By Chris Curtis - "The Crippler"
'Professional wrestling' - as we refer to it today, has no relationship to real wrestling. When I speak of real wrestling, however, I don't mean 'amateur wrestling.' I mean real professional wrestling.
At one time in the long distant past, when a wrestler was referred to as a 'pro' - it meant that he stood head and shoulders above the amateurs. Olympic and national champion wrestlers who thought that there wasn't any real difference between amateur and pro, often found out the hard way.
'Nebraska Tigerman' John Pesek, one of the old-time rippers of pro wrestling's early days, demonstrated this all too well. Two notable occasions are with former Olympians Nat Pendleton and Robin Reed. Pendleton was an Olympic freestyle silver medalist at 174 pounds in 1920. Upon his return he bravely challenged a professional boxer by the name of Jack Dempsey, who was the world heavyweight boxing champion at the time. But a fellow wrestler named Pesek was not going to let Pendleton off the hook by fighting a boxer. The two met in a match and Pesek man-handled him, not only taking him down, but submitting him twice with a toe hold.
Robin Reed was an Olympic champion in 1924 and greatly feared across the nation by wrestlers small and large. He never tasted defeat. Reed regularly dusted everyone in the practice room from lightweight through heavyweight. He had a mean streak as long as the Mississippi River and whenever possible, liked to hurt his opponents.
One summers' day, Reed visited John Pesek's greyhound farm in Ravenna, Nebraska, and the two agreed to a work out. Reed went at Pesek with the same ferocity he attacked all opponents with, but Pesek was not an amateur and didn't mind. At first Pesek thought he would take it easy on Reed as he was a smaller guy, but he changed his tune after the first note. In the barn where they had their workout, there was a hole in the roof, and as it had been raining, water had leaked onto the mat, forming a small puddle. Reed, wily as can be, manoeuvered Pesek to the wet spot, then attacked him. Pesek slipped and Reed went behind for the takedown. Pesek instantly turned Reed's aggression into pain. Five minutes later, Reed was so badly beaten that he gave up. He was not prepared to wrestle the way the real 'pros' wrestled. Pesek's method was not the way of the amateur and Reed reportedly said afterward, 'After I took him down, I never saw so many elbows and knees in my life.'
Over the years there have been some entertainers who have promoted themselves as if they were real professional wrestlers, but if you read between the lines, and if you are fortunate enough to be learning the real pro style, as I am with Karl Gotch, you will quickly separate the corn from the cob. Real pro wrestling is NOT the learning of as much amateur wrestling as you possibly can, then spicing it up with flying dropkicks and other nonsense. Real pro wrestling has a foundation of takedowns, throws, rides, reversals, pins and the like - but, as in any pro sport, the amateur technique pales in comparison. The set-ups are much more refined in the pro style, as are the techniques. And when you add the 'hooks' (submissions) as well as the art of 'ripping' - you begin improving by leaps and bounds.
Rules of a Real Pro Match
A real professional catch wrestling bout, was not like an amateur bout. It wasn't just money that made the bout 'professional' either - it was skill level. In an old-time shoot, each side put up money to back the athlete and oftentimes the winner of the bout won it all, which created incentive. Side-bets were common and there were no promoters; the wrestler promoted himself. In addition to the money, the following characteristics were part of a shoot match:
Shooting and Shooters
In amateur wrestling, 'shooting' is what you do when you attempt a single or double-leg takedown. You literally 'shoot in' on your opponent's legs. The old-timers, however, didn't refer to leg attacks this way. Singles and doubles were referred to as 'leg dives.'
'Shooting,' on the other hand, meant you had a match that was on the level, with rules like those shown above. As professional wrestling devolved, however, it became necessary to distinguish between the real pros or 'shooters,' and the pretend wrestlers, known as 'workers.'
In order to be known as a 'shooter' - you had to be schooled in the professional style, replete with submissions. Even if you were an amateur champion, you were not considered a 'shooter' until you knew the professional game. Most importantly, you had to be someone who went to the post.
In the United States, after the late 1920's, there were no more shoots, but there were professional wrestlers who were trained in the real pro method. These men may have never had a professional shoot, but they were known as 'shooters' because they could and would go to the post at any time, if someone wanted to try them. Additionally, these men were known to train for real during the day, so there skills were always razor sharp.
