imitate Ito’s success. Just as Ito was the only Japanese judoka to overcome Santel, Santel was ironically the only Western catch-wrestler on record as having a win over Ito, who also regularly challenged other grappling styles. The impact of these performances on Japan was immense. The Japanese were fascinated by the European form of catch wrestling and a steady stream of Japanese fighters travelled to Europe in order to either participate in various tournaments or to learn catch wrestling at European schools such as Billy Riley’s Snake Pit in Wigan, England.

Catch wrestling and mixed martial arts

Karl Gotch was a legendary catch wrestler and a student of Billy Riley’s Snake Pit. Gotch taught catch wrestling to Japanese professional wrestlers in 1970’s to students including Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Hiro Matsuda, Osamu Kido, Satoru Sayama (the legendary Tiger Mask) and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Starting from 1976, one of these professional wrestlers, Antonio Inoki, hosted a series of mixed martial arts bouts against the champions of other disciplines. This resulted in unprecedented popularity of the clash-of-styles bouts in Japan. His matches showcased catch wrestling moves like the Sleeper hold, Cross arm breaker, Seated armbar, Indian deathlock and Keylock. Karl Gotch’s students formed the original Universal Wrestling Federation (Japan) in 1984 which gave rise to shoot-style matches. The UWF movement was led by catch wrestlers and gave rise to the mixed martial arts boom in Japan. Catch wrestling forms the base of Japan’s martial art of shoot wrestling. Japanese professional wrestling and a majority of the Japanese fighters from Pancrase, Shooto and the now defunct RINGS bear links to catch wrestling. Notable mixed martial artists with traceable catch-wrestling links are numerous; among them are Kazushi Sakuraba, who trained in the UWF Snake Pit–a gym founded by catch wrestler Billy Robinson–as well as Masa Funaki and Ken Shamrock, both of whom trained under Karl Gotch and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Some other important mixed martial artists with significant ties to catch include Josh Barnett, Frank Shamrock, Kiyoshi Tamura, Ikuhisa Minowa, Karo Parisyan, and Erik Paulson. Ultimately, however, there are far too many mixed martial artists with ties to catch wrestling to compile anything resembling an exhaustive list of all such fighters. It may also be worth noting that the term no holds barred was used originally to describe the wrestling method prevalent in catch wrestling tournaments during the late 19th century wherein no wrestling holds were banned from the competition, regardless of how dangerous they might be. The term was applied to mixed martial arts matches, especially at the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The influence of catch wrestling

  • Catch wrestling is the base of many hybrid fighting systems including shoot wrestling and its derived fighting styles (e.g. Shooto, Pancrase, Shootfighting, RINGS Submission Fighting).
  • Shoot boxing heavily borrows aspects of standing submissions from catch wrestling. The CATCH point is awarded when the referee calls “CATCH” for standing submission.
  • Mitsuyo Maeda (Conde Koma) competed in catch wrestling. Maeda was the original teacher of the legendary Gracie family who eventually developed the modern fighting system of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
  • Catch wrestling was one of the formative influences of the Russian martial art of Sambo wrestling.
  • Catch wrestling based fighting is propagated in the U.S. by organizations such as Scientific Wrestling, the Lion’s Den centre run by Ken Shamrock, and the Danger Zone run by UFC Triple Crown Champion, Dan Severn. Other teachers of catch wrestling based arts include Frank Shamrock, Gene LeBell, Erik Paulson, Matt Hume,and Larry Hartsell.
  • International pioneers of mixed martial arts, like Antonio Inoki, Bruce Lee and Gene LeBell have studied catch wrestling. Their catch wrestling skills have been used in modern fighting systems and training methodologies of the arts propagated by them and their students.
  • Many professional wrestlers were influenced by the catch style. The first American champion, Frank Gotch, was a renowned wrestler. Later on, the Hart family used this style as a base for it’s unique brand of wrestling.
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About Author

Matt Bryers is owner and head instructor at the Jiu-Jitsu and Strength Academy in Cromwell, CT. Matt is a 3rd degree Kobukai Ju-Jitsu Blackbelt, certified H2H Combat Instructor, Certified Strongman Instructor and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Brown Belt / instructor. He has been training wrestling, submission grappling, Jiu-Jitsu and combat related martial arts for over 16 years. Matt is also the main strength and conditioning coach at the JSA. He is a Certified Poundstone Performance Strongman Instructor, Crossfit Strongman Certified, and certified TRX Suspension Trainer instructor. Matt has competed in many wrestling, submission grappling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, amateur strongman tournaments and a professional mixed martial arts fight. Matt’s goals are to always try to learn and improve his Jiu-Jitsu, strongman lifts, hand to hand combat, and martial arts skills. He trains regularly with his peers, students, and teachers to improve himself both as a teacher and martial artist.