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What Is Catch Wrestling? An Introduction to Catch Wrestling

Catch wrestling is one of the most influential wrestling styles ever developed. It is a precursor to modern wrestling styles, martial arts, and even combat sports. Though it has been around for a long time, many people still don’t know what catch wrestling is.

Catch wrestling is a style developed by John Graham Chambers in 1859. It is a grappling system involving takedowns, holds, and submissions like arm locks, leglocks, and neck cranks. Catch wrestling is regarded as the progenitor of more popular “Freestyle” and “Collegiate” wrestling.

This is just a brief explanation of catch wrestling. We will explain the catch wrestling to you in the simplest way possible so you can easily understand. Thus, be sure to read this article to learn more about its history, techniques, rules, influence, and how it compares against other styles and martial arts.

The History of Catch Wrestling

The exact origins of catch wrestling are not clear. However, its origin is believed to come from England and the famous “Lancashire” wrestling style. There was also a sporadic influence of other styles, such as the Irish “Collar and Elbow.”

Early development

During the 19th century, this new form of wrestling started to appear in various carnivals in England. It was also known as “catch-as-catch-can” due to its origins in Lancashire style, which means “catch anywhere you can.” Catch wrestlers would compete against locals in a “one-on-one” fight challenge and win most of the time.

The man most credited with creating this form of wrestling is John Graham Chambers. He developed the initial concept in 1871 and would regulate catch-wrestling eight years later, in 1878.

The initial variation was a loose-hold system focused on wrestling on all fours on the ground. It included similar takedown techniques and tactics, such as catching hold of the legs and twisting the arms, as in the Lancashire style.

Though initially met with resistance, catch-wrestling eventually got the general public’s approval. However, once the sport started spreading in the US, it would also see the expansion of techniques.

Catch-wrestling reaches the United States

Catch wrestlers would reach the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Like in England, they were present at carnivals where local people could challenge the “carnival strongman” or a “best catch wrestler” and win a prize if they defeated them. There were multiple strongmen competing multiple times in a row.

To avoid long fights with tough local challengers, catch wrestlers started focusing on adopting more advanced techniques that would allow them to finish the fight faster. This is how moves like holds, joint locks, and cranks became a part of catch wrestling.

Catch wrestling slowly turned into a brutal fighting style, and carnival “catch-as-catch-can” matches turned into savage, no-holds-barred fights. However, the contests were very popular, so much so that this form of wrestling was included at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, US, with special rules that ban on dangerous moves.

Interestingly enough, many historians have often mentioned that the style of wrestling that was part of the 1904 Olympics was freestyle wrestling (due to rule changes) instead of catch wrestling. For this reason, it’s not very clear what the official name of wrestling during the 1904 Olympics was. Either way, freestyle wrestling is derived from catch wrestling.

Early Catch Wrestling match

The birth of freestyle and professional wrestling

In a nutshell, freestyle wrestling was created as a result of banning all dangerous moves found in catch wrestling. Since its inception, the sport of freestyle wrestling has grown in popularity in the United States. Freestyle became so popular that it is now part of all high school and college sports programs in the U.S.

Catch wrestlers continued to perform at carnivals. And through the years, a part of this form would branch into what people know as “professional wrestling,” which is scripted wrestling entertainment that was an instant success.

Instead of engaging in an intense and dangerous physical fight, wrestlers became entertainers, with their unique personal charisma coming into the spotlight. They would choreograph the matches and, inside the ring, perform pre-arranged wrestling moves in an acrobatic manner. Professional wrestling has grown to be a significant part of the sports entertainment industry since the 1920s and has kept growing.

Catch wrestling in modern times

Catch wrestling became overshadowed by freestyle and Greco-Roman. During the mid-20th century, it was mostly present in no-holds-barred events such as Vale Tudo in Brazil and Sambo in Russia. In addition, catch wrestling techniques can be seen in combat systems such as Luta Livre.

However, this wrestling style is making a comeback with the rise of submission grappling events such as ADCC. The concept of catch wrestling fits well within the rules of combat sports.

For example, freestyle or Greco-Roman techniques work well in MMA fighting or grappling tournaments to take down their opponent to the ground. But these styles lack submission techniques to finish their opponents once on the ground, as you see in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

However, catch wrestling teaches you how to take your opponent down and adds advanced submission moves that freestyle and greco-roman wrestling solely lack. After being forgotten for many years, an increasing number of people are slowly discovering that catch wrestling is a very effective form of wrestling.

An overview of what catch is in the simplest terms is to think of collegiate wrestling with submissions; that is essentially what catch is…

Former UFC fighter John Barnett explains what catch wrestling is
Former UFC fighter Josh Barnett explains catch wrestling

Catch-Wrestling Rules

Catch-wrestling rules are straightforward, as a wrestler can win a match by submission or pin. There are very few restrictions when it comes to takedowns, holds, joint locks, and locks. These moves are allowed as long as wrestlers do not combine dirty moves like eye-gouging or the notorious fish-hooking. Submissions like “Full Nelson” are also banned.

