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Greek George, Catch-As-Catch-Can and Submission Holds in 19th Century North America

Greek George, Catch-As-Catch-Can and Submission Holds in 19th Century North America

Mark Hewitt
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Greek George was one of the well-known barnstorming professional wrestlers in North America in the last two decades of the 19th century. Born in Greece, as a youth he made his way to Liverpool, England and onward to New York City, working aboard ships. After a stint in the US Navy, he joined the troupe of strongman and wrestler Antonio Panay and toured the world. Back in the US in the early 1880's, he embarked on his own career as a pro wrestler. Originally billed as Theodore George, he soon became known far and wide simply as Greek George.

George was adept at both Greco-Roman and catch-as-catch-can styles. He also engaged in what he called Mexican wrestling-, grappling while on horseback. In addition to his wrestling skills, Greek George also did some boxing and performed strong man stunts. In 1888 he agreed to wrestle William Stone, a British wrestler and boxer. The bout was held at Shuck's Hall in Springfield, IL on November 1, 1888. The articles of agreement called for the match to be contested under Lancashire style, catch-as-catch-can, all dangerous holds permitted- rules. That, of course, included choke holds.

As the match commenced. George and Stone briefly sparred for holds, but the former soon had his opponent down on all fours and had taken his back. From this position, George seized one of Stone's legs, and using his own as a fulcrum, he began bending it in a direction it was never meant to go. The resulting pain was excruciating, and the Brit cried out, Are you going to break my leg, man? The Greek growled back, I will if you don't give up. This is Lancashire style.- Stone promptly audibly conceded the fall, and the referee broke them up. Following a brief rest, the combatants resumed the mat battle. George quickly took Stone down and pinned him with a body press for the second and winning fall. A local newspaper described the match as almost brutal.- (1.)

A few weeks later in Lafayette, IN, Greek George faced Major J. A. Maguire in a catch-as-catch-can bout and won in two straight falls. He gained the first by pinfall, but achieved the second with a leg hold that made Maguire squeal- his concession. (2.) Another notable example of a fall being achieved by forcing an opponent to audibly give up was in Wyandotte, MI on November 9, 1889. Henry Schellenberger, a mixed wrestler of considerable repute- defeated Tom McMahon of Detroit. The match was held under mixed style rules, meaning falls were alternated in different wrestling styles. In this case the two styles chosen were catch-as-catch-can and collar-and-elbow. Schellenberger usually stipulated that when he wrestled catch-as-catch-can it would be with nothing barred. Such was the case for this bout. He won the initial fall at catch, lost the next under collar-and-elbow, but took the 3rd and the match at catch-as-catch-can. Schellenberger gained that last fall by locking McMahon in a strangle hold and forcing him to surrender before he would have been choked unconscious. McMahon was not pinned, but gave up.

Tom McMahon, the Detroit Athletic Club wrestling instructor figured in another bout that exhibits the reality of submission wrestling in the 19th century. In a contest with Pete Dutchy- Schumacher held Dec. 1, 1894 in Cleveland, a newspaper account describes, -Peter got the strangle hold and held it hard and firm until his man finally broke away weak. A moment later he got the same hold again, and although McMahon kept one shoulder off the mat, he was forced to signal that he gave up the fall and the match was awarded to Schumacher.- Upon this victory, Schumacher claimed the catch-as-catch-can middleweight championship of the Unites States. (3.) Yet again another example is found in a private contest held in Albany, NY between Prof. M.J. Mike- Dwyer and Karl Johnson, the Terrible Swede.- The rules were catch-as-catch-can, no holds barred.- The match was held on November 28, 1899. Dwyer won the 2nd and 3rd falls, but had conceded the first. In the opening fall, Johnson got Dwyer's arm in a hammerlock and Dwyer gave up, shouting that his arm was being broken.- (4.)

One last example is found from March 24, 1898 in Olean, NY. Ed Atherton, who claimed the middleweight championship of America, wrestled west coast mat man Tom Davies for $200 a side, a percentage of the gate, and with the title on the line. After 45 minutes of grueling grappling without any falls, Atherton tied his adversary up with a back hammerlock and ½ Nelson combination. Davies could not break it and gamely resisted until the ligaments in his arm were torn loose. He gave up the fall and with his appendage dangling uselessly at his side he forfeited the rest of the match. Atherton had forced Davies to concede the fall, although he did not down his man.- (5.) The winner did not down his man but tortured him into submission.- (6.) The sportswriters particularly pointed out that Atherton was awarded the fall, not by pinning Davies, but by making him give up.

