Fury Road- Training To Fight From The Prehistoric To The Present, Part 2 (Catch Wrestling)
[Check out Part 1 in this series here.]
If there’s anything humans love more than inflicting grievous injuries on one another, it’s watching other people inflict grievous injuries on one another.
Clearly, fighting techniques and training methods have crazy ancient roots, and in spite of their age, the techniques for building strength and endurance for combat have remained pretty standard throughout time. Of course, every style seems to bring with it some twist on the tried and true, and it is in these twists that one find the Willy Wonka-esque Golden Ticket to preparing to turn one’s fellow man into a pile of bubbling hamburger on the bar floor, parking lot, mat, or battlefield. Lest you think that following in the training paths of fighters in styles you dislike, mock, revile, or simply dismiss out of hand, think again- there is something to be drawn from the experiences of any successful participant in sports requiring aggression, strength, and endurance in every other sport requiring the same.
Frankly, you’re probably wasting your time if you bother with anything Ed Parker’s American kenpo idiots teach, but there might be something useful in there if you look hard enough. I just don’t have that kind of time and can only only watch people do stupid things for so long before I lose interest.
It’s not a matter of “wasting time” if you try a method that doesn’t seem to add to your fighting prowess- provided you examine the reasons why it didn’t work, you can gain wisdom from anything you’ve attempted. Moreover, the Jains (an ultra non-violent sect of Hinduism hilariously founded by a legendary wrestler who trashed all comers) believe that one of the greatest sins one can commit is sruta jñānāvaraṇīya karma, which is the refusal to learn due to the closing of the mind, by spreading false or one-sided information, by ridiculing those who pursue knowledge, and by fanatical or prejudiced opinions. In short, you’re going to get karmically screwed with a spiked bat by some recently released serial rapists if you simply dismiss stuff out of hand because you don’t give it due consideration without judgement.
With that in mind, let’s look at a fighting style absolutely no one but BJJ practitioners would talk crap on, and that’s because BJJ practitioners like arbitrary rules against effective techniques that don’t involve slithering around on a mat or displays of intense physical weakness more than people with polio hate Thai low kicks.
Catch-as-Catch-Can / Rough-and-Tumble Wrestlers
Wrestling in the mid-1800s was a much more interesting affair than the amateur wrestling world is today- styles were so diverse you’d think they were whores in Mos Eisley Cantina, and pretty much every big swinging dick on the planet was ready to throw down at the drop of a hat to prove his physical superiority over his fellow man. Basically, the wrestling scene in the Industrial Era was all Van Damme-style Bloodsport, all the time. In England, Lancashire wrestling (later known as catch-as-catch-can) was the dominant and most brutal style on the island, while more traditional styles (read softer than baby poop on a hot, rainy day) reigned supreme in the rest of the world. Jacket wrestling seemed to be the most popular- in the US and Ireland it collar-and-elbow, which was the preferred style of non-hillbillies in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (George Washington excelled at this type). For anyone who’s tried Schwingen or Mongolian wrestling, collar-and-elbow will seem familiar- it’s a typical style of jacket wrestling in which you can only grab the your opponent and win by throwing them.
In spite of the fact that collar-and-elbow was as popular as those obnoxious fidget spinners every kid who should have been drowned at birth screws around with endlessly, the first internationally recognized heavyweight champion wrestler, William Muldoon, typically competed in what later became known as Greco-Roman wrestling. Muldoon was also the America’s first real master strength and conditioning coach and was just as well known for being the Kurt Angle of the 19th Century as he was for being Gym Jones of the fight world. Upon reflection, Muldoon was more like the love child of Mark Henry and Kurt Angle, as Muldoon was the man who legitimized the strongman industry, touring the nation with a show that combined flexing, feats of strength, and instruction on how to become a jacked badass at the same time he was jacking up all comers inside the squared circle.
Big John, ready to brawl with opponents like a gold digger spotting similarly-minded broads at a party full of trust fund babies.
