Catch wrestling
Also known asCatch-as-catch-can
Shoot wrestling
Strong style
Lancashire wrestling
Country of originUnited Kingdom United Kingdom
Famous practitioners(see notable practitioners)
ParenthoodEnglish wrestling
(Cumberland, Westmorland, Cornish, Devonshire, Lancashire)
Irish collar-and-elbow
Descendant artsFreestyle wrestling, professional wrestling, shoot wrestling, folkstyle wrestling, Luta Livre, Sambo, shootfighting, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, mixed martial arts (MMA), Rough and tumble
Olympic sportYes (as amateur freestyle wrestling) since 1904

Catch wrestling (originally catch-as-catch-can) is a classical hybrid grappling style and combat sport. It was developed by J. G. Chambers in Britain c. 1870.[1] It was popularised by wrestlers of travelling funfairs who developed their own submission holds, or "hooks", into their wrestling to increase their effectiveness against their opponents. Catch wrestling derives from various different international styles of wrestling: several English styles (primarily Lancashire,[2] as well as Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling,[3] Devonshire,[3] and Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling). The training of some modern submission wrestlers, professional wrestlers and mixed martial artists is founded in catch wrestling.

Professional wrestling, once a legitimate combat sport, was competitive catch wrestling. The original and historic World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship was created in 1905 to identify the best catch as catch can wrestler in the world, before the belt was retired in 1957 and unified with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Modern day professional wrestling has its origins in catch wrestling exhibitions at carnivals where predetermined ("worked") matches had elements of performing arts introduced (as well as striking and acrobatic maneuvers), turning it into an entertainment spectacle.[4]

Catch-as-catch-can was included in the 1904 Olympic Games, it had new rules and weight categories introduced similar to other amateur wrestling styles, and dangerous moves — including all submission holds — were banned. New rules and regulations were later developed and codified by FILA and amateur catch wrestling became known as freestyle wrestling, which was then considered separate from the dangerous, professional catch style.[5][6]

Other martial arts with origins in catch wrestling include folkstyle wrestling, Sambo, Luta Livre, shoot-style, shootfighting and mixed martial arts (MMA).[7]


A hammerlock as demonstrated in Farmer Burns' correspondence course, 1913
A hammerlock as demonstrated in Farmer Burns' correspondence course, 1913

In 1871, John Graham Chambers, of aquatic and pedestrian fame, and sometime editor of Land and Water, endeavoured to introduce and promote a new system of wrestling at Little Bridge Grounds, West Brompton, which he denominated, "The Catch-as-catch-can Style."[3] Unfortunately, the new idea met with little support at the time, and a few years afterward Chambers was induced to adopt the objectionable fashion of allowing the competitors to wrestle on all fours on the ground. This new departure was the forerunner of the total abolition of the sport at that athletic, and within a short period the wrestling, as an item in the programme.

Various promoters of the exercise, notably J. Wannop, of New Cross, attempted to bring the new system prominently before the public, with the view of amalgamating the three English styles viz. the Cumberland and Westmorland, Cornwall and Devon, and Lancashire.[3] Then the sudden development of the Cumberland and Westmorland Amateur Wrestling Society, brought the new style prominently to the front, and special prizes were given for competition in that class at the society's first annual midsummer gathering at the Paddington Recreation Ground, which was attended by Lord Mayor Whitehead and sheriffs in state.

Wrestling on the "catch-as-catch-can" principle was new to many spectators, but it was generally approved of as a great step in advance of the loose-hold system, which includes struggling on the ground and sundry objectionable tactics, such as catching hold of the legs, twisting arms, dislocating fingers, and other items of attack and defence peculiar to Lancashire wrestling.[3]

When catch wrestling reached the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century it became extremely popular with the wrestlers of the carnivals. The carnival's wrestlers challenged the locals as part of the carnival's "athletic show" and the locals had their chance to win a cash reward if they could defeat the carnival's strongman by a pin or a submission. Eventually, the carnival's wrestlers began preparing for the worst kind of unarmed assault and aiming to end the wrestling match with any tough local quickly and decisively via submission. A hook was a technical submission which could end a match within seconds. As carnival wrestlers travelled, they met with a variety of people, learning and using techniques from various other folk wrestling disciplines, especially Irish Collar & Elbow, many of which were accessible due to a huge influx of immigrants in the United States during this era.

