The Forgotten Golden Age of Mixed Martial Arts – Part 1: The Golden Age of Wrestling and the Lost Art of American Catch-as-Catch-can

This is part one in a four part series shining a gas light on the forgotten golden age of mixed martial arts that existed during the Belle Époque. For the history of the origins and early development of MMA check out James Figg: The Lost Origins of the Sport of Mixed Martial Arts.  


"The evolution of martial arts since 1993, since the UFC came around, martial arts have evolved more than they have in the last 700 years. We know exactly now what works in a real live situation with two warriors fighting. For a long time that was just speculation."

- Joe Rogan

It is common knowledge amongst fans of the sport of MMA that the first Ultimate Fighting Championship ushered in a "golden age" of mixed martial arts. Sure it had a predecessor in Brazilian Vale Tudo and Japanese "shoot" wrestling matches, but those were merely prologue for what was to follow. What Art Davie and Rorion Gracie unleashed with UFC 1 was something unseen in the annals of unarmed combat:  the opportunity for the best fighters in the world from two different disciplines to test themselves and their art in an actual fight.  No longer would we have to imagine who would win in a hypothetical match up between, say, a wrestler and a judoka, or try and calculate who employed the more effective striking, a savateur, a boxer, or a karateka, because now we would be given the definitive answer via a real world test. For the first time since the ancient Greeks participated in pankration, martial arts would move beyond the philosophical to the empirical. Thus a "golden age" was born.

Unfortunately none of the above is true. What most fans are not aware of is that there existed a previous "golden age" of mixed martial arts, one where much of the progress we currently enjoy was made and where most of our questions were answered.  This previous era saw unrivaled progress in ancient disciplines, the emergence of new hybrid fighting styles, the pitting of the different disciplines against each other in no-holds-barred combat, and the presence of some of histories greatest unarmed combatants.  And all of this existed a century before the first fighter ever stepped in the Octagon; during the "golden age" that was the Belle Époque.

The Belle Époque (in the United States it was referred to as the Gilded Age) is the name given to the period around the turn of the 20th century, beginning in 1870 with the end of the Franco-Prussian war and lasting until the first shots of the Great War. It was a remarkable time that saw the world drastically shrink with the introduction of the automobile, areoplane, giant Oceanliner, telephone, and cinmatographe, shepherding in vast societal changes and leading to unprecedented advances in the fields of the sciences, the arts, technology, and literature.

The field of the martial arts would be no different.



"…There is a more powerful influence toward making a man roll over on his back or simply quit is pain."

-  Frank Gotch

Since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship two disciplines have consistently proven themselves to be the most effective in the sport of mixed martial arts: wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Both of these would see their greatest accomplishments achieved during the Belle Époque. In fact, wrestling, even with its millennia of history, would reach its zenith during this time thanks to a confluence of circumstances, beginning with the American Civil War.

In the United States of America, wrestling has always been a popular sport amongst its citizens. That interest grew exponentially during that nation’s Civil War as soldiers, looking for diversions during the long lulls between fighting, took up grappling as a means to offset the boredom. Amongst the Union soldiers collar-and-elbow become the preferred style, as it was already immensely popular with the Irish and Vermont troops, therefore the readily understood rules made it easier for members of different regiments to compete with each other. After the war, returning veterans retained their passion for the sport, spreading their interest and newfound knowledge across the land. Soon it was the nation’s pastime as innumerable leagues, county tournaments, and state meets sprung up to fill the competitive void.

Interest was such that the first nationally recognized heavyweight champion was crowned in 1880 when William Muldoon defeated Thebaud Bauer in front of 3,000 people in New York City. Oddly enough, they didn’t wrestle in collar-and-elbow but in the misnamed Greco-Roman (a more accurate name for the new style would be French flat hand wrestling). Muldoon’s victory made him arguably the country’s most famous athlete and sparked such an interest in Greco-Roman wrestling that it soon became the preeminent style. That position wouldn’t last.

