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A Brief History of Catch Wrestling

olympic wrestling

A history of the predecessor to modern day professional wrestling and mixed martial arts.

Catch wrestling, also known as catch-as-catch-can, hooking, loose-hold, shoot wrestling, strong style, Lancashire wrestling, is a British grappling style, a hybrid fighting style developed by mixing and matching the British folk wrestling styles, and added spice from the rest of the world. This style serves as a predecessor to many modern-day sports such as freestyle wrestling, mixed martial arts, and entertainment spectacles like professional wrestling. (In case you don’t know what pro-wrestling is, basically, it is what you see on the WWE. They call it sports entertainment, since wrestling is a banned word in the WWE.)

The reason why I wanted to write this article is because the history of martial arts fascinates me, and I have already written a history on the world championship of chess, and given I have written an article on an intellectual sport; might as well write another article on a fighting style. Not to mention, there is a relation between chess and catch wrestling, which I’ll cover later in this article.

So, let’s go down the history lane, and learn about catch wrestling!

Early history: the inventors, sailors, and rules:

Many a fighting style has a founder. If you go to Chinese martial arts, there are sects or some specific people in certain eras credited with developing those styles. In the case of catch wrestling, however, there is no one inventor. Though some people like to credit John Graham Chambers for inventing catch wrestling, the reality is that he only gave it the name of Catch-as-catch-can. The reasons why he can’t be the inventor of catch wrestling boils down to two specific ones. First, the wrestling style is older. The matches were conducted before he was even born. Second, the rules he proposed proved to be unpopular, such as losing when you fall to the ground, or being allowed to wrestle on all fours.

But his name proved to be popular, so the name Catch-as-catch-can or catch wrestling stuck.

Catch wrestling didn’t have any rules. Most of the time, people working in mines and carnivals took on all comers, where they agreed to the rules on match-by-match bases. The rules of a match were more than how to decide a win or loss. It was also agreed upon the allowed holds, and the matches which allowed every hold; they were called no-holds-bard. If you have come across the phrase “No-holds-bard-beatdown”, then it is likely it came from catch wrestling.

Over time, though, some general rules emerged. Such as pinning, where you have to pin your opponent’s shoulder to the ground for a second, and verbal acceptance of defeat. If a player shouted “I quit!” or “Uncle!” They lost the match. The submissions could be used to either make your opponent quit, or force them into the pinning position by the threat of pain. While private matches heavily relied on submissions to decide the winners and losers, because submissions are harder to dispute compared to pins, the amateur league matches utilized pins.

As I mentioned in the introduction, there is some added spice to catch wrestling. I was referring to other techniques brought from the outside of Britain. Who did this? The British sailors did that. Wherever they landed, they fought with locals, and they brought their techniques to Britain, where other wrestlers adapted them. One such style is pehlwani from India, developed in the Mughal empire by combining Persian wrestling, and Indian fighting style called malla-yuddha.

Peak period: late 1880s to 1910s.

In 1879, the British champion Edwin Bibby immigrated to United States, and two years later, beat Duncan C. Ross to become the American champion. The following year, he lost the title to another British wrestler, Joseph “Limey Joe” Acton. Both of these wrestlers are credited with introducing catch wrestling in United States. Acton held the title for several years, until Evan “Strangler” Lewis defeated him in 1887.

By this point, the American carnivals adapted this style of grappling, and strong man challenges were held in these carnivals, similar to the one which you see in the Spider Man film. In such challenges, the carnivals offered a certain amount of money to anyone from the crowd who can hang out with their fighter. but naturally, this was made outright impossible, since the guy you will square with is a vicious fighter, and he also has his own buddies around, ready to help him. During this time, code-words were developed, which came to be known as carny-speak. Some of the words were:

Kayfabe: a rigged contest, things are not real.

Hooker / shooter: these were the terms given to the wrestlers who were good with handling themselves in real fights, and had the capabilities to cripple anyone who does not cooperate.

Heel and face: these terms developed later, when stories were incorporated into wrestling matches. Heels are villains, faces are heroes.

If you wish to know more about this glossary, then read this article on Wikipedia.

Evan Lewis dominated for the remainder of the 19th century, but he retired in 1899. During his career, he unified the American championship with other titles, and created the world championship. He lost this title to Martin Burns, also known as Farmer Burns, in 1895. Though Farmer Burns lost the title in 1897, he continues to be influential, training many people in catch wrestling, most popularly Frank Gotch.