Catch wrestling contests also became immensely popular in Europe involving the likes of the Indian national wrestling champion Great Gama, Imam Baksh Pahalwan, Gulam, Bulgarian world heavyweight champion Dan Kolov, Swiss champion John Lemm, Americans Frank Gotch, Tom Jenkins, Ralph Parcaut, Ad Santel, Ed Lewis, Lou Thesz and Benjamin Roller, Mitsuyo Maeda from Japan, and Georg Hackenschmidt from Estonia.

By the 1920s, most catch wrestling competitions had become predetermined professional wrestling.[8]


The English term "catch as catch can" is generally understood to mean "catch (a hold) anywhere you can". As this implies, the rules of catch wrestling were more open than the earlier folk styles it was based on, as well as its French Greco-Roman counterpart, which did not allow holds below the waist. Catch wrestlers can win a match by either submission or pin, and most matches are contested as the best two of three falls, with a maximum length of an hour. Often, but not always, the chokehold was barred. Other fouls like fish-hooking and eye-gouging (which were called "rips" or "ripping") were always forbidden.[9]

Pins were the predominant way to win, to the point some matches didn't even include submissions as an additional way; submission holds (also called "punishment holds")[4] were instead exclusively for control and to force the opponent into a pin under the threat of pain and injury. According to Tommy Heyes, student of Billy Riley, there are no registers of a single classical catch wrestler winning by submission.[10] This is the reason why leglocks and neck cranks were emphasized as valid techniques, as while they are difficult to use as finishing moves without a good base, they can be used to force movement.[10] Also, just as today "tapping out" signifies a concession as does shouting out "Uncle!", back in the heyday of catch wrestling rolling to one's back could also signify defeat, as it would mean a pin. Catch-as-catch-can toeholds typically only exert force if the opponent sits still;[10] therefore, Frank Gotch won many matches by forcing his opponent to roll over onto their back with the threat of his signature toehold.[11]

Professional match between Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, 1908

A "hook" can be defined as an undefined move that stretches, spreads, twists, or compresses any joint or limb. Therefore, another name for a catch wrestler was a "hooker," with the similar term "shooter" being relegated to specially skilled hookers.[8][12]

Catch wrestling techniques may include, but are not limited to: the arm bar, Japanese arm bar, straight arm bar, hammerlock, bar hammerlock, wrist lock, top wrist lock, double wrist lock (this hold is also known as the Kimura in MMA, or the reverse Ude-Garami in judo), coil lock (this hold is also known as an Omoplata in MMA), head scissors, body scissors, chest lock, abdominal lock, abdominal stretch, leg lock, knee bar, ankle lock, heel hook, toe hold, half Nelson, full Nelson and almost infinitely many others.

The rules of catch wrestling would change from venue to venue. Matches contested with side-bets at the coal mines or logging camps favoured submission wins where there was absolutely no doubt as to who the winner was. Meanwhile, professionally booked matches and amateur contests favoured pins that catered to the broader and more gentle paying fan-base. The impact of catch wrestling on modern-day amateur wrestling is also well established. In the film Catch: The Hold Not Taken, US Olympic Gold Medalist Dan Gable talks of how when he learned to wrestle as an amateur the style was known locally, in Waterloo, Iowa, as catch-as-catch-can. The wrestling tradition of Iowa is rooted in catch wrestling as Farmer Burns and his student Frank Gotch are known as the grandfathers of wrestling in Iowa.

Martial arts


A notable match in 1914 was between two prime representatives of their respective crafts: the German-American catch wrestler Ad Santel was the World Light Heavyweight Champion in catch wrestling, while Tokugoro Ito, a 5th degree black belt in judo, claimed to be the World Judo Champion. Santel defeated Ito and proclaimed himself World Judo Champion.

The response from Jigoro Kano's Kodokan was swift and came in the form of another challenger, 4th degree black belt Daisuke Sakai. Santel, however, still defeated the Kodokan Judo representative. The Kodokan tried to stop the hooker by sending men like 5th degree black belt Reijiro Nagata (who Santel defeated by TKO). Santel also drew with 5th degree black belt Hikoo Shoji. The challenge matches stopped after Santel gave up on the claim of being the World Judo Champion in 1921 in order to pursue a career in full-time professional wrestling. Although Tokugoro Ito avenged his loss to Santel with a choke,[13] official Kodokan representatives proved unable to imitate Ito's success. Just as Ito was the only Japanese judoka to overcome Santel, Santel was the only Western catch-wrestler on record as having a win over Ito, who also regularly challenged other grappling styles.

