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Technique Talk: Josh Barnett's pushing and pulling for catch wrestling's respect

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Photo by James Law, provided by Metamoris

If the success of Eddie Bravo over Royler Gracie and Josh Barnett over Dean Lister at Metamoris have taught us anything, it's not that jiu-jitsu is a weak or overrated art. It's that, like all forms of grappling, it has its own seat of weaknesses. In a pure jiu-jitsu competition, particularly in the gi, such foibles aren't readily apparent. But tinker with the rules, expand the margins of what's allowed and alternative forms of grappling (or uncommon ideas even within jiu-jitsu) begin to demonstrate their own merit.

In the case of Barnett and his submission victory over Lister at Metamoris 4 in August, many things contributed to it. For starters, there was a weight advantage. Second, despite being a catch wrestler, Barnett himself has trained and competed in the jiu-jitsu gi, even earning a black belt. Third, Metamoris is still essentially a jiu-jitsu competition, albeit an alternative one. Lister, too, has trained in many other forms of grappling.

A key takeaway, though, was that it can't be a coincidence the kimura, a submission Lister has seen innumerable times, never worked when attempted by Barnett. Yet, a relatively esoteric chest compression/crank by an experienced catch wrestler, did. Perhaps Lister had seen this before and knew the defense, but what he hadn't felt was a 20-minute ride from an expert grappler prior to it. In other words, when the rules opened up what tools were available for use, so did the outcomes.

Jiu-jitsu's value as a grappling art is above reproach. It's proved its value innumerable times, but like any other grappling art, it's incomplete. The question, though, is if catch wrestling is so effective, why is the community so small? Why has jiu-jitsu become the dominant worldwide form of grappling? What does this say about 'the violent art'?

In this discussion with the UFC heavyweight and catch wrestling flag bearer Josh Barnett, he explains what catch wrestling is, where it came from and how it's both similar to and different from jiu-jitsu. More importantly, Barnett explores why catch wrestling's relative lack of popularity hinders its ability to grow, how that can be fixed, what's right and wrong with jiu-jitsu and what grappling can become when the rules of competition are changed and the styles mixed together.

Full audio is available with partial transcript below.


How was the Metamoris experience? Did you get out of it what you'd hoped?

I did. I think I really did. Even better than I'd hoped. Dean was everything I expected and very strong, very tight, smart and crafty. It was easily understood to me why he was one of the absolute best grapplers in the entire world.

Can you walk us through the final submission? It appeared to be a variety of a head and arm choke with some crank.

It's called a head and arm. It's a very basic amateur wrestling hold with a little bit of some small technical adjustments made to it. From little kids to full on collegiate wrestlers, everybody knows it. It is one of the earliest holds you learn in wrestling.

Normally it's simply a ride or pin, but with some finesse to it, you can turn it into a very heavy pressured chest compression, diaphragm choke with some heavy leverage on the neck as well.

But even wrestlers who get into jiu-jitsu go for the head and arm variety where their opponent is flat on their back and they angle off on top. Why isn't this variety more common?

What you described is the side choke, a.k.a. the kata gatame in judo, which is a different sort of choke altogether. That's a blood choke. The kesa gatame, or head and arm, a lot of the time almost all of these jiu-jitsu schools would say, "Don't ever use this position. It's terrible. You can easily take the back and escape."

First off, it's a ride. You have to learn how to ride in that position, hold and pin with it first. Once you understand the dynamics of holding that position and being able to pin your opponent underneath you from there, one, they won't be taking your back any time soon or doing any fancy escapes. And after riding them enough you can work your adjustments to getting the shoulder lifted and up and off the mat, the head elevated and then applying the the pressure on the diaphragm and the neck.

So, let's take a step back from what happened at Metamoris 4 and look at the state of catch wrestling today. Is the sport in a healthy place?

It's healthy, but it's far less successful in terms of creating more students, creating competitions and garnering the necessary coverage in comparison to, say, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It's really got a long way to go, but I think that we're making good strides with it and starting to become more and more popular, starting to increase the amount of practitioners out there and get people to see it for the legitimate grappling art that it is.

Another trouble is that we don't have a lot of high-level instructors in it yet either. It takes high-level competitors and high-level trainers. It sucks to get high-level trainers if they don't have enough competition experience either, so that's a really difficult scenario whereas with jiu-jitsu, that's such a more established and more effective competition culture and environment that it's so much easier to find a person that has both the competition experience, so they know how to hold and work in the real world, and actual, just formal technical knowledge.

How did it get this way? Was there an age where catch was significantly more dominant, more dispersed throughout the world?