To cater to this newfound interest in all things wrestling, the barnstormers and carnivals that traveled the land began offering wrestling exhibitions as part of their "Athletic Show" (or "AT Show" as they were known). An important part of the show involved the carnie wrestlers offering a challenge and cash prize to any local who could best them. To accommodate the many folk style being used by the large influx of immigrants in the post-bellum, necessity dictated that something besides Greco-Roman or collar-and-elbow be used. The barnstormers turned to the all-in style of Lancashire catch-as-catch-can for inspiration, coming up with an even laxer set of rules often referred to as no-holds-barred. No-holds-barred proved immensely popular with the public, resembling the free-for-all (a watered down rough-and-tumble or "no rules") wrestling common in many parts of the country.



Another important aspect of catch–as-catch-can wrestling was that it allowed for victory by submission  (or concession, as it was sometimes referred as).  Not only were submissions more popular than throws (pins) amongst the lower classes, having growing up on rough-and-tumble matches that only ended when one man quit, but they also had the added benefit of allowing a wrestler to use  "hooks". "Hooking" was the art of using techniques that were either unknown to the general public or technically illegal under most rules. "Hooking" was helpful for two reasons: the first is that it gave the wrestler who used them an advantage over any wrestler unfamiliar with these techniques. This was an important weapon to have in one’s arsenal when facing a talented local who might prove too dangerous to risk a straight up wrestling match with. Secondly, it made it easier for a wrestler to eliminate their challenger. By finishing a match as speedily as possible not only did a wrestler protect himself from potentially getting injured, but it also allowed him to go through a much greater number of challengers in one day, thereby earning more. Thus there was a natural incentive to learn how to hook. 

AT shows provided the perfect environment for the development of American catch (although, ironically enough, it also introduced the showmanship and hippodroming that would eventually doom legitimate professional wrestling), at its heart being the pledge to "accept all challengers". The wrestlers who worked the shows would face an endless stream of competition – a dozen challengers a day was not uncommon – giving them countless hours to hone their craft. The challengers varied from drunken louts and local toughs to county champs skilled in a multitude of different folk styles and the occasional dreaded ringer.  For the barnstormer there was always the risk that the challenger that day wasn’t really a young farmer bringing pigs to town, a funny looking yokel wrestling in his drawers, or a veteran of the Philippines Insurrection named Frank Kennedy, but really Martin Burns, Fred Grubmier, or Frank Gotch in disguise.  Ringers such as these provided AT show wrestlers a chance to test their skills against their fellow "hookers". In this environment American catch –as-catch-can wrestling went through a Darwinian evolution, quickly becoming an amalgamation of all the folk wrestling of the new and old world: backwoods "rough and tumble", freed slave "knocking and kicking", British Lancashire, Cumbrian, Westmoreland, Cornish, and Devonshire (purring), Scottish backhold, Irish collar-and-elbow and coraiocht, German/Austrian kampfringen and ringkampf, and French la luttes a main platte (or flat hand). By the end of the 19th century Japanese jujutsu holds were being added to the repertoire of many "hookers".



The ascendancy of catch- as-catch-can wrestling as the premiere wrestling style of America was best symbolized by Evan "The Strangler" Lewis’s odyssey to unify the various wrestling championships. He gained his first title in 1887, when he captured the World "Catch-as-Catch-can Championship" from Joe "The Little Demon" Acton in Chicago, Illinois. A few months later at the Battery D Armory in that same city he beat the Cornish wrestling champ, Jack Carkeek, in a mixed style catch-as-catch-can and Greco-Roman match.  Finally he faced Ernest Roeber, the protégé of William Mundoon, in a pair of highly anticipated matches. First, in 1890, for the "Collar-and-Elbow Championship", and then again in 1893 with both Lewis’s "Catch-as-Catch-Can Championship" and Roeber’s "Graeco-Roman Championship" on the line in a best of five match alternating between the two styles. "The Strangler" would win both of these confrontations, and from that point on the "Catch-as-Catch-can Champion" would be wrestling’s Heavyweight Champion.

Evan Lewis would eventually go on to lose the title to Iowan Martin "Farmer" Burns in 1895, a wrestler who would have a profound influence on the development of American wrestling.  Burns’s greatest contributions to the sport came after he lost the title to Dan McLeod in 1897, when he made an industry out of sharing his vast knowledge, opening gymnasiums around the country, developing an exercise regiment so highly regarded that Jim Jeffries hired him as his trainer, writing and publishing a popular mail-order course titled "The Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture", and discovering and training such notables as Earl Caddock, Joseph "Toots" Mondt, Ralph Parcaut, and Frank Gotch.



