" There are no standing hooks ! " - Karl Gotch R.I.P.
While some speculate it began in Ireland, the precise beginnings of catch-as-catch-can wrestling are not known. The first recorded matches contested under its rules (i.e., submission or pin wins the match, best two of three falls, no points, and win, lose, or draw format) began appearing in a small county in England known as Lancashire.
The men were tough and often wrestled each other for fun and side-bets on the gravel after a long day spent in the coal mines. Eventually some of these men earned enough money from these side bets to make a living from just wrestling and the modern professional wrestler was born.
The game of catch-as-catch-can was growing in popularity and it followed immigrants from England and Western Europe to the United States of America. A true workman's sport that required little if no expensive equipment, catch wrestling spread like wildfire among bored soldiers between the battles of the American Civil War.
By the end of the 19th century, Americans were enamored enough of catch-as-catch-can that contests attracted paying crowds and championships were held, and with championships and paying crowds came the first wrestling celebrities.
The first big celebrity in America was Evan "The Strangler" Lewis (not to be confused with later champion Ed "Strangler" Lewis). He was notorious for attempting to use illegal choke holds to win his matches. The popularity of catch wrestling grew drawing millions of dollars and sadly, with the money came corruption.
Greed led the promoters and competitors of the day to fix fights. This ultimately lead to a crisis of confidence and professional wrestling stopped being a professional sport and became performance art.
However, there were those who kept the sport of catch wrestling alive. In the United States, carnivals were a popular form of entertainment and Carnivals often employed wrestlers that would take all comers. Since the carnival wrestlers didn't know who they would be facing day to day, they needed to know how to wrestle and protect themselves legitimately. Fortunately for us, the carnival wrestlers, like Richard Cardinal and Billy Wicks, kept the techniques alive to teach to our generation of wrestlers.
Carnival wrestlers were not the only ones that had an interest in keeping catch wrestling alive though. There were professional wrestlers from the "post-competitive", performance art era, outstanding athletes like Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson that used their time in professional wrestling to study the methods of the competitive catch-as-catch-can wrestlers from generations before. Billy and Karl are probably the most influential of the catch-as-catch-can men from their era.
Karl Gotch, a Belgian Freestyle/Greco-Roman champion and Olympian, soaked up grappling knowledge like a sponge. He picked the brains of Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Frank Wolf, Ben Sherman, and Joe Robinson amongst others, and began experimenting with the ideas and techniques of American and Lancashire catch-as-catch-can. Karl was later invited to perform in Japan by Bill Miller, and his career as a capable submission master followed. Karl influenced generations of Japanese grapplers, first as a wrestler then later as a coach and teacher. Men like Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Masakatsu Funaki, and Minoru Suzuki all learned the methods and techniques of catch-as-catch-can from Karl Gotch. These men influenced the styles of modern American MMA champions Ken and Frank Shamrock.
Billy Robinson has taken the youngest UFC heavyweight champion in history and the current King of Pancrase Josh Barnett under his wing. Barnett has sought out the Wigan-trained Robinson and has been winning his MMA fights with submissions, like the Toe-Hold, that have traditionally been associated with legitimate catch wrestling matches from the early 20th century. Sakuraba also credits Billy Robinson for being the trainer that most influenced his incredible submission grappling skills.
For generations, catch-as-catch-can competitors have passed the fire of catch wrestling on and fortunately it seems to be burning brighter than ever today. The good news is that the "greatest catch-as-catch-can wrestler that ever lived" may not have been born yet.
At present, catch-as-catch-can wrestling is surprisingly controversial in the United States. While there are proven American competitors that can trace their arsenal of techniques to catch-as-catch-can wrestling, men like Josh Barnett and Frank Shamrock, that are teaching the art, there have been some con-men selling DVDs and promoting themselves as authentic when there is scant proof to back their claims. The lesson here is "caveat emptor" or "buyer beware".
Despite the con artists, most in the American martial arts community respect catch-as-catch-can wrestling still. There are a few clubs around the United States that have a catch-as-catch-can wrestling flavor, for those that are interested in learning. Here are a few:
1. Frank Shamrock's school in San Jose, California. Frank still credits Funaki and Suzuki as his biggest influences in grappling. I am a Level 2 instructor in his Shamrock Submission Fighting system and highly recommend it.
2. Billy Wicks and Johnny Husky's Gym in Asheville, North Carolina. Wicks learned from a student of the legendary Farmer Burns named Henry Kohln and became a carnival wrestler and later a professional wrestler. Johnny Husky wrestled with Pancrase and has dedicated himself to learn from Billy Wicks.
3. Erik Paulson has a school called OC Shootwrestling in Anaheim, California. As a Shooto champion, Paulson learned from Nakamura and Sayama.
4. And last but not least, my company, Scientific Wrestling, has just begun a program called 'The Certified Scientific Wrestler'. I was able to coordinate material from the original style of catch-as-catch-can wrestling into a course that has been approved by legitimate catch-as-catch-can wrestlers and an accompanying test that is proctored by legitimate catch-as-catch-can wrestlers. We are thrilled to have Billy Robinson on-board to oversee the implementation and training!
As you can see, the present state of catch-as-catch-can looks bright, we hope to keep it that way for a long time to come!
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