Unfortunately, professional wrestling became much more worked than show matches and that became more of a viable entertainment and monetary option than it did to do them for real. Back in the day, there'd be times - 1800s or 1900s - where a match would go on for hours with no man being able to get a real advantage over the other. Obviously after a few of those things the crowds started to wane and it became more interesting for folks to see more pomp and circumstance, more drama, more expected outcomes that could be controlled.

Then with things like judo and jiu-jitsu, in the 40s and 50s and really even earlier than that, became quite popular, but of course some of that is simply a matter of things being exotic, a different way of looking at things. People are often drawn to something that is new or different from them, although wrestling is wrestling, so there's a lot of similarities no matter what the art it is.

Is there one particular country that has dominated catch more than others?

Mainly America, but also northern Europe, I would say. There's a lot of indigenous wrestling styles there that used to be a lot more popular and stronger within the European continent. Although, there's still quite a few countries over there that produce pretty spectacular Greco and freestyle wrestlers.

Especially now with all the Eastern bloc training that derive from the Soviet systems has spread out all amongst Eastern Europe. There's some incredible wrestlers over there.

But America was a real melting pot for catch with our collegiate system, our traditional wrestling styles and just the influx of people from all over the world coming to and fro to compete and make a life for themselves. Even a guy like Karl Gotch going from Belgium to England to train at the Snake Pit and then training the guys in Japan and living in Tampa, Florida. Eventually people would swap to go train under him and that's how some of that was introduced into the American MMA system.

If you look at jiu-jitsu over the last 20 years, it's changed a lot. Has catch wrestling experienced a similar evolution in that time?

Absolutely, now even if it's not something that we, in terms of philosophy, like to use the guard or the bottom scissor, but it's now something you train to compete against. It's something that you're more familiar with. Just by being exposed to other positions or even going and competing in the usual jiu-jitsu styles because - let's be honest, there really isn't any other option out there most of the time if you want to go out and grapple - just from competing under those other rule sets, gives you a different look, gives you more experience, lets you see things from different ways and just having to try and figure out a way to beat them or to counter them.

Catch has absolutely changed, but a lot of what we do in catch, when we go to a jiu-jitsu tournament, we're reduced in our ability to attack with the lacking of all the twisting leg locks, the neck locks and such. In fact, I've had a student go and put a guy in a head and arm just to hold him and have the dude on bottom start screaming and complaining about it being a neck crank and the ref immediately make him having to let go before anything had ever even happened, with my wrestler on top going 'This is legal in high school wrestling and you're going to tell me this is an illegal hold? Alright.' That's the way it goes.

How would you describe the differences, in a fundamental capacity, between catch and jiu-jitsu? Where are they similar and where are they different?

I remember from a very young age rolling with some of the best jiu-jitsu guys in the world whenever I got a chance to, and just being like, 'Well, for an art that's supposed to be so gentle, these guys feel like they're fuel-injected, super charged funny cars going hauling ass, doing everything to discard everything in their path that they possibly can whenever the opportunity arises.'

As much as I will say catch really is more of a violent art opposed to the gentle art of jiu-jitsu, when it comes to jiu-jitsu at the highest level, it's so funny. Everyone talks about all this skill and technique and gentleness, man, the top dudes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, they all do the same techniques that a lot of folks do, especially if they're all the same belt levels, except they do them all stronger, faster, harder. There's a ton of strength dudes in all the games of all the top jiu-jitsu guys. It just wouldn't work otherwise.

It's the absolute truth. I think it was Karl Gotch who said "technique within strength". If you lack the strength to pull the technique off against your opponent, then it won't work. I remember from a very young age rolling with some of the best jiu-jitsu guys in the world whenever I got a chance to, and just being like, 'Well, for an art that's supposed to be so gentle, these guys feel like they're fuel-injected, super charged funny cars going hauling ass, doing everything to discard everything in their path that they possibly can whenever the opportunity arises.'

So, I guess they're not all that dissimilar from what we do, but the catch wrestler, we try to punish you, break you down, wear you out. You want to be as heavy on top as you can absolutely be, you want your opponent to carry as much of your weight as you can because that's exhausting. It wears a person out. It doesn't give them the opportunity to rest in a position and gather their wits.

The other thing is using the elbows, the shins, the bones of your body to crank and discomfort, apply pain to a person with the properly used half of an elbow when you're on top in side control, you can maybe use the point of the elbow to dislocate the mandible on somebody's face. Or drive into the orbital bone on their eye socket and crack it. There's a lot of techniques like that. If a guy is too tough and he won't open up, then you find a way to make him open up.

A less violent one, but also effective is simply you're going for your double wrist lock or kimura, as they call it in jiu-jitsu, and someone's planting the arm on the mat or they're putting it on their hip, you can drive the point of your top elbow into the top of the shoulder in the delt[oid muscle], into the connective tissue and there's a little nerve spot there that'll actually make their arm straighten out, which can get it off of their hip and allow you to better isolate the arm before going for the submission.

