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Once a carnival attraction, catch
wrestling now influences MMA.




nywhere you find bored

blue-collar men, youll
find competition. Its in
our blood. Some whittle
away their disinterest with camel racing, some with soccer, but the more
combative types box or wrestle. In
19th century Lancashire, England,
the lads who worked the local mines
oftentimes found themselves with
enough energy to wrestle for bets after a long day of grinding out coal
(try finding that in West Virginia today). In the Queens odd English, it
was called catch-as-catch-can wrestling, meaning catch any break you
can to win. Along with Irish collarand-elbow wrestling and Pehlwani
(modern Indian) wrestling, catch-ascatch-can made its way to America,
probably with some of the thousands
of immigrants who came to fight
in the U.S. Civil War in the 1880s.
So what do wrestlers do after a war
when theyre suddenly unemployed?
Join the traveling circus, of course.

Come See the Strongman

Rather than scare away tourism from
American shores, the War Between
the States attracted fighting men from
around the world for various reasons.
Joining the ranks was an easy way to
secure U.S. citizenship. For the Irish
in particular, the Civil War provided
an opportunity to learn new fighting skills they could use back in their
home country where their own Civil
War was brewing. After Robert E. Lee
surrendered, though, jobs were difficult
to find, especially as the South tried to
rebuild from a crushing defeat. Thousands of men used the combative skills
they learned as youths and joined carnivals and traveling circuses as wrestlers
and strongmen, blending their arts in a
caldron of sweat and sawdust. It was the
carnival, with all its colorful mystery,
that introduced many grappling styles
to America, including judo and jiu-jitsu.
Traveling carnivals offered cash rewards for anyone who could defeat
the carnivals own champions. It was
called catch wrestling because the local challenger would try to catch any
break he could, like the miners back in
Lancashire. In general, a pin (forcing
your opponents shoulders to the mat)
was an accepted method of victory, but
a submission was more certain, which
could be anything from a toehold to

forcing an opponent to roll onto his

back. Sometimes a choke was a submission, though they were frequently
barred depending on the wrestler and
the venue since the rules were anything
but consistent. Just as the Japanese
MMA promotion Dream allows knees
to a downed opponent and the UFC
does not, the rules of catch wrestling
differed from carnival to carnival. Generally, catch wrestling rules were more
lax than the most popular wrestling of
the dayGreco-Roman, which did not
allow holds below the waist. The term
no holds barred is credited to catch
wrestling, referring to those rare carnivals that resembled Brazilian Vale Tudo
fights that allowed everything from the
Boston crab to Forrest Griffins Kyokoshikin (see the last page in his book).
Predictably, aggressive and ambitious
men from all across the land would
travel hundreds of miles to take up the
challenge carnival wrestlers provided.
Naturally, these challengers went to
great lengths to achieve victory, so wrestlers had to prepare for anything a local hooligan could dream up. And since
submissions ended a fight quickly and
convincingly, the carnies became very
adept at them. Catch wrestlers were aggressive, and the casual onlooker might
mistake them for being unrefined and
primitive. Catch wrestling historian and
practitioner Kris Iatskevich disagrees.
The system is based on domination and pain compliance, but also on
leverage, physics, and control, says
Iatskevich. The use of pressure points

also is encouraged to set up techniques

and keep opponents on the defensive.
Catch wrestling has a wide appreciation
of body mechanics and demonstrates a
flexible and innovative mindset when
it comes to submissions. Not only does
it use the typical submissions you see
across styles, but also flows freely from
one technique to another, oftentimes
improvising submissions to better take
advantage of whatever the opponent
leaves open during a scramble. Hence the
name catch-as-catch-can wrestling.
You might be saying, That sounds
like jiu-jitsu, and you wouldnt be too
far from the truth. But there are differences. For one, the traditional catch
wrestler almost never had clothing,
such as sleeves and collars, to use to his
advantage, so his attacks focused on exposed limbs. But the big difference was
in the mentality of the catch wrestler,
who had a Patton-esque mantra of Attack, attack, attack! A catch wrestlers
greatest advantage was the offense. He
was trained to seize the initiative and
maintain it, never letting his opponent
have a moment to recover. Jiu-jitsu
tournaments reward points to the athlete who achieves and holds positional
control, so they oftentimes get to a certain position and hold their opponent
down to win a match. Catch wrestlers,
on the other hand, never stopped attacking until they won.
Its easy to see how the carnivals became the test beds for wrestling techniques, where certain methods became
tested and approved, while others got




tossed aside as impractical. But catch

wrestling wasnt solely bound to the
traveling circus. Nearly anywhere bored,
blue-collared men congregated, you
could find conflict resolved by a contest of skill, especially if it was spiced up
by the prospect of financial gain. Coal
mines, logging camps, Army bivouacs,
and farms were hotbeds of man-on-man
competition and betting.
Catch-as-catch-can matches were
some of the first modern mixed martial
arts matches, says wrestling historian
Jake Shannon. In the late 1890s when
boxer Bob Fitzsimmons challenged European wrestling champ Ernest Roeber,
Roeber took Fitzsimmons to the mat
and applied an arm lock, making Fitzsimmons quit.
By the early 1900s, catch-as-catch-can
wrestling had split off into a number of
wrestling styles, including amateur ver96


sions such as Olympic, freestyle, and folkstyle, though these styles had the dangerous submissions or hooks removed to
make it safer for competitive athletes.
Many men were able to make a decent
living off of their grappling skills, which
gave birth to the professional wrestler.

