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Catch-As-Catch-Can and the Roots of Mixed Martial Arts, Pro Wrestling, and Modern Grappling
By Jake Shannon, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2011 Jake Shannon
All rights reserved.
A HISTORY OF CATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN
THERE HAS BEEN WRESTLING IN some form or another as far back as recorded history goes. The walls of the Egyptian temple tombs of Beni Hasan, near the Nile, are painted with hundreds of wrestling scenes that illustrate a great number of the holds and falls known today. Wrestling was a very important branch of athletics in ancient Greek games. In fact, it formed the chief event of the pentathlon. There were two basic types of Greek wrestling—upright wrestling, which was most common, and lucta volutatoria, which took place after the takedown and continued until one of the contestants conceded to the other. Greek upright wrestling was not unlike modern Greco-Roman wrestling; however, three falls out of five decided the winner of the match. The upright wresting was also employed in pankration, a brutal combination of boxing and wrestling similar to today's mixed martial arts contests. No holds were barred.
Both the Saxons and the Celts adored grappling, and English literature abounds with references to it. King Henry VIII was known to have been an especially powerful wrestler.
The Americas have a strong wrestling heritage that predates European colonization. Native American tribes had been wrestling for hundreds of years before settlers arrived, in a style somewhat similar to judo. The Native American wrestler won by throwing his opponent, rather than by pinfall, as we see in modern wrestling.
In the fledgling United States, President George Washington was renowned in colonial Virginia for his prowess in the Cumberland-and-Westmoreland wrestling style. Abraham Lincoln was legendary in rural Illinois for his long string of victories in the collar-and-elbow style of wrestling (developed in the New England farming country). American colonial and frontier wrestlers practiced styles derived from English wrestling. The three major styles were named after the English counties where they were developed: Cumberland and Westmoreland, Cornwall and Devonshire, and Lancashire. The Cumberland-and-Westmoreland style was a Greco-Roman-like style and the aim was to throw the opponent while maintaining a solid over/under hold. The Cornwall-and-Devonshire-style wrestlers wore jackets not unlike those worn for judo and jujitsu, and they were allowed to grab onto these harnesses. Early forms of Cornwall-and-Devonshire were exceptionally brutal and allowed combatants to wear boots reinforced with steel toes and soles, which they used to kick each other until one man gave up. The last, Lancashire catch-as-catch-can, was loosely based on Greek pankration and is the forerunner of modern freestyle amateur wrestling, mixed martial arts, and even staged pro wrestling.
Though some speculate it began in Ireland, the precise beginnings of catch-as-catch-can wrestling are not really known. The first recorded matches contested under its rules—submission or pin wins the match; best two of three falls with a win, lose, or draw format; and no points—began appearing in the English county of Lancashire at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The name "catch-as-catch-can" is a Lancashire phrase that simply means "catch me if you can." The men were tough—wrestling each other on gravel after a long day spent working in a coal mine—and often wrestled for money, putting side bets on their matches. Eventually, some of these men earned enough money from these side bets to make a living from wrestling alone, and so the modern professional competitive wrestler was born.
As the sport of catch-as-catch-can grew in popularity, it followed immigrants from England and the rest of Western Europe to the United States. As a true workman's sport that required little, if any, expensive equipment, catch wrestling spread like wildfire among the bored soldiers of the American Civil War. By the end of the 19th century, Americans were so enamored of catch-as-catch-can that contests attracted large paying crowds and championships and titles were instated.
The first big wrestling celebrity in America was Evan "The Strangler" Lewis (not to be confused with the later champion Ed "Strangler" Lewis). He was notorious for using the strangle hold to win his matches. The strangle wasn't always an illegal maneuver, but it eventually fell out of public favor as a result of its frequent use. The popularity of catch-as-catch-can wrestling grew over the decades, eventually generating millions of dollars. Predictably, with the money came corruption. Greed led the promoters and competitors of the day to fix fights. This ultimately led to a crisis of confidence, and professional wrestling stopped being a competitive sport and became the performance art we see on television today.
However, there were those who kept the sport of catch-as-catch-can alive. In the United States, prior to television and amusement parks, traveling carnivals were a popular form of entertainment. These carnivals often employed wrestlers who would take on all comers. Since carnival wrestlers didn't know whom they would be facing day to day, they needed to know how to wrestle and protect themselves legitimately. Fortunately, some carnival wrestlers, men like Dick Cardinal and Billy Wicks, kept the little-known techniques alive and taught them to new generations of wrestlers.
