IN 2011 Jimmy Kelly Jnr was just a 17-year-old amateur boxer. Now he’s challenging Liam Smith for a world title. As well as boxing Kelly was also trained in a particularly brutal form of wrestling. Here’s what happened when we visited his gym:
“IT’S going to hurt.”
It did not gladden my heart to hear this. But I can’t say I was surprised. Whilst arranging our ‘catch’ wrestling gym trial, I was assured, suspiciously often, that they weren’t going to hurt me. But once our boots were on the ground in Stockport, reality began to dawn.
Danny Tansey, one of the top wrestlers at the Stockport Fighter gym, provided us with little confidence as he drove us to the facility. “At least Ali isn’t here,” he offered. “He doesn’t know how to go easy.”
Scant comfort, as we were soon to find out that in ‘catch’ wrestling you don’t get to go easy. When someone gets a hold of you, the lock goes on immediately and the pain hits you hard. Their moves, when applied, force your hand to tap out.
Watching it in practice, ‘catch’ looks like jiu jitsu or luta livre, but this form of submission wrestling originated from Lancashire in England. It was popularised in carnivals where wrestlers would take on brave locals eager for a cash prize. In this carny-style wrestling, therefore, the aim is to take out an opponent as quickly, and brutally, as possible.
Master wrestler Ian Bromley welcomed us to the gym, an impressive space in a warehouse that had been converted to hold everything a fighter could desire – from weights to a massive tyre and sledgehammer for strongman-type exercises.
But it was on the mat where our business lay. Bromley learnt his harsh trade from Billy Wicks, a legend of carny wrestling whom they all spoke of with reverence. Even in his advanced years, Ian clearly is not a man to be crossed.
The phrase ‘catch as catch can’ derives from this type of grappling. You literally grab whatever you can. ‘Catch’ wrestlers of this calibre, if thwarted from locking you around the head or arm, can just as easily grab your foot and do something unspeakably painful with your toes and ankle.
But before Fighting Fit got down to these gritty basics, we went through a physical warm-up, overseen by Jimmy Kelly Snr, the conditioning coach and father of 17-year-old Jimmy, who combines a successful amateur boxing career with his ‘catch’ wrestling.
Jogging around the gym was varied with changes of direction, lunges and sprawls. A quick stretch and then some games to get us used to contact followed. First up was a form of British bulldog. One man in the middle, the rest have to scoot past him, only it’s all done from the press-up position. If you’re caught and held, then you have to join the hunters.
So-called colleague Nick Bond clearly singled me out as the weak link. Before I’d even got my head around the game, he pounced and dragged me over. Suddenly I was having to face heavy on-coming traffic. And none looked bigger than the imposing Adam Waterfield as he bore down on me. In spite of my game efforts to slow him down, he clearly had more strength in his arms than me but at least had the decency to pace around the side rather than over me.
By the end of the game I was already tired. But Kelly Snr put us through some intriguing exercises. Staying in the press-up position, we had to move around together in a circle; the bodies surrounding you forced you to keep up. Changes of direction and press-ups on one foot were thrown in, as well as holding yourself up on one arm and attempting a press-up with the single limb.
Next up was an ingenious bench press. You required a partner with a pole. This partner then used his bodyweight to provide the resistance for five hard presses. To work your shoulders through a full range of motion, you had to try to hold the bar out straight above your chest, while your partner shifted the pole in any direction. This is by no means easy. Despite my age and weight advantage over Jimmy Kelly Jnr, it felt increasingly like a life-and-death struggle as he forced the bar down on me.
Just when I thought all the energy had leaked from my arms, we had to do pull-ups to the pole, held firm by your partner.
With the bar stretched across our shoulders, we performed lunges, jumping squats and jumping lunges. Then we were ready to wrestle. But I couldn’t afford to relax and catch my breath. You needed your wits about you when trying to keep up with these guys.
‘Catch’ wrestling is direct in approach and admirably aggressive. I noticed how they’re not afraid to go in head-first, literally driving their skulls into an opponent’s chest to snatch up a leg and, when holding the thigh, using the head and shoulder to drive them down to the ground.
Another of their takedowns had a beautiful simplicity to it, despite looking ominously dangerous. One knee sinks to the mat, the other leg slides forward and you dive for their ankle. Your arm goes around their heel, your shoulder buries itself in their shin. Nastily folding their leg in this way is guaranteed to fell even the most tree-like of opponents.
When it comes to ground-based warfare, a ‘catch’ wrestler wants to assume the dominant position. Miners grappling on 19th century cobbled streets wouldn’t want to spend any time lying on their backs. It works. I found out the hard way, trying (and failing) to escape from Ian simply lying on me. He positioned himself so his chest was pressing directly down on top of mine. It forces the wind out of you; exhausting, especially when you know he can tear off a protruding limb at any time of his choosing.
‘Catch’ has an impressive array of wrist locks and arm bars. Its trademark is ‘bone on bone’. To force your opponent into the lock you grind the hard bit of your arm, just below the wrist, into theirs. Simply gaining the hold hurts your victim.
What actually shocked, and impressed, me was how quickly you have to submit when they have you in their grasp. This was no more apparent than in their wicked neck cranks.
The first one Ian put on me happened so suddenly I didn’t know what was going on. When every veterbrae in my neck cracked in a ghastly, loud crunch I feared the worst. Happily I discovered I could still move. Less happily, this just committed me to more punishment.
It’s hard to learn the techniques in just one session but I can testify first-hand as to their effect. Grabbing your opponent from the side, you pin his head and swivel your whole body around, so you point in the opposite direction and drag all your weight down on their neck. While a submission like a triangle choke can be applied slowly and, like drowning, you can hold on for a little while to resist it, this is different.
“You don’t choke them,” Ian explained, “you hang them.”
‘Catch’ wrestling is vicious; luckily for us the crew at Stockport Fighter were kind enough not to leave us incapacitated. They train hard and when they have you, you know they can hurt you. But they also respect the tap and release you when you do submit. We emerged with aching joints, screaming bones but crucially still able to walk, slowly, out.
Ian saved some of their least enjoyable manoeuvres till the end. A choice pick was their patented death roll. I watched nervously as Bromley positioned himself on top of Bond’s head. He leant across his neck, pinning it with one arm beneath him. Then he rolled back. His body simply scrapes down, pulling your face back. Psychologically, it feels like your face is being torn off.
As Nick tottered to his feet, he still had the cunning to note that I was sheepishly hanging back. “Show John,” he urged Ian, “he hasn’t tried it.”
That was not cool, nor indeed, I assure you, was this particular wrestler. These exertions had left me gasping for breath but “duelling” legs with Ian made me pop into a cold sweat of fear. He could manipulate his leg around mine so that, one minute, my ankle was being twisted excruciatingly against his body, the next my knee was about to burst.
I knew little about this form of wrestling before my arrival in Stockport. I know one thing now – ‘catch’ is not to be trifled with. It’s so direct, savage and effective. It ought to a household name, especially when you consider the ever-accelerating rise of MMA’s popularity. These submissions would be ideal for use in the cage. The only drawback might be that their techniques can be applied so swiftly they may not be entirely viewer-friendly.
MMA might be the lifeline this very English martial art needs. It’s a piece of the country’s heritage that shouldn’t be allowed to die out. Hopefully, Ian Bromley and his Stockport fighters will keep this hard tradition alive.
Photos: Brian Roberts