As a trainer, Muldoon was peerless. On a bet with a friend, Muldoon offered to train the champion bare knuckle boxer John L. Sullivan, who by then resembled fat, rumpled, drunk Gary Busey more than Mike Tyson. Sullivan entered training camp on crutches, sloppier than Jonah Hill making a movie no one wants to watch about baseball statistics (somewhere between 260 and 300lbs), drunk enough that his blood type was listed as “Whiskey”, and three years removed from fighting. Utilizing a routine based on his own training, Muldoon took a man whose kidneys and liver were jumping ship like the first bitches on a lifeboat from the Titanic and got him down to a shredded 190, then bulked him to a ripped and ready 210 lbs to prepare for the last ever fight under London Prize Rules (which resembled pankration far more than modern boxing). To get him shredded and keep him out of the bar, Muldoon chased Sullivan through a seven day a week routine of wood chopping, weightlifting, clubbell work, jumping rope, sparring, and even plowing fields. By the time of the fight, people remarked that Sullivan looked to have been “chiseled out of stone”, and Muldoon became even more famous for getting a somewhat over-the-hill, insanely alcoholic Sullivan into the best fighting shape of his life, and proving definitively that his methods for training for wrestling applied well to all combat sports (Bare Knuckle, Nash, Waters).
At first I thought this was a guy puking on a midget, but upon further inspection it’s a guy biting a midget on the ass. Rough n’ tumble style, I guess.
Muldoon’s methods were obviously effective, but just as with anything there was more than one way to skin that cat, and catch wrestlers were about to prove this in spades. Wrestling was undergoing a metamorphosis because the champs were touring the country as “barnstormers”, taking on all comers for a cash prize. As they did this, they encountered a group of people who had been playing by an entirely different set of rules- the “rough and tumble” fighters of the backwoods. To say that most wrestlers and strongmen on the circuit had to have been surprised by the ridiculous, Saw-like brutality of these psychotic, moonshine-enhanced hillbillies is an understatement, because no sport since pankration had allowed such freedom in its rules, and literally no sport of which the Western world had heard actually encouraged the intentional disfigurement and maiming of opponents.
“The emphasis on maximum disfigurement, on severing bodily parts, made this fighting style unique. Amid the general mayhem, however, gouging out an opponent’s eye became the sine qua non of rough-and-tumble fighting, much like the knockout punch in modern boxing. The best gougers, of course, were adept at other fighting skills. Some allegedly filed their teeth to bite off an enemy’s appendages more efficiently. Still, liberating an eyeball quickly became a fighter’s surest route to victory and his most prestigious accomplishment. To this end, celebrated heroes fired their fingernails hard, honed them sharp, and oiled them slick. ‘You have come off badly this time, I doubt?’ declared an alarmed passerby on seeing the piteous condition of a renowned fighter. ‘Have I,’ says he triumphantly, shewing from his pocket at the same time an eye, which he had extracted during the combat, and preserved for a trophy.”
“Circuit Court Judge Aedamus Burke barely contained his astonishment while presiding in South Carolina’s upcountry: ‘Before God, gentlemen of the jury, I never saw such a thing before in the world. There is a plaintiff with an eye out! A juror with an eye out! And two witnesses with an eye out!” If the “ringtailed roarers” did not actually breakfast on stewed Yankee, washed down with spike nails and Epsom salts, court records from Sumner County, Arkansas, did describe assault victims with the words, “nose was bit.” The gamest “gamecock of the wilderness” never really moved steamboat engines by grinning at them, but Reuben Cheek did receive a three-year sentence to the Tennessee penitentiary for gouging out William Maxey’s eye” (Gorn)
Every picture of catch wrestling makes it look weird as hell and intensely painful.
At the same time, a hybrid fighting style called catch-as-catch-can had arisen in England that mirrored the brutality of rough-and-tumble. The wrestling style of Lancashire, long renown for being the home of the most surly and psychotic mining maniacs east of the Appalachians, began making its way across the Atlantic at the end of the 19th Century, and that combined with the techniques adopted from fighting the rough-and-tumble crowd, the “knocking and kicking” style of the American freed slaves, the aforementioned Devonshire style known as purring, Scottish backhold, Greco-Roman (French flat hand wrestling), Japanese jujitsu, and German kampfringen became American catch wrestling. Because it combined both striking and grappling elements of basically every style being used internationally, catch wrestling was essentially the hyper brutal forebear of mixed martial arts. Until Muldoon retired, however, catch wrestlers were not considered the best in the world- Muldoon had defeated everyone from Australian champion of boxing, wrestling, fencing, and weightlifting William Miller to all-around super athlete, strongman, and biggest badass ever Donald Dinnie to the best collar-and-elbow men on the planet, in addition to the baddest men catch wrestling could throw at him.
