With the rise of Japanese shoot fighting type promotions and the start of the UFC in the 90’s catch-as-catch-can or catch wrestling started to gain renewed interest. The term catch-as-catch-can refers to catching a hold when the opportunity arises and few people realize it was a sport included in the early Olympics of the 1900’s. With few places to learn it also became an art that was prone to charlatans and people with little knowledge of the art claiming authority. One person dedicated to teaching authentic American style catch wrestling is Jon Strickland. Jon learned from carnival wrestler Billy Wicks, and promotes the spread of authentic catch through The Billy Wicks Foundation.
Jon Strickland started training martial arts as a youth, and explored a diverse range of arts before specializing in catch wrestling;
“I started out striking doing karate in the 70’s, at the time I was watching Bruce Lee, and I wanted to do kung fu, there was no kung fu around and karate was the best option. I was pretty good at it, but when I’d play fight with grownups like my grandfather and uncle, people older and bigger, they’d grab hold of me and there was nothing I could do. I started watching pro wrestling, there wasn’t much to do where I lived, and every Monday a show came to town. I met a wrestler, Jack Brisco, he was a two time champion from Oklahoma State, he talked to me about wrestling, and I started at a youth club doing amateur wrestling.”
Strickland trained in other disciplines such as boxing, but they didn’t end up as his passion;
“It was something to do with pro wrestling that I got interested in catch wrestling. At the local recreation center they had pro wrestling; you also scuffled and messed around with the local kids trying to put people in holds. In the early 90’s Pancrase and the Japanese promotions were on TV, I saw it and got into it. I hate to give it credit but watching the first UFC and seeing Royce Gracie, he was 170lbs and was taking on guys twice his size; I thought it was really neat; it was either fixed or really good stuff. I saw Pancrase it was wrestling and I liked that better.”
It wasn’t until a few years later that Strickland was able to start to immerse himself in training catch wrestling, under Disuel Berto;
“I met him through and ad, it was in one of the martial arts magazines everyone read at the time, I don’t remember which one, maybe Black Belt or something like that, I was looking through and I saw a guy teaching Shoot fighting in Florida. At that point I was trying to learn catch and considered moving to Japan, it was a serious consideration, I didn’t want to make such a demanding leap but was willing to, and Florida was a lot easier.
I stayed with him until I met Wicks, he was a super nice guy, a lot of people doing shoot were mixing judo with wrestling and stuff. He said he had trained with Fujiwara, who I knew had trained with Karl Gotch. I also went to Florida to try and meet Gotch but it fell through and I didn’t get to meet him.
A friend of mine in Arkansas, Drew Price, made contact with Lou Thesz, when we were down to go to see him he had health problems and we couldn’t go. One time I was in Chicago and a guy told me Billy Wicks he lived near me but wasn’t interested in teaching anybody, I was disappointed. At that age I didn’t have a lot of money to travel so it wasn’t easy getting around.”
Despite Strickland’s struggle to find quality instruction that was accessible, as luck would have it things changed for him when a friend intervened;
“I was at work one afternoon and one of my good friends called, he said ‘Have you got a pen and paper handy, I have a number you need to write down, you’ll be really stoked?’, I said ‘Who is the number?’, ‘It’s Billy Wicks, I just saw it on a message group.’ He was teaching two times a week at a gym in Asheville, NC two times a week. I called the number, I was a bit star struck, he said ‘good’ and to come up and check it out. I asked how much it would cost and he said ‘How much will it cost to put gas in your tank, and your time and guts.’ I didn’t know a whole lot about him, I knew he was an old timer and learnt catch.”
