Catch As Catch Can

Anywhere you find bored blue-collar men, you’ll find competition. It’s 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 Queen’s odd English, it was called catch-ascatch- can wrestling, meaning catch any break you can to win. Along with Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling and Pehlwani (modern Indian) wrestling, catchas- catch-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 1860s. So what do wrestlers do after a war when they’re suddenly unemployed? Join the traveling circus, of course.


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 opponent’s 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 day—Greco-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 Griffin’s 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-catchcan wrestling.”

You might be saying, “That sounds like jiu-jitsu,” and you wouldn’t 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 Pattonesque mantra of “Attack, attack, attack!” A catch wrestler’s 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.

It’s 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 wasn’t 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 manon- 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 versions 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.


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 opponent’s 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 didn’t end there. In retaliation of Santel’s continued claim to the title World Judo Champion, judo’s fou
nder, 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 popularity, while traditional catch wresskills tling 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.


By the 1940s, “pro” wrestling was a commodity placed on a stage to make money, and catch wrestling—relegated to dilapidated gyms—was 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 Dutchman’s 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. That’s how I got started.”

Wicks’ first teacher was Henry Kohlen, a disciple of Farmer Burns who taught him the value of individual training regimens.

“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: let’s go out there and pin the other man, let’s throw the other man—which is basically Greco- Roman, or let’s 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 sport’s 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 wrestling’s 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.


Jim Miller invited Gotch to teach his skills in Japan. Starting in 1972, Gotch spent a decade instructing and influencing a slew of who’s 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 Gotch’s 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 Japan’s 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 martial 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 D’Arce 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. It’s 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 that’s 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 wrestler’s skills and strengths.”

“Today’s MMA, modern Olympic wrestling, WWE-style pro wrestling, and even the reality-based self-defense system of Krav Maga are all derivative of catch-ascatch- can,” adds Shannon, whose Web site ( is an Internet shrine to catch-as-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 Riley’s 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 doesn’t 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 they’re cooking u

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