Catch wrestling is the ancestor of modern grappling, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts and no-holds-barred competition. The term is sometimes used in a restricted sense to refer only to the style of professional wrestling as practiced in United States carnivals just before and after 1900‘s. Under this stricter definition, “catch wrestling” is one of many styles of professional wrestling, specifically as practiced in carnivals and at public exhibitions from after the American Civil War until the Great Depression.
There are a number of modern submission wrestling enthusiasts whose foundation lies in catch wrestling as well as no small number whose training “lineage” traces back to catch-wrestling.
The Lancashire phrase “Catch-As-Catch-Can” is generally understood to translate to “catch (a hold) anywhere you can”. As this implies, the rules of Catch Wrestling were more open than its Greco-Roman wrestling counterpart which did not allow holds below the waist. Catch players can win a match by either submission or pin, and most matches are contested as the best two of three falls. Often, but not always, the chokehold was barred.
Just as today “tapping out” signifies a concession, back in the heyday of Catch Wrestling rolling to one’s back could also signify defeat. Frank Gotch won many matches by forcing his opponent to roll over onto their back with the threat of his feared “famous” toe-hold.
The rules of Catch Wrestling would change from venue to venue in the same way that the rules of mixed martial arts can change from promotion to promotion (e.g., Pride and UFC have different rules but are both referred to as “MMA”). Matches contested with side-bets at the coal mines or logging camps favored submission wins (where there was absolutely no doubt as to who the winner was) while professionally booked matches and amateur contests favored pins (catering to the broader and more genteel paying fan-base).
Catch wrestling and mixed martial arts Karl Gotch was a catch wrestler and a student of Billy Riley’s Snake Pit. Gotch taught catch wrestling to Japanese professional wrestlers in 1970’s to students including Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Hiro Matsuda, Osamu Kido, Satoru Sayama ( Tiger Mask) and Yoshiaki Fujiwara.
Starting from 1976, one of these professional wrestlers, Antonio Inoki, hosted a series of mixed martial arts bouts against the champions of other disciplines. 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.
Karl 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. 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.
Notable mixed martial artists with traceable catch-wrestling links are numerous. Among them are Kazushi Sakuraba, who trained in the UWF Snake Pit–a gym founded by catch wrestler Billy Robinson, as well as Masa Funaki and Ken Shamrock, both of whom trained under Karl Gotch and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Some other important mixed martial artists with significant ties to catch include Josh Barnett, Frank Shamrock, Kiyoshi Tamura, Ikuhisa Minowa, Karo Parisyan, and Erik Paulson. Ultimately, however, there are far too many mixed martial artists with ties to catch wrestling to compile anything resembling an exhaustive list of all such fighters.
It may also be worth noting that 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 applied to mixed martial arts matches, especially at the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championshi