Who Invented Catch Wrestling?

Carlos Gracie and his brothers are credited with developing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the 1920s, and some people believe that MMA was invented in 1993 with the first UFC tournament. Yet, the rules for Mixed Martial Arts were written in 1979 by Bill Viola based on the Tough Guy Contests he organized. But what about John Graham Chambers, who is often credited as the inventor of Catch Wrestling?

Catch Wrestling wasn’t invented by one person, though John Graham Chambers is often credited with inventing the sport. The historical record shows it’s more accurate to credit him with the name of the sport. Also known as Catch-as-Catch-Can, the sport was rooted in British folk wrestling.

The history of Catch Wrestling has many exciting twists, starting with how it developed to what has happened to it since. So get ready to explore some of those twists.

What Is Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestling?

Catch wrestling is a type of grappling wrestling that some consider the ancestor to modern fighting styles, including MMA, folkstyle wrestling, and freestyle wrestling. Its roots were folk wrestling styles developed in parts of England, including Lancashire, Cumberland, and Cornwall.

However, catch wrestling — called “Catch as Catch Can” in England — also incorporated bits and pieces of fighting styles from India, Persia, and Japan.

Sailors serving in the British Navy brought those styles with them when they came home, and those who wrestled in the Catch-as-Catch-Can Style added these techniques.

During its heyday in the late 1800s through the early 1900s, many catch wrestling matches were held at local carnivals where fighters would take on all comers. So Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestlers had to be ready for anything.

Why Do People Credit John Graham Chambers As The Inventor Of Catch Wrestling? 

John Graham Chambers is often considered the inventor of Catch Wrestling, but there’s little evidence that he was its actual inventor. It would be more accurate to say he popularized catch wrestling rather than he invented catch wrestling. 

Here are several reasons for that:

  1. Folk wrestling, out of which Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling developed, existed before 1871, the year he “invented” the sport.
  2. In early matches around that time, athletes often developed their own rules, and these rules weren’t consistent from one town to the next. How can someone be credited with establishing a sport that existed before and whose rules could change from one match to the next?

According to Walter Armstrong’s Wrestling, published in 1890, Mr. Chambers attempted to promote a new system of wrestling in 1871. In this system, which he called “Catch-as-Catch-Can Style,” the first participant to go down was the loser.  

This wrestling style didn’t catch on, and eventually, he advocated for a version that let wrestlers fight on all-fours, which also didn’t catch on.  

However, the name had caught on, so promoters began to call the fights Catch Wrestling Matches, and that’s likely why he’s often credited with inventing the sport. 

John Graham Chambers deserves credit for the Queensbury Rules, which he drafted in the mid-1860s for the sport of boxing. Rules such as the ten-count, three-minute rounds, and mandatory use of gloves were developed by Chambers and are still in use. 

His influence was such that he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Who Were Some Early Catch-As-Catch-Can Wrestlers?

History hasn’t recorded the names of many of the earliest Catch Wrestlers in either England or America. These wrestlers took part in local carnivals or wrestled near coal mines or logging camps where they would take on all comers. Local wrestlers could earn cash for winning, but the carnival wrestlers were often better prepared. 

Rules were agreed upon before the match began. Some matches had “no holds barred” rules that allowed for chokeholds. However, Catch Wrestlers preferred to win through other wrestling submissions.  

Once the other player shouted, “I quit,” it was clear the player had given up while a pinned player could argue that they had not been.

Not all matches were as rough and tumble. Amateur leagues featured tournaments that appealed to a more sophisticated crowd. For example, the British wrestling champion Edwin Bibby fought in a match for Queen Victoria.  

He immigrated to America in 1879 and two years later beat Duncan C. Ross to become the first American Heavyweight Champion. The following year he lost his title to another British wrestler — Joseph “Limey Joe” Acton

Bibby and Acton are both credited with introducing Americans to “Catch-as-Catch-Can” wrestling.  Acton held the title for several years until Evan “Strangler” Lewis defeated him in 1887.

Other important early wrestlers include Tom Connors, Evan “The Strangler” Lewis, Dan McLeod, “Rough Tom” Jenkins, Frank Gotch, and George “The Russian Lion” Hackenschmidt.  

Gotch and Hackenschmidt fought for two hours in Chicago in 1908 and held a rematch in 1911 in front of 30,000 spectators. Gotch defeated Hackenschmidt in each contest.

What Happened To Catch Wrestling?

By the time of the Gotch and Hackenschmidt fight, Catch Wrestling had weight classes and titles such as European Champion, American Champion, and Eventually World Champion.  As the sport’s popularity fell in the 1920s, promoters dropped the name Catch and took control of all aspects of the new pseudo-sport wrestling.  

Catch Wrestlers didn’t suddenly stop wrestling, but eventually, the actual practitioners retired, and the managers and promoters took over the sport.  Watch a WWE match, and you’ll see the pseudo-sport version of Catch wrestling, complete with villains and heroes, to create spectacles that will draw a huge crowd.  

In addition, both freestyle and folkstyle were adapted from catch wrestling. This is simply because catch wrestling was too violent for many people to accept. Of course, catch wrestling is not dead. In fact, there are still catch wrestling tournaments held today.

Many catch wrestlers also compete in submission wrestling tournaments such as the ADCC and some have taken their catch wrestling skills into MMA as well. There are still catch wrestling academies and clubs but they are hard to find. 

Thankfully there are places online. My suggestion would be to check out the Catch Wrestling Instructionals at BJJfanatic.com. 


No one person really invented catch wrestling. Though John Graham Chambers did quite a bit to popularize it. Catch Wrestling may not be as popular as it once was, but it still exists in some corners of the wrestling world. If you are interested in learning catch wrestling check out my article: Where and How To Learn Catch Wrestling

If you want to find Catch-as-Catch-Can Wrestling competitions, the International Federation of Combat Wrestling holds true grappling Catch events.  

Snake Pit Catch Wrestling Association also holds events and programs. Trainers at Scientific Wrestling and Tony Cecchine work to keep the sport alive and train the next generation of grapplers. 

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