If I'm playing devil's advocate, one of the criticisms I've heard about catch is that it's a big man's sport. The techniques, it's suggested, don't really work for lighter weights. How would you respond to that?

I would say that's the thought process of someone who absolutely has no idea on how to actually ride anybody. Go grab a guy out of any of the the NCAA wrestling tournaments, Division I or II or III, whatever, go grab their lightest guy and get in referee position or side control and let them get on top of you. You gotta know how to apply pressure and applying pressure isn't a matter of how much you actually weigh. It's a matter of how much you can actually apply to your opponent through the way you've postured your body, the way you've set your weight.

Not only the way you set your weight, but where you set your weight. If I've got all my weight behind the point of the top of my knee versus my rib cage versus my whole chest, the smaller the area, the greater the force. In that small surface area, the more penetrating it is than being spread out.

It's got nothing to do with weight and everything to do with application. I've trained women to be catch wrestlers. Shayna Baszler's a catch wrestler, she's clearly not a heavyweight. Megumi Fujii, far from being a heavyweight, and she was a fantastic catch wrestler. Still is. Victor Henry, he's a 135-pound fighter of mine. He's also a catch wrestler.

You're a second-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu, is that right?

I am. I was awarded a second-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu by Rigan Machado.

You have a background in catch, but what did you pick up from training in jiu-jitsu that supplemented your overall grappling game?

Some of the ideas and techniques from working off of my back, but for the most part, I consider jiu-jitsu to be with the gi. For me, it's been more learning how to counteract it, defeat it and implement my own game plan than it is to wrestle in the same style as everyone else.

I've done judo before, too, so the idea of grip fighting is not unusual to me. Even when given the opportunity to compete in a jiu-jitsu setting, I don't really compete entirely in the same manner. My goals out there are not the same as the average jiu-jitsu guys. I don't have any problems scoring points on people. It's just that my idea of scoring points is to increase panic in my opponents to force them to give more opportunity up to me.

If we saw you compete in jiu-jitsu and in catch, would your game look and feel similar across both sports?

They'd have a very, very different feel and look. For one, in a catch tournament, there's pinning. While you could play off of your back, it could also be a dangerous place to be. If I was competing in a tournament like that, the stand-up wrestling would be more emphasized and so would top control. But with jiu-jitsu, I would say you probably just need to establish top position on someone when they pull guard. Strategies are different.

Do you think guard pulling is detrimental to jiu-jitsu?

I think the lack of stalling calls has made jiu-jitsu worse. I think they're competing within the environment of the game they've created, so better, worse. I don't really know. I guess if you're a jiu-jitsu purist, it's probably worse because jiu-jitsu would be more throws and takedowns on your feet, more aggressive guard playing and guard on your back would be to just sweep or establish a more dominant position or submission, not to stifle and stall out.

There's no incentive to actually wrestle on your feet all that much in terms of jiu-jitsu. It's too easy to just get down.

I would say this. What it really has done is has diluted the idea of jiu-jitsu as a combat art and more of a sport art very specific to what it's doing.

In your personal opinion as a catch wrestler and jiu-jitsu black belt, do you like the way it's going?

No, not at all. I see too much stalling, too much gaming the system and also, too many guys just complaining. There's a competition coming up. I have two female catch wrestlers, Colleen Schneider and Laura Anderson. Laura is wrestling for Simon Fraser [University]. For her first year, she got sixth in the nation. She's an All-American and she's sixth in the nation in freestyle right now, too. They're both going to compete in a no gi grappling thing under the FILA grappling rule sets, which is almost entirely jiu-jitsu based.

But they're catch wrestlers. They're going to go out and do it anyway. Colleen's been competing in jiu-jitsu tournaments as much as possible, no gi, but she's a catch wrestler. For us, we're not going to complain or be upset. This is what's available. We're going to do those. We're going to go out and test ourselves. We know the limitations within the rulesets, we know how things are going to be, but we're still going to go and make the most of it. We're still going to push ourselves and get on the mat in any way the opportunity provides us.

I remember some of the other tournaments that have popped up in the past that had a more wrestling-centric flavor to it or even a faster pacing, more subjectivity to stalling, and the jiu-jitsu guys would flat out refuse to have anything to do it or show up and get really upset because they lost via takedowns or something.

To me, that's quite hypocritical. It's also, if you think about it, it's incredibly limiting to yourself as an individual. If you're trying to find the greatest way to expand your abilities as a human being within potential for wrestling in any way or combat sports and just overall development, you should do what's available. You should try to find the opportunity to push yourself. If that means going in an environment that doesn't already favor the way you compete, then that's exactly the reason why you should do it.

