Catch as Catch Can

Something I got into reading yesterday. Catch wrestling. Ever heard of it? Or, catch as catch can? This is somewhat related to Metamoris. If you don’t know about Metamoris, there is a famous jiu jitsu event called Metamoris. It usually features about 8 matches. Each match is hand picked to get two of the very best grapplers from different weight classes or ages or experience levels to compete against each other in a 20 minute submission only match. Submission only means one of the fighters has to force the other to quit (usually by threat of being choked unconscious or forcing a knee or elbow joint in the wrong direction) in order to win. It can take 1 minute or just under 20. Sometimes nobody is able to get a submission and the match ends in a draw. This happens because it is easier to defend than to attach. And, since nobody wants to get submitted in this huge event it can keep guys from going all offensive. For most of the time, they go for the kill. But, either way, it is a cool way to watch high level grappling. However, I’m convinced that it is not the purest form. But, that’s not my point.

A few months ago a guy named Josh Barnett fought a guy named Dean Lister. Dean Lister entered this fight having not been submitted in over 12 years. Maybe that is just his competition record, but I am willing to bet he hasn’t been caught in his gym very often either. Dean Lister owns one of the most famous grappling schools in the world. It is located in San Diego California. He has a bunch of UFC fights and is very highly decorated in the world of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He is usually one of the main events in the private competition put on by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi every year, the ADCC. He is a huge draw because he never gets tapped out. But, aside from having very good defense, he is a very dangerous grappler. Dean is known for leg locks, which are historically reserved for the nasty fighters. In early days of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Rio, Oswaldo Fadda brought his students to compete against the (now famous) students of Helio Gracie. Fadda’s students won 19 out of 20 of their matches using leg locks. But this was looked down upon and they were called “sapateiro” which translates to cobbler or shoe shiner. For some reason leg locks were not appreciated by the Gracie family. And, that influence has carried over into the modern game of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
But Dean and especially Dean’s recent opponent Josh Barnett are not of that mindset. Josh Barnett is one of many well known fighters who comes from the art of Catch, or catch-as-catch-can. This is an old wrestling term that dates back to 16th century Ireland and England where wrestlers would take any hold they could catch on each other. Wrestlers would challenge each other and later any and all comers by way of the circus in America to wrestling matches. The catch wrestling adapted from Irish collar and elbow wrestling. Collar and elbow involved lots of hip throws and trips like judo and is the basis for that stupid shin kicking game they still play in the UK. Wrestlers would tie up and try and take each other down. In other matches, wrestlers were allowed to grab the jacket and sometimes the legs to get takedowns. And, sometimes it was catch-as-catch-can. The winners would be awarded by either pinning or submitting their opponent. This evolved into modern folkstyle and freestyle wrestling, and wrestling where no holds were barred (no holds barred)..
The wrestlers that started wrestling for a living developed what they called hooks. Hooks were submission holds that could be applied very quickly and usually painfully to end a match. It could be a headlock, or neck crank, a wrist lock, or ankle lock. The reason quickness became so important for wrestlers was that as they traveled around, the toughest guys in each town would step into the ring and challenge them. And, the more time they spent in there with these guys, the more chance they had of getting hurt and ruining their livelihood. So, they developed very rough tactics to catch and hook their opponents and force them to yell “uncle”.
Nobody started calling the wrestler a a shoe shiner just because he could twist the knee all the way around before you could cry “uncle”. People just respected the game and would either take the long road of learning the moves and practicing against others, or avoid the competition altogether. Either way, catch wrestling found a home in America.
At the same time matches in England started to become big events and bets started being made. Wrestlers started taking dives. And, this would be the birth of “Pro Wrestling”. Years later this would involve into a huge spectacle. But, never the less its popularity keeps some of the old hooks alive.
In the 1990’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu would make it’s way into America and would clash with wrestling. The wrestling that was done in America was still very focused on pinning while Jiu Jitsu evolved the guard and fighting off of one’s back. It revolutionized fighting and changed the world of martial arts forever. Wrestlers who had been training for years to avoid being put on their back were getting their backs taken by Brazilians and being choked unconscious. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu took over the fight game as the most important martial art. If a fighter knew every other martial art except Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, he would still likely end up losing to a fighter who is focused solely on Jiu Jitsu. And, this was shown in UFC 1.
However, these days every fighter is well versed in Jiu Jitsu including wrestlers like Josh Barnett. Josh may have a wrestling base, but he is a second degree BJJ black belt under Rigan Machado. And at the last Metamoris, he used jiu jitsu to pass the guard of Dean LIster, and a catch wrestling chest compression/neck crank to submit him.

These old school wrestling hooks have been around for centuries. They are part of American culture and history. George Washington, at the age of eighteen, held an annual collar-and-elbow championship. Twenty-eight years later, in command of the Continental Armies, he demonstrated his wrestling skill by dealing flying mares to seven volunteers from Massachusetts. And, Washington was not the only grappling president of the United States. Zachary Taylor, William Howard Taft, Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge also practiced at one time or another the style of collar-and-elbow.
But wrestling, jiu jitsu, and fighting in general are not only American, they are human. And, they are a testament to human innovation at its most basic level. Men have been wrestling since before the time of recorded history. It is part of our DNA. And, it is forever evolving. The merging of catch wrestling and Brazilian jiu jitsu will only increase the level of quality in the next Metamoris and the next ADCC. And, as soon as someone figures out a way to put on high level no time limit matches (IMO the most pure way to find a winner), we will see more innovations in grappling.