Catch Wrestling In The World Of Combat Sports
One of the few widely used fighting styles that still carries an alluring air of mystery; catch wrestling. Or Catch-As-Catch-Can is an intriguing element to our sport. Largely carried in Mixed Martial Arts by two main proponents in Josh Barnett and UFC Hall of Famer Kazushi Sakuraba. The roots of catch wrestling are set in a story a long way away from MMA.
Popularised in recent times by Sakuraba and the many former Japanese pro wrestlers that came before him in Japan. Such as Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, and in the US by the likes of Barnett and his coach, Erik Paulson. Catch wrestling began life a lot closer to our own shores.
Slowly developed by a number of characters from the British 19th-century wrestling scene. It became most popular in working-class Lancastrian town Wigan. Combining and improving upon aspects of British wrestling’s three main styles, Cumberland & West Morland, Cornwall & Devon and Lancashire. It quickly became popular with fans and competitors alike.
A notoriously tough and painful sport, it caught on among the hard-edged miners in the north-west of England. Billy Riley, a Wiganer himself, rose to prominence when he began to showcase devastating submission skills. Riley’s catch wrestling skills allowed him to turn professional after the First World War. And gained great success as he won both British and World titles, as well as enjoying successful tours to the US and South Africa.
The Snake Pit Gym
It wasn’t until after Riley’s retirement though that his legend really began to build. Riley turned to teaching in the 1950s and opened a new gym on the now infamous Pyke Street in his hometown. ‘The Snake Pit’ would become notorious for its tough and unforgiving nature.
Stories abound of wrestlers, both new and experienced visiting the gym only to never return due to the punishing and painful experience. Those that did stay however became extremely well versed in one of the most dangerous fighting styles ever created.
Some of the most iconic names in catch wrestling emanated from the Snake Pit. Including Bert Assirati, Tommy ‘Jack Dempsey’ Moore, Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson.
Around the same time, the sport was also developing across the Atlantic. It developed into the most popular wrestling discipline of the time, used by travelling circus wrestlers as well as legitimate athletes. As displayed by the USA’s early Olympic Games domination of the sport. This lineage eventually led to a young martial artist from Minnesota taking up the sport.
Erik Paulson moved to catch wrestling late in his career after extensive training in Judo, Jeet Kune Do and Boxing among others. Paulson also had further grappling training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Where the American trained with Rigan Machado as well as Royce, Rorion and Rickson Gracie.
Whilst fighting for Shooto in Japan, Paulson began training heavily in shoot fighting. And eventually when he opened the CSW Training Centre in Fullerton, California, would go on to train both Ken Shamrock and Josh Barnett.
Catch wrestling was also hugely popular in Japan. Known for their blurring of lines between choreographed wrestling manoeuvres. And legitimate physical grappling, the Japanese pro wrestling style is often referred to by the wrestling world as Puroresu.
One of the most famous proponents of this style, Antonio Inoki, was introduced to the sport by one of The Snake Pit’s own, Karl Gotch. It was thrust deeper and deeper into Japanese culture, drawing heavily from Wigan influence.
Catch Wrestling in Pride Fighting Championships
One of the more notable cases was Kazushi Sakuraba, who represented the sport so nobly in the prime years of Iconic Japanese MMA promotion Pride Fighting Championships. Sakuraba trained under Billy Robinson during his time in Japanese wrestling promotion UWFi. And gained a base of grappling that he would use in his wrestling career, but to great effect in Mixed Martial Arts later.
The Japanese star became the first man without a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. To submit someone who did when he tapped Conan Silveira at UFC Ultimate Japan. Seen mostly as a grappling alternative to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, this opinion of catch wrestling was accentuated during his time in Pride.
Where the rivalry with the Gracie family was often pitted as Jiu-Jitsu vs catch wrestling. Sakuraba’s dominance in these matches saw him become known as The Gracie Hunter. As he defeated Royler, Royce, Renzo and Ryan in the space of just 13 months.
Sakuraba’s finest performance in the eyes of many was when he outlasted Royce Gracie. Over a 90-minute distance designed specifically to suit the Gracie style. Sakuraba’s win was a victory for wrestling and propelled Kazushi to legend status. Subsequently bringing catch wrestling to a new set of eyes.
Sakuraba The Gracie Hunter
Sakuraba though looked a shell of ‘The Gracie Hunter’ in the latter part of his career; and whilst sporadic appearances from the likes of Ken Shamrock, Rumina Sato and Masakatsu Funaki. And the half-catch/half-BJJ style of Liverpool’s expert guard-puller Paul Sass has done their part. Much of catch wrestling’s cheerleading has been left to Josh Barnett.
‘The Warmaster’ has represented Catch-As-Catch-Can in the US admirably. Staying very true to the roots of the sport with Antonio Inoki and the Snake Pit lineage. Barnett has remained at the top level of the sport for almost 14 years and his submission wins over Semmy Schilt, Yuki Kondo and Mark Hunt have contributed to his 20 wins by tapout as a professional.
Impressively, Barnett has also represented catch on the grappling scene. His recent win over BJJ wizard and previously untappable Dean Lister at Metamoris 4 will remain the stuff of legend.
Dominance from the first second to the last, resulting in a dramatic submission with just 12 seconds remaining. Using an infamous catch wrestling manoeuvre, Barnett applied pressure with a scarf hold. Causing Lister to submit for the first-ever time in competitive grappling.
An engaging character, and undoubtedly committed to his wrestling roots. Barnett paid homage to “Inoki-san” with his plain black trunks and boots which Inoki wore in many of his competitive matches, including his shoot fight with Muhammad Ali.
Art that feels as though it’s from a bygone era, the small scale of catch wrestling in today’s day and age continues to astound. Many of today’s most prominent Catch-As-Catch-Can proponents were taught directly by Snake Pit originals such as Karl Gotch or the recently deceased Billy Robinson. Undoubtedly fascinating, it seemed for a long time that the aggressive grappling art was on its last legs.
A recent re-entry into the martial arts consciousness may provide a much needed shot in the arm for the brutal discipline. But it needs a personality big enough to carry it. In Josh Barnett, Catch-As-Catch-Can may just have the ideal candidate.
Image courtesy of defensesoap.com