By Nick Matthews
This is Part I of a three-part series about wrestling.
It may come as a shock to many that wrestling was at one point the most popular sport in the country, that it was not always what you see on television today, and that it actually used to be an athletic competition pitting the toughest people in the world against each other.
Currently, I am a professional wrestler for independent organizations throughout the northeast. However, I am often embarrassed to say that I am a wrestler because the sport has lost so much dignity, prestige and respect. In recent years, a midget who is being billed as a leprechaun (not kidding) was the cruiserweight champion, actor David Arquette and WWE Chairman Vince McMahon were both world champions (also not kidding), and a 7’6” 400+ lb Indian guy, with less mobility than a frozen snail, was a champion wrestler who actually wrestled the aforementioned midget (really wish I were kidding).
I am currently practicing “catch-as-catch-can” wrestling, which is amateur wrestling, with submissions, elbow and knee strikes, as a student and an assistant instructor. I have also practiced Greco-Roman wrestling, Judo and Boxing. I have sparred with several black belts in karate and Tae Kwon Do, and one of my close friends, who is also a sparring partner and trainer of mine, is a second-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black-belt.
Also, I have been following professional wrestling and all other combat sports for most of my life, as a fan. The reason I am writing this is because I am a frustrated shooter, a practitioner of catch-as-catch can wrestling (or in modern day terms, a legitimate wrestler), who doesn’t seem to have any place to fit in because mixed martial arts (MMA) and professional wrestling are so far from what wrestling and combat sports should be. Nobody knows where wrestling came from or what it used to be.
The sport of wrestling dates back to ancient Greece–their style of wrestling has become known as “greco-roman” wrestling. The object was to throw your opponent and pin their shoulders to the ground. If there was no pinfall, the bout would be decided based on points awarded for throws. Wrestling was so popular in Greece that even philosophers such as Plato were practitioners. In the original Olympics wrestling was the decisive, final event of the pentathlon, and was seen as the ultimate battle of man, due to the myth that Zeus out-wrestled Cronos for possession of the universe.
Wrestling had become very popular in Europe, but meanwhile, in Asia, they began to develop their own fighting styles. As time progressed, famous warriors such as shaolin monks and samurai developed several new combat techniques, but much of their grappling submission techniques were taken from catch wrestling. This is where Judo, Tae Kwon Do, karate, and jiu jitsu originated. This also encouraged other nations to develop their own styles such as Irish collar and elbow wrestling, or sambo in Russia.
In modern times, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are both a part of the Olympic games. Greco-Roman allows upper body movement, whereas freestyle allows leg takedowns as well. While freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling only utilize takedowns and positioning techniques, submission wrestling is still practiced and dates back thousands of years. As long as there has been wrestling, there have been professionals practicing submissions.
The reason Olympic wrestling is referred to as “amateur” is because professional wrestling used to be more advanced than Olympic wrestling. Catch wrestlers need to know everything that amateurs know.
Catch wrestling literally means to catch any hold or limb you can. It is a grappling sport that had been used as an army game practiced by soldiers and has been practiced by several U.S. Presidents, including George Washington, Andrew Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, who was a champion at one point. It utilizes all sorts of takedowns and submissions and is the roughest and most physically grueling of any sport.
I have played on football, baseball, hockey and basketball teams. Trust me, they’re nothing compared to wrestling. In no other sport have I ever been in so much pain that the blood vessels in my eyes popped, causing me to spend the next week with bloodshot eyes. In no other sport have I ever had my bones and muscles bent to their limit on a daily basis, and in no other sport was my nose intentionally broken to see how I would respond.
Catch wrestling grants more freedom than other martial arts as one can work with holds to discover new ways to hurt an opponent. In football, they say, “You touch it, you catch it.” In wrestling, they say, “You grab him, you break him.”
In the second half of the nineteenth century, carnivals and fairs became the main source of entertainment for Americans and it remained that way until the advent of television and radio. At these carnivals there would be a professional wrestler who would take on all comers, and if any person could win or last fifteen minutes, they would receive a cash prize. Up until Babe Ruth came along and made baseball America’s pastime, wrestling was by far the most popular sport in America. The wrestlers became icons of their time. Everyone in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s knew the names Frank Gotch, Martin “Farmer” Burns, Tom Jenkins and John Pesek.
Unfortunately, many of the people who would challenge wrestlers at carnivals would resort to illegal and barbaric acts such as eye gouging and biting, which took away from the conventional style of wrestling. In response, wrestlers of the time began to use hooks, or submission holds that had been inherited from past generations of wrestlers. Hooks are painful and effective. Even if someone is biting, scratching or clawing, a hook will subdue them and end the match. Now, instead of only being able to win matches by pinfall, there was also the option of winning by submission. The sign of submission at the time would be to scream “uncle.” Today, people will submit by tapping out, or by other verbal signals.
There are no belts in catch wrestling. Praise is not awarded because praise may lead to complacency, and a wrestler never stops learning. They are taught to become learners and always work harder, but no one will ever be a master of catch.
Up until this point, the predetermining of matches was unheard of. It was only a matter of time before the glitz and glamour of showbiz would make its way into the sport of wrestling.