Meanwhile, Olympics were having its own developments. Aside from the Greeco-Roman style of wrestling, catch wrestling was included in the Olympics of 1904, but without any submissions. By the time of 1921, this style of wrestling was separated from catch wrestling, and it came to be known as freestyle wrestling. This was done to distance wrestling from the rise of professional wrestling, since catch wrestling lost its reputation because of professional wrestling.

But the 1900s saw a massive rivalry between George Hackenschmidt, the Greeco-Roman wrestler from Europe, and Frank Gotch, the American catch wrestler, trained by Martin “Farmer” Burns. Frank beat George twice, and it increased his popularity a lot, making him an international celebrity. His matches were also booked like the champions of modern day fighters. While other wrestlers claim that they fought in thousands of matches, Frank only fought in a little more than 100 matches.

Though it is stated that the contests of this time were real, the matches these two had are also doubted for their fixed nature. After Frank Gotch retired in 1913, new wrestlers started to take the place of the older wrestlers, and this is where the rise of professional wrestling began.

Decline of catch, and rise of professional wrestling (1910s and 1950s.):

By this time, Gotch and his generation had started to retire, and younger wrestlers had started to replace them. The public interest in wrestling, however, started to fall. People don’t seem to have any interest in bouts of catch wrestling, which can go on for hours. And this is true for worked (fixed) and legitimate matches. One of the rising stars was Ed “Strangler” Lewis. He named himself after Evan Lewis, the wrestler who dominated in the 1890s, and partly to make sure that his parents didn’t find out that he was wrestling.

He also had a rival named Joe Stecher, who was the rival of Lewis in and out of the ring. Ed won his first world championship in 1920, after pinning Joe Stecher. This was the same championship which was once held by Frank Gotch a decade earlier. But now, the rules of the game have changed. Bouts were fixed, and along with his manager Billy Sando, Ed Lewis started the first traveling professional wrestling road show, serving as a precursor to modern wrestling promotions. Around this time, the storylines came into heavy use, where wrestlers created “Feuds” with each other.

However, the championship was always held by the wrestler who had legitimate skills, and could defend himself if need be. This was very important to keep the credibility of the champion in the public’s eye. If a champion lost to someone who veered off the script, this would end up creating a nightmare for the promotion, since the other guy could present himself as a champion. Ed and Billy also employed John Pesek as a policeman, who handled anyone who could cause trouble for them, either through a fowl, or through actual debilitating holds.

Ed Lewis also influenced future wrestling. He trained Lou Thesz, who became the National Wrestling Alliance’s second champion, after the first champion had to drop the title. Just like his mentor, Thesz had actual skills in catch wrestling, this was why he was allowed to keep the title for a long period of time. The NWA used his skills well for unifying various titles with their belt, unifying the original world championship of Gotch with their NWA heavyweight championship title in 1957.

This also started to decline however, as the promotions moved on, they needed less and less tough guys to hold on to their championships. Granted, chances of being crossed were still high, but the threat which was present in the past when each time the champion went on the ring was considerably less than 1930s or 1950s. People were also not interested in seeing the technical wrestling, the exchange of holds, or playing with the crowd. If you look at this match between Buddy Rogers and Lou Thesz, for example, you’ll notice how much they played with the crowd, and how long the match went on for. Television also changed this, since matches on the TV had time limits.

This was also true in Europe. Though catch wrestling was popular in the late 70s and early 80s, the promotion in the Germany, called Catch Wrestling Association, closed its doors in the late 90s. Of course, matches were not conducted as legitimate contests here, everything was fixed, but it was just served with the old school catch wrestling flavor.

Ed Lewis went on to teach another important person, who influenced mixed martial arts. That being Gene LeBell. Not only did he fought in his first MMA match in the 1960s, but he also went on to train other martial artists, and was seen in the corner of Ronda Rousey when she fought in the UFC. With his death on August 9 2022, Lewis’s legacy ended, since Lou Thesz died in 2002.

What about Britain?

Britain has a training club called Snake Pit. It trained wrestlers like Billy Robinson, and Karl Gotch. Both of these ended up turning to pro-wrestling, since there was no opportunity to make money with their skills. Billy went to United States, and Karl went to Japan, where he trained many Japanese fighters, directly influencing modern-day professional wrestling and mixed martial arts in Japan.