Hooks, Hookers and Hooking
When referring to the submission holds of professional catch wrestling, the common term they used was 'hook.' The world's foremost catch wrestling authority, Karl Gotch, also known as 'The God of Pro Wrestling' in Japan, describes the term thusly:
'Think of fishing. When you have a fish on the end of a hook, he wiggles and squirms and can't get free. You've hooked him. That's where the term comes from. You hook a guy when you have a submission hold on him and he can't do anything to wiggle free. But, like in fishing, once you have the guy hooked, you still have to reel him in. We always said, 'take up the slack.' Once you take up the slack, you position the fulcrum and apply the leverage. And the big thing about it is, bulls get killed on the floor. Submission is not something you do standing up.'
To be known as a 'hooker' in professional wrestling, you had to be highly skilled in the art of submissions. But, a 'hooker' and a 'shooter' were one in the same. And it had to be this way.
'A shooter who didn't know hooking wasn't a shooter,' said Gotch. 'It would be like going into a professional boxing match without knowing a jab, a right cross, a hook and an uppercut. Hooking was basic to professional catch wrestling. All shooters knew how to hook. And when you could hook faster than the others, you became known as a hooker, but you were still a shooter.'
Rippers and Ripping
In boxing you have the knockout artist. He knows the same punches as the others, but he's rougher and tougher than the rest and does whatever it takes to put his foe out for the count. Professional wrestling's equivalent of boxing's knockout artist is called the 'ripper.' It is the highest form of praise that a shooter can receive from his peers. A 'ripper' doesn't simply work for a pin fall or a submission. His mission is to physically maul you. If you leave the ring bloodied, battered and injured, the ripper considers it a job well done.
From the moment Karl Gotch entered the famous Billy Riley gym in Wigan, England, in 1950, he was trained to be a ripper. Nothing less.
Gotch was a 14-time national champion in his native Belgium (seven titles in both freestyle and Greco-Roman) and a member of the 1948 Olympics, where he competed in both styles. But it wasn't until he went to Wigan that he learned wrestling the way he had seen it as a ten-year old child, when his father took him to watch some old pros train.
'The pros had a way that was far superior to that of the amateur, but you wouldn't know it by what we see today. Back in those days the wrestlers were truly great and the best wrestlers in the world lived right here in the U.S. By the time I went to Wigan, catch wrestling was almost dead. There weren't any more shoots, but I was fanatical about learning the real pro method, and I trained in it everyday, even though there was no one who would do a shoot with me. I took it seriously. My grandfather always told me, 'Everything you keep in between your ears, you don't have to carry in a suitcase and no one can ever take away from you.'
After spending eight years at the Wigan gym, Karl emigrated to the U.S. by way of Canada. In the 1960's he went to Japan and after the Japanese saw his skill level, they quickly recruited him to train their wrestlers. Today, nearly every pro wrestling organization in Japan, including Pancrase, is run by someone who once trained with Karl Gotch.
Rippers in the U.S.
The only ripper still living in England is the legendary Billy Joyce, whom Karl Gotch trained with at the Billy Riley gym. In the U.S., Gotch, 76, is the only one left.
The era that has passed, however, had a number of 'rippers' that were in a class of their own: Martin 'Farmer' Burns was a 'ripper' who wrestled in the late 1800's and early 1900's. 'The Grandmaster of American Wrestling,' Burns taught thousands how to wrestle. He set up schools around the country, sold a mailorder course on wrestling and physical culture and trained professionals like Frank Gotch and Earl Caddock to become world champions. Burns also coached the first Iowa high school state championship team.
Frank Gotch (no relation to Karl), was the first American to win a world heavyweight title, when he defeated 'the Russian Lion' George Hackenschmidt in 1908; he successfully defended the title against Hackenschmidt in 1911 as well. 'Farmer' Burns taught Gotch his famous toe holds which he used to defeat opponents with ease. Many still consider Frank Gotch to be the greatest pro wrestler ever. He had an array of holds that he applied with lightning speed and technical brilliance.
'Nebraska Tigerman' John Pesek was a ripper whom some, like Nat Pendleton and Robin Reed, made the mistake of taking lightly.
Benny Sherman was a lightweight who would fight the devil himself if given the chance. He traveled the world and was ready for a match, anytime, anywhere.
There were other rippers from the early era and there were a lot of great pros who were excellent hookers. At the same time, however, only a few possessed the mean streak that separated the men from the giants.
The old-time 'rippers' were the best of the best. They had what boxers call the 'killer's instinct.'