Although catch-as-catch-can was traditionally contested by pinfalls, or fair back falls- as it was termed, forcing an opponent to give up and the use of concession holds was not unknown, at least in North America. It is to be observed that in the first three matches cited above, each was billed as catch-as-catch-can- and took place in the 1880's, at least a decade before there was any influence of Japanese jiu-jitsu or judo in the western world. (7.) And even in the 1890's bouts mentioned, it was well before the jiu-jitsu craze- had invaded the western world. Grappling (8.) is universal and has never been completely static in time and place as it developed around the globe. No doubt, catch-as-catch-can, with its roots in Lancashire, England, as it was popularized in North America, was strongly influenced by rough-and-tumble fighting. Rough-and-tumble was widely practiced in America since colonial times. It was often dubbed gouging-, due to the propensity for fighters to attack one another eyes. Rough-and-tumble had only two unofficial rules-never gouge out the remaining eye of a one-eyed man, and cease all hostilities when one man cried out enough.- It can clearly be established that there long existed a strong precedent in North America for the use of making an opponent give up in combat sports. Frank Gotch recalled that in his earliest wrestling matches, …the best wrestler was the best fighter, for the rules were that if you succeeded in getting an opponent helpless on the ground you were allowed to whale away at him till he cried 'enough'.- (9.) Gotch boasted, In a rough-and-tumble fight I can lick any man in the world…in the go-as-you-please style of milling I would take him down and choke the daylights out of him…I would have him on his back in a jiffy and then strangle him until he cried quits.- (10.) One of the great old-time professional wrestlers Harvey Parker whose career spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, stated that he was originally a rough-and-tumble wrestler…which resulted in catch-as-catch-can style.- (11.)

It is interesting to observe the challenges and counter-challenges that flew back and forth between two of the leading professional wrestlers of that era, Evan Strangler- Lewis and Jack Carkeek in 1886. Lewis wanted to wrestle catch-as-catch-can, no holds barred.- Carkeek opted for the strangle hold being disallowed, but finally offered, I will go into a private room with him and wrestle a match for $1,500-no referee, no restrictions, no rules, and the first man that cries 'enough' loses the pot.- (12.) The concept of making an adversary submit/concede/surrender/ give up/cry enough- (13.) in a one-on-one fight is deeply rooted in America and became part and parcel of professional wrestling. Whether that submission is signaled by an audible concession, tapping out, or allowing your shoulders to touch the mat is a moot point. Obviously, Japanese martial arts did indeed impact combat sports in the western world as well as popular culture in general. However, making an opponent give up was nothing new to the old-time professional wrestlers who were plying their trade even years before they ever heard of jiu-jitsu or judo.

Some closing words from Tom Connor, one of catch-as-catch-can's legendary grand masters.- Asked in 1905 about Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, he stated, These same holds were in use in the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style up to some forty years ago until the magistrates of Lancashire prohibited such unfair methods. I for one, remember three men being killed by the choke-hold and the double-nelson.- (14.)

1.) Daily Illinois State Journal, 11/2/88 2.) Chicago Inter Ocean, 12/2/88 3.) Cleveland Plain Dealer, 12/2/94; Anaconda Standard, 12/7/94 4.) Waterbury Evening Democrat, 12/1/94 5.) Evening Democrat, 3/28/89 6.) Rushford Spectator, 3/31/98 7.) That interchange didn't take place until the dawn of the 20th century and the ensuing years. Matsada Sorakichi was active on the American pro wrestling circuit in the late 19thcentury, but he practiced what was simply called "Japanese wrestling-; basically, it was traditional sumo wrestling with some general rough-housing thrown in. A fall was gained by butting, throwing or knocking an opponent off his feet. There wasn't even the faintest hint of any jiu-jitsu or judo submission holds in Sorakichi's wrestling. 8.) The terms wrestling- and grappling-, as used in modern English, are synonymous and can be used interchangeably as both a noun and a verb. It is perfectly correct to say, the wrestlers were grappling on the mat-, or the grapplers wrestled until one man achieved the victory.- 9.) Frank A. Gotch World's Champion Wrestler; Joseph B. Bowles, 1913 10.) Scranton Tribune, 12/1/1907. Gotch always acknowledged his style as catch-as-catch-can; saying once, …it was from Lancashire men that I first learned wrestling. Tom Connors taught Farmer Burns. Burns taught me.- (Butte Daily Post, 1/27/10) 11.) Buffalo Enquirer, 1/8/1903 12.) Democratic Register, 6/17/1886 13.) Making someone say 'uncle' is another oft-used description of forcing a submission. I've attempted to discover the origin of that expression but have not gotten too far. It apparently traces back to the Irish word "anacal", meaning "give quarter." Some sources however link it back to ancient Roman times and the Latin expression "patrue mi patruissime" ("uncle, my best of uncles"); which was said to be something youths cried out when they got in trouble. 14.) Manchester Evening News, 3/24/05 Note: Special thanks to Nathan Hatton for providing information on applicable matches. Mark S. Hewitt/Combat Sports Research 2022 (last update 12/19/22)