MMA Fan's Guide to Grappling: Catch Wrestling

The MMA fan's guide to grappling moves on to a grappling style that hails from Europe and is one of the integral foundations of modern MMA: catch wrestling.

So far, this series has covered Judo and American Folkstyle and Freestyle Wrestling. Now the series will examine catch wrestling, one of the oldest grappling arts in the world.

Catch wrestling is a bit of an umbrella term that captures several similar grappling arts. Generally speaking, current forms of catch wrestling are jacket-less (no gi) arts that allow a wide range of submissions and also honor pins as a way to win a match. It is an extremely effective form of grappling and helped to establish an early form of Mixed Martial Arts.

Brief History: Much like Judo, catch wrestling got its start in the Middle Ages when armored knights would fight one another. The heavy metal armor presented real problems for the attacker, and one solution was to take the knight down and use the extra force of gravity to help defeat the prostrate man. They turned to wrestling traditions that existed in their respective cultures, which included a great deal of techniques for combat situations. Knights were full time soldiers who spent their lives developing and honing martial skills, and as a result the Middle Ages were something of a golden age of European martial arts, and to this day we still have combat manuals written by masters of the time. (Link) (Link)

At the end of the Middle Ages, combat inherently changed due to the evolution of fire arms and the downfall of the knight politically. Close combat became increasingly rare and soldiers stopped training wrestling as a combat art and a sporting focus became more prevalent. Wrestling became a popular spectator sport, and the combat focused wrestlers fought matches for cash prizes. It didn't take long for these "professional wrestlers" to realize it would be easier and safer to make money if they prearranged the outcome. But a wrestler needed to be able to back up his talk because it was possible an opponent would agree to lose and then "shoot"; meaning to start fighting live and then try to flip the script. While most modern pro wrestlers cannot actually grapple, catch wrestling survived for centuries as the martial art of pro wrestling and in small local styles that incorporated the different techniques.

Different Styles: Normally this series would cover the rules of a grappling art, but there are scant few catch wrestling competitions. The Snake Pit USA gym is trying to bring back the competition side and held the first catch wrestling competition in almost a hundred years in the city limits of New York. There has been a recent push to create more catch wrestling competitions to get back to pure roots of the grappling art, but let's look at the styles that exist in MMA today.

English Catch As Catch Can Wrestling: The art that puts the "catch" in catch wrestling, English Catch as Catch Can is a combination of regional styles of wrestling that emerged around 1870. They drew on many different styles to create a hybrid system composed of influences from the English styles of Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling, Cornwall and Devon wrestling, Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling, and the famously brutal Lancashire wrestling, in which just about any throw or submission hold was considered fair game. The globe-spanning British Empire of the 1700's and 1800's also impacted Catch As Catch Can; young wrestlers would join the English Navy and travel the world, bringing home influences from Japanese Judo and Jujutsu grappling, as well as from Indian Pellwani wrestling and Iranian Varzesh-e Palhavani wrestling. English Catch is the most influential catch wrestling and the most widespread, and includes a wide variety of submissions and pins.

Luta Livre: Translated from Portuguese as "Free Fighting", Luta Livre emerged when catch wrestling traveled to Brazil. Local fighters began to pair catch wrestling and judo together in a no gi system specifically geared for fighting the proto-MMA Vale Tudo matches that took place in Brazil in the 1900's. There, Luta Livre struck up a fierce rivalry with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and they battled for the dominant grappling style in Brazil. Vale Tudo matches did not include pins, so Luta Livre fighters did not focus on getting pins and, instead, developed an affinity for leg locks as it was a weakness in early BJJ fighters. Their crossover with BJJ also made Luta Livre fighters comfortable fighting from the guard and working a bit from their backs.

Shootfighting: This style started with Olympic wrestler Karl Istaz, who turned to Catch Wrestling after the 1948 Olympics and trained with the famous Billy Riley at the Snake Pit gym in English Catch As Catch Can Wrestling. He then moved to the United States and, while passing through immigration, was given the last name Gotch. After living in the U.S. he moved to Japan and would teach many of their future pro wrestling stars. Several of Gotch's students combined catch wrestling with karate and other striking styles to create a hybrid striking and grappling art that included a wide variety of takedowns, submissions and strikes. It became a form of early in MMA in Japan known as Shootfighting, which was practiced in the Shooto and Pancrase promotions in the 1980's and early 1990's, and both promotions were started by students of Gotch.