Burn’s success can be attributed to an increase interest in amateur wrestling across the country, which in part was fueled by an interest in professionals such as Burns. As the nation’s urban centers grew, a movement started to organize sport as recreation for the industrial workers. In 1888 the Amateur Athletic Union sanctioned its first national tournament and soon afterwards became recognized as the governing body for amateur wrestling in the United States. Athletic clubs opened across the nation offering wrestlers a place to train and compete. In the early 20th century colleges began to hold wrestling meets. In a few decades wrestling had gone from a sport where two local toughs challenged each other to one where hundreds of professional athletes supported themselves wrestling and where a vast amateur network gave tens of thousands an opportunity to participate.

Catch-As-Catch-Can (1903) (via RagingBull1935)

The wrestling most of them participated in, catch-as-catch-can, was a particularly rugged and violent sport, as epitomized by a title match between Tom Jenkins and Frank Gotch on January 24th, 1904 in Bellingham, Washington. For over an hour, in what could be described as nothing more than a street fight, the two head butted, kneed, elbowed, gouged, and slammed each other into bloody pulps. Finally, after surviving a head scissors that brought blood from his nose and mouth, Frank Gotch got the upper hand and slammed Jenkins into the matt, cutting his jaw open and smashing his nose so badly he couldn’t breathe. A desperate Jenkins finally struck Gotch with a haymaker resulting in a disqualification by the exasperated referee. To the cheers of the blood-drenched spectators sitting ringside, Frank Gotch was proclaimed champion. Such was the barbarity of these matches that injury and even death were not unheard of: professional wrestler Charles Olsen killed an opponent of his not once, but twice during his career (at least Col. James Hiram McLaughlin had the good sense to swear off catch-as-catch-can after killing two of his opponents and leaving a third paralyzed). Eventually the more dangerous and punishing holds were eliminated from the amateur game, resulting in the creation of freestyle (and eventually collegiate) wrestling.



Meanwhile Europe was going through its own wrestling renaissance. On the continent Greco-Roman (French flat hand) wrestling style had become extremely popular, owing in part to a newfound interest in "ancient values" and the mistaken belief that it was the wrestling of Plato. In the opera and musical halls of major cities all across Europe high profile international Greco-Roman tournaments were held, with large monetary prizes given to the place winners. From out of these tournaments emerged the first true global wrestling star  - George Hackenschmidt.

The Russian Lion – as Hackenschmidt was known – was an ardent follower of the physical culture movement, and resembled more a Greek god carved from marble than a man. He stood 5’9" tall and weighed 218 pounds (with a 52-inch chest and a 35-inch waist) during a time when the average Londoner was 5’7" and 145 lbs.  And his feats were as mythical as his physique. He was the inventor of the "Hack squat" and one of the strongest men in the world, capable of dead lifting 660 lbs with a single arm or lifting and carrying a horse on his shoulders. He was an expert cyclist and superb athlete, capable of doing standing jumps over a 4’ obstacle 100 times in succession. And he was a polyglot and an intellectual, writing several books on philosophy and physical culture. After winning back-to-back both the Vienna and Paris World Championship Tournaments of 1901, the Russian Lion, now recognized as the undisputed Greco-Roman champion of Europe, turned his attention to London and catch-as-catch-can.

At the time, outside of Lancashire, wrestling held little interest for the English populace. A few professionals were making a living performing in Music Halls, alongside the strongman acts, but the best wrestlers, such as Tom Connors and Joseph Acton, often found a more receptive audience in the United States. One who found some success in London was the Cornish American Jack Carkeek. During his "performance" on March 2nd, 1902 at the Alhambra Theatre in London, he issued a challenge to any wrestler in the world, feeling secure in his knowledge that the only catch wrestlers who threatened him were safely on the other side of the Atlantic. To his and the audience’s astonishment George Hackenschmidt, in full evening wear, jumped onto the stage to accept the challenge. Recognizing the grandstanding Hackenschmidt, Carkeek instantly withdrew his offer to a chorus of jeers. The whole event caused a journalistic frenzy, and made Hackenschmidt an overnight sensation, which he quickly capitalized on. In 1902 he was proclaimed the World Champion after defeating the English Heavyweight champion Tom Cannon, even though he had yet to meet the American champ. He rectified this in 1905, defeating Tom "Rough" Jenkins in two straight falls in New York City to become the first truly undisputed champion. Professional wrestling now had a single, undisputed world champion wrestling under the catch-as-catch-can rules.



