Catch Wrestling - The Ultimate Submission Fighting Art

Catch Wrestling - The Ultimate Submission Fighting Art

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Martin "Farmer" Burns -
The Grandmaster of American Catch Wrestling

by Matt Furey

A 20-inch neck is not too common in today's world. If you see someone with a neck of that size, he is probably a heavyweight wrestler or a football player that weighs between 250 and 300 pounds. Imagine, though, that in the late 1800's there was a 165-pound man with a neck 20 inches around. Now, he would look like he was part-bull, wouldn't he?

Well, in many ways, the man WAS part-bull. He was one of the most disciplined individuals the world has ever known. He had a work ethic that men today would shirk. Like the Shaolin monks in China, this man believed in training the mind and the body as one and his lifestyle was one of purity: no tobacco, no alcohol, no coffee, no tea and most importantly, no swearing.

His name was Martin "Farmer" Burns, the "Grandmaster of American Wrestling" ... a man that could take a six-foot hangman's drop and remain suspended in mid-air for three minutes .... while whistling the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Sounds too incredible to believe, but it is true. In the early 1900's "Farmer" Burns performed the hangman's stunt a half-dozen times a day; tens of thousands witnessed it.

More than any other accomplishment, the hangman's drop is what wrestling historians remember the most about "Farmer" Burns. But there was a lot more to the man than most people know. Taking the time to read about him will lift your spirits, give you strength and make you strive to make your life better than it already is.

Martin "Farmer" Burns was born February 15, 1861, in a log cabin located in Springfield Township, Cedar County, Iowa. When Martin was only eleven, his father died, leaving him behind with his mother, one brother and five sisters. In order to help support the family, Martin worked for a neighboring farmer for twelve dollars a month. He also took jobs sawing wood, plowing corn and digging graves.

Although he received little schooling, Martin made up his mind early on that he wanted to become a professional wrestler. When he was only eight years old he wrestled another boy for his first stake; fifteen cents was put up by each side. The opponent, James Magrin, was three years older than Burns, but young Martin tossed him and walked away with the prize. He also left with an even stronger desire to achieve even more.

In the book, Life Work of Farmer Burns (copyright 1911), it says, "From the age of twelve to the age of nineteen years he spent his time plowing corn in the daytime and wrestling evenings every time he secured a chance with whoever he could find to hold up the other end of the work. At the age of nineteen years he was quite well known in the neighborhood of Dennison, Iowa, as a very husky young man with a reputation as a winner in every match into which he had entered, and it was here that he met a professional wrestler for the first time in his life."

Burns' match with Graft lasted two hours and nineteen minutes and was declared a draw. Afterward Burns went to work in a grading camp, and on payday he would take on all-comers. It was in the grading camp that Burns developed many of his theories about wrestling, mostly because he had to continually whip bigger and stronger men who were in good condition.

In 1886, Burns lost his first match to Henry Clayton, who wrestled under the name of Evan "Strangler" Lewis (not to be confused with Robert Friederich, who wrestled in another era under the name of Ed "Strangler" Lewis). One year later Burns lost again, this time to Tom Connors. Burns later avenged both of these losses.

In the spring of 1889, Burns made a trip to Chicago with two carloads of hogs. Because he had a ten-day stay, Burns unloaded the hogs and went sight seeing. While wandering around the town he spotted various advertisements posted in regard to two wrestlers, Jack Carkeek and Evan "Strangler" Lewis, who were taking on all-comers. The bill read as follows:

JACK CARKEEK and EVAN LEWIS, the STRANGLER, at the OLYMPIC THEATRE. WILL MEET ALL COMERS. $25.00 to anyone staying fifteen minutes or $2.00 per minute after the first seven minutes. No limit to time and nobody barred. Parson Davis, Manager.

Burns, viewing this as his chance to break into the professional ranks of catch-as-catch-can wrestling, seized the day and went to the manager's office to say he wanted to take the $2 per minute challenge. The manager booked Burns for the following evening. But word soon got out and Carkeek met with the manager, trying to persuade him to call off the engagement. Burns was not to be turned away. He told Manager Davis that he would be in town for 10 days and any night would be just fine.

The following evening was not only Burns' chance to make it big, it was also the night he became known as the "Farmer." As wrestling was only part of the show and most of the rest was comedy, the crowd waited for J.W. Kelly, who showed up for work drunk, to make the introduction of the next contestant. Burns had to literally shake Kelly awake, and when he finally came to and saw him dressed in overalls, he rushed onto the stage.

"What would you call a man who hoes potatoes and squash and shucks corn?" Kelly asked.

"A farmer," replied the musician.

"Well, then," he continued, "if this farmer would get locked up in a house and the house would catch fire, what would happen to the farmer?"

"I do not know," the musician replied.

