Rough and Tumble – The History of American Submission Wrestling

In Grappling, Health, History, Jiu Jitsu, Martial Arts on April 23, 2011 at 6:36 pm

by Erik Paulson, Matt Granahan and  JD Dwyer

     Let me begin this review by stating that I’ve seen Erik Paulson fight… and he is one badass sonofabitch. He was doing the MMA thing before it was called MMA,* and is a true American pioneer in terms of researching, training, and perfecting his fusion of styles in order to find out what works in the martial arts. I would love to learn from him personally some day – he teaches out in Fullerton (not terribly far from me as the crow flies), and I know just from watching his videos that the wealth of knowledge he possesses about grappling, submissions, and how the body moves/reacts are second to none.†

With that said, let me also state that this book is written about a fascinating topic, one that has been sorely underreported in the American (and global) media. I picked it up with glee and digested it in nearly one sitting; the stories about Carny (carnival) “take-on-all-comers” matches are particularly absorbing, and there certainly is a case to be made for Catch Wrestling being at least as badass of a fighting style as Jiu Jitsu.

However… I found myself repeatedly wishing, as I read, that these guys had hired me (or anyone) as an editor before letting this text hit the shelves… it reeks of self-publishing and is lacking badly in editorial rigor. Typos are rampant, commas poorly used, texts cited imprecisely. Theories are hinted at but left unexplored, chronologies are all over the place, and broad, hyperbolic statements are the norm throughout.

The authors’ basic premise seems to be this: in America (and in England), a style of wrestling evolved called “Catch-as-Catch-Can” (or simply, Catch Wrestling) which was very different from what most of us think of as wrestling, in that it focused largely on submissions. Whereas collegiate, Greco-Roman, and Professional (i.e. WWE-style) wrestling all focus on takedowns and pins, Catch Wrestling added a deadly emphasis on joint locks, “hooks” and chokeholds and thus became an enormously dangerous and effective combat art. Indeed, the authors refer to submission wrestling as “the world’s most effective martial art” or “the most dangerous martial art the world has ever seen” about twenty different times during the course of the book, and they seem to have a bone to pick with Jiu Jitsu in particular.

This is understandable in some ways, as Jiu Jitsu has grown incredibly popular throughout the world while Catch Wrestling had nearly disappeared by the end of the last century (thankfully there is a revivalist movement nowadays that seems to be picking up a lot of steam); Paulson, Granahan and Dwyer do give Jiu Jitsu some props (Paulson has been a practitioner, as far as I know), but the trio seem to waver back and forth between begrudging respect and and something that almost approaches contempt for the art. I think that the situation is this: Paulson, Granahan and Dwyer think that Jiu Jitsu has been given a disproportionate amount of credit, often cited as the “most effective form of street fighting” that there is; they believe that honor should go to Catch Wrestling.

I’ll admit to a fair amount of curiosity – I know that Catch Wrestling puts a lot of emphasis on leg locks, whereas in Jiu Jitsu (which I currently practice) these maneuvers are frowned upon as being too dangerous for anyone other than advanced students… I also know that there are spinal twists, cross-face bars, toe hooks and other techniques that we just don’t see in Jiu Jitsu. My sense is, though, that Catch Wrestling (like all forms of wrestling) puts a fair amount of stock in strength and power; in Jiu Jitsu, our professors remind us time and time again not to rely on strength, but to use proper technique and leverage… and I find that enormously appealing (as I’ve never been a super-athlete).

Also, I know that Catch nearly died off, and that it did so for two main reasons – Professional wrestling dispensed with submissions as it moved further and further away from real fighting (or “shoots”) and into the realm of pure theater (or “works”) in an effort to boost ticket sales… and as America became more lawsuit-happy from the 1950’s-on, traveling carnivals had to stop their fighters from, well, fighting, if for no other reason than that the guys were too damn good and beat up local toughs in just about every town they visited. So, a vital, powerful, dangerous art form almost disappeared entirely in the West (though it did survive in pockets here and in England, and actually grew quite popular in Japan, but that’s another story).

Anyway… considering its history, I can see why these guys would be a bit protective of Catch Wrestling;
it certainly is a valuable art form, definitely is less well-known than it should be, and it is a genuine, home-grown American martial art… and most people have never even thought that there was such a thing! Furthermore, Jiu Jitsu is huge, and the UFC was created as a sort of advertisement for the Gracie family, and as a result of Royce Gracie’s early MMA conquests, their style of Jiu Jitsu gained a sort of mythical reputation as being unbeatable, which is totally not true. It’s fucking effective… but it’s not unbeatable.

Besides, I know what you’re thinking: these guys are wrestlers, for chrissakes, not scholars – cut the guys a break! Let a few typos slide… do you expect their grammar to be perfect? Well, the answer is… yes, actually, I do. This book is being presented as a scholarly text – or at the very least, a research paper – and thus could only add to its credibility by being more painstaking and more precise.

Also, it bugs me to no end that people think it’s “okay” for martial artists to be… well, under-educated. I’ve had a lifelong interest in martial arts and a lifelong love of reading, and guess what: the two are not mutually exclusive! You can read and you can throw a kick, it’s okay, lots of people are doing it. Okay… maybe lots of people are not doing it – but they should. I remember reading about Randy Couture and how he got great grades in college while being a star athlete… how cool that seemed! Imagine being deadly in body and mind; you’re the complete package. One doesn’t have to rule out the other, and the lowbrow, “bro” mentality has always annoyed me, in sports or anywhere else.

So what I’m saying here is: guys – I’m here! I’m one of you, sort of… and I can write! And I’m a damn fine editor, if I do say so myself. So, hit me up! (don’t actually “hit,” though)… I hereby volunteer to spruce up your text a bit… fix spelling errors… re-arrange things a bit, for flow, you know… version “2.0” and all that noise. Let’s do it! Guys? Guys…?
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* If you don’t know what “MMA” means, look it up.

† Matt “Granimal” and JD Dwyer I’m less familiar with, but maybe that will change…


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