UK the spiritual home of MMA?

by Mick Bower | source:

One day, someone will write a fantastic book about the grappling heritage of Great Britain. If the author is a bold fellow, he will make the case that the United Kingdom is the spiritual home of Mixed Martial Arts. 

In parts of the nation that are still in touch with the land, like Cornwall and Cumbria, you can see traditional wrestling at country fairs and harvest festivals. Of all the regional styles of wrestling, the one that originated in Lancashire was the most feared. Although it is pretty much unknown in its homeland, catch as catch can or catch wrestling is revered around the globe.

“In the old days, the matches lasted too long. You’re talking three hour matches, so the fans just bored of it. Then it got onto the carny circuit- which is taking on all comers- a dollar a minute. That got to where people didn’t want to get up and fight for a minute. They’d have a stick in the audience. A stick is a ringer you have out in the crowd who’ll step up and then you’ll put on a pro wrestling show.”

A style of fighting that was too tough to live. It transformed into a parody of itself- fake professional wrestling.

A special man kick started the catch wrestling revival in a special town. Everywhere that people take fighting seriously, the names of Billy Riley and the Snake Pit are admired. Everywhere except England.

Billy Riley toured the world taking on all comers. In the 1950s, he returned to Wigan and founded the Snake Pit gym. From this base, he set about reviving the lost art of catch wrestling. Once again, as is often the case with fight stories, we enter the realm of mythology. A few points are generally accepted: the conditions were spartan (showers? the gym didn’t even have a bog), Billy Riley was a genius, the training was hard and he produced a crop of exceptional wrestlers. Two of them went on to play massive parts in the development of sport fighting.

Karl Gotch wrestled for Belgium at the 1948 Olympics. A few years later, he was invited up to the Snake Pit and was amazed at the techniques he saw there. He moved to Wigan and lived there for six years as he immersed himself in the scientific art of catch as catch can wrestling. He moved on to the USA where his exploits sparked a resurgence of the forgotten style. Gotch then set up home in Japan where he became known as ‘The God Of Pro Wrestling’. The Belgian defeated the local champions and his aggressive style set the example for a new breed of Japanese wrestlers. Native Lancastrian Billy Robinson also ended up in Japan after an illustrious career and set up his own version of the Snake Pit where he taught the wisdom of Wigan to the Tokyo youth. One of his pupils was Kazushi Sakuraba.

Many people rank Sakuraba as the greatest MMA fighter of them all.

By 1999, the Gracie family had an aura of invincibility. To MMA fans, the Brazilian clan were superhumans, always capable of finding a way to win; then along came Sakuraba. First to fall was Royler Gracie at Pride 8. Taking no chances, they sent over undefeated superstar Royce to restore the family honour and demanded special rules including no time limits and taking away the referee’s right to stop a contest. Sakuraba’s wrestling skills nullified Royce’s takedown attempts and his leg kicks began to take their toll. After 90 gruelling minutes, brother Rorian threw in the towel and ‘The Gracie Hunter’ had claimed another victim. Renzo and Ryan also made the trip to Japan and lost.

Sakuraba underlined the fact that jiu jitsu was beatable. In the US, Olympic wrestler Mark Coleman had formulated a plan to posture up and punch when in guard: ground and pound. Now, Sakuraba was beating the first family of jiu jitsu at their own game; by out thinking them and catching them in submissions. Since then, champions like Josh Barnett have demonstrated the effectiveness of catch wrestling at the top level. When man mountain Brock Lesnar switched to MMA, he sought out the tuition of catch guru Erik Paulson. Despite this success, catch is still the black sheep of the grappling family.

When Brock Lesnar mauled BJJ blackbelt Frank Mir in a UFC title fight, he had him caught up in the classic stockade position. None of the ‘experts’ on commentary noticed. In contrast, the most obscure jits technique will be identified instantly. Every major town has its own booming, Gracie affiliated school, yet kids in England have never even heard of the style that is part of their heritage.

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This is an extract from Bloody Revolution: A Journey into UK MMA by Mick Bower

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Recent Comments »

Flashing Blade site profile image  

3/15/11 2:37 PM by Flashing Blade

KirikI don't have any Apple stuff so I'm not sure if it's on i-books. It should be available- it's on Smashwords etc. If you have any problems- email the publisher (address on I'll make sure they sort you out.

GodSaveTheQueen site profile image  

3/14/11 10:45 AM by GodSaveTheQueen

 The ancient English tribal ritual of rucking was around before Pankration.

Kirik site profile image  

3/14/11 10:20 AM by Kirik I am going to get it for IPad tonight if available.

The Persian Devil site profile image  

3/14/11 10:05 AM by The Persian Devil

Greece and Sparta are the spiritual homes of MMA. Read; Pankration.  

Flashing Blade site profile image  

3/14/11 9:49 AM by Flashing Blade

There's a review in this month's Fighting Fit Magazine (UK)"Longtime MMA reporter Mick Bower uses his inimitable style and wit to craft a picture of the British fight scene rarely covered in the mainstream media. From his first hand, insider perspective of the fights, rumours and stories behind the last few years of the sport, Mick cuts straight to the chase and paints an intriguing picture. Bloody Revolution opens the door into the world of MMA and is a thrilling read for both the uninitiated and the hardcore fan."

explodingboy site profile image  

3/10/11 5:20 PM by explodingboy

I will see if i can track a copy of your book down, I appreciate the effort it must've taken to write comprehensively about a niche subject. Good stuff.  

Fight! UK Online site profile image  

3/9/11 8:54 AM by Fight! UK Online

The book is a good read - I got an advance copy and it's well worth checking out. Mick's style is writing is great.

Flashing Blade site profile image  

3/9/11 8:44 AM by Flashing Blade

The reaction to the book has been great- especially since the extract was put up on Sabotage Times. One of the chapters looks at the impact of the internet general and forums in particular- so it's nice to get some love on the UG.

Majic Sam site profile image  

3/8/11 10:57 PM by Majic Sam

Just to back it up,some,,historically and show the far-reaching tentacles of the Catch style,my Vancouver Island,Canada,hometown of Nanaimo,B.C.,was once considered the Catch capital of the world.A brief moment in time where the Great British toughs,and Slovac immigrant populations came to mine new found coal resources.The hometown of Dan McLeod,5'6 Scottish coal miner,and World HW Wrestling champion,having matched both Farmer Burns,and Ed Lewis.My great grandfather was a Belgian Savate/Catch stylist of supposed note,who immigrated to Nanaimo in the early 1900's,and was very impressed with the high level of Catch Wrestling in Western Canada/NW USA.Hopefully,I don't come across as being too proud of family/birthplace circumstances.But,happy?For sure!

KJ Gould site profile image  

3/8/11 8:31 PM by KJ Gould

Your book got a good review on Bloody Elbow, Mick. And I think the folks at Scientific Wrestling liked it as well.