Useful Notes / Catch Wrestling

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Don't feed the wrestlers.
Catch wrestling, also known as catch-as-catch-can, is a classical combat sport and form of entertainment developed in Britain in the 18th Century. It is actually an umbrella term for several forms of wrestling and grappling styles based around pinning, joint locking and strangling, though it is actually much more known for being the grandfather of modern Professional Wrestling.

Catch wrestling’s history is a blurred affair. We know the name of the discipline comes from English styles of folk wrestling characterized by their violent and free rulesets, most specifically the Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmoreland styles, where it was a popular entertainment and bets for coal miners in the 1800s. It's also known that the art was shaped further on the American and European travelling funfair and carnival scene, where huge mustachioed strongmen would challenge members of the crowd to beat them in a wrestling contest for a reward, often letting them have the advantage for a time to entertain the crowd and entice more challengers before defeating them painfully. In any case, catch wrestling would become synonymous with spectacle, sweat and men wrenching each other's bones in front of cheering crowds.

However, always in search of the contentment of the audience and the money they would throw, catch wrestling would take over the years a road to theatricality and showmanship over all-around competitions. Matches became deliberately back and forth instead of being boring stallfests or fast squashes, wrestlers started living larger-than-life gimmicks with heroes and villains, and "worked" elements like tag team bouts, female wrestlers and weapons were introduced to spice up the party. Catch wrestling stopped being a competitive sport and turned into the violent soap opera we know and love as pro wrestling – or did it?

Distinguishing catch wrestling from pro wrestling today is pretty much a lost cause due to how enrooted the former became to the latter and how the latter distanced itself from the former. However, the tradition of the art as a legitimate fighting style survived in the strangest places, namely Japan, Brazil and some ramshackle gyms in the Anglophone sphere.

  • Japan, the land of martial arts, is the country which keeps the strongest catch tradition nowadays (yes, even above Britain and United States). After some history against native Judo, Japan loved the art and integrated it in their culture; their style of professional wrestling never left its competitive roots altogether, as crowds there love to see fake wrestlers kicking each other for real, and actually returned full force to them with a revival movement which was called "shoot-style." Mixed with other styles like judo, Karate and sambo, as well as some Japanese creativity, catch lived on to give birth to the early stage of modern Mixed Martial Arts and submission grappling like Noriaki Kiguchi's Combat Wrestling and Hidetaka Aso's Submission Arts Wrestling.
  • In Brazil, catch-as-catch-can kept fresh through its presence in the vale tudo circuit, a system of bouts which saw people beating down each other with lots of blood to entertain the average Brazilian, and which would take invariably the same route towards modern MMA. Local wrestlers mixed catch wrestling with judo and striking arts specifically to adapt to this kind of competition, and it received the antonomasia name of "luta livre," a word which refers to any kind of wrestling. It faded a lot due to the wild rise of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but the style is still out there.
  • In America and Britain, some gyms and associations which host old school competitions are active nowadays, most famously the Wigan Snakepit, where many famous wrestlers trained, as well as some parts of the defunct American territorial system.
  • In Russia, catch wrestling was known as "free wrestling" and now somewhat only survived there as a major influence in creating the relatively newer martial art of Russian sambo, with its appeal for leg locks as possibly its closest resemblance, aside from other influences that include Judo, Greco-Roman, freestyle and other folk styles of wrestling. Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov, the guys who laid two different foundations for what would become sambo were both according to some people catch wrestlers in their own right.

