Since the explosion of MMA catch wrestling has piqued the interest of the public as a number of notable MMA fighters such as Josh Barnett, Ken Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba and Masaharu Funaki have claimed to have trained in the obscure martial art. In this article we will explore the effectiveness of Catch Wrestling and determine if it is a superior grappling art to BJJ.
Is Catch Wrestling better than BJJ? BJJ is better than Catch Wrestling. BJJ has many more athletes and competitions. BJJ has a professional circuit. BJJ has far more gyms and athletes competing in MMA. BJJ has a much deeper understanding of submissions than Catch Wrestling.
If BJJ is a niche sport then Catch Wrestling is an ultra niche sport. It is estimated there are 1,000,000 people training BJJ across the world. There are athletes training BJJ in most countries around the world. It is hard to estimate how many athletes are training Catch Wrestling however it is unlikely to be more than 50,000 and nearly of those people would be in USA, UK and Japan.
The higher participation rate a sport has the more high quality athletes the sport is going to have which is going to cause the sport to develop and progress. For example if 1 in 10,000 athletes is truly special than currently there are only going to be 5 great Catch Wrestlers while there are going to be 100 world class BJJ athletes.
These world class athletes will innovate within the sport allowing new techniques to be developed and increase the effectiveness of the sport as time goes on. We have seen this effect on display in BJJ. The level of BJJ proficiency has exploded in recent years. With Keenan Cornelius even saying Rickson Gracie (once considered an untouchable almost god like skilled black belt) would struggle to compete with current Purple Belt competitors.
In contrast Catch Wrestling is not a sport that has seen innovation. In fact the sport is on life support. The once popular sport has regressed. High level athletes are not training in Catch Wrestling, children are not training in Catch Wrestling and very few overall athletes are training in the sport.
This has prevented the sport from developing. In the past Catch Wrestling was as popular as boxing with many young working class athletes training extensively in the sport however with the creation of folkstyle and freestyle wrestling and the decrease in popularity of wrestling in general there has been a desertion of talent away from Catch Wrestling.
Without a high number of athletes participating in a sport innovation is unlikely to occur and be sustained as the years pass by as there will be a lack of gifted athletes who can continually spur this innovation. Without innovation a martial art can not increase its effectiveness and if participation is too low a martial art can actually lose its effectiveness which unfortunately is what has happened to Catch Wrestling.
The best way for a martial art to prove its effectiveness is through competition. Competitions allow athletes to determine which techniques are effective against full resistance. Techniques which don’t work can be discarded further strengthening the martial art. Competitions also give athletes goals and focus which help them take their training seriously.
For example freestyle wrestlers and Judokas are willing to push themselves to the limit in improving their skill because the goal of achieving Olympic glory and winning a gold medal is so enticing. Without competitions athletes will not be willing to train as hard and push each other, limiting the opportunity for the martial art to develop and increase its effectiveness.
BJJ has many competitions. In the US a BJJ athlete will have no problem regularly competing once a month and will be able to take part in multiple matches in each competition. There are also BJJ competitions that suit a variety of athlete’s experience from local white belt competitions to world black belt championships. This allows an athlete the opportunity to develop their skill and climb the competition ladder. This slow progression gives athletes the high chance of making it to the pinnacle of the sport as they slowly increase the difficulty of the competitions they enter.
Catch Wrestling has very few competitions. If you are a Catch Wrestler it would be difficult to find more than a handful of competitions a year. The brackets will be very small and the competitions will be open, meaning you could be facing people who are beginners to veteran wrestlers. This environment makes it very difficult for an athlete to progress. Without regular and high level competitions to aspire to winning athletes will not train extensively, they will not find out what techniques are effective and they won’t drive innovation through pushing each other to be number 1.
Professionalism is a major factor in a martial art becoming effective. If a martial art allows athletes to earn a full time income from competing then athletes are able to train full and focus fully on being the best martial artist they can be. By training full time athletes can improve their skill and the overall skill and effectiveness of the sport will rise.
In recent years BJJ has provided athletes with more and more opportunities to become full time athletes. BJJ athletes can now generate full income running a BJJ gym, teaching private lessons, hosting seminars, attracting sponsorship deals and winning prize money at competitions. Even though the sponsorship deals and prize money at competitions in BJJ are small they are in an upward trajectory and are currently high enough to allow a number of athletes to earn a comfortable living.
In contrast Catch Wrestling can not provide athletes with the same opportunities that BJJ can. Catch Wrestlers can not earn a full time income from competitions and sponsorship deals alone like many BJJ athletes have been able to in recent years. If a Catch Wrestler wants to become a full time athlete they would have to open a gym and host seminars. However as Catch Wrestler is not as popular as BJJ it may be difficult to attract enough students to derive a full time income.
