In the late 19th century, traveling carnivals peppered the American countryside. These were the days before television or radio, days when the carnivals were a primary source of entertainment, particularly in the heartland. As part of their attraction, many carnivals featured “athletic shows,” where prize fighters and wrestlers would take on all-comers for cash. Athletic shows, therefore, were not only a source of entertainment — but also a way for the locals to interact with the performers, testing their own skills against the skills of these itinerant tough men, perhaps even winning some money to go along with bragging rights.
In their earliest stages, athletic show wrestling competition rules were offshoots of traditional wrestling rules, with each person trying only to pin the other. But as time went on, locals became more ruthless, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear stories of a local trying to gouge out a wrestler’s eyes during a challenge match. In addition, disputes often arose as to whether a person was actually pinned (not surprising considering money was on the line), and whether the referees were calling the matches fairly. The traveling wrestlers developed concession holds, or “hooks,“ both to protect themselves from injury and to eliminate any doubt as to who was victor. The wrestlers would stretch and crank their opponents, making them shout a loud concession of “uncle.”
As time passed the men became even more skillful at hooking. The rules of the challenge matches were often tipped to favor the local challengers — a way of giving a handicap or odds to the amateurs. Depending on the carnival or match, the wrestler could lose a match by being hooked, pinned, or even simply thrown or taken down. Thus, in order to survive, hookers became extremely proficient at controlling and hooking their opponents and defending against all methods of attack.
Under the most narrow of rules, wrestlers would lose matches if they failed to defeat their opponents within a certain time. Consequently, not only were these men becoming masters of wrestling, control, and hooks — but they were likewise fine-tuning skills that would allow them to execute their technique quickly and with icy efficiency.
Men such as Martin “Farmer” Burns, Frank Gotch, John Pesek, Ed “Strangler” Lewis , Ray Steele, and many others made their bones as carnival wrestlers. And this is a piece of Americana that we should never forget.
But American Catch Wrestling is not, as some have suggested, a moribund art simply because of its historic pedigree. The name “Catch,” in fact, is indicative of the discipline’s philosophy: catch any hold you can. As new holds develop, these holds are incorporated into the American Catch repertoire using the time tested principles of control, offensive movement, exacting technique, and keeping an opponent in an uncomfortable position.
Those who claim to be teaching Catch Wrestling — but who do so as if it were a tribute art or some nostalgic relic of a bygone era — are giving you museum show pieces, and are doing a disservice to the spirit of Catch Wrestling. American Catch Wrestling the way it SHOULD be taught is dynamic and adaptable. The principles remain the same, sure. But that is because the principles themselves are sound enough to adapt to changes in the submission grappling canon. Which means that for every innovative measure — say, for instance, the introduction of the rubber guard or x-guard — American catch develops a ready counter, using nothing more than the basic principles that have long remained at the heart of the discipline.
More, those who teach any submission grappling art or fighting system without stressing the necessity of physical conditioning — including a concentration on strength — are doing a disservice to those they train: there are no magic bullets or gimmicks in American Catch Wrestling. Practitioners are in top physical condition: they are taught to train their bodies to absorb rips; to strengthen tendons; to increase the strength of their necks and grips; and to drill the basics in ways that enable them to move quickly and fluidly on their feet and all the way through their striking, hand fighting, take downs and take down defense, transitions, and ground games. So it should be no surprise that included in the American Catch Wrestling Hooking Instructional Series are a number of increasingly advanced fitness routines designed specifically around the physical challenges Catch presents.
This is the story of Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling, or Catch Wrestling. From an offshoot of traditional wrestling burgeoned an art of well-developed submission technique, executed quickly and efficiently, against any and all challengers.
In a street fight, no-holds-barred competition, or a traditional Catch match, the basic strategy remains the same: knock out or hook (submit) your opponent as quickly as possible while absorbing the least amount of punishment. Catch Wrestling teaches you above all else to control your opponent — and in so doing, to control your situation — concentrating on balance, leverage, and time-tested technique, with the end result being control over where the fight takes place, how it unfolds, and how it finishes, be it with a strike or a hook.
To a hooker, fights should never last for 2-3 hours. That is left to the “performer” or “worker”. True shoots were generally short-lived affairs. Learning to control from the feet to the ground is the key to ending a fight quickly. If you can’t control a man, you can’t submit him. And if you are finding yourself fishing for a submission for hours or even many minutes on end, you are probably not properly controlling your opponent. Control is far more than holding a man down. Control is getting him to do what you want him to do.
Finally, hooks differ in kind from most submission holds taught in jiu-jitsu and judo, in that they are designed, literally, to break bones or tear tendons in their default application. Thus they tend to rely on shorter, quicker, and more compact movement than concession holds, which as a matter of necessity are generally speaking applied more gradually — perfect for a sport context.
Too, Catch hooks tend to be compound holds; so for instance, an American Catch Wrestling double wristlock will attack the forearm as well as the shoulder, something that differentiates it from a similar looking hold (eg., the Kimura) from other disciples. Of course, in a sporting event, catch hooks can be modified and used as submission holds — quite effectively, in fact — but what truly sets these techniques apart are the ferocity with which they attack joints, tendon, ligament, and bone. The motto of American Catch is, simply, this: “Use your whole body as a weapon, use his whole body as a target.” A Catch Wrestler should be close to a hook at practically all times, in any position. You can submit a person using your back, knees, head and shins. As judo and jiu-jitsu are the gentle arts, Catch Wrestling is the antithesis: brutal and unforgiving. It is certainly not for everyone, but there is no question that it is effective. This is not to say one style is necessarily “better” than the next. Rather, it is to point out that those who are shopping around for a discipline should match the philosophy of the discipline to the their own goals as fighters. Beyond that, it is best to appreciate the differences and to continually strive for improvement in whatever discipline it is you decide to adopt.
In the most simple terms, American Catch Wrestling is a top-to-bottom system that teaches you how to effectively and efficiently control and defeat your opponent.
The philosophy of American Catch’s is unlike that of any other grappling art. It is not simply meshing submissions into amateur wrestling — though it does stress the importance of wrestling basics. Still, American Catch is a self-contained system and a martial art form in and of itself: There are no points, and the emphasis is put on control and submission at all times and from any position imaginable. In the often frantic and scrambling chaos of a street fight, there is no assurance that you can work out of a comfortable position from which to launch submissions. But what you CAN do is control the relative position of the encounter, deciding whether to keep the fight on the feet or take it to the ground. And a body controlled is a body that is open for all sorts of rips, strikes, and submissions — even when conventional wisdom suggests that your opponent is in the more dominant position.
In short, position is relative, with control determining dominance.
Some people aren’t comfortable fighting from their backs. Some people are. Everyone is different. Catch teaches you that controlling your opponent is much, much different than simply having a particular position on him. You can be submitted by a man who has a “inferior position” if you lack the proper control. The style of American Catch is geared towards aggressively seeking an end to the encounter. You will NEVER hear the words, “that’s against the rules” or “that’s dirty” coming from a Catch Wrestler. The term No-Holds-Barred was coined for Catch-As-Catch-Can matches over 100 years ago. It means literally that….no hold is barred….catch any hold you can. American Catch Wrestling as a reality-based martial art maintains that mindset and trains for that contingency.
American Catch is different because it is a complete submission wrestling style that focuses equally on the stand-up and ground components of striking and wrestling. It employs fishhooks, elbowing, gouging, all manner of striking…literally anything that will facilitate the desired finish. Each move is designed to get you closer to ending the fight, not just to gaining the better position. It is about control and domination. That is the beauty of the style. It is savage. It is organic. It is Catch-As-Catch-Can.