  • Match duration — in some competitions matches are split into rounds. In others, there is only one round.
  • Techniques — takedowns, throws, trips, leg locks, arm locks, chest locks, shoulder locks, neck cranks, wrist locks, “hook” is a broad term for any undefined submission move that spreads, twists, or compresses a joint or limb.
  • Illegal moves — dirty moves such as eye-gouging or striking the opponent
  • Ways to win — submit the opponent or pin their shoulder to the ground for three seconds. If there is no winner when the time runs out, the match continues until one of the wrestlers secures a submission or pin.
The wrestler on the bottom is getting pinned

The difference between Shootfighting and Catch Wrestling

Shootfighting originates from catch wrestling but also differs in certain areas. Catch wrestling is a mix of takedowns, throws and holds, and submissions. Catch wrestling rules do not allow dirty moves or striking each other with punches or kicks.

In contrast, shootfighting differs from catch wrestling because it also adds open-hand palm striking or kicking, apart from takedowns, holds, and submissions. You can win a match by pins or submissions (tap-out) or by knocking the opponent out cold with strikes. In some ways, it is similar to MMA in terms of hybrid freestyle fighting with fewer restrictions.

Shootfighting became very popular in Japan, where the famous combat promotion “Pancrase” organized the events. In MMA circles, Pancrase is one of the pioneers of combat sports.

The success of shootfighting also led to the development and rise of professional wrestling in Japan and America. But, unlike the original catch wrestling, pro-wrestling is scripted, and matches are set up to look exciting and fun.
Bas Rutten in Pancrase shootfighting

MMA fighters with catch wrestling backgrounds

Catch wrestling trained fighters have made a name for themselves in the UFC.
Some of them are as follows:

  • Ken Shamrock
  • Josh Barnett
  • Kazushi Sakuraba
  • Karo Parisyan

What is the key difference between freestyle wrestling and catch wrestling?

While freestyle wrestling focuses only on takedowns and pins, catch wrestling includes submission holds such as joint locks and chokes.

Freestyle is one of the two styles included in the Olympic Games. The emphasis is on powerful takedowns and taking the opponent down to score points and win a match. Wrestlers get points (1–5) for takedowns, escapes, exposure, etc. There are no submission techniques in freestyle wrestling.

Catch wrestling is different both as a concept and in terms of rules. It is a more brutal style that includes the same takedown techniques very much. But the emphasis is on finishing the fight with submission holds or pins—only two ways to win in catch wrestling.

Catch wrestling notably focuses on brutal and dangerous moves such as neck cranks and leg locks. There are no points to earn in the competition, and the action keeps going until one wrestler achieves either of the two ways to win.

Is catch wrestling useful for self-defense?

Catch wrestling is among the most effective combat systems for any freestyle combat or self-defense scenario. The entire concept is in line with the violent nature of street fighting and will prepare you for intense scenarios you may encounter in real life.

The key advantage is the approach. Catch wrestlers are explosive, fast, and always looking to finish the fight quickly. They rely on battle-tested takedown techniques, submission holds, and pins to neutralize the opponent.

Although there is no striking, catch wrestling remains among the most effective systems for one key reason. Most regular people don’t know how to grapple or have the skills to defend a takedown.

Catch wrestlers need to grab just a single part of the attacker’s body; in most cases, it would be all over. They can take down their attacker in a split second, and just holding their attacker on the ground is enough to defeat them even without using any submission technique.

Related Questions

Is there any striking in catch wrestling?

Catch wrestling does not include any striking at all, as the system focuses only on grappling. The system later influenced the birth of other combat sports, such as shootfighting and MMA, which include striking. But the original catch wrestling focuses solely on takedowns, pins, and submissions.

How effective are catch wrestling submission techniques?

Catch wrestling includes only the most effective submissions, the same ones proven in modern mixed martial arts (MMA), such as armlocks, leglocks, and neck cranks. The aggressive approach also adds to the effectiveness as well as the brutality of the system.

RELATED: Why Wrestling Is So Important In MMA?

What are the different styles of wrestling?

Wrestling is among the oldest martial arts, and over time, dozens of different wrestling styles have been developed all around the world. The most popular ones are freestyle and Greco-Roman, both included in the Olympic Games. However, all wrestling styles can be divided into the following categories:

  • Traditional styles (Greek wrestling, Pankration, Roman Wrestling, Shuai Jiao, Lancashire wrestling)
  • Sports styles — Freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, Folkystyle (collegiate) wrestling, Folk wrestling, Sumo wrestling
  • Submission styles — Catch wrestling, Sambo, and Luta Livre
  • Professional wrestling — WWE, AEW, Impact Wrestling, etc. 
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