The more hours you can dedicate to a martial art the more you will improve. If you can become a professional martial artist your skill and the overall skill of the sport will increase.
As BJJ’s rise has continued gyms have been popping up all over the place. If you live in a major US city you will have no problem finding multiple BJJ gyms. This is not the case for Catch Wrestling. You will be lucky to find a Catch Wrestling anywhere in the world. There are probably less than 1,000 Catch Wrestling gyms around the globe where as there is most likely 20,000 BJJ gyms globally.
It doesn’t matter how good or effective a martial art is if you do not have the opportunity to train it. A slightly effective martial art is superior to a highly effective martial if you can train the slightly effective martial art everyday while you can’t train the highly effective martial art at all.
The more gyms a martial art has the more likely you are to receive higher quality training and coaching. As the increased competition forces weaker gyms to close as the consumer has the opportunity to rank gyms and then choose the best. The abundance of choice forces gyms to offer high quality training with lots of classes in hopes of attracting students.
If you are lucky enough to live near a Catch Wrestling gym that is great but what happens if it closes or you move. Suddenly you will find it difficult to continue training. You won’t have this problem with BJJ, you can simply find another school close by.
MMA is a great test of whether a martial art is effective. In MMA you get to see whether or not a martial art will be able to deal with other martial arts. Even though there have been a few great MMA fighters who have come from a Catch Wrestling background such as Josh Barnett, Ken Shamrock, Kazushi Sakuraba and Masaharu Funaki overall there are very few Catch Wrestlers in MMA.
This is no surprise as the sport is very small and does not attract many serious athletes. In contrast all MMA fighters train extensively in BJJ and many great MMA fighters have started out as BJJ competitors before successfully transitioning to MMA.
Contrary to popular belief submissions were not a major part of Catch Wrestling. Chokes were nearly always banned in Catch Wrestling and in many forms of Catch Wrestling all submissions were banned with pinning your opponent being the only path to victory.
The most common way to win a Catch Wrestling match was via a pin. Catch Wrestling looked much similar to folkstyle wrestling than BJJ with an emphasis on takedowns, control and pins. Submissions were primarily used to control opponents and force them to turn onto their back allowing for a pin to occur. These same turning techniques are common in folkstyle and freestyle.
However, moves which were common in Catch Wrestling such as leglocks, armlocks and neck cranks which were effective at getting an opponent to turn to his back are banned. According to a student of Billy Riley (legendary Catch Wrestling trainer) Tommy Heyes there are no records of a single Catch Wrestling match ending via submission.
In contrast BJJ has always emphasized submissions. The entire focus of BJJ was getting an opponent engage in a fight on the ground where you could then use submissions to quickly end the fight. 80% of BJJ training is submission based ground fighting.
BJJ athletes are experts in a wide range of submissions and regularly use them in competition to submit their opponents. It is ridiculous to compare the submissions in Catch Wrestling, which according to a Catch Wrestling expert were rarely used in competition to BJJ where submissions are used incredibly frequently with great effectiveness.
Catch Wrestling is much similar to folkstyle wrestling where the vast majority of sport is focused on takedowns and pins. Submissions were a minor part of the sport and were just rough and creative ways to get a tough opponent to give up the pin. BJJ’s focus has always been submissions and due to the fact that you become at expert at what you practice Catch Wrestlers have superior takedowns to BJJ athletes and BJJ athletes have significantly superior submissions.
BJJ is superior to Catch Wrestling. BJJ is a growing sport where participation continues to increase. Every year more and more gyms are opening. BJJ holds frequent competitions including a yearly world championship which attracts thousands of competitors.
As the sport grows more talented athletes are drawn to the sport and the increased popularity has allowed talented athletes to become professionals and derive a full time income from the sport. All these factors have led to BJJ becoming a widely practiced sport that continues to evolve and develop as the influx of new athletes take the sport to new highs.
Unfortunately Catch Wrestling is sport on life support. Catch Wrestling was once popular in 19th century England and USA where crowds of thousands would gather and watch Catch Wrestling at carnivals. However, today there are very few Catch Wrestling gyms, very few athletes and even fewer competitions.
All these elements are required if a martial art is going to maintain its effectiveness. It is unlikely Catch Wrestling will ever make a resurgence as its derivatives folkstyle and freestyle wrestling have become so popular. There is little point in trying to reinvigorate a largely forgotten sport when you have a suitable established replacement.