Catch Wrestling Is Back: The Revival Of A Working Class Sport

FRank Gotch Toe Hold

 

Catch Wrestler Frank Gotch

Catch Wrestler Frank Gotch

Once upon a time, before there was an Internet, before there were jet planes, and before there was commercial radio or television, professional wrestling was a real sport — well, some of the time, anyway.

The predominant style of that real pro wrestling was known as catch-as-catch-can wrestling, or simply catch. These matches were generally held under rules where victory was attained by pin or submission, and in two-out-of-three falls. Although the rules varied from place to place, there were no points or judges.

There was also not much effective governance of it or central body running things. It was contested in a variety of venues ranging, especially in the U.S., from carnivals and “AT” or athletic shows, to theaters, and to major arenas and stadiums. The degree to which it was a legitimate, competitive sport also widely varied, with the particulars still being debated by wrestling historians today.

Jake Shannon of ScientificWrestling.com, who has played a key role in the modern revival of catch wrestling, wrote: “Though some speculate that it began in Ireland, the precise beginnings of catch-as-catch-can wrestling are not really known. The first recorded matches … began appearing in the English county of Lancashire at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The name ‘catch-as-catch-can’ is a Lancashire phrase that simply means ‘catch me if you can.’” (1)

He also called it “a true workman’s sport’” since many of its participants were coal miners in England. (2)

Farmer Burns

Farmer Burns was a pioneer of strength training techniques.

The early days of catch wrestling often saw amateur and professional wrestlers training with each other.

In the early 1920s, in the area of western Ontario now known as Thunder Bay, Dr. C. Nathan Hatton wrote, “Amateur wrestling’s early growth in Fort William was directly linked to professional efforts to train local athletes. Grapplers within the ‘paid’ ranks also lent their expertise by participating in ‘Y’ fundraisers …. Many of the YMCA amateurs appeared as preliminary attractions on professional cards, helping to provide a full evening of entertainment.” (3) So popular was catch wrestling in the working class that many styles of wrestling were practiced by athletic clubs organized by labor and socialist organizations, even including the Industrial Workers of the World and the Communist Party of Canada. (4)

In the U.S., where professional catch wrestling became a major sport, it had similar roots. Leading wrestling historian Mike Chapman wrote, “Around 1900, Tom Jenkins, a millwright from the vicinity of Cleveland, Ohio, who had lost his vision in one eye, became a national wrestling hero. His popularity was comparable to that of John L. Sullivan, then the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.” (5) In 1905, Jenkins dropped his title to “an Iowa farmboy named Frank Gotch” (6)

Frank Gotch not only held his world heavyweight title until his retirement in 1913, but also became perhaps the most popular real pro wrestler ever, and a major sports star. Chapman wrote that Gotch defended his title numerous times, most famously against the “Russian Lion George Hackenschmidt in 1908 and 1911, drawing over 30,000 fans to the new Comiskey Park,” and that this “match marked the high tide of professional wrestling in America.”

Wrestling and How To Train by Frank Gotch

Gotch died in 1917, but was soon followed to prominence by Earl Caddock, who grew up on a farm in Iowa and was trained by Gotch. Caddock, a three-time AAU national champion in amateur wrestling, held the world heavyweight professional wrestling championship from 1917 to 1920.

By the 1920s at the latest, however, the entire sport, which was already rife with corruption, had completely degenerated into a staged spectacle.

But the influence of this once-real sport remained. For example, Martin “Farmer” Burns, a wrestler himself who had trained Gotch, played a key role in organizing high school wrestling in Iowa, still today a wrestling hotbed. In 1921, he coached Cedar Rapids Washington High School to a state title in what is believed to be “the first structured state high school tournament.” (8) Also, amateur catch-as-catch-can wrestling, without the submissions, was one of two styles contested in the Olympics in the early 20th century, later becoming known as freestyle wrestling. (9)

With the completion of the transformation of pro wrestling from sport to spectacle by its promoters — perhaps the greatest case of corruption in the history of modern sports, with an entire sport becoming fixed — an organizational separation from most of amateur wrestling took place. But over the years, the techniques of catch wrestling were handed down, usually behind closed doors, by some in the staged pro ranks. In the U.S., perhaps the most famous of those preserving catch wrestling was longtime pro star Lou Thesz.

