Catch Wrestling

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.

In the late 19th century, traveling carnivals peppered the American countryside. These were the days before television or radio, days when the carnivals were a primary source of  entertainment, particularly in the heartland. As part of their attraction, many carnivals featured “athletic shows,” where prize fighters and wrestlers would take on all-comers for cash. Athletic shows, therefore, were not only a source of entertainment — but also a way for the locals to interact with the performers, testing their own skills against the skills of these itinerant tough men,  perhaps even winning some money to go along with bragging rights.

In their earliest stages, athletic show wrestling competition rules were offshoots of traditional wrestling rules, with each person trying only to pin the other. But as time went on, locals became more ruthless, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear stories of a local trying to gouge out a wrestler’s eyes during a challenge match. In addition, disputes often arose as to whether a person was actually pinned (not surprising considering money was on the line), and whether the referees were calling the matches fairly. The traveling wrestlers developed concession holds, or “hooks,“ both to protect themselves from injury and to eliminate any doubt as to who was victor. The wrestlers would stretch and crank their opponents, making them shout a loud concession of “uncle.”

As time passed the men became even more skillful at hooking. The rules of the challenge matches were often tipped to favor the local challengers — a way of giving a handicap or odds to the amateurs. Depending on the carnival or match, the wrestler could lose a match by being hooked, pinned, or even simply thrown or taken down. Thus, in order to survive, hookers became extremely proficient at controlling and hooking their opponents and defending against all methods of attack.

Under the most narrow of rules, wrestlers would lose matches if they failed to defeat their opponents within a certain time. Consequently, not only were these men becoming masters of wrestling, control, and hooks — but they were likewise fine-tuning skills that would allow them to execute their technique quickly and with icy efficiency.

Men such as Martin “Farmer” Burns, Frank Gotch, John Pesek, Ed “Strangler” Lewis , Ray Steele, and many others  made their bones as carnival wrestlers. And this is a piece of Americana that we should never forget.

But American Catch Wrestling is not, as some have suggested, a moribund art simply because of its historic pedigree. The name “catch,” in fact, is indicative of the discipline’s philosophy: catch any hold you can. As new holds develop, these holds are incorporated into the American Catch repertoire using the time tested principles of control, offensive movement, exacting technique, and keeping an opponent in an uncomfortable position.

Those who claim to be teaching catch wrestling — but who do so as if it were a tribute art or some nostalgic relic of a bygone era — are giving you museum show pieces, and are doing a disservice to the spirit of catch wrestling. American Catch Wrestling the way it SHOULD be taught is dynamic and adaptable. The principles remain the same, sure. But that is because the principles themselves are sound enough to adapt to changes in the submission grappling canon. Which means that for every innovative measure — say, for instance, the introduction of the rubber guard or x-guard — American catch develops a ready counter, using nothing more than the basic principles that have long remained at the heart of the discipline.

More, those who teach any submission grappling art or fighting system without stressing the necessity of physical conditioning — including a concentration on strength — are doing a disservice to those they train: there are no magic bullets or gimmicks in American Catch Wrestling. Practitioners are in top physical condition: they are taught to train their bodies to absorb rips; to strengthen tendons; to increase the strength of their necks and grips; and to drill the basics in ways that enable them to move quickly and fluidly on their feet and all the way through their striking, hand fighting, take downs and take down defense, transitions, and ground games. So it should be no surprise that included in the American Catch Wrestling Hooking Instructional Series are a number of increasingly advanced fitness routines designed specifically around the physical challenges catch presents.

This is the story of Catch-As-Catch-Can wrestling, or Catch Wrestling. From an offshoot of traditional wrestling burgeoned an art of well-developed submission technique, executed quickly and efficiently, against any and all challengers.

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 me if 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).

The philosophy of American Catch’s is unlike that of any other grappling art. It is not simply meshing submissions into amateur wrestling — though it does stress the importance of wrestling basics. Still, American Catch is a self-contained system and a martial art form in and of itself:    There are no points, and the emphasis is put on control and submission at all times and from any position imaginable.  In the often frantic and scrambling chaos of a street fight, there is no assurance that you can work out of a comfortable position from which to launch submissions.   But what you CAN do is control the relative position of the encounter, deciding whether to keep the fight on the feet or take it to the ground.  And a body controlled is a body that is open for all sorts of rips, strikes, and submissions — even when conventional wisdom suggests that your opponent is in the more dominant position.

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.

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, 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.

Some people aren’t comfortable fighting from their backs. Some people are. Everyone is different. Catch teaches you that controlling your opponent is much, much different than simply having a particular position on him. You can be submitted by a man who has a “inferior position” if you lack the proper control. The style of American Catch is geared towards aggressively seeking an end to the encounter. You will NEVER hear the words, “that’s against the rules” or “that’s dirty” coming from a Catch Wrestler. The term No-Holds-Barred was coined for Catch-As-Catch-Can matches over 100 years ago. It means literally that….no hold is barred….catch any hold you can.  American catch wrestling as a reality-based martial art maintains that mindset and trains for that contingency.

American Catch is different because it is a complete submission wrestling style that focuses equally on the stand-up and ground components of striking and wrestling. It employs fishhooks, elbowing, gouging, all manner of striking…literally anything that will facilitate the desired finish. Each move is designed to get you closer to ending the fight, not just to gaining the better position.   It is about control and domination. That is the beauty of the style. It is savage.  It is organic.   It is Catch-As-Catch-Can.