Tropes associated with catch wrestling

  • The Ace: The most definitive wrestlers to fit the description were probably Frank Gotch and his trainer Martin "Farmer" Burns.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Cocky, magnificent personas were endorsed in order to draw the crowds, and if a wrestler hadn't enough personality to attract heat, a flamboyant manager would do the trick.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Invoked and kept as one of the traits of the style. Due to its theatrical nature, even the most legit forms of catch-as-catch-can favored flashy moves over pragmatic ones even if all of them hurt the same. Armlocks and stylized leglocks with lots of torque and limb twists are the favourites of the moveset, along with a certain disposition to clamp them from any angle or position, although neck cranks and headlocks are also contained on it.
  • Badass Back: Unlike other grappling styles, catch wrestling doesn't inculcate a desperate fear to have one's own back taken in a match (though, naturally, it enforces it is more preferable not), and in fact it has some techniques which are initiated from the back. Kazushi Sakuraba possibly marked the most famous instance when he caught Renzo Gracie in a double wrist lock while Gracie was clamping to his back.
  • Badass Moustache: The perfect picture of a catch wrestler typically involves a musclebound, barechested gentleman with a handlebar moustache.
  • Bash Brothers: The most notable example of this in catch wrestling are Polish wrestlers Stanisław and Władysław Cyganiewicz, better known as Stanislaus and Wladek Zbyszko.
  • Beat Them at Their Own Game: Ad Santel become famous for defeating judokas in their own terms (i.e. wearing uwagi jackets).
    • Some notable wrestlers of different styles managed to do this to high level catch wrestlers like Turkish oil wrestler Yusuf "The Terrible Turk" Ismail and Indian/Pakistani Pehlwani wrestler Ghulam Muhammad Butt better known as the Great Gama.
  • Blood Knight: The sport has attracted some of those during its story, most famously Karl Gotch.
  • Boring, but Practical: In contrast with the aforementioned theatricality, ancient catch-as-catch-can styles often prefered to win by pinfall before submission, and some rulesets disallowed submissions entirely. It comes to the point that many people believe most submissions in catch wrestling were created simply by controlling an opponent with regular pinning holds and then squeezing or twisting through them, or even simple pain compliance techniques to force a pin. The popular, submission based rough-and-tumble style came later, possibly influenced by the Japanese jiu-jitsu stylists who came to Europe and United States.
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Many catch wrestlers were also strongmen, and the legendary Georg Hackenschmidt was even a pioneer of physical culture.
  • The Chessmaster: Old school wrestlers like describing wrestling as physical chess, so high level guys could be known as physical chess masters.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The old catch wrestlers had techniques that are considered dirty in order to set up their submissions or to just hurt the other wrestler that they called "rips". Some of these techniques include fish-hooking and eye gouging.
  • Combat Sadomasochist: British catch wrestler Bert Assirati was known to love getting hurt and hurting his opponents, with many afraid to face him in worked matches as he could double cross them just to see them in pain.
  • Contortionist: An useful skill in order to avoid being crushed in cradles and to escape submissions.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: Many of the golden age matchups were this, especially the Frank Gotch/Georg Hackenschmidt feud.
  • Counter Attack: A fundamental part of catch wrestling is the "chain wrestling" or "lockflow", the ability to chain one submission to another both to and from the opponent in a fluid sequence.
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique: Chokes were the main no-no in some rulesets; the term "no holds barred" came originally from any catch competition which allowed you to do any hold including chokeholds. In recent times, however, the heel hook and some variations of the toehold are the moves most people would tell you they don't want to be in.
  • David vs. Goliath: Back in the times in which there weren't such things like weight classes.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: The reason why catch was so well received in Japan was Ad Santel defeating judokas left and right with his catch wrestling techniques. The Japanese only needed to see it to think "this is awesome, we definitely need to learn it." Some of his very opponents returned with him to United States in order to get initiated in catch wrestling.
  • Difficult but Awesome: The opinion of many people about catch wrestling as opposed to other grappling styles, although the source of the difficulty is a more heated debate. The main explanation is that catch is a niche sport nowadays, and thus it's quite difficult to find quality instruction compared to worldwide disciplines like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but other reason is argued as catch wrestling being comparatively harsher to the body than the gentler pajama rolling found in the aforementioned.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Inverted, rather surprisingly when compared to other grappling styles. Catch-as-catch can was traditionally done with wrestling shoes, when not with plain dress shoes, and every posterior incarnation retained boots or any kind of footwear as part of its uniform; this, naturally, helped to develop leg and footlocks, as shodded feet are easier to grab and twist. In straight examples, the wrestler Clarence Eklund became popular for wrestling in bare feet, which was both distinctive and useful, and Brazilian luta livre exponents would fight barefoot as the vale tudo ruleset forced them so.
  • Don't Think, Feel: Inverted, as old school wrestlers liken wrestling to chess (Xanatos Speed Chess to be specific); they believe to be a good wrestler they have to able to think under pressure in order to plan moves ahead, improvise and/or change strategies as opposed to the concept of mushin (no mindedness) found in Eastern martial arts. Of course, being able to react instinctively to important as well, but to be able to think under pressure is an asset to a wrestler.
  • Genius Bruiser: Quite a few wrestlers were highly educated.
    • Georg Hackenschmidt authored several books on wrestling, physical culture and philosophy, spoke about 7 languages and once challenged Albert Einstein to a debate on the Theory of Relativity (Einstein politely declined).
    • Stanislaus Zbyszko studied music, philosophy and law when he was growing up in Austria, graduated as a lawyer at 24 years old and spoke about 11 languages.
  • Glass Cannon: Among other groundfighting styles, catch wrestling tend to be considered to have a killer arsenal of holds but a not-so-efficent system of setting them up or defending against other holds. Actually, this is an assumption which only qualifies for a very specific fixture of Japanese shoot-style, which often saw wrestlers carelessly diving for joint locks (and thus getting into bad positions for an enemy counterattack) due to the sambo and judo influence. Pure, ancient catch wrestling would resemble more amateur wrestling, with the wrestler controlling his opponent with body pressure and smart chanceries before applying any submissions. This conservative strategy was presumably the reason why the matches started turning into slow snoozefests and forced the business to go worked.
  • Gradual Grinder: A concept which is very enforced in the art is making the opponent carry your weight when riding him and grinding him with pressure from any position you had him. This results in very tough and athletic wrestlers, as you have to have enough stamina not to get yourself tired while pressing and be resilient enough to endure it if you are on the receiving end. Also, in times in which catch-as-catch-can was contested in no time limit matches, it caused long, attrition war-type matches.
  • Legacy Character: There were two "Strangler Lewis's" in catch wrestling, the first one was Evan "Strangler" Lewis and a Robert Friedrich who took the name Ed "Strangler" Lewis in tribute to the original.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Big, strong wrestlers who were difficult to take down and control were often the dominant class, but most of them were deceptively agile. Georg Hackenschmidt, for example, was both insanely strong and shockingly capable of leaping over a table with his feet tied.
  • Meaningful Name: When the worked professional wrestling took off, "shooters" was a title used to designate wrestlers who had a legitimate background in some form of amateur wrestling (and thus they knew to do takedowns, an action which is called "to shoot"), while "hookers" was reserved to the more expert wrestlers who also knew to make people tap out (by using submissions, which were called "hooks"); also there are "rippers" for those who knew how to brutalize their opponents if they wanted to (by using dirty moves like fish-hooks which they called "rips"). The use of this specific jargon is almost nonexistant nowadays; 'shooter' is used to refer any pro wrestler with martial arts training or belonging to the Japanese shoot-style. Hooker became known as wrestlers who specialized in scamming carnival goers into paying money to lose in matches against them, but with the downfall of kayfabe, which ironically made fans less willing to try their hands against pro wrestlers, even that's become obsolete, with hookers now usually being anyone a promoter throws into a match specifically to get a wrestler they don't like hurt.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Averted for Dr. Benjamin Roller, an actual physician before he got into pro wrestling, who used it as a way of traveling around the world to learn under various professors in order to become a surgeon.
  • Murderous Thighs: The crooked headscissors is a technique in which the user traps the opponent's head between his legs and uses them to squeeze it. It is usually used to immobilize and increase pressure while applying an armlock, but a skilled wrestler can submit his opponent with this move alone.
    • Joe Stecher had very powerful legs, which he practiced his body scissors technique on full grain sacks till they burst, then went onto pigs and then according to some people a mule, and when he put the body scissors on opponents there are accounts where he left bruises and tapped out people with just that technique.
  • Neck Snap: The neck crank is one of the jewels of the moveset, and although it is not meant to snap the opponent's neck (well, at least if he doesn't give up), it targets the vertebrae and spinal column.
  • One-Hit Kill: Interestingly subverted. While most modern sport competitions only need to be won once, catch wrestling contests usually were ruled in two or three falls.
  • Sadist Teacher: Any catch wrestling trainer is traditionally assured to be it in any degree. Billy Riley, Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch were the main practitioners of the art of leaving apprentices completely broken during their trainings.
  • The Spartan Way: Catch gyms, which popularly received of the Meaningful Name of "snakepits", only accepted apprentices after the veteran wrestlers had thoroughly beaten them in a ritual of passage of sorts, sometimes to the extent of injury, which was designed to make the un-tough quit. Unfortunately for the tough enough to pass, beatdowns had just started for them.
  • Stout Strength
    • Brazilian catch wrestler Euclydes Hatem gained his nickname, "Tatú," from the Brazilian word for armadillo, as he had originally ventured in catch wrestling in his late childhood in order to get fit, and he was supposedly quite fat as a child. While he probably remained a bit stocky, he was one of the most feared grapplers around.
    • British catch wrestler Bert Assirati was this as he also was a professional strongman and weightlifter that was known for feats of strength like doing the gymnastics iron cross at 240 pounds and 5ft 7.
  • Top-Heavy Guy: As stated above, some catch wrestlers were professional strongmen and some were also high level Greco-Roman wrestlers which gave them this body type since that style doesn't involve much leg grabbing. Notable example is Polish wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko who was all three.
  • Underwear of Power: Once something similar to a catch wrestling uniform was established, it tended to take the shape of tights, either short or long, complete with wrestling shoes or boots.
  • Ur-Example:
    • There are people who believe that it actually comes from hand-to-hand fighting techniques used by knights in the Middle Ages, very much like jujutsu would born in the struggles between armored samurais.
    • Grappling holds like heel hooks and complex toeholds are known to have been popularized by catch wrestling, though their origin is rather blurred (the heel hook is thought to have been created in Greek pankration, for instance).
    • A popular legend has catch wrestler Karl Gotch teaching the judoka Masahiko Kimura the double wrist lock, which Kimura then used to defeat Hélio Gracie to get it renamed to Kimura lock in Brazilian jiu-jitsu circles. This is most probably wrong, as judo had contained the double wrist lock for years before its contact with catch wrestling.
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