How Wigan Invented MMA

Forget Heinz Baked Beans, George Formby and JJB Sports, if Wigan wants to look cool it should start telling how, with only a snake pit and a brutal form of wrestling, they gave the world Mixed Martial Arts.
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Forget Heinz Baked Beans, George Formby and JJB Sports, if Wigan wants to look cool it should start telling how, with only a snake pit and a brutal form of wrestling, they gave the world Mixed Martial Arts.

That's no way to treat a Villa fan...

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The conventional wisdom: the British don’t get grappling. Our own martial art, boxing, is in tune with our national character. Straight forward striking. A methodically put together system to deliver the most effective blows possible to knock a man down. None of this kicking- that’s simply not British. And none of this wearing pyjamas and spouting philosophical mumbo jumbo. Knock your opponent down, let him up and continue this cycle of blunt force head trauma until he can continue no longer. Sure, the noble art reigned supreme for many years, but deep down, our inner grappler is desperate to resurface.

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. Like the Greeks and societies worldwide, any event with a bit of spare grub and some spare lasses to impress would see British lads stripped down and grappling for dominance. 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.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a feature piece on catch wrestling by a magazine editor. On the phone, I verbally nodded as he fleshed out the idea despite not really having a Scooby what he was on about. Luckily for me, American catch wrestler Johnny Husky was in the country on a seminar tour so I was able to sign up for a crash course.

Imagine the perfect wrestling coach and you’ve imagined Johnny Husky: immaculate quiff, patience and a gorgeous Southern drawl. His accent made his constant references to ‘riding men hard’ particularly hilarious. On a break from the mat, he wised me up:

Vintage catch wrestling from the Snake Pit gym and all those guys is basically Olympic freestyle style wrestling with submissions. I’m going to get you to the ground and pin you first before I try submissions. We wrestle from position to position. It’s the oldest form of wrestling. In catch, if I take him down and an arm’s free, that’s what I’m grabbing. I will catch you on the fly with a submission whereas Brazilian jiu jitsu wants to work to a position then go for a submission. In other words- I want to constantly be moving. I want to take the shortest route to it rather than setting it up- we call it catching it on the fly. A lot of guys will call it dirty fighting. Carny Style, which is a version of catch as catch can wrestling, is all about me putting elbows on you when I’m riding you. I don’t ride you soft. I don’t come in and hold you down. I’m either putting a forearm into your throat, a forearm into your rib, radial bone into the arm. It’s about me punishing you when you’re on the ground. If me and you are on the ground and I’m just holding you, you’re going to sit there forever, so I have to give you a shot to make you move, so I can catch that submission. It’s rough. You’ll have bruises all over you, from elbows, eye sockets, headlocks, it’s all about putting the knuckles in and riding hard.

He wasn’t kidding. I’d rolled jiu jitsu, but this was something else. All forms of grappling have innate similarities as there are only a certain number of ways you can bend a joint. What grabbed me was the basic nastiness involved. This was jiu jitsu with attitude. Every basic technique came complete with an unpleasant extra to upset your opponent. As with everything down and dirty, there was a tendency to operate below the waist. In jiu jitsu, there is a general reluctance to teach submissions involving leg and heel manipulations to students and heel hooks and knee bars are banned in most competitions for lower graded participants. No such niceties in catch. If it causes pain; grab it and rag it. This isn’t a chess game, this is war. Proper fighting. Husky was an enthusiastic teacher, but underneath it all, he harboured a grudge against us Brit’s for our carelessness.

"It’s a shame that the style started out here and now I have to come over from the US to show it. It’s a tragedy."

I’d noticed some disappointment in his eyes when he mentioned the Snake Pit and was greeted with a collective shrug. Other rural forms disappeared when industrialisation triggered the mass migration to the towns and cities. Lancashire wrestling survived and remained a favourite pastime of the industrial working class, particularly the miners. Emigrants spread the word to the US, but the popularity of the pure form of the art began to wane.

"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. Wigan is world famous for a number of reasons. Sports fans know it as the home of the greatest rugby league club side in history. Musical and cultural historians know it as the epicentre of Northern Soul, the youth movement that set the blueprint for modern club culture. George Orwell immortalised the town’s ‘pier’ in the title of his investigation into the insidious effects of rampant capitalism on the working class. Sweet toothed, fat bastards revere the birthplace of Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls. 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. More importantly, he was the right man in the right place at the right time. When the Pride organization was taking its baby steps, the Japanese public held out little hope of a major home success. The general view was that the local wrestlers would struggle against the much hyped foreign fighters.

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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.

Without Sakuraba, Pride would not have flourished as it did. The promotion had a home grown superstar to market. Sakuraba appealed to a wider audience. Brought up in the crazy world of pro-wrestling, he understood how to put on a show. His flamboyant personality and love of masks and capes married to his employer’s extravagant production values provided the blueprint for the Oriental MMA spectaculars that changed the face of the sport.

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. You can hear the bitterness in Husky’s voice:

"Everything is jiu jitsu based now. It’s Royce Gracie, it’s the UFC. It’s what’s now. People start on their back. You go to a class and say let’s roll and he’ll lay down on his back and put his legs up. If me and you are in the street, you don’t want to go to your back- so you have to learn how to wrestle."

It makes sense but nobody’s listening. The Gracies have a better marketing team. 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.

At the end of the seminar, I shook hands with Johnny Husky and thanked him. Really thanked him. It was the most I’d enjoyed a session at the gym in years. I felt a real connection to catch wrestling. Even the terminology was familiar. In catch, a wrestler who relentlessly batters you on the deck is known as a ripper; someone who uses all the tools at their disposal to cause maximum destruction. My Grandad was a ripper back in the 30s. It was the name given to the miners who worked on the frontline, lying down as they hacked away at the coal face. The dirtiest most dangerous job imaginable. Real tough guys.

The catch moves came so naturally, the philosophy was so refreshingly bullshit free. It all made sense. On the drive home, I started having fanciful thoughts. Maybe I’d got in touch with my ancestors. Catch was the style of my people; the North of England’s industrial working class. That’s why everything had felt so effortless. It was in me already. Johnny Husky had unlocked my inner Northerner.

The magazine article never got written. I can’t remember why. Probably something more important came up. It’s catch wrestling you see- nobody’s interested.

This is an extract from Bloody Revolution: A Journey into UK MMA by Mick Bower. Click here to buy a copy.