What would say to curious jiu-jitsu practitioners who might want to try catch, but have concerns about things like training neck cranks. Would you say that's the same fear that some of those schools have about leg locks?

Just train with good people. I'm sure there's plenty of guys out there doing jiu-jitsu who've gotten their arms blown out by getting some jerkoff trying to omaplata them really, really hard. Or getting their throat wrecked from someone being way too aggressive about a putting on a sleeper or rear naked choke. Don't train with assholes. You'll be fine.

It's not all about going in there, banging heads and see who comes out on top. It's about learning the intricacies of the technique and then applying it under a controlled scenario so that you can learn it and eventually use it in full speed application.

Jump in! Do as much catch, read catch stuff. Give it a try. Do as much as you can. And not even just catch. Sambo, judo, anything you want to. Go. Do it. Don't limit yourself with certain concepts. If you want to be the best jiu-jitsu player in the world, by all means, if you want to spend most of your time doing jiu-jitsu, that absolutely makes sense. But, for one, don't consider just because you may be the best in the world at what you do, that doesn't make what you do the best in the world. There's a lot of factors that go into things like that. Nonetheless, there's always an opportunity to learn something new in one's art.

Getting back to Metamoris and given the success your techniques and some of Eddie Bravo's techniques, do you think they should invite guys from different grappling backgrounds to show how much there is to the grappling universe?

I think there's absolutely a value in doing that. It creates interest, it's something new to your audience. Let's be honest, Metamoris is going to be jiu-jitsu competitors and it is the more popular art, so it would only make sense. I don't think Ralek [Gracie] is opposed to such an idea. He's been asking me to do Metamoris since the very first event and wanting me to go out there and show my skills.

I like the fact that he had Saulo [Ribeiro] and Comprido compete, the two legends in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, although they're definitely not over the hill. Some other ideas that I've actually brought up to him, he seems quite amenable to it. I know that it is essentially a jiu-jitsu styled environment, but even still, Ralek's intention is to try and create an open platform for anybody to compete.

In a way you could say everyone's just going to pull guard if they can't wrestle and that is true. That's just something to be taken into account and hey, it's competition. Figure out a way to beat it.

Dave Camarillo once told me one of the best guys he's ever rolled with was Flavio Canto, a judoka. I'm wondering if you think there's a person in judo, sambo, catch or whatever who you'd like to see compete in Metamoris?

Flavio Canto is fantastic. He's awesome. I'd love to see a student of mine, Satoshi Ishii, go and compete. He's an Olympic gold medalist in judo and he's been training catch with me when he's here in the states for his MMA. So you could see some of the blend of the two arts, which has a history of being bitter rivals. Ever since Ad Santel went over to Japan and beat the crap out of the Kodokan judo champions and declared himself champion of the world in judo until he finally had enough draws and had lost a match or two and decided to stop labeling such, to continue to have to battle with these tough as nails judo players.

I'd love to see some of the top NCAA talent, but unfortunately without the submission aspect, they're really at a disadvantageous position even if they could go out there and never get caught in something, they lack the ability to fully win the match. That's not fair to them.

I'm sure there's plenty of amazing sambo guys. I know that sambo in the U.S. is incredibly small and scattered, but sambo in Europe and Eastern Europe, especially, seems to be doing quite well and is very strong right now.

How do we get catch wrestling to grow? How do we get it five or six times what it is today? If you were in charge of the sport, what has to happen to get us from A to B?

At one point, catch was the dominant art of wrestling all over the world. It was also known as professional wrestling back in the day and it is the reason why so many judo and jiu-jitsu guys from Japan made the trek all over the world, even to Brazil, to eventually start Mitsuyo Maeda to teach Carlos Gracie, which would eventually become Gracie jiu-jitsu.

Catch used to be a huge spectator sport with even competitors from India being the most dominant ever, but to make catch go we need to create the right infrastructure, properly accredited teachers and coaches, and it'd be the kind of thing we could piggyback and see side-by-side with our already established wrestling community: folkstyle, freestyle, Greco-Roman. And not be considered a separate sport, but a separate style.

That would be, in my opinion, the best way to grow it because with that, then you would create regional, national, world championships to  go along with this style of wrestling as with what they already have for Greco-Roman, freestyle.

Catch wrestling's been in the Olympics already on multiple occasions. I think it would be a perfect wrestling style to make it back into the Olympics, just as much as I think jiu-jitsu would be fantastic to have in the Olympics, but to me, jiu-jitsu is with the gi. Without a gi, it's whatever else. When it comes to being out there in a no gi environment, catch is the way to go.