“Oh, my style? It’s called Jacked-As-Hell-Fu, and it’s gonna tear you up.”
If you’re wondering how a guy who was generally unused to a style that more resembled the antics of a rabid chimp than the more staid techniques of Greco-Roman wrestling, you needn’t- the guys who used the Greco style were almost to a man ridiculously strong, and from Muldoon’s international world championship title in 1880 until George Hackenschmidt’s loss to Frank Gotch in 1908 their strength was what carried the day inside the ring. Superstars of the catch wrestling world like Ed “the Strangler” Lewis lost to the Great Gama due to Gama’s overwhleming strength, and Zbysko defeated Dr. Benjamin Roller, another renowned catch wrestler. Rather than Muldoon or Hack, however, it was a match between the godfather of modern bodybuilding and strongman extraordinaire, Eugen Sandow, and a notorious finger, wrist, and arm breaker named Sebastian Muller that sheds the most light on how these strongmen dominated their hyper-violent opponents- he literally physically destroyed the man.
In this match Sandow, enraged after Muller dug his fingers into Sandow’s forearms to cause severe nerve damage (and countless attempts to snap Sandow’s fingers and wrists), yanked Muller into a bearhug and popped him like a blood-filled dummy when run over by a steamroller in Maximum Overdrive. Sandow managed to break four of Muller’s ribs and had the man vomiting blood all over the ring, at which point Sandow dropped the near corpse to the mat and claimed victory. Apparently the catch wrestlers got hip to this trick, though, and by 1908 the era of the strongmen and their effete Greco style had come to an end.
The key to Gotch’s wrestling style seems to have been toe control, since every one of the pics of the man wrestling involves a human pretzel having his big toe ripped off by a bored-looking Gotch.
The catch wrestlers developed remarkably scientific methods for training their style, especially considering the brutal and haphazard roots of the sport. Countless books were written on the subject (which were likely sold with the silly kid-getting-sand-kicked-in-his-face style ads Charles Atlas later used to sell his isometric programs. They all seem to agree, however, that there “are four requirements of a great wrestler who can keep a title for years without having his shoulders pinned to the padded canvas: Strength, endurance, speed and skill” (Robbins 3), which while seeming obvious would likely be disputed by most of the Gracies, who seem to think that a tremendous amount of skill and the ability to bore a crowd past the point of death are sufficient.
Even though he was heavily out-massed and overpowered by guys like Stanislaus Zbysko (5’8″ 230lbs) and George Hackenschmidt (5’9″ 218lbs), Frank Gotch was able to trash both men with superior quickness, surprising strength, technicality, and the desire to cripple his opponents.
Clearly, the skill bit was covered by practicing holds and sparring, of which Gotch did a tremendous amount and for which you can find ample instruction in the books available all over the internet on catch wrestling. For strength and conditioning, 5’11”, 196lb Frank Gotch did surprisingly little work with actual weights and trained for all intents and purposes like pehlwani do, with heavy emphasis on bodyweight exercises. His favorite workout was apparently much like the one we all know and love using a deck of cards to determine your reps on a given set, and went like this:
First, shuffle a full deck of cards (Jokers included). Black cards mean squats and red cards mean push-ups.
Every time you deal a black card, you do twice the amount of repetitions as the face value of the dealt card. This means, if you get a black 8, you do 16 squats. If you get a black Ace, you do 22 squats.
Spades are regular Hindu Squats, Clubs are Jumper Squats. The first Joker you pull means you do 40 hindu-squats consecutively.
Every time you get a red card, you do push-ups. This time you do the actual value of the face card. If you get a red 8, you do 8 push-ups. If you get a red Ace, you do 11 push-ups.
Diamonds are regular Hindu Push-Ups, Hearts are 1/2 Moon Push-Ups. The second Joker you pull means you do 20 push-ups consecutively.
Follow this with a 3-minute wrestler’s bridge with the best form possible (Gotch’s Bible).
Farmer Burns- the ultimate badass and possessor of one the worst nicknames in history.
Farmer Burns, probably the most famous catch wrestling coach of the 19th Century and one of the few people to defeat Frank Gotch (who he later coached), recommended a combination of upper body isometrics, neck work, and weird trunk twists and bends for conditioning. He especially stressed the importance of neck work, stating that a “strong neck is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY if you are to wrestle successfully, for it is the point of attack more often than any other part of the body. Most persons have very weak necks, so much training is necessary if you have wrestling aspirations” (Burns 9). The neck exercises he recommended are about as rudimentary as they come, using your hand for resistance from side to side and back to front, and then front and back bridges. Nothing especially groundbreaking, but his admonitions against having a weak neck are as vehement as some of his “trunk and legs” exercises are ridiculous. The man was no William Muldoon.