Carnival wrestlers were not the only ones who had an interest in keeping catch wrestling alive, though. There were professional wrestlers trained in the Lancashire birthplace of catch-as-catch-can, in Wigan, a town in Greater Manchester, in northwestern England. Two of the most outstanding athletes from there (and I am lucky to say I call them "friend") are Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch. They aren't just the most influential wrestlers to have trained in Wigan, they are arguably the most influential of the catch-as-catch-can men of their era. Their efforts to keep competitive catch-as-catch-can alive culminated in the very first and largest modern mixed martial arts promotion.
THE INFLUENCE OF CATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN ON MIXED MARTIAL ARTS
Mixed martial arts competitions, for the few who may not be familiar with the sport, give martial artists from different traditions and backgrounds the opportunity to test their strengths in competition. It allows striking and grappling, both while standing and when on the mat. However, what you may not know is that the first modern match between a striker and a grappler happened all the way back in 1887, between heavyweight boxing champion of the world John L. Sullivan and Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon. It ended with Sullivan being slammed to the mat and incapacitated. The next big mixed match of this kind took place 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. In 1936, heavyweight boxer Kingfish Levinsky challenged professional wrestler Ray Steele in a mixed match that saw Steele win in just 35 seconds.
They were all proving a point, which casual MMA fans might have thought started with Royce Gracie in the early 1990s: grappling is a powerful form of martial arts. However, serious students of Western combat sports know that catch-as-catch-can men were twisting up their opponents like balloon animals decades before Gracie jujitsu was even a twinkle in Carlos or Helio Gracie's eye. Karl Gotch learned catch-as-catch-can submission maneuvers from old-timers like Billy Riley and Joe Robinson at the Snake Pit gym in Wigan, England, and from Americans like Frank Wolf, Ben Sherman, and Ed Lewis. These men learned from the generation before them. Karl Gotch would later go on to influence the generation of Japanese fighters that would start the very first mixed martial arts promotions. Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Masakatsu Funaki, and Minoru Suzuki all learned the methods and techniques of catch-as-catch-can directly from Karl Gotch. They, in turn, influenced the styles of many American MMA champions, such as Ken and Frank Shamrock.
More than 10 years Karl's junior, Billy Robinson, another dangerous wrestler from the Snake Pit gym, would go on to become perhaps the most successful catch-as-catch-can trainer in MMA history. The legendary fighter Kazushi Sakuraba, known widely in Japan as the "IQ Fighter" and the "Gracie Hunter," credits Billy Robinson as being the trainer who most influenced his incredible submission grappling skills. Robinson has also taken king of Pancrase and the youngest UFC heavyweight champion in history Josh Barnett, a winner of numerous submission grappling tournaments, under his wing. Barnett wins his MMA fights with submissions, like the toehold, which have traditionally been associated with competitive catch-as-catch-can wrestling matches from the early 20th century. Most recently, Robinson's coaching and insights into submission grappling have been sought out by legendary UFC hall of famer Randy Couture and his head grappling coach, Neil Melanson (whose first exposure to catch-as-catch-can came from the teachings of Gene LeBell).
For many, modern MMA began in 1993, with Ultimate Fighting Championship, an MMA promotions company based in the United States. The very first UFC tournament gave wide exposure to the power of submission grappling, when Royce Gracie subdued three challenges within just five minutes. However, this was not the first mixed-styles match of its kind, not even for the Gracie family. Royce's father tangled and drew with catch-as-catch-can men Fred Ebert and Wladek Zbysko decades earlier.
The jujitsu/catch-as-catch-can rivalry goes back to even before the Gracie family got involved. Mitsuyo Maeda, the man who (under the moniker Count Koma) introduced jujitsu to the Gracie clan in Brazil, is said to have honed his personal combative style while competing in catch-as-catch-can wrestling tournaments at the turn of the last century. It was during this time that Maeda perfected his unorthodox method of fighting while lying on his back. However, in the mid-1990s, while catchas-catch-can was languishing in obscurity in the United States, the Gracie style of jujitsu was gaining popularity due to new fighting promotions and clever booking strategies created to showcase the Brazilian martial art. However, nearly a month before the cage doors slammed shut in McNichols Arena for the first Ultimate Fighting Championship on November 12, 1993, Pancrase: Hybrid Wrestling held the first modern MMA matches in Tokyo Bay NK Hall on September 21, 1993.
