Catch Wrestling – The Grappling Art That Started it All

Since the rise of the footlock game in grappling the last few years, other competitors have been looking to implement their own style of grappling, to hopefully be “the next big thing”.

One result of submission grapplers innovating and developing moves is the reinvigoration of more “old school” methods being brought back.

One of these more interesting grappling arts seeing a resurgence over the last few years is “Catch Wrestling”, also known as “Catch as Catch Can”.

What is Catch Wrestling?

Before television, video games, computers and many other distractions, local miners, ironworkers and hard-core workers would wrestle for fun after a hard day’s work. Often, these men fought for pleasure or for small bets.

Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling is the father and “parent style” of American folk wrestling and Olympic freestyle wrestling (formerly known as amateur wrestling). It is also considered the ancestor of modern professional wrestling and mixed martial arts.

In old Lancashire, the English phrase “catch-as-catch-can” was translated as “catch me if you can”. Several hundred years old, this style of wrestling was born in Lancashire, England, and was developed and refined under the British Empire (1490 – early 1900).

The British navy exposed the young men of the time to many forms of grappling from all over the world. They brought these techniques back to England, adding to the already expanding and dangerous arsenal of Catch Wrestling techniques.

Catch Wrestling’s domination in matches against other wrestling styles gained worldwide recognition in the mid-1800s. Meanwhile, it found its way to North America through immigrants and travellers from around the world and became the most popular sport in America at the turn of the 20th century.

In the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s, as part of local carnivals, the Catch Wrestlers faced all kinds of challengers in the “athletic show” where locals could have a chance to win money if they could pin or subdue the carnival wrestler.

The Wrestler had to prepare for the worst-case scenario, with an unknown opponent regularly stepping into the ring, the need for quick and aggressive submissions was a necessity.

Winning via submission was preferred, so there would be no chance for a challenger to compete if the match was stopped early. Often, a challenger would argue with a judge about whether or not he was pinned, but the submission was always clear and decisive.

Conditioning was also a major tool for a Catch Wrestler, who sometimes had to fight for several hours before winning a match. The rules of the first matches were determined by the competitors themselves and generally changed from city to city (just like mixed martial arts matches organized by various promoters), negotiations could take hours.

Often, there was no time limit at all, the winner having the best of 3 falls. Grabs and locks could be taken anywhere on the body and brutal throws were quite legal in the Lancashire style of Catch Wrestling.

There are no points for the position in Catch Wrestling, the only ways to win a match are to pin or submit your opponent using one of the many quick and aggressive hooks (or submissions).

Knocking, now known as “Tapping out”, shouting “enough” or turning their back to the floor was considered a sign of defeat. In general, throttling was not allowed unless it was agreed that the match was an “all in” contest or that there was “no holds barred”.

The term “no holds barred” was originally used to describe the method of wrestling that was prevelant in catch wrestling tournaments at the end of the 19th century where no wrestling holds were prohibited from the competition, regardless of the danger it represented.

By the late 19th century, North Americans already had a brutal,  fighting style, often referred to as “brawls” or “gouges”, where it was legal to fight, strangle, twist limbs, punch, kick, bite and even have their eyes gouged out.

The two styles merged to create the “North American Catch as Catch Can Wrestling”, one of the most aggressive fighting arts the world has ever known.

As in most similar styles, there is always a debate about which style is the best. No one’s style is better than the others, they are just different. We are all working towards the same result, but we have different ideas on how to achieve them.

BJJ vs Catch Wrestling

The risk of getting stuck is one of the biggest differences between Catch and BJJ. The guard is pretty much obsolete in Catch because if the bottom guy’s shoulders flatten, the game is over.

Coming from a style where there are no points for positions and a pin could end the game, Catch Wrestler prefers (but is not limited to) superior control.

Catch Wrestling also has a wide variety of positions, leg locks, neck cranks and throws that are not usually found in BJJ. Most people don’t know that BJJ was influenced by Catch Wrestling.

