Brief History of Catch Wrestling

Sep 11, 2015 · 7 min read

(Originally Published at Snakepitusa)

In the days before television, video games, computers and many outside distractions miners and iron workers and local tough guys would wrestle as a recreation after a hard day’s work. Often these men would wrestle for fun or small side bets.

Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling is the father/”parent style” of American Folkstyle Wrestling, and Olympic Freestyle Wrestling (once commonly known as Amateur Catch as Catch Can), and is also considered the ancestor of modern professional wrestling and mixed martial arts competitions.

In old Lancashire English catch-as-catch-can was translated to “catch me if you can.” Hundreds of years old, it originated in Lancashire England and was developed and refined during the British Empire (1490’s — early 1900’s). The British Navy exposed the young men of their day to many forms of grappling from around the world. They brought these techniques back to England adding to the already expanding, dangerous arsenal of Catch Wrestling submissions.

Its dominance in matches against other wrestling styles gained world-wide notoriety around the mid 1800’s. During this same time it found its way to North America via immigrants and world travelers and became the top sport in America by the turn of the 20th century.

In the late 1800’s and early to mid 1900’s as part of local carnivals, Catch Wrestlers would take on all challengers as part of the “athletic show” where locals could stand a chance to win cash if they could pin or submit the carnivals wrestler. The Catch Wrestler had to prepare for the worst case scenario with the unknown opponent stepping into the ring on a regular basis, so the need for quick and aggressive submissions were a necessity. Submission wins were preferred so there would be no chance for a challenger to argue if the match was stopped prematurely. Often a challenger would argue with a referee over whether or not he was pinned, but a submission was always clear and decisive.

Conditioning was also a major weapon for a Catch Wrestler, who would sometimes have to wrestle for several hours before winning a match. The rules of the early matches were determined by the players themselves and would usually change from city to city (just like mixed martial arts matches do from various promoters), negotiations could take forever. Often times there were no time limits at all, with the winner having the best of 3 falls. Holds and locks could be taken anywhere on the body and brutal throws were completely legal in the Lancashire style of Catch Wrestling.

There are no points for position in Catch Wrestling, the only ways to win a match are to pin or submit your opponent using one of the many fast and aggressive hooks (or submissions). Knocking known nowadays as “Taping out, ” yelling “enough” or rolling to ones back were considered a sign of defeat. Generally chokes were not permitted unless the match was agreed upon as being an “all in” contest or “no holds barred”.

The term no holds barred was originally used 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. By the late 19th century, the North Americans already had a brutal rough and tumble style of fighting often referred to as “brawling” or “gouging”, where grappling, strangling, limb twisting, head butting, punching, kicking, biting and even eye gouging were legal. The two styles merged giving birth to the more aggressive “North American Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling,” one of the most lethal fighting arts the world has ever known.

As in most similar styles there is always the debate over which style is best. No particular style is better than the other, they are just different. We are all working for the same result but have different thoughts on how to attain them.

There are many differences between Catch and BJJ; Catch wrestling is known for being a brutal and aggressive style based on physics, leverage, control, and athleticism and Jujitsu translates to the gentle art. The BJJ practitioner is generally very methodical, working for the perfect position then going for the submission, whereas the Catch wrestler usually moves at a very fast and aggressive pace and is focused on controlling his opponent, making him react to certain movements and ultimately ending the match with a quick submission.

The chance of being pinned 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 go flat the match is over. Coming from a style where there are no points for positions and a pin could end the match, the Catch Wrestler prefers (but is not limited to) top control. Catch wrestling also has a wide variety of positions, leg locks, neck cranks and throws not usually found in BJJ. Most people aren’t aware that BJJ was actually influenced by Catch Wrestling.

A man by the name of Mitsuyo Maeda taught Carlos Gracie (older brother of Helio Gracie) to fight. What most do not know is that Maeda perfected his system competing in Catch-As-Catch-Can tournaments (as “Count Koma”) at the turn of the 20th Century. Maeda is rumored to have fought over 2,000 matches in his career and he only lost two matches one of which was in the “catch-as-catch-can” world championships held in London (he entered in both the middleweight and heavyweight divisions and advanced to the semi-finals in two weight classes) Another grappler Masahiko Kimura learned legitimate Catch-As-Catch-Can while working as a Professional Wrestler for Rikidozan in the early 1950s. Later Kimura would go on to beat Helio Gracie with the bread and butter hold of Catch Wrestling; the Double Wrist Lock (AKA Kimura). Another thing many people don’t know is that Catch wrestling has also had a long history with Judo and has heavily influenced today’s Mixed Martial Arts.

Catch Wrestling and Judo

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 styles; 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 finally 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 fighters from other grappling styles.

Catch Wrestling and MMA

Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch were legendary catch wrestlers and students of Billy Riley’s Snake Pit in Wigan England. Billy Robinson (one of the last living catch wrestlers from the Wigan days) was hired as the head coach of the UWFI Snake Pit in Japan where he still trains legends like Josh Barnett, and Kazushi Sakuraba as well as up and comers like Manabu Inoue and several others. Gotch taught Catch Wrestling to Japanese professional wrestlers in the 1970’s 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 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 Rings bear links to Catch Wrestling. There are many notable MMA fighters with traceable catch-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 has trained directly under some of Catch Wrestling’s greatest legends) continue to keep Catch Wrestling in the spotlight by constantly training top-level fighters in his style known as; Combat Submission Wrestling (which has a strong Catch Wrestling base). Thanks to these coaches, competitors and websites like Catch Wrestling is finally getting the respect it deserves and making its way back into the mainstream.


Written by

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Luta-Livre & Judo enthusiast. Non-competitive.

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