Professional wrestling that is seen on television today is well known as scripted sports entertainment that portrays hulking and lumbering men as the best athletes in their sport. Not many people know that pro wrestling had more humble roots and was a style that had real matches with real athletes that fought real bouts.
Every country has its own version of wrestling and sometimes they have multiple styles. For example, in Japan there is Sumo wrestling and of course Judo which are styles of wrestling using different rules to determine a winner. Even in the Olympics today Judo exists as well as Greco Roman and Freestyle wrestling. In the United States Collegiate and High School wrestlers use folk style wrestling rules to compete.
Catch as Catch Can in Early America
Early on in American history there were wrestlers who used to grapple using catch as catch can rules, this system of wrestling is known to be derived from British wrestling systems, these wrestlers would gain a victory by either pin or some sort of joint lock to make his opponent submit. In the late 1800’s there was a catch as catch can wrestling championships in the United States known only as the American Heavyweight wrestling championships, additionally catch as catch can was an Olympic sport early in the 1900’s.
The Fix is in
Wrestling matches started having pre determined outcomes early on when travelling carnival wrestlers, often small in stature, would challenge the locals to wrestling matches for prize money. Often the locals were reluctant to take on these wrestlers so they usually had a partner that would take the challenge while posing as an ordinary local and win the match to show how “easy” the match would be. Of course when a real local accepted the challenge and laid down his money the wrestler would go ahead and defeat him, usually taking his time to do so to encourage others to take the challenge. The practice of having a predetermined outcome is known as a “work” which is different from a “shoot” which means a real match.
With the advent of the television years later more and more matches became works to keep the audience entertained. The reason is that two evenly matched wrestlers could compete for quite a while with no victor since the sport lacked points and relied on a finish via pin or submission. The worked matches were intended to look real but wrestlers could now “cheat” by using chairs and other foreign objects.
In Japan a wrestler named Karl Gotch trained several Japanese professional wrestlers the art of catch as catch can. His students then formed a new wrestling federation called the UWF (United Wrestling Federation) which featured shoot style matches which were predetermined but looked like a real match using real techniques. It did not take long for new organizations to emerge which featured both shoot style and actual matches which were legitimate shoots without predetermined winners.
The Gracie Family
In the late 80’s and early 90’s mixed martial arts competitions started becoming popular in both Brazil and Japan. In Brazil the Gracie family took their unique style of Jiu Jitsu (known as Gracie Jiu Jitsu) and competed and subsequently won many no holds barred style contests in dominating fashion. They also competed in Japan with similar results, often simply taking down their opponents and forcing them to submit with strikes from the top, choke holds or arm locks. Eventually they put their skills on display in an event known as the Ultimate Fighting Championships. The UFC was the first taste of mixed martial arts in the United for decades and it revolution combat sports as well as the martial arts industry.
Kazushi Sakuraba was a standout high school wrestler and collegiate wrester in Japan who had a win over future Olympic Bronze medalist, Kat Ota. After college Sakuraba went on to become a professional wrestler for the UWF and Kingdom Pro Wrestling.
In 1997 a pro wrestler from the Kingdom organization entered the UFC 15 Ultimate Japan tournament but was injured during training. Sakuraba, weighing less than 185lbs, entered the heavyweight division by claiming to be over 200lbs.
In the event Sakuraba fought against 243lb heavyweight Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, Marcus “Conan” Silveira. During their 1st match Silveira threw a punch while Sakuraba was dropping for a leg tackle and referee John McCarthy mistakenly stepped in and stopped the fight, thinking the Japanese fighter got knocked out. After realizing his mistake McCarty ruled the fight a no contest and the two were allowed to fight again.
In the second fight Sakuraba was able to submit Silveira with an arm lock of his own in just 3:44 seconds of the 1st round, taking the UFC Japan title in the process. Sakuraba went on to defeat several Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts including 4 members of the famed Gracie family in no holds barred competition proving that catch as catch can wrestling is an effective form of combat.
Back to the Future
Catch as Can wrestlers in the United States is still very rare almost 20 years after the debut of Kazushi Sakuraba but some legitimate trainers exist. American wrestlers are now entering mixed martial arts events in droves and some actually spend some time training in catch wrestling, even though BJJ is now readily available all over the United States. It is indisputable that Pro Wrestling roots played a significant part in early mixed martial arts history in the United States through the preservation of catch wrestling in Japan.
Pete Kontakos is an avid fan of sports including wrestling, martial arts, football and other. He is also a husband, father and animal lover and enjoys reading about Pet health and other animal related information. Pete is certified as a wrestling coach through USA Wrestling.