A man named Mitsuyo Maeda taught Carlos Gracie (Helio Gracie’s older brother) to fight. What most people don’t know is that Maeda perfected his system by participating in Catch-As-Catch-Can tournaments (named as “Count Koma”) at the beginning of the 20th century.

Maeda is said to have competed in more than 2,000 matches in his career and lost only two, including one at the catch-as-catch-can world championship in London (he entered the middle and heavyweight division and reached the semi-finals in two weight categories).

Masahiko Kimura also learned wrestling by working as a professional wrestler for Rikidozan in the 1950s. Later, Kimura beat Helio Gracie with the Catch Wrestling bread hold; the Double Wrist Lock (aka Kimura).

A more recent exhibition of  Catch Wrestling vs BJJ was in 2014 when former UFC competitors Josh Barnett faced Dean Lister at Metamoris, here Barnett used his Catch Wrestling style to submit Lister with a horrible chest compression technique.

Another thing that many people don’t know is that Catch Wrestling also has a long history with Judo and has strongly influenced contemporary mixed martial arts.

Judo vs Catch Wrestling

One of the first major intercultural clashes of the 20th century in martial arts, between the American wrestler Ad Santel and the Japanese Tokugoro Ito, black belt judo of the fifth degree.

The match, held in 1914, was a match between two leading representatives of their respective styles; Ad Santel was the world champion of light heavyweights in wrestling while Tokugoro Ito claimed to be the world champion in judo. Santel defeated Ito and proclaimed himself the world judo champion.

Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan’s response was fast and took the form of another challenger, Daisuke Sakai, 4th-degree black belt. Santel, however, always beat the representative of Kodokan Judo. The Kodokan tried to stop the legendary prostitute by sending men like Reijiro Nagata, a 5th-degree black belt (who was defeated by Santel by TKO).

Santel also drew with the 5th-degree black belt Hikoo Shoji.

The challenge matches finally stopped after Santel gave up the claim of being world judo champion in 1921 in order to pursue a career in full-time professional wrestling. Although Tokugoro Ito avenged his defeat against Santel with a stranglehold, setting the record between them at 1:1, Kodokan officials were unable to emulate Ito’s success.

Just as Ito was the only Japanese judoka to defeat Santel, Santel was ironically the only Western Catch Wrestler to win against Ito, who also regularly challenged fighters of other grappling styles.

MMA and Catch Wrestling

Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch were legendary wrestlers and students of Billy Riley’s Snake Pit in Wigan, England. Billy Robinson (one of the last living wrestlers of the Wigan era) was hired as head coach of the UWFI Snake Pit in Japan where he still coaches legends like Josh Barnett and Kazushi Sakuraba as well as players like Manabu Inoue and many others.

Gotch taught Catch Wrestling to professional Japanese wrestlers in the 1970s to include students such as Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Hiro Matsuda, Osamu Kido, Satoru Sayama (the legendary Tiger Mask) and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Karl Gotch’s students formed the Universal Wrestling Federation (Japan) in 1984, which resulted in shooting-style matches.

The UWF movement was led by Catch Wrestlers and gave birth to the mixed martial arts boom in Japan. Catch Wrestling is the basis of Japanese martial art of shoot wrestling.

Japanese professional wrestling and the majority of Japanese fighters from Pancrase, Shooto and Rings have links to Catch Wrestling. There are many notable MMA fighters with traceable wrestling roots; among them are Erik Paulson, Masakatsu Funaki and Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Kiyoshi Tamura, Ikuhisa Minowa, and Karo Parisyan just to name a few.

Coaches like Erik Paulson (who trained directly under some of Catch Wrestling’s greatest legends) continue to keep Catch Wrestling in the spotlight by constantly training high-level fighters in his style known as Combat Submission Wrestling (which has a solid base in Catch Wrestling).