A History and Style Guide of Catch Wrestling

Frank Shamrock and Nick Diaz at the weigh in. Tom Casino/Strikeforce

The history of catch wrestling differs significantly from other martial arts styles. After all, how many types of martial arts can you say grew up in carnivals across America? Not many. In fact, only one.

The highly effective fighting style called catch as catch can wrestling, catch as can wrestling, or simply catch wrestling.

Catch Wrestling History and Origins

Catch wrestling grew from several different wrestling styles.

The 19th century catch-as-catch-can wrestling style that emanated from Lancashire, England contributed to its formation (catch as catch can referring to how practitioners would look to catch any break to win). Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling, Pehlwani wrestling (modern Indian), Iran's Varzesh-e Pahlavani wrestling, and, of course, the grand daddy of many, the ancient Greeks' wrestling styles, all had a hand in the catch wrestling style that caught on in America right after the Civil War.

Which leads to why it caught on there. Well, after the south lost the war, jobs were scarce. Many people, particularly those that had engaged in battle during the Civil War, had fighting skills but no way to make money. And for some that meant joining the carnival, during which time they refined and utilized the fighting skills they had learned over the years as a carnival attraction. Oftentimes, in fact, carnival-appointed tough guys would take on anyone in the town they traveled to that wanted to fight.

If the townies won, they would receive a reward. Of course, depending on the carnival and perhaps the carnival fighter, rules changed from event to event. Sometimes both combatants were looking simply to pin one another. Other times, winners were determined based on who was able to get the other to submit.

And which submissions were allowed- choke holds, arm locks, etc.- were also subject to change from event to event and carnival to carnival.

Regardless, just as Lancashire's best looked to catch any break they could (catch as catch can), so also was goal of the combatants engaging in the style of wrestling practiced at the carnivals. Hence, the name catch wrestling took hold.

Characteristics of Catch Wrestling

Whereas Brazilian Jiu Jitsu utilizes a more patient, countering approach to submissions, catch wrestling is more about attacking. As MMA fighter Josh Barnett once told MMAWeekly.com, the style "doesn't really believe in laying back and trying to wait for opportunities to present themselves. You make your opportunities; you force your opponents to do what you want them to do."

Thus, it is an aggressive style of fighting that utilizes wrestling in combination with joint locks and choke holds to deliver the desired result.

Basic Goals of Catch Wrestling

In accordance with the aformentioned, the goal of the catch wrestling practitioner is to utilize their wrestling skills to take an opponent to the ground where they will either utilize ground control or a submission to subdue them. The catch wrestling practitioner will attempt to do this as quickly as possible.

Sub Styles of Catch Wrestling

Several martial arts styles have been influenced by catch wrestling. Japan's Shoot Wrestling, which produced an offshoot in America called Shootfighting, is a direct sub style. Japan's professional wrestling (really all professional wrestling) could also be considered offshoots of catch.

Famous Catch Wrestlers

  • Karl Gotch: Karl Gotch (real name- Karl Istaz) was a prominent professional wrestler in Europe, the United States, and Japan. He was also a catch wrestler and student of Billy Riley's Snake Pit in Whelley, Wigan, which is where he learned a great portion of his trade. Gotch taught catch wrestling to Japanese professional wrestlers in the 1970's like Antoni Inoki.
  • Antoni Inoki: Inoki was a student of Karl Gotch's and a professional wrestler that founded the New Japan Pro Wrestling organization. He also put on a series of mixed martial arts style matches, one which pitted him against boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
  • Ad Santel: Ad Santel was a catch wrestler that defeated judo expert Tokugoro Ito in one of the world's most well-known clashes of styles in the early 1900's. Later, Ito would return the favor by submission, but Santel had succeeded in growing catch wrestling's popularity.