Mixed martial arts

Karl Gotch was a catch wrestler and a student of Billy Riley's "Snake Pit" training school in the Aspull area of Wigan in then Lancashire. Gotch taught catch wrestling to Japanese professional wrestlers in the 1970s including Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Hiro Matsuda, Osamu Kido, Satoru Sayama (Tiger Mask) and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Starting from 1976, one of these professional wrestlers, Inoki, hosted a series of mixed martial arts bouts against the champions of other disciplines, including a legit mixed-rules match against boxer Muhammad Ali. This resulted in unprecedented popularity of the clash-of-styles bouts in Japan. His matches showcased catch wrestling moves like the sleeper hold, cross arm breaker, seated armbar, Indian deathlock and keylock.

Gotch's students formed the original Universal Wrestling Federation (Japan) in 1984 which gave rise to shoot-style matches. The UWF movement was led by catch wrestlers and gave rise to the mixed martial arts boom in Japan. Wigan stand-out Billy Robinson soon thereafter began training MMA veteran Kazushi Sakuraba. Lou Thesz trained MMA veteran Kiyoshi Tamura. Catch wrestling forms the base of Japan's martial art of shoot wrestling. Japanese professional wrestling and a majority of the Japanese fighters from Pancrase, Shooto and the now defunct RINGS bear links to catch wrestling. Randy Couture, Kazushi Sakuraba, Kamal Shalorus, Masakatsu Funaki, Takanori Gomi, Shinya Aoki and Josh Barnett, among other mixed martial artists, study catch wrestling as their primary submission style.[14]

The term no holds barred was used originally to describe the wrestling method prevalent in catch wrestling tournaments during the late 19th century wherein no wrestling holds were banned from the competition, regardless of how dangerous they might be. The term was later applied to mixed martial arts matches, especially at the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.[15]

Notable practitioners

For practitioners of Catch Wrestling, see Category:Catch wrestlers.

See also


  1. ^ "Catch Wrestling". Submission Wrestling Arts.
  2. ^ "Submission Wrestling". Archived from the original on April 7, 2005. Retrieved November 19, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d e Armstrong, Walter (1890), Wrestling
  4. ^ a b Slack, Jack (February 4, 2016). "Kayfabe Time Capsule: The Real Techniques of Professional Wrestling". Fightland. Archived from the original on 2020-11-09. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  5. ^ International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles. "Freestyle Wrestling". FILA. Archived from the original on 2011-07-11. Retrieved 2008-10-28.
  6. ^ Nash, John S. (2012-08-13). "The Olympic History of Catch Wrestling". Bloody Elbow. Retrieved 2021-11-05.
  7. ^ Nauright, John; Zipp, Sarah (2020). Routledge Handbook of Global Sport. Routledge. p. 179. ISBN 978-1-317-50047-6.
  8. ^ a b Bob Backlund, Robert H. Miller, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling's World Champion
  9. ^ Chuck Hustmyre, Twisted Technique: Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling Descended from the Original No Holds Barred Fighting Art, December 2003, Black Belt magazine
  10. ^ a b c Jack Slack (October 17, 2016). "The Continued Catch Wrestling Adventures of Minoru Suzuki". Fightland. Vice. Retrieved June 29, 2020.
  11. ^ Frank Gotch: World's Greatest Wrestler, Publisher: William s Hein & Co (January 1991), ISBN 0-89941-751-5
  12. ^ Jim Smallman, I'm Sorry, I Love You: A History of Professional Wrestling
  13. ^ "Ito threw Santell (sic) around the ring like a bag of sawdust… When Ad gasped for air, the Japanese pounced upon him like a leopard and applied the strangle hold. Santell gave a couple of gurgles, turned black in the face and thumped the floor, signifying he had enough." -- Howard Angus, Los Angeles Times, 1 February 1917
  14. ^ Michael David Smith (January 20, 2010). "Randy Couture 'Moving Away From a Jiu Jitsu Mentality'". MMA Fighting. Retrieved 2010-03-02.
  15. ^ "catch: the hold not taken". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2016-02-08. Catch: the hold not taken documentary DVD 2005