"Farmer Burns," replied Kelly. He then ran off the stage and the audience sat dumbfounded. A few moments later, however, when Burns appeared in overalls and shook hands with Carkeek, who was bare-chested, they understood. Although the large crowd now understood the joke, they had no idea that this "Farmer" was going to put on one helluva show. Burns took Carkeek off the mat and tossed him about the stage, knocking the scenery around with him for fifteen minutes. He was finally declared the winner after 15 minutes as Carkeek was unable to throw him.

Then it was time for Lewis. 15 minutes proved to be too short a time for Lewis to throw Burns, and the "Farmer" won that bout as well. The next day the Chicago newspapers lauded this unknown "farmer" and within short order his story was known across the land.

Burns went on to become champion of America, even though he was a middle-weight. In his day, professional wrestling matches were, for the most part, real contests (but not always). Unlike amateur catch-as-catch-can (collegiate or freestyle wrestling), professional catch wrestling often had no time limit. Some matches were takedowns only and the match was decided by a throw; other matches were decided by pin or submission. On several occasions, title matches would last for several hours. In some the objective was to throw the opponent within a specified time limit. If the match wasn't decided by a throw within a certain time, you could win the bout with a three-second pin (holding both shoulder blades of your opponent on the canvas) or by submission. In most matches, the strangle or choke holds were barred ... in some, toe holds were banned. No points were given for takedowns, throws, reversals, escapes or the like in a professional match. Burns was an all-around wrestler who excelled on his feet as well as on the mat. He was a master of the pin, perfecting the Nelson series, the hammerlock, double-wrist lock, chicken wing and a great many toe holds. If Burns didn't pin you - he found a way to make you beg for mercy. From 1890-1893, "Farmer" Burns traveled around the country taking on all comers as part of various carnival shows. He never lost a fall. One of his biggest victories was over Japan's Matsada Sora Kichi, whom he defeated in Troy, New York, in four minutes.

In 1893, "Farmer" Burns opened a gymnasium in Rock Island, Illinois, where he trained several hundred students. Later still he opened a wrestling and physical culture school in Omaha, Nebraska, and helped others across the country establish schools as well.

In 1908, "Farmer" Burns top student, Frank Gotch, of Humboldt, Iowa, captured the world heavyweight championship when he soundly defeated the Russian Lion, George Hackenschmidt. Over the years there have been many Hack fans who have claimed that Gotch used "foul tactics" to win, but these claims are hardly worth entertaining. A Burns' trained wrestler didn't need to resort to foul tactics to win.

Burns involvement in wrestling was so rich and so deep that he taught amateur catch-as-catch-can in Iowa high schools. Without question, the reason why high school and college wrestling is so BIG in Iowa to this day, is a direct result of the forgotten but not lost foundation the "Farmer" laid there a century ago. In fact, in 1921, "Farmer" Burns coached Cedar Rapids Washington to the first-ever Iowa high school state championship, held in Ames, Iowa.

Burns also trained many other professional wrestlers. Three of the most noteworthy were light weight Jack Reynolds and heavyweights Earl Caddock, who won the world title in 1917, and Joe "Toots" Mondt, a man feared both outside and inside the ring.

In wrestling historian Mike Chapman's book, From Gotch to Gable - A History of Wrestling in Iowa, a number of renowned collegiate coaches heaped praise on Burns. One notable coach, Dave McCuskey, who led Iowa Teacher's College to the national team title in 1950 referred to Burns as "the cornerstone" of Iowa wrestling. "He organized clubs and taught young men to wrestle," McCuskey said.

It wasn't just wrestlers who believed in "Farmer" Burns, either. In 1910, when Jim Jeffries was making a comeback after a long lay-off, he was viewed as a "Great White Hope." In order to get in shape for his title bout against Jack Johnson, Jeffries hired Burns to help with his conditioning. While in training camp in Reno, Nevada, Burns got into a heated debate with another trainer, who just happened to be Billy Papke, a former middleweight boxing champion. Burns, in his 50's, was much older than Papke, but the "Farmer" decided that the two should settle their argument in an all-out street fight. Papke took a few swings, then Burns took him down and submitted him, making him cry "Uncle."

In 1914 Burns published a mail order course entitled, Lessons in Wrestling and Physical Culture. The course was sent out in a newsletter format. Each set of instructions was 16 pages long and contained two lessons. The first lesson was on exercise and physical culture; the second dealt with wrestling techniques. The complete course was 96 pages long; divided into six booklets containing a total of 12 lessons.

Of all the wrestling books and literature I have ever read, there was something about the words of the late "Farmer" Burns that stirred my soul. How great it must have been, I wondered, to have been born during his era, and to have been one of his students. Although his course could never replace hands-on instruction, it was the next best thing.

One of the amazing things about "Farmer" Burns is that he was thoroughly familiar with jiu-jitsu, judo and other methods of grappling and self-defense. His neck