Catch wrestling

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Catch wrestling is a style of wrestling. Catch wrestling is arguably the ancestor of modern grappling, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts and no-holds-barred competition. Catch wrestling’s origins lie in a variety of styles, Asia (e.g. pehlwani). ‘Collar-and-elbow’ refers to the initial hold of the wrestlers. 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 American 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.

Rough and tumble fighting was the original American no holds barred (real no rules) underground hybrid “sport” that had but one rule – you win by knocking the man out or making him say “enough.” All techniques were allowed (eye gouging, groin clawing, hair pulling, biting, scratching and pressuring). Later when the Lancashire wrestling style made it to the US and was blended with the “rough and tumble” mentality, and the gambling involved, the very aggressive American catch-as-catch-can style of wrestling emerged and created some of the most outstanding grapplers in the world. Much of today’s MMA fighting concepts can be traced to these early “shooters.”

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, and Teddy Roosevelt (who appointed catch wrestling champion Tom Jenkins to the position of Head Wrestling coach at the United States 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, Bulgarian world heavyweight champion Dan Kolov, Swiss champion John Lemm, Americans Frank Gotch, Ralph Parcaut, 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 Jiu-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.

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 proclaimed himself 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 hooker by sending men like 5th degree black belt Reijiro Nagata (who Santel defeated 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 traveled 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.

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 chokehold was barred.