“Only a wimp can’t take a hanging or two” – Farmer Burns
Almost as much as he enjoyed submitting people by cranking on their big toe, Burns really loved work with dumbbells that weighed less than 50lbs along with isometric and bodyweight work, and his recommendations for exercises mostly look dumber than the crap you see noobs doing in Planet Fitness in their first month of training. Pulldowns to their lap? That nonsense is a majestic effort to isolate the lats compared to the nonsensical stuff you see Burns recommending. Partner-assisted push-pull exercises are about as good as it gets, because he’s got some wacky exercises that defy explanation harder than the success of the Jonas Brothers’ career.
Nevermind the fact it was the strongmen Gotch had the most trouble with- Burns said no heavy lifting.
As I mentioned above, Burns (in spite of the fact that Hackenschmidt, Sandow, and other strongmen trashed most or all of their opponents in wrestling) really only recommended light dumbbell work, bodyweight and isometric exercises, and Indian clubbell work for strength training. He thought that machines were completely pointless (in spite of the fact that the most popular machine at the time was a deadlift machine), and that the use of any dumbbell over 50 lbs resulted in “abnormal development” that led to overly hard musculature that would make wrestlers slow, ungainly, and would ultimately shorten their lives. To illustrate his point, he mentioned that he easily defeated a grip specialist in wrestling, and that no professional ballplayer ever lifted weights. In short, even a guy like Farmer Burns could show his ass sometimes and be hideously, ridiculously wrong.
When Assirati wasn’t lifting some ridiculous amount of weight or doing one-handed handstands, he was wrecking people on the mat using Lancashire catch-as-catch-can wrestling.
In contrast, Hackenschmidt, who was also a very successful all-around wrestler, recommended six days a week of heavy lifting. For him, it was either lighter weights of rep work with full body workouts every day, up to six days a week, or ultra-heavy single lift sessions, on or two per day, with separate sessions of low-intensity cardio thrown in for good measure (Hackenschmidt). Had Hack followed that regimen and trained under Farmer Burns, who’s to know what he might have done in the pro wrestling world. If Snake Pit wrestlers out of Wigan, Lancashire like strongman/gymnast/700 lb no-warmup deadlifter Bert Assirati are any indication, combining the strength of a strongman with the ferocity and technical skill of catch wrestling will basically turn you into an unstoppable killing machine.
In regards to diet, Farmer Burns had this to say:
“The question of what to eat is not so important as what NOT to eat. To overeat and clog the system with too much food or with food that is harmful, is weakening and prevents development of strength and health. In fact overeating invites disease, for the overloaded stomach and intestines are sluggish, give off poisonous matter to surrounding tissues, and often results in sever complications, cause fatty degeneration, and open up a rich field for disorder and disease.”
“I therefore advise the students to eat plenty of good plain food, yet not too much…. Among the things to avoid are: All liquors, very little tea or coffee or better not any, tobacco, highly seasoned foods, and all kinds of fat meat and sweets.
Stale bread or toast is better than fresh bread. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, and a reasonable quantity of lean meats, fish or chicken. Fresh ripe fruits are fine food and should be used liberally. Eggs are especially recommended, boiled or poached, and nothing is better than one or two raw eggs every day” (Burns 21).
These maniacs loved toe holds more than Whitney Houston loved crack.
In addition to bland foods and baby weights, Farmer Burns recommended a hell of a lot of physical activity every day, because wrestling matches back in the day went on as long as they had to, and often stretched past a couple of hours. If you’re thinking about that UFC Superfight disaster that featured American wrestling virtuoso Dan Severn vs. American shoot fighter Ken Shamrock in easily the most boring fight this side of the coma ward in a hospital, that’s about what I’m imagining as well, though Hack tired out in those fights, so this bears some mentioning. Burns believed you should “GET BUSY AND STAY BUSY. Do not permit yourself to neglect your exercises, for they are as important to good health as eating and breathing” (Burns 57). To build one’s wind, Burns had this to say (which stood in stark contrast to the beliefs of the Lancashire catch wrestlers, who believe that should should weight train or run only after you’ve wrestled until you can barely move):
“Running must be a part of the program of any man who expects to become a good all-round athlete. It is the great developer of “WIND” and you must have “wind” to endure long contests. WIND is another name for ENDURANCE. I have won dozens of matches by sizing up my opponent, deciding that he was not in perfect condition, and then allow him to work on me until he was exhausted and “winded” and puffing, when I could throw him with ease.
