The Art of the Catch
If communism can be said to be socialism plus electricity, Catch Wrestling is Jiu Jitsu plus athleticism. Jiu Jisu is a brand. As a sport, or as a tool in the arsenal of a mixed martial artist, it is a collection of reversals, sweeps, passes, and submissions. As a philosophy, it gradates a series of positions that are progressively easier to attack from. Establishing mount and backmount are obvious goals as they provide a multitude of opportunities, not to mention points. But since BJJ exploded in North America following Royce’s success beginning in 1993, it has been gradually becoming more like Catch every day.
Ever since Esai Maeda emigrated to Brasil in the early part of the last century, Jiu Jitsu has been morphing from its Japanese model to a hard-nosed ground fighting art. It has been anything but static. After the Gracies had taken full advantage of the boom in Jiu Jitsu interest, the product was exported to all corners of the globe. It marginalized and demoted Karate and the other traditional arts, and claimed for itself the status of the best base for MMA. Like the English reworking of Godzilla, Brasilian Jiu Jitsu was accepted back as an evolved prodigal son by Japan.
But its veneer as being the most practical martial art was an engineered selling point. Like in Judo, the kimono was all-important. Judo with no gi is Sumo; Jiu Jitsu with no gi is a restricted variation of Catch. When the gi is not a factor, leverage is gained by technique based on training and maneuvers more common to wrestlers. The premise behind illegalizing neck cranks is that your opponent might be unfairly stronger. Therefore the Coleman crank, the double nelson, and the scarf-hold cervical choke have been extricated. Also, the neglect of leglocks demonstrates an unwillingness to be daring. They are altogether discouraged among beginners as too dangerous, even for teaching defense.
Watching early Ken Shamrock provoked in me the realization that submission was not restricted to gi-sporting bean poles. The gi adds an important, if pointless, dimension in its own right. Royce tapping Ken, and then “the Beast” was no mean feat. But Shamrock’s heel hook on Pat Smith inspired me to look into just what had been going on in martial art competition outside the North America paradigm.
On the old SEG (UFC) website, Pancrase was first revealed itself to me. If there can be said to be a polar opposite for wearing the gi, the rules of classical Pancrase (early- to mid-nineties) are it. The only Jiu Jitsu player I can remember having seen in the Pancrase of this era was Allen Goes. This had something to do with the gear – wrestling shoes, leggings, and tights. Needless to say, this encouraged leglocks. But its format was different too. There were no judges tallying up points gained by methodical attainment of position. Matches were fan-friendly strings of submissions and rope breaks based in large part on the now counterfeit rules of Pro-Wrestling. It took its name from classical Greek “No Holds Barred” pankration, but it took its philosophy from Catch Wrestling. Japanese fans had for years been aware of head-butting, groin-kicking Brasilian Vale Tudo, a fight sport much closer to the original pankration. They were thirsty for was something new. So, while the climate of the industry was tending toward “extreme” cage fighting, Pancrase instead chose to make Pro-Wrestling artfully un-fake.
An obvious shortcoming for Pancrase was the de-emphasis of the guard. But this came coupled with the benefit of a more dynamic form of competition that promoted athleticism over calculating and incremental progress. It was in this ecosystem that Masa Funaki, Frank Shamrock, Minoru Suzuki, and Minowaman flourished. The ‘hard-style’ of Japanese Pro Wrestling which was popular in the 1990s seems to have bequeathed to Pancrase the shape of its rules. This newer style of Pro-Wrestling India blurred the lines between what was genuine competition and prearranged demonstration. Kiyoshi Tamura and Kazushi Sakuraba both grew their styles competing, so-to-speak, in this style of promotion. Both went on to become the best catch wrestlers the sport had produced, and influenced the next generation which has at its summit Josh Barnett.
I consider Dustin Hazelett, ‘Mahem’ Miller, Genki Sudo, Shinya Aoki, and a host of other MMA stars as catch wrestlers. Many so-called jiu jitsu practitioners are widening their training and philosophy to include relevant techniques from other grappling arts, or not staying fixed to a moldy regimen. This is the essence of Catch Wrestling. It represents the purest form of grappling because it never stays its evolution. Eddie Bravo is by no means a catch-wrestler, but his innovations, his twister and rubber guard, and his impact on offensive half guard contribute to this evolution. The sport of Catch Wrestling remains as far away from Jiu Jitsu as Jeet Kune Do is from lists of katas. It stresses not a single set of universal moves that everybody must practice and employ, but a series of preternatural favorites that your body feels natural implementing. Using body type and the promotion of unique personal strengths are the keys to developing properly as a grappler, not adhering to a strict learning process. The process is rigged to promote the profitable swindle of belt gradations that has the sensei jealously withholding all authority. There is no dojo for the catch wrestler, there is only the gym. There is no place for the histrionics and esotericism of “the art”, there is only the application of what works for specific people. Science trumps art. Sun-Tzu, if he’d had a proper equivalent term for science might have named his treatise the ‘Science of War’. The Science of war, like grappling, is measured by its success.