Hackenschmidt’s success ignited a boom in London wrestling, with the Alhambra Theatre becoming the sight of many of its most prestigious events. In 1908 it started to host the National Sporting Club open-to-the-world catch-as-catch-can tournament were wrestlers from around the world, including a large contingent from Wigan (the traditional home of Lancashire wrestling), participated. Much as the AT shows had done before, this London music hall catch-as-catch-can began to incorporate the many grappling techniques of its participants into its repertoire.  The biggest contributors proved to be Swiss schwingen  (Armand Cherpillod, John Lemm), Indian Pehlwani (Gulam, The Great Gama, Iman Bux, Gobar Goho), Turkish yağlı güreş(The Terrible Turks: Youssuf Ismael, Hassan Nouralah, Ahmed Madrali) Japanese sumotori (Sorakichi Matsuda, Tomioki, Hamada Kurakichi), and, perhaps most importantly, jujutsu and judo (Taro Miyake, Yukio Tani, Mitsuyo Maeda, Tsuatai "Rubberman" Higami). Jujutsu became such an important part of catch wrestling that in his 1909 book "The Compete Science of Wrestling", George Hackenschmidt recommended wrestlers study jujutsu, as it included the leg sweeps, trips, and chokes that wrestling lacked. Around that same time Len Lanius began to develop his Yankee Jiu Jitsu, for the purpose of "perfecting a style of defense to check their [jiu jitsu] attack. Under the influence of these many disciplines, new styles developed, the most important being the "leg" wrestler - wrestlers who used their legs like another set of arms to control and contort their opponents into unbearable positions. 

So how effective was the wrestling developed by these early 20th century professional catch-as-catch-can artists?  When matched against an amateur wrestler with a background in Greco-Roman, freestyle, or collegiate, no matter how skilled he was, the evidence clearly indicates that the amateur had little chance. Be it John Pesak beating Olympic silver medalist Nat Pendleton in two straight falls due to submission by toehold, or a 45-year old Clarence "The Octopus" Eklund pinning the entire Oklahoma A&M’s 1933 NCAA national championship team, from lightweight to heavyweight, in only 15 minutes, in a no-holds-barred match, the techniques developed over the years in catch wrestler gave them a distinct advantage.

By this time Wrestling, in both the old and new world, had reached its peak and a showdown was in order between the two camps. Representing Europe would be the World Champion, George Hackenschmidt, while America’s champion would be a student of Martin Burns, "The Iowa Plowboy" Frank Gotch. In Gotch Burns had found his greatest pupil, a 5’ll 190-pound grappler who seemed to relish in the pain he inflicted on his opponents. Like many of the best in America, he had come up through the carnival circuit, and was viewed by many as the greatest practitioner of scientific wrestling the world had seen, being renowned for his use of the "toe-hold" as a means of forcing his opponent to concede or face excruciating pain or debilitating injuries.



In 1908 the two met in front of 8,000 in Chicago, where after two hours of grappling it finally ended when Hackenschmidt conceded instead of risking injury from Gotch’s dreaded toehold. The match was not particularly exciting, and the victory was further tainted when afterwards Hackenschmidt accused Gotch of cheating by eye-gouging and oiling himself up to prevent him from gaining a grip. A rematch was arranged in 1911, and was the biggest prizefight in history at that time. With film cameras rolling and over 30,000 in attendance at Comiskey Ball Park, the world witness a debacle as an injured and out-of-shape George Hackenschmidt was easily defeated in two straight falls. Accusations were made that Hackenschmidt threw the fight and that Gotch had hired Ad Santel to injure Hackenschmidt‘s leg in training. The public soured on professional wrestling, equally tiring of the long boring matches and the fixed matches.



Would the public’s displeasure last? Unfortunately we’ll never know because soon thereafter, on June 28, 1914, the Archduke Ferdinand was shot, triggering Europe’s Great War. By the time the guns went silent and the Armistice was signed at 11 am on November 11, 1918, the "golden age" of wrestling was no more.

To be continued in The Forgotten Golden Age of Mixed Martial Arts – Part 2:  The Rise of Judo and the Dawn of a New Age.

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