The Haggard Faces

As the sport of catch wrestling grew, so
did its legends and contests of infamy.
The legendary Mitsuyo Maeda, the man
who brought jiu-jitsu to Brazil, also was
a carnival performer who made his living traveling the world showing people
his skills, much like the originators of
catch wrestling.
Evan Lewis was an American wrestling champion between 1882 and
1919 who earned the nickname The
Strangler by perfecting the early form

of the rear naked choke. Many years

later another Lewis, this time Ed, was
a successful catch wrestler with the
nickname Strangler, a nickname that
confused historians for decades.
Mitchell Farmer Burns is alleged to have wrestled roughly 6,000
matches during his career, which he
won mostly by pin fall (forcing both
of the opponents shoulders to the
ground) or by submission. Some of
the contests, however, as noted in the
book Lifework of Farmer Burns, were
still decided by a throw. In 1893 Burns
opened a gymnasium in Rock Island,
Illinois, where he trained several hundred students as well as local Iowa
high schoolers. Iowa has long been the
proving grounds of amateur wrestling,
with hundreds of champions originating there, and Burns is credited with
starting that trend.
Ad Santel was a catch wrestler who
picked a fight with the entire judo world
in 1914 when he defeated Tokugoro
Ito with a powerful body slam and
pronounced himself the World Judo
Champion. Ito immediately returned


the favor by submitting Santel in their

next match, but the feud didnt end
there. In retaliation of Santels continued
claim to the title World Judo Champion,
judos founder, Jigoro Kano, ordered several judokas to fight Santel, but none of
them could defeat the legendary wrestler.
Finally in 1921, Santel gave up the title
in order to pursue a professional wrestling
career, which was gaining in popularity,
while traditional catch wrestling was fading into history.
Professional wrestling had a brief
moment in the sun just before World
War I. But by the 1920s, real wrestling
matches were replaced by staged contests. One reason was the inherent corruption in individual sporting events of
the time, as it was all too easy to fix a
match. Another was time restraints. Real
pro matches were too long for people to
watch. One match between Ed Lewis

and Joe Stecher went on for an extraordinary nine hours. Besides, the phony
stuff with its theatrics and acrobatics
was an easier sell than the real thing
and made more money for the promoters. Making money was the theme, just
as in the days of the carny attraction.

Keeping the Faith

By the 1940s, pro wrestling was a
commodity placed on a stage to make
money, and catch wrestling was relegated to dilapidated gyms being passed
down from one generation to the next
by a handful of enthusiastic students.
The art of the catch was being replaced
by body slams and backbreakers, but a
few hotspots kept the catch alive.
When I was about 19 years old I ran
into a professional lady wrestler who
was telling me that pro wrestlers worked

out up above the Dutchmans Bar in St.

Paul, says catch wrestling legend Billy
Wicks. I went down and met carny
guys like Crusher Bob Massey, Gene
Shredder, and Marv Watson. Billy Carlson was in the ring and this guy named
Massey said, Get in the ring with him
Wicks, and wrestle him. So I got in
there and took Billy down and pinned
him like nothing. I had an amateur
background and Billy was just a wellbuilt kid. Thats how I got started.
Wicks first teacher was Henry Kohlen,
a disciple of Farmer Burns who taught
him the value of individual training
Each wrestler has to develop skills
on their own, Wicks says. There is
wrestling and then there are wrestling
holds. You have to learn to wrestle before you can apply the holds. You know
you have three basic styles of wrestling:
lets go out there and pin the other man,
lets throw the other manwhich is basically Greco-Roman, or lets submit the
other man. So amateur wrestling is the
basic thing you need to know as far as I
am concerned.



Another catch wrestling hotspot was

Wigan, near the sports trinity site of Lancashire, England, where a moulder named
Billy Riley lived. Riley had a talent for submission wrestling and made a great deal of
money wrestling local miners and breaking
many of their arms. In 1950 Riley opened
The Snake Pit with a Spartan training regimen, a low threshold for whiners, and
no tolerance for women and children. It
would become one of catch wrestlings
greatest historical fixtures, turning out
some of the best wrestlers to ever live,
including a man who would eventually
be known as Karl Gotch.
Gotch wrestled in the 1948 Olympics
under his birth name of Charles Istaz. After eight years at The Snake Pit, perfecting
the art of the catch, he became Karl Krauser and dominated the European wrestling
scene. In 1959, he came to the United


States as Karl Gotch and quickly established his legacy as one of the greatest
true wrestlers to ever step on the mat. It
was Gotch who would use catch wrestling to sow the seeds of MMA, but not
in America.

