Pitting catch wrestling against Brazilian jiu-jitsu

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Catch wrestling absorbed a number of influences through the years among them Pehlwani from the Indian subcontinent.  Afp photo

Catch wrestling absorbed a number of influences through the years among them Pehlwani from the Indian subcontinent.
Afp photo

The growth of mixed martial arts (MMA) in  the country has kindled interest in the grappling arts such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), judo, and Olympic wrestling. An athlete looking for a more diversified ground game, however, can seek tuition in other little-known yet equally formidable disciplines, such as catch wrestling.

Originally known as Catch-as-catch-can style, catch wrestling is a grappling style with a long history that started in the United Kingdom in the late 1800s. At present, it resembles submission wrestling, or grappling without the gi (traditional uniform), but according to the country’s sole practitioner of this art, the similarities are superficial.

Art of hooking

“Catch wrestling is the antithesis of BJJ,” said Aries Supremo, Wrestling Association of the Philippines Chairman and student of Chicago-based catch wrestler Tony Cecchine. “The underlying principle is that every part of your body is a weapon, while every part of your opponent’s body is a target.”


According to Supremo, one characteristic of catch wrestling is its aggressiveness. Catch wrestling practitioners, or “hookers” owing to their use of hooks (submission holds), will resort to strikes as well as aggressive application of submission techniques in combat.

“The first intention is to knock you down, or try to break your bones while standing,” Supremo said, adding that hookers tend not to take the fight to the ground like most grapplers. “If we fall down, then I’ll do another one (hook) on the ground.”

The logic why hookers prefer to keep the fight standing is for safety, according to Supremo, adding that they spurn grappling with their backs flat. “When you’re lying on the floor, you’re vulnerable,” he said, adding that a catch wrestler would scramble for a top position when in danger of being pinned.

Grapplers keen in passing the opponent’s “guard,” a defensive and controlling position in BJJ and no-gi grappling, may find a catch wrestler’s strategy unorthodox. In a demonstration, Supremo showed how to attack an open guard by hooking the opponent’s foot. “Catch is very known for leg-locks,” he explained.

According to Supremo, catch practitioners ignore the positional hierarchy of BJJ, attempting to hook as soon as control is established on the opponent.

Catch wrestling, however, shares some techniques with judo and BJJ, such as the Kimura (ude-garami), or“double wristlock” in catch wrestling, and its reverse form Americana, which catch wrestlers call “top wristlock”.

Strength is a major attribute honed by catch wrestlers through conditioning and weight training. “The bigger guy will beat the smaller guy if both know what they’re doing,” Supremo said.

Catching up

Catch wrestlers gained notoriety in travelling carnivals in the United States in the late 1900s. These carnivals usually take with them a “strongman” who puts up challenges among spectators for a chance to a prize sum. To prepare for all sorts of opponents, these strongmen use catch wrestling hooks to end a match quickly.

But despite its age and use by noted MMA fighters such as Kazushi Sakuraba and Josh Barnett, the system remains unknown among local MMA circles. “BJJ came here first,” Supremo said. “Then before Tony Cecchine came out with his DVD in 1999, catch wrestling was literally unknown.”

According to Supremo, professional wrestling (pro-wrestling) in the 40s and 50s was dominated by real catch wrestlers. After their decline in US pro-wrestling, they found a new use for their talents in Japanese pro-wrestling circuits and combat sports promotions, notably, Shooto and Pancrase.

Catch wrestling tactics are also a reason why it fails to spark interest among grapplers, especially to those who compete in grappling tilts. “There are techniques in BJJ tournaments that are part of catch wrestling like neck cranks and spine attacks. It’s hard to adjust,” Supremo said. Hooks are also not allowed in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

“The best thing to do is to teach wrestlers how to do the holds,” Supremo said. He added that most local athletes are more interested in chasing Olympic gold rather than grappling for MMA, but hinted at the possibility of training retired wrestlers. “I do it (catch wrestling) for myself, but if someone is interested to learn, then I teach.”

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