Strengths: Catch Wrestling is a strong base for mixed martial arts fighting. Their wrestling base gives them a strong, diverse, and effective takedown acumen, similar to those of freestyle or American folkstyle wrestlers. (Gif) (Gif) Catch wrestlers have learned these takedowns in the context of submission grappling, so they have a much better understanding of how submission attacks play into standing grappling. (Gif) (Gif) (Gif)

Once on the ground, catch wrestlers are very strong top players. They can put down fantastic pressure, using body position, cross-faces (Gif), and gravity to make their opponents flat out miserable. They also have excellent pins and control that translate very well to strikes being thrown. (Gif) But catch wrestlers are not content to just control an opponent -- where they really shine is in submission offense. Catch wrestlers can be some of the most aggressive grapplers out there and are armed with a wide variety of submissions: joint locks, chokes, neck cranks, leg locks, and slicers. Catch wrestlers also have a high level of technical expertise when it comes to leg locks. (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif) (Gif)

Catch wrestlers use everything at their disposal to attack: good position, leverage, pain infliction, and even a little muscle when needed. Luta Livre legend and instructor Roberto Leitao, who developed the theory of Luta Livre, once summed up their rivalry with Helio Gracie. "Gracie was stubborn," Leitao said, referring to Helio Gracie. "He believed that leverage was enough, but he was wrong." (Fight! Magazine)

But that isn't to say there isn't a great deal of technique in what catch wrestlers do, a prime example being the lock flow. When attacking a submission on an experienced grappler, it is very likely the first attempt will not succeed, so catch wrestlers spend a great deal of time practicing flowing between submissions. Catch wrestlers are also excellent at catching submissions in scrambles. (Gif)

Weaknesses: The biggest problem with catch wrestling is the lack of real quality coaching. I'm not saying there isn't any -- Neil Melanson at Xtreme Couture is excellent, along with Billy Robinson and his Snake Pit U.S.A. team. Erik Paulson has his Combat Submission Wrestling Program on the west coast, but English Catch As Catch Can coaching is not nearly as widespread as Jiu Jitsu, judo, or other grappling coaching. Japanese shootfighting is far more available, but still difficult to come by outside of Japan. Luta Livre is nearly dead after its failures to win major championships in Brazil, but regaining a small presence in MMA as of late. So, prospective grapplers are far less likely to come across catch wrestling than they are other grappling arts.

Another weakness is that, while their submission grappling is very strong, catch wrestlers can sacrifice their positional grappling a bit in the quest for a submission. This is not as true as it used to be in the 90's or early 2000's when Pancrase shootfighters wouldn't think twice before dropping back for a heelhook from top position, but that has changed to more calculated risks.

Guard play and working from off the back is not a huge part of catch wrestling, but there is some. More often, a catch wrestler will look to create space and scramble, but there have been some guard players that hail from a catch wrestling background.

Notable Practitioners both in and out of MMA (Click for Highlights): Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba, Josh Barnett, Erik Paulson, Minoru Suzuki, Masakatsu Funaki, Billy Riley, Neil Melanson, Rumina Sato, Masakazu Imanari, Antonio Inoki, Paul Sass

Rumina Sato showing off the aggressive top position grappling of catch wrestling at a Canadian grappling tournament

Combat Wrestling, developed in Japan, was a catch wrestling inspired grappling competition that produced some of Shooto's top stars in the 1990's and 2000's.

Catch Wrestling: Snake Pit U.S.A. 2013 MMA WORLD EXPO, NEW YORK CITY (via SnakePitUSA)

Shooto Demo 1992 in Chinatown Los Angeles

If this catches your interest, there is a whole bunch of work done on Catch Wrestling here on Bloody Elbow:

The Martial Chronicles: The Forgotten Olympic History of Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling

MMA Origins: Catch Wrestling Travels to Japan

Interview: The Return of Catch Wrestling's Snake Pit

MMA History XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba's Early PRIDE Run

MMA Origins: Birth of Japanese MMA

Karl Gotch Week: Satoru Sayama, Shooto And The Style Of Japanese Catch Wrestling

Judo Chop: Josh Barnett's Invisible Grappling

Judo Chop: Josh Barnett and Unorthodox Submissions

Marcelo Brigadeiro on the Resurgence of Luta Livre in MMA

Video: The Historic BJJ vs. Luta Livre Challenge Matches (Desafio Tournament circa 1991)

To share thoughts go to the comment line below or reach out to T.P. Grant on Twitter or Facebook. Special thanks to KJ Gould and Dallas Winston for their catch wrestling know-how

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