Strickland didn’t know exactly what to expect, but his experience with Wicks was one that made a considerable impression;
“I’d trained Jiu jitsu and with Berto and wasn’t completely green, but when I got there I got destroyed on the mat. It was one of the worst beatings I’d ever taken. After the first night I hesitated, I got beaten so bad I didn’t know which way was up. When I first saw him I thought, ‘this old man can’t beat me’, he grabbed hold of me and it was the worst pain of my life from another human being. I called my buddy in Atlanta, I told him I met Jacare and it hurt, but with Billy Wicks I didn’t have a chance to tap out because I was screaming the whole time. He put me down and stretched me out; I’d been working with a couple of guys for a year before I got there. I knew after that, you get a sense when someone gets hold of you what their leverage is like and you can tell; I knew this was the best stuff I’d ever experienced.
Billy was sixty-eight at the time and he’d had some serious injuries, he had a knee replacement, and he’d broken his neck twice, and that was how he developed atrophy in one of his shoulders. I have seen video footage of him on the mat with me, friends from the gym said he never got on the mat with them. There’s a video of me with him, it goes for about five minutes, and he has me in double wrist lock, I’m not moving quickly but I’m trying to move smoothly and he yanked me where he wanted to. The last few years at the gym he’d coach from a chair, and he would demonstrate from the chair which was really embarrassing he’d be demonstrating on you and you’d be screaming.”
Billy Wicks had plied his craft at Carnival shows, taking on all comers for money as was often the way with catch-as-catch-can wrestlers;
“Sometimes there were no challengers and sometimes he’d wrestle eight or ten people. There were wrestlers lurking in the crowd, without doubt; they took on all comers, which was pretty gutsy, I asked him one day if when he had shoots he fought anyone really good. He said the general crowd didn’t understand submission holds, even a good amateur wrestler didn’t, and you could shut him down with a submission like a toe hold. He said occasionally in professional wrestling there’d be a guy with a name for catch, sometimes they’d wrestle before the crowd or after, he said it was hustling people for money. I did it for a while in a bar, people like marines and local rough necks. He told me you have to watch what happens afterwards, their pride is hurt, they may have been shown up in front of their friends or girlfriends, he said just be careful.
He did the AT shows and that’s where he really learnt his craft, after years of amateur wrestling he wanted to get into pro wrestling, and he went to the Dutchman Bar, which is a cool name for a bar, they had a room above the bar where a few pro wrestlers would get together. He did that and then met Dirty Dick Evans, and said ‘hey I promote a show and I’d like you and your friend (Greg Peterson) to come and wrestle’. That’s how he met Henry Kolln who taught him catch wrestling.”
Catch-as-catch-can originated in the UK, and was famous in the Lancashire area of North-West England, one has to wonder how the art changed with its migration to America;
“From a historical perspective, Billy was trained by Henry Kolln, who was trained by Farmer Burns, who was trained by Tom Connors. Connors was an Irish man who trained in Wigan. Farmer Burns touched more Americans than anybody, from my time in LA last year I spent seven days with Roy Wood (who is a well-known coach from Wigan), I spent seven days from sun rise to sun set with Roy, eating talking, hanging out, and demonstrating. It seemed like we called it different things, but it was the first time I saw someone in catch wrestling whose catch was a reflection of what we did.
I think the Lancashire style focuses more on upper body throws and we attack the lower body more, using ankle picks, single legs and stuff. Billy would say that Henry would kill me, he was still wrestling at sixty-five, he had had a lot of injuries, and he couldn’t straighten one of his legs, couldn’t walk well and was basically crippled. I hadn’t heard much about Henry Kolln before but I heard that Henry Kolln from a wrestling perspective, Henry Kolln was the devil, he was really tough. Billy said he’d take him down, and Henry would say, ‘You’ve taken me down but you can’t beat me’, he might get his back and he’d say ‘You’ve got my back but you can’t beat me’, depending on individual wrestler, a lot of guys who trained with Burns were that way, those guys wanted to hook you (a hook being a submission).
Pops (the affectionate name used by Wick’s students for him) would say, ‘In amateur you want to pin a man, and in catch you want to hook a man’. That was the conversation with Roy, in the US in amateur wrestling you have a few big colleges who wrestle, two of the biggest are Oklahoma State and Iowa, they both compete under the same rules, but they have different strategies, and go to different moves over others, I think that’s the best way to describe the differences. For us one of the big things was starting from the bottom, in catch wrestling you don’t want to be on the bottom, but as Billy would say, ‘If they can’t beat you on the bottom, it’s hard to beat a man’; he’d maybe emphasize that a bit too much.