Though the original Snake Pit closed in the 1970s, it was restarted in the same town of Wigan, though the location was shifted. Many people go there to learn submission wrestling, whether they be MMA fighters, or even freestyle wrestlers.

My personal thoughts:

I’m very fascinated with this style, especially since it actually embraces the brutality present within its philosophy and techniques. Whereas Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters are happy to be on their back, catch wrestlers do not like to be on the back, since it means a pin. They also like to keep on top, make the opponent carry their weight, and they use the nasty attacks like neck cranks, spinal locks, and leg locks to control their opponent.

Other thing which I like is the strategy in the physical struggle. Remember, I stated that catch wrestling and chess has a connection? I was referring to this. The catch wrestlers like to call it physical chess, since they have to think strategically about their next move in the fight, while calculating their opponent’s moves, all the while giving them enough room to make sure that they can get a victory by either submission or pin.

This is similar to chess players always giving the king a legal way out, until they can amass the necessary resources to put the king in check. If they don’t do this, the game will end in a stalemate, where the king does not have any legal moves, but it is also cannot be checkmated.

But this style is struggling in the modern time, and there are a few reasons for it.

The other grappling martial arts have replaced it in the public mind, people are familiar with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), or Judo. But they do not know anything about the catch wrestling. It also lacks effective marketing strategies like the belts which are assigned in the BJJ and Judo when the person who is learning them progresses.

Professional wrestling is also a big obstacle. Even the Olympic style wrestling is confused with WWE nowadays. I have to clarify that I’m talking about actual wrestling, not professional wrestling, when I’m talking with other people, and I do mention anything about wrestling.

The old generation of wrestlers are dead, without transferring their knowledge. This I believe is a bigger blow to the style over all, than anything else I’ve mentioned above. Because a lot of the knowledge they had, most of them did not share that in a book. Some of them did created courses, but this cannot replace the on-person training.

Apart from these reasons, catch wrestling’s modern revival in the United States have some controversy with the founder of Scientific Wrestling, and Tony Cecchine. You can read the blog posts written about that controversy.

Sources:

Surprisingly, when I wrote the article on chess world championships history, I didn’t need many sources. Wikipedia was a nice enough source for it, and apart from a documentary, and a few videos of Gothem Chess, I didn’t need anything else.

But here, I have an absolute pile of them. first, the Wikipedia article on catch wrestling. Then the books written by Billy Robinson and Lou Thesz, called Physical Chess and Hooker, respectively, which are biographies of these two wrestlers, respectively. Then this article from Grappling School discusses who invented catch wrestling. Another biography, this time about Evan Lewis, giving a glimpse of the time in late 1880s, and early 1890s. These cover the time from early modern history to the rise and decline of professional wrestling. Finally, the Wikipedia article of Gene LeBell.

Then there are these two articles, about Frank and George’s match, and the last legitimate match between the policeman John Pesek and a wrestler from Olympics.

Thanks for reading this article. you can follow me on Twitter, and buy me a coffee to support me, if you like my articles.

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Published by Tanish Shrivastava

I'm a guy who likes programming, chess, and writing.

6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Catch Wrestling

  1. Very interesting write-up, although I think I’ll actually be playing chess before I engage in any of these sports! I bet Stuart Danker would be interested in this, he did or does some type of fighting sport.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. He does Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And yes, most of us are not suited to fight like this. But these fighters are also not suited to live like us. It’ll be like putting a tie and suit on a tiger, and putting it on a reception desk.

      Sooner or later it’ll snap, and many people will pay the price. My dark side wishes to see that happen for some reason.

      Thanks for the comment, Hetty.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this. And Hetty was right. I am indeed interested in this topic, lol. Grappling has always been an interesting sport for me. While I started with the striking arts (Muay Thai), I find grappling to be the more gruelling of the martial arts, especially those you do on the feet.

    Have never had the opportunity to wrestle much though (Malaysia doesn’t care much for it, compared to India or US), so catch has always been a double rainbow to me. Thanks for this article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Grappling is grueling because it takes a lot of stamina to continue tangling with your opponent. In fact, in the catch wrestling, stamina played an important role, more than submissions and other techniques sometimes.

      I’m glad you liked this article Stuart, I also like grappling since this is something I can do as opposed to striking.

      Like

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