Start running every day if possible. This applies to the student who is exercising for health and physical culture practices, as well as to those who are studying to become professional wrestlers.
At first jog along for a few blocks until you are quite tired and are “puffing” considerably. Do not overdo the matter. Gradually increase day by day until you can run a half mile, then a mile, then longer distances. I can run two to three miles without inconvenience, at the age of fifty-two, and I believe this is one of the very greatest reasons that I have retained my strength and endurance.
Begin the running now, and keep it up. The best time to run is in the early morning, but if you cannot take the time then, do your running in the evening, before eating, or late after your supper is digested. A bath should of course follow the run, then take a brisk rub-down and you will feel fine and enjoy living (Burns 29).
Bill Riley of the original Lancashire Snake Pit thought that if you ran, you’d only die looking stupid for having been a jogger.
So there you have it- catch wrestling was and still is the unadulterated balls, and though the workouts are a little dated, their ideas are not entirely without merit… though they might stand to be a bit updated with modern MMA strength training. Either way, Farmer Burns would probably call you a wuss and jam his thumbs into pressure points while headbutting and spitting on you.
Go hurt someone. In the meantime, I’ll be working on the type of strength training favored by judoka and karateka.
Bare Knuckle Boxing. Bobby Gunn training old Time Techniques that William Muldoon taught John L. Sullivan. Youtube. 11 Nov 2016. Web. 13 Oct 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZE2QDGG8m8
Best Workout for grappling and MMA. Snake Pit USA. Wb. 30 Oct 2017. http://snakepitusa.com/spmedia/nutrition/best-workout-for-grappling-and-mma/
Burns, Farmer. Lessons in wrestling and physical culture.
George Hackenschmidt’s daily schedule for health and physical fitness. Physical Culturist. 8 July 2013. Web. 30 Oct 2017. http://physicalculturist.ca/george-hackenschmidts-daily-schedule-for-health-and-physical-fitness/
Gorn, Elliot J. Gouge and bite, pull hair and scratch: The social significance of fighting in the southern backcountry (First published in The American Historical Review, 1985 90:18-43). Journal of Manly Arts. Apr 2001. Web. 25 Oct 2017. http://ejmas.com/jmanly/articles/2001/jmanlyart_gorn_0401.htm
Gotch’s Bible: Conditioning challenge. Scientific Wrestling. Web. 14 Oct 2017. http://www.scientificwrestling.com/public/249.cfm
Hitchcock Jr, E. and F. Nelligan. Wrestling Catch As Catch Can. New York: American Sports Publishing Co, 1912.
Kent, Graeme. The Strongest Men on Earth: When the Muscle Men Ruled Show Business. Phoenix: Robson Publishing, 2012.
Nash, John. The forgotten golden age of MMA- Part 1: The Golden Age of Wrestling and the lost art of American catch-as-catch-can. Cageside Seats. Dec 2012. Web. 11 Oct 2017. https://www.cagesideseats.com/2012/12/1/3669774/the-forgotten-golden-age-of-mma-part-i-the-golden-age-of-wrestling
Robbins, George. How to Wrestle: Based on the work of Frank Gotch. Chicago: Max Stein Publishing House, 1934.
Sandow, Eugen and G. Mercer Adam. Sandow on Physical Training: A Study in the Perfect Type of the Human Form. New York: J. Selwin Tait and Sons, 1894.
Waters, Mike. End of a boxing era: The tale of Jake Kilrain vs. John L. Sullivan, the final bare-knuckle heavyweight title fight. Syracuse.com. 9 Jun 2012. Web. 24 Oct 2017. http://blog.syracuse.com/sports/2012/06/end_of_a_boxing_era_the_tale_o.html
Yohe, Steve. Ed “Strangler” Lewis: Facts within a myth. Wrestling Titles. Web. 30 Oct 2017. http://www.wrestling-titles.com/personalities/lewis_ed/bio/lewisbio08.html