Burgeoning Pride
Jim Miller invited Gotch to teach his
skills in Japan. Starting in 1972, Gotch
spent a decade instructing and influencing a slew of whos who in Japanese wrestling, including Antonio Inoki. In 1976,
Inoki promoted a series of mixed martial arts bouts against the champions of
other disciplines (including Muhammad
Ali), which were hugely popular and gave
him a stage to showcase some of Gotchs
favorite moves, like the sleeper hold,
cross arm breaker, seated armbar, Indian

deathlock, and keylock. Much like Wrestlemania in the 1990s, these matches
spread like wildfire in Japan.
During and after his time in Japan,
Gotch was a boon to Japanese wrestling, personally teaching many of
the greatest wrestlers there, who in
turn embraced wrestling the same way
Brazil embraced jiu-jitsu. Twelve years
after Gotch began his work in Japan,
a handful of his students formed the
original Universal Wrestling Federation and Shooto, which gave rise to
shoot-style wrestling matches and
eventually paved the way for MMA in
Japan. Catch wrestling is the base of
Japans martial art of shoot wrestling
and has found a home in an ironic case
of reverse immigration. Japanese martial arts have been exported throughout the world for centuries. Catch
wrestling is the first western martial art
to establish a following in Japan.
Everyone thinks Japanese marital arts
are so mystic, but catch wrestling had
so many more techniques, says Shooto
champion and MMA trainer Erik Paulson. We were learning the north-south
choke, the DArce choke, the anaconda
choke, and the head and arm choke, all
those way back in the 80s. Nowadays
everyone knows them and thinks they
come from MMA, but they were really
some of the basics of Shooto.
In the late 1990s, Yuko Miyato established the UWF Snake Pit in Tokyo, Japan, in order to keep the sport of real
wrestling and catch-as-catch-can alive.
The head coach was Billy Robinson, a
wrestling legend who trained at the original Snake Pit in England and who was
widely feared and respected in the wrestling community. At the UWF Snake Pit,
Robinson trained MMA legend Kazushi
Sakuraba and current top-ranked heavyweight Josh Barnett.
[Catch wrestling] is a root on the tree
of MMA, says Barnett. Catch went to
Brazil with Mitsuyo Maeda, formed the
basis of New Japan pro wrestling and later Japanese shooting through Gotch and
Robinson, and was an art based on battle testing. Its aggressive and explosive
and has a deep history throughout the
world and was my first major exposure
to submissions. I see many top amateur
wrestlers who go to BJJ gyms because
thats what they think you have to train
to learn submission. Most of the time
though, those BJJ trainers train the wrestlers in ways that are counter-productive
to a wrestlers skills and strengths.



Have you ever seen a lone
guy in a gym using the head
crank machine to build up his
neck muscles? What were your
thoughts? Did you pass him off
as silly? Legendary Iowan wrestler Farmer Burns made a living from those exercises. Burns
purposely increased his neck size
using weights and pulleys.
Burns did it to perform an extremely risky stunt at carnivals,
during which he would hang
himself to prove how strong
his neck was. Burns repeatedly
performed the stunt, subjecting
his neck to the full force of having his body dropped from the
gallows and never once got hurt.
And you thought base jumping
was scary.



Todays MMA, modern Olympic

wrestling, WWE-style pro wrestling,
and even the reality-based self-defense
system of Krav Maga are all derivative
of catch-as-catch-can, adds Shannon,
whose Web site ( is an Internet shrine to catchas-catch-can. The father of the founder
of Krav Maga, Imi Lichtenfeld, was a
carnival acrobat and wrestler who went
on to win championships in wrestling
before developing the Krav system for
the IDF. Even Frank Shamrock credits
learning his submissions from Minoru
Suzuki in Pancrase, who learned them
directly from Karl Gotch.
Back at the trinity site of catch wrestling, Billy Rileys original Snake Pit survives today as Aspull Olympic Wrestling

Club under Roy Wood, an original disciple of Riley. Were he alive today (Riley
died in 1977), Riley would be astounded
at how prominent catch wrestling has
become in the proving grounds of
MMA. Unlike many martial arts, catch
wrestling was not born out of a necessity to defend oneself. Its purpose was entertainment and conflict resolution, but
that doesnt diminish its impact on
modern fighting. In fact, catch wrestling is the basis of all submissions, and
along with Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu, and
western boxing, catch wrestling has risen to the top of the mixed martial arts
heap as one of the disciplines critical to
the success of every fighter. Makes you
want to check out a traveling circus to
see what else theyre cooking up.