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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