Billy was king of leg dives, or head and arm throws, quarter nelsons, sit outs, side rolls, switch submission, ankle rides, double wrist lock, neck cranks, head lock and toe hold, that could be numerous leg submissions, so to him a heel hook is a toe hold, it could be a figure of four for example, he has numerous ways to do holds. He doesn’t do a lot of arm bars, when I started with him an arm bar was my go to move, he taught that out of me, consequently fifteen years later I don’t really do arm bars, it’s not something I normally go to.”
Both Billy Wicks and Jon Strickland started out with an amateur wrestling base, one has to wonder if that makes for an easy transition to catch-as-catch can, and as well as the use of submissions not being utilized in amateur wrestling, where the struggles to adapt are;
“For me it was not too hard to transition from folk style, when I was with Berto it wasn’t so much wrestling based, for myself I’d gotten away from wrestling. In the United States, pro wrestling existed before amateur wrestling as we know it today, when usually amateur sports come first. People think it’s the rules, but it’s also a different mindset; you have to be consistently explosive in amateur wrestling, it’s like sprinting.
The first time I was with Billy, he told me to relax, I told him ‘That’s insane, he’s trying to kill me, he’s trying to take my head off with a cross face’. Billy said ‘You won’t be a catch wrestler until you relax’. It was a vague teaching point, I asked him to explain and he just chuckled, he told me it would come in time. A lot of amateur wrestlers get caught in that, he’d say to me ‘You thought Ed Lewis and these guys would wrestle for two hours and not relax?’ he said you couldn’t, you have to learn when to move fast and when to relax.
In catch wrestling, although it’s a world people think of with negative connotations, there’s a lot of stalling, that’s not against the rules. The thought processes that go into the two are different, I think that the relaxed mindset of Jiu jitsu is similar, but you don’t want to get into inferior positions. You don’t want people on your back, Henry Kolln would drop on all fours and start from there, and give people a huge advantage and would just nail them. I’ve done it myself, now you wouldn’t start on your back because that’s giving them a pin. I’ve seen some guys from amateur wrestling do well in catch style matches today.
One thing with catch wrestling today is that there was a break in the chain; Henry learnt from Farmer, who learnt from Connors, Billy didn’t teach a catch wrestling hold for about thirty years, he didn’t as a police officer; he helped a guy called Jeff Presley for amateur wrestling. It wasn’t being done, so it wasn’t being taught, the legitimate coaches in the last twenty years were old timers. A lot of the guys doing catch wrestling have a decade max training, and that’s irregular training like taking a trip to train on a weekend here or there or once or twice a week. The people doing catch wrestling are new to it compared to BJJ schools, lots of Jiu jitsu schools have multiple black belts who can step in and help out and show people how to do things, that is something catch wrestling missed it became nearly extinct and sometimes you put the cart ahead of the horse, they haven’t trained for years and consistently.
I think it was Billy Robinson who said ‘If you train so many moves in a day, by the next week you forgot them’, there has to be consistency. The guys at Billy Wicks’ gym have done very well in competition. Where I live we are the game, the guys in town to come and see.
Every little bit of experience can help, whether its wrestling, Jiu jitsu, judo or sambo, it helps, but often a lot of bad habits are formed. My best guy didn’t wrestle when he grew up, he’s been with me seven years, he’s gone from beating lower Jiu jitsu belts, to fight MMA, he was 10-0 as an amateur, the black belts, every now and then we get a Division 1 wrestler come in and they can’t do anything with him, they ask him where he wrestled at college.”
In part two, Jon Strickland discusses the Billy Wicks Foundation, competing against Brazilian jiu jitsu, catch-as-catch-can strategy and technique, and how to find an authentic teacher to learn catch wrestling.