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Bloody Elbow Book Review: Catch Wrestling by Mark Hewitt

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Catchwrestling_mediumMark Hewitt's Catch Wrestling: A Wild and Wooly Look at the Early Days of Pro Wrestling in America is a fun and informative read for any MMA fan who's interested in learning more about the roots of the sport. The best part is its on sale for only $5 at Paladin Press.

From the Wikipedia entry on Catch wrestling:

Catch wrestling is a style of submission wrestling. Catch wrestling is arguably the ancestor of modern grappling, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts and no-holds-barred competition. Catch wrestling's origins lie in a variety of styles, most notably the regional wrestling styles of Europe, particularly the England (e.g. Collar-and-elbow, Lancashire catch-as-catch-can wrestling etc.), Indian Sub-continent (e.g.pehlwani) and Iran (e.g. Varzesh-e Pahlavani). 'Collar-and-elbow' refers to the initial hold of the wrestlers. 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.

Hewitt  focuses on that last category, telling the stories of the top wrestlers of the 1890 to 1940 era in the Unite States. Those of you who keep a close eye on our MMA History section will remember old school catch wrestlers like Ad Santel and Frank Gotch, both of whom are featured in Hewitt's book. 

In addition to Gotch and Santel, Hewitt devotes a great deal of time to Farmer Burns, Fred Beell, George Bothner, the shifty and deadly Charles Olson, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, John Pesak, Joe Stecher and Clarence Eklund. There are two chapters devoted to bouts between catch wrestlers and jiu jitsu grapplers featuring such Japanese notables as Katsukama Higashi, "Hako", Akitaro Ono, Nobushiro Satake, Tokugoro Ito and Mitsuyo Maeda (who would later travel to Brazil and teach jiu jitsu to the Gracie family).

The book also includes a chapter on bouts between boxers and wrestlers and a discussion of the feared "combination men" -- toughs who had mastered both boxing and wrestling and applied their knowledge in traveling carnivals where they would take on all comers.

The book is well sourced from newspapers and periodicals of the time and Hewitt does yeoman's work trying to untangle the layers of hype and kayfabe that predominated a sport that was becoming less and less legit throughout the period covered by the book.

But there was never a golden age of sporting competition, from the earliest chapters of the book, even top grapplers like Frank Gotch would travel under assumed names and take blue collar jobs from which to engage in challenge matches against local toughs. They worked much like a pool shark does today, playing down their professional caliber skills to skin locals who overestimated their abilities and were willing to lay down money.

The fearsome Charles Olson gets several interesting chapters detailing his habit of fighting under assumed names, including two tragic occasions where he broke the necks of other wrestlers in prize bouts. Things were definitely wild and wooly in the old days.

Its hard to get more than a feel for the techniques of the old catch wrestlers, since Hewitt focuses on the drama of the bouts and telling the stories of the contestants rather than breaking down their techniques. Its clear from some of the photographs that a kimura-like hold was often used but called a "double wrist-lock".

The most intriguing part of the book to me was the discussion of the old "leg wrestlers" like Joe Stecher and Clarence Eklund. This isn't about leg locks or knee bars. What these guys did was use their legs "like a second pair of arms" to control their opponent's head and arms. They also emphasized the use of leg scissors as a pain hold and sometimes even to get submissions.

Ultimately I enjoyed this book and if you're interested in the pre-history of MMA, it's easily worth $5 and the time it takes to read it.