The promoters of this new Japanese style were none other than Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, men who had learned their submission wrestling methods from both Yoshiaki Fujiwara (a tough collegiate judoka, catch-as-catch-can wrestler, and the man Antonio Inoki chose to corner him in his infamous Ali fight) and Fujiwara's guru, Karl Gotch. Unfortunately, with Pancrase fighters Ken Shamrock and Masakatsu Funaki eventually losing at the hands of Gracie fighters via chokes, it became clear that modern catch-as-catch-can men needed to cross-train in other martial arts to remain viable. These catch wrestlers learned about the importance of throat submissions the hard way in early MMA competitions—both how to apply them and how to defend against them. Ironically, nearly a century earlier, in Book 12 of Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture, catch-as-catch-can icon Martin "Farmer" Burns warns wrestlers about strangle holds: "In my opinion there is very little in the so-called Jiu-Jitsu teaching that is not included in a full and complete knowledge of catch-as-catch-can wrestling. There are, of course, a few holds and defenses, such as the throttle hold, the strangle hold, etc., that are not used in wrestling, yet these holds are generally understood by the thoroughly trained wrestler."
He goes on to say, "The reason that Jiu-Jitsu has been so much overrated is because the subject has been advertised and the special holds emphasized, while as a matter of fact there is very little new in the subject for anyone that has made a study of Physical Culture, Wrestling and American Self-Defense."
It didn't take catch-as-catch-can wrestlers long to adapt to the demands of mixed martial arts and Brazilian jujitsu. While working for the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFI) promotion in Japan, Kazushi Sakuraba, a Japanese pro wrestler trained in catch-as-catch-can wrestling by Billy Robinson, soon cut through the top jujitsu players. Those that Sakuraba went on to soundly defeat read like a "who's who" of Brazilian jujitsu black belts and MMA fighters at the time: Marcus Silviera, Vitor Belfort, Royler Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Ryan Gracie, and Royce Gracie. This earned him the nickname the "Gracie Hunter" and put catch-as-catch-can squarely back on the map. Sakuraba's other nickname, the "IQ Fighter," epitomized Billy Robinson's assertion that catch-as-catch-can wrestling is akin to "physical chess" and Karl Gotch's maxim of "adapt and improvise."
Bruce Lee, who popularized the idea of combining the elements of multiple martial arts in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, believed that the best fighter was not a boxer nor a karate or judo man but someone who could adapt to any style. By adapting and improvising, catch-as-catch-can wrestling–based fighters went from being strangled by the jujitsu man's uniform (in Ken Shamrock versus Royce Gracie) to using it against them (in Sakuraba's later match against Royce). The old matches often had strangles, but the holds could be barred during match making, so as to adapt catch-as-catch-can to the modern MMA arena.
THE INFLUENCE OF CATCH-AS-CATCH-CAN ON PRO WRESTLING
American professional wrestling hasn't always looked like the McMahon family's choreographed melodrama, seen on television Monday and Friday nights. As late as the early 20th century, many matches were legitimate contests. And for the contestants of that era, wrestling was not just a sport but a science, a means of attaining superior physical fitness and a brutally efficient form of self-defense. For people like Martin "Farmer" Burns, Tom Jenkins, George Hackenschmidt, Frank Gotch, Charley Cutler, Eugene Tremblay, Joe Stecher, Waino Ketonen, Ed Lewis, and Henry Kolln, it was a way of life.
As such, sometimes the athletes forgot that the paying crowds were just as important as who won the match. For example, in a legitimate contest on July 4th, 1916, in Omaha, Nebraska, Joe Stecher and a young Ed Lewis grappled for five hours during match that, by all accounts, was excruciatingly boring. While "works" (match fixing) had always been a part of professional sports, wrestling at the time took fixing matches to an entirely different level.
However, wrestling promoters soon realized that scripted matches with predetermined outcomes were far more profitable and generated revenue streams that were far more reliable than those associated with legitimate catch-as-catch-can contests. To exert control over any wrestler who might "shoot" (and win a match that the promoters didn't want him to win), the promoters cartelized and were thereby able to blacklist any competitive wrestler who rebelled. And so, straight contests gave way to "worked" performances, not unlike those we see on TV today. The public only caught on when sportswriters of the day busted the promoters' scam by leaking the results of these fixed contests well before they were actually held. This drove authentic competitive catch-as-catch-can wrestling in the United States underground. Interestingly enough, the rules you see on today's televised "sports entertainment" still reflect the old catch-as-catch-can rules, where a pin or submission may win the contest.
Excerpted from Say Uncle! by Jake Shannon, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2011 Jake Shannon. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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