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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. The style 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.
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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 open rulesets, most specifically the Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmoreland styles, where it was a popular entertainment and source of 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.

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However, always in the 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 taking on larger-than-life gimmicks with heroes and villains, and finally, "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 impossible due to how enrooted the former is to the latter and how the latter never distanced itself much from the former despite what you would believe by watching WWE. 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.

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  • Japan, the land of martial arts, is the country with the strongest catch tradition nowadays, even above Britain and United States. After some history of challenges against native Judo practitioners, Japanese people decided that catch wrestling was awesome and integrated it in their culture through professional wrestling (which they call puroresu). Despite it entailing the same worked nature as abroad, in Japan it never left its competitive roots altogether, as crowds there love to see fake wrestlers kicking each other for real, and it actually returned full force with a revival movement 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 competitive Mixed Martial Arts and submission grappling.
  • In Brazil, catch-as-catch-can attracted the crowd's attention both before and during the rise of the vale tudo, 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 Portuguese word which formerly referred to any kind of sport wrestling, catch or not. Luta livre almost disappeared with the wild rise of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but the style is still out there and surviving in European countries like France and Germany.
  • In America and Britain, some gyms and associations that host old school competitions are still 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 survived there as a major influence in creating the relatively newer martial art of Russian sambo, with its appeal for leg locks, use of shoes, and the banning of chokeholds in sport sambo as possibly its biggest influence, 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 actively endorsed in order to appeal the crowds. If a wrestler didn't have 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, most forms of catch-as-catch-can favored flashy moves over pragmatic ones (although all of them hurt the same), so nasty armlocks and stylized leglocks with lots of visible limb twisting became the favourites of the discipline. Nevertheless, less visually cool techniques like neck cranks and headlocks were also included, as they are a vital part of the wrestling process.
    • Japanese catch wrestling took it Up to Eleven. The influence of judo and traditional puroresu on their culture meant crowds were able to understand the holds's workings and were already expecting something more, so the wrestlers had to keep it the most dynamic and visually appealing possible, even when they wrestled for real as in the Pancrase and early Shooto promotions. That many of the wrestlers themselves had judo and sambo backgrounds only contributed to it, as the former art favors a grappling game very fast-paced and based on wild submission-hunting, while the latter features bold entrying into joint lock from very unusual angles.
  • 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 that it is preferable not to have it taken), and in fact it has a few techniques which are initiated from the back. Kazushi Sakuraba marked possibly the most famous instance when he caught Renzo Gracie in a double wrist lock while Gracie was clamped 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 sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda, 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.
  • Bodyguarding a Badass: When pro wrestling started to become more predetermined in the 1920s, there were wrestlers who disliked the new wrestling "trust" (meaning worked or coordinated) and so they became "trustbusters", outlaw wrestlers who posed threats to promotions and their champions by refusing to co-operate during matches. To counter them, the wrestling trust enlisted wrestlers of high skill who could ward them off, being called "policemen". A good example of a policeman wrestler was "The Nebraskan Tiger Man" John Pesek who worked for Ed "Strangler" Lewis and the Gold Dust Trio and was famed for his brutality against such trustbusters. Funny enough though, Pesek himself was a major trustbuster in his own right, as a consequence promoters isolated him from the wrestling mainstream for much of his career.
  • Boring, but Practical: Ancient catch-as-catch-can styles often prefered to win by pinfall instead of by submission, to the extent that some rulesets disallowed submissions entirely. Many experts believe most submissions in catch wrestling were created by controlling an opponent with regular pinning holds and then squeezing or twisting whatever you were grabbing, or even vice versa, by squeezing or twisting something painful so you could control the opponent better in order to force a pin. The popular, submission based rough-and-tumble style came later, possibly influenced by the Japanese judo and jiu-jitsu stylists who came to Europe and United States.
  • Brawler Lock: The Irish collar and elbow tie up is pretty much this. As well as the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. If the names weren't enough hint, these are styles of wrestling all their own, use set ups were adopted for catch matches, the former becoming synonymous with worked pro wrestling.
  • Charles Atlas Superpower: Many catch wrestlers were also strongmen, and the legendary George 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. Many were 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: Chokeholds were the main no-no in some rulesets; the term "no holds barred" came precisely from any catch competition which allowed one to do any hold including chokeholds. In later times, however, the heel hook and some variations of the toehold are the moves most people will 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 today, and thus it's quite difficult to find quality instruction compared to worldwide disciplines like judo or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but other reason is that catch wrestling is comparatively harsher to the body than the gentler pajama rolling found in the aforementioned two.
  • 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 shod feet are easier to grab and twist than bare ones.
    • In straighter examples, the wrestler Clarence Eklund became popular for wrestling in bare feet, which was both distinctive and useful, while 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 is 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 tends 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 assumption qualifies only for a very specific fixture of catch, the 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 found on it, as explained in Awesome, But Impractical above. 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 that gets 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 to be resilient enough to endure it if you are on the receiving end. In times in which catch-as-catch-can was contested in no time limit matches, it caused long, attrition war-type matches.
  • Handicapped Badass: American wrestler "Rough" Tom Jenkins lost his right eye and had poor eyesight in his left eye from a Fourth of July explosive accident, meaning he was legally blind. It did not stop him from becoming one of the most well known catch wrestlers of his time. In fact, he gained a bit of a psychological advantage over his opponents from this because he wore a glass eye, which he would take out before the match in front of his opponent to the latter's disgust.
  • Handy Feet: Clarence Eklund as noted above preferred wrestling without footwear and is described as having these. This led to his Red Baron as "The Octopus".
  • Human Chess: Not literally, but old school wrestlers often describe the mental application of wrestling as similar to playing chess, so they nickname wrestling as physical chess.
  • Human Knot: Some submissions can look like this, usually Awesome, but Impractical where two limbs are targeted instead of one, for example a step over toehold with an armlock variation.
  • Legacy Character: There were two "Strangler Lewis's" in catch wrestling. The first one was Evan "Strangler" Lewis, and the second 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 often became the dominant class, but most of them were deceptively agile too. Georg Hackenschmidt, for example, was both insanely strong and shockingly capable of leaping over a table with his feet tied.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • When 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 were "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").
    • In a subversion, 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, while "hookers" became known as wrestlers who specialized in scamming carnival goers into paying money to lose in matches against them. 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.
  • Metronomic Man Mashing: A downplayed example, as besides suplexes and takedowns, catch wrestlers also uses throws to get their opponents on the ground with many of them similar to other throwing arts.
  • 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, and he capitalized on them to have a lethal bodyscissors technique. He practiced it on full grain sacks till they burst, then went onto pigs and did them the same (hopefully without bursting them), and then, according to some people, used a mule. 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.
  • Odd Friendship
    • The Brazilian luta livre guys were quite friendly with the Capoeira and Muay Thai guys. In fact, it were the luta livre guys who first brought muay thai to vale tudo fights.
    • Orlando Americo da Silva, or also known as "Dudu" was a Brazilian catch wrestler and vale tudo fighter (one of the three main coaches of luta livre founder Euclydes "Tatú" Hatem), who is said to have also trained the brothers Jorge, Oswaldo and even Hélio Gracie of all people in catch wrestling.
  • Old Master: There are quite a few notable trainers that make the list.
    • Martin "Farmer" Burns was dubbed "The Grandmaster of American Wrestling" as he trained many of the best American wrestlers of his time. His most famous students include Frank Gotch, Earl Caddock, Joseph "Toots" Mondt, etc.
    • Billy Riley, the founder of the original Snakepit in Wigan. Most famous students include Billy Joyce, Karl Gotch, Bert Assirati, Billy Robinson, etc.
    • Willy "Pop" Charnock, Billy Riley's teacher turned rival had his own gym that produced fine wrestlers as well.
    • Euclydes "Tatú" Hatem, Brazilian catch wrestler and creator of modern luta livre.
      • His students Fausto Brunocilla, Fausto's son Carlos, Roberto Leitão, and Joao Ricardo are responsible for training the most well known Luta Livre guys like Hugo Duarte, Eugenio Tadeu, Marco Ruas, etc.
  • 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.
  • Ramming Always Works: Basically how a double leg takedown works.
  • 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 after every trainings session.
  • 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. That this was For Your Own Good had to be beat into the head of Karl Gotch, who after his first humiliating stretching returned to the gym and headbutted the offender.
  • Start My Own: It was very common for large figures in catch wrestling to start their own promotions profiled after their personal styles. Many of them include pro wrestling (UWF and its offshoots), MMA (Shooto and Pancrase), submission wrestling (Noriaki Kiguchi's Combat Wrestling and Hidetaka Aso's Submission Arts Wrestling), and even kickboxing offshoots (Caesar Takeshi's Shootboxing and Satoru Sayama's Seikendo).
  • Stone Wall: Similar to judo and jiu-jitsu, the turtle position is the go to position when wrestlers want to stall and/or get forced to stand up and try their luck there, which Ed Lewis and Stanislaus Zbyszko used to great effect in their careers. Wrestlers attempted to defy this trope with techniques they called "rides" and the usual rips or dirty techniques.
  • 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, being was supposedly quite fat as a child. While he remained a bit stocky, he became one of the most feared grapplers around.
    • British catch wrestler Bert Assirati was this, as he also was a professional strongman and weightlifter known for feats of strength like doing the gymnastics iron cross at 240 pounds and 5ft 7.
  • ¡Three Amigos!: Ed "Strangler" Lewis, Billy Sandow, and Joseph "Toots" Mondt formed the Gold Dust Trio.
  • 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 too since that style doesn't involve much leg grabbing. Notable example is Polish wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko, who was all three.
  • Suplex Finisher: Just like Greco-Roman wrestling, suplexes are one of the more painful ways to get an opponent on the ground for a pin or submission. Even by itself, a well placed suplex can knock out.
  • 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 be created 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 apocryphal, as judo had contained the double wrist lock for years before its contact with catch wrestling.
    • It is said that the term vale tudo actually came from a ruleset of luta livre which appropriately called "luta livre - vale tudo ("wrestling - everything goes") and then just shortened to vale tudo when the other styles came to fight. Also the term "no holds barred" came from a catch wrestling ruleset where all holds, locks and strangles are allowed.
      • Even earlier than that, it is said that originally the ruleset was called Luta Livre Americana and that it came to Brazil from America in about 1906.
  • Use Your Head: As an alternative to sprawling, in order to defend against takedowns, all a wrestler has to do is place his head in front of his opponent's head, that way his opponent will never be able to reach his legs to do the takedown. Granted, nobody uses this in competition, as it can be translated into an actual headbutt, which is illegal.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: Well, duh.

Alternative Title(s): Catch As Catch Can

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