But it would again be in Lancashire, England, that the key efforts to save this dying art and pass it on would be made.

In the 1940s, in Wigan in Lancashire, Billy Riley, a moulder by trade, bought some land and opened a gym, which became known as Riley’s Gym. According to the history provided by the current standard-bearers of catch, the Snake Pit Wigan, “This was a gym that could produce every type of wrestler. Professional wrestlers and straight wrestlers who could compete in both Catch and Freestyle.” (10)

Among the most famous, and important, wrestlers trained at Riley’s Gym was Karel Istaz AKA Karl Gotch, who represented Belgium in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in the 1948 Olympics. He was trained at Riley’s Gym beginning in the 1950s, became an international star in pro wrestling, and later became particularly well-regarded in Japan, where he was known as the “God of Wrestling”. He also trained many wrestlers in real catch wrestling, including Satoru Sayama and Yoshiaki Fujiwara, who each played roles in the complicated process of the eventual establishment of MMA in Japan. (11)

In the 1960s, an amateur wrestler named Billy Robinson trained at Riley’s Gym in catch wrestling, eventually crossing over to the worked pro style. He also achieved great fame in Japan, and helped train wrestlers like future MMA star Kazushi Sakuraba in catch. (12)

Today, even at age 75, Billy Robinson continues to travel the world, running seminars and spreading the word about catch wrestling.

Billy Robinson Shows How To Break Your Opponent’s Posture

Riley’s Gym, which along the way also became known as the Snake Pit, closed in the 1970s, but was later reopened by another of Billy Riley’s trainees, Roy Wood, a coal miner’s son who also had worked in a foundry. For many years it was just known as the Aspull Wrestling Club and focused on freestyle wrestling. By 2011, it also became known, at the suggestion of friends in Japan, as the Snake Pit Wigan.

Today the Snake Pit Wigan is the most important training facility in the sport, and is again regarded as the home of catch-as-catch-can wrestling. An annual international catch wrestling tournament was started there in 2012, with the 2013 edition scheduled for November 9.

Roy Wood’s contributions to this process have been invaluable.

“I think it’s only Billy Robinson and myself left from the Snake Pit,” he said in an interview on No Holds Barred in November 2011, “Because Billy’s getting older and I’m getting older, and if we don’t spread the word now, and get the pure catch going again, I think it will die. A lot of the moves will die with it. So what we’re trying to do is revitalize a lot of the catch wrestling.” (13) He added that he didn’t “want to get involved in any politics,” but was just interested in preserving and reviving this art form and discipline.

“The moves I learned at Riley’s Gym in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s,” he said, “I would like to pass on to anybody who’s interested in catch wrestling.” (14)

See early footage from Riley’s Gym

But though it survived and is now being revived, this incarnation of catch wrestling is still in its infancy. Only a relatively small number of people are training in catch wrestling, as compared to other styles of wrestling and grappling. The only public competitions in it are a growing but infrequent number of amateur tournaments and events.

Besides the Snake Pit Wigan, there are numerous, loosely-affiliated small groups holding these, including Scientific Wrestling (http://scientificwrestling.com), the North American Catch Wrestling Association (http://nacwa.weebly.com), the Snake Pit USA Catch Wrestling Association (http://snakepitusa.com), and the International Submission Wrestling Alliance (http://www.caccmedia.com). There are also a growing number of gyms providing training in catch wrestling in the U.K., the U.S., Japan, Canada, Australia, Italy, Singapore, and probably elsewhere. Though small, the seminar circuit is also expanding.

Several factors may help with this revival. Although wrestling will remain for now an Olympic sport, there is great dissatisfaction worldwide with FILA, the international wrestling federation, as well as numerous accusations of corruption. A combination of ongoing controversies, poor governance, and high training fees may stunt the growth of other styles, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and no-gi grappling. The prominence given to new scientific studies about the effects of head and brain injuries, concussions and sub-concussive trauma, and their relationship to the onset of diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and various forms of dementia, may over the years deter many from training in and even watching sports like MMA, boxing, and kickboxing.

For catch to be restored as a major sport, and eventually a real pro sport, much work needs to be done.

Catch is a style of wrestling, and should be connected first to wrestling and not other styles or disciplines, such as MMA. It must remain true to its working class roots, and not become a sport mainly accessible to elites.

Sakuraba

Kazushi Sakuraba was called the ” Gracie Hunter” by his fans in Japan.

A revived catch wrestling requires not only good governance to prevent corruption and care for the health and safety of the athletes, but also professional management to get it funded and financially self-sufficient. This would mean the establishment, in the future, of a democratically-run, transparent, international central body, which major sports have although they are too often not properly governed.

Another must is a good business plan. Addressing the people who are attempting to revive catch wrestling, Mike Chapman said, in a September 2013 interview on No Holds Barred, “They have to have a plan, and it has to be well thought out.” That requires “a great deal of courage, it takes a great financial plan, and it takes marketing.” (15)

While still quite small, catch wrestling has the potential to take off. Its exciting style and simplicity of rules once made it a major professional sport which was as popular as boxing. But the hard lessons from the failure of catch wrestling last century, and the lessons of what is good sport governance from the present, must be learned and, most importantly, applied.

As for today, optimism about the revival of catch wrestling abounds. As Dr. Raul Ramirez, who competed in the Snake Pit Wigan tournament last year and will wrestle again this year, tweeted after wrestling was restored to the Olympic program, “Amateur Catch as Catch Can Wrestling is back in the Olympics! Now we gotta work together to bring back Pro Catch as Catch Can Wrestling.” (16)

Notes:

(1) Say Uncle! Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling and the Roots of Ultimate Fighting, Pro Wrestling, and Modern Grappling, by Jake Shannon, p. 6-7, 2011, ECW Press

(2) Ibid., p. 7

(3) Rugged Game: Community, Culture and Wrestling at the Lakehead to 1933, by C. Nathan Hatton, p. 40, 2012, Lakehead University Centre for Northern Studies

(4) Ibid., as explained in chapter 3

(5) Encyclopedia of American Wrestling, by Mike Chapman, 1990, Leisure Press, p.1

(6) Ibid., p.2

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid., p.3

(9) Sports-Reference.com, http://www.sports-reference.com/olympics/summer/1920/WRE/

(10) History – The Snake Pit Wigan – Home of Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling, http://www.snakepitwigan.com/history

(11) Shannon, interviews with Gotch and Fujiwara, op. cit.

(12) Physical Chess: My Life In Catch-As-Catch-Can-Wrestling, by Billy Robinson with Jake Shannon, 2012, ECW Press

(13) No Holds Barred: Roy Wood, Andrea Wood, The Snake Pit, and the Catch Wrestling Revival, http://nhbnews.blogspot.com/2011/11/no-holds-barred-roy-wood-andrea-wood.html and http://archive.org/details/NoHoldsBarredRoyWoodAndreaWoodTheSnakePitAndTheCatchWrestling

(14) Ibid.

(15) No Holds Barred: Mike Chapman on Corruption, Marketing, and Leadership in International Wrestling, http://nhbnews.blogspot.com/2013/09/no-holds-barred-mike-chapman-on.html

(16) https://twitter.com/kungfukulture/statuses/376772389276626944

 

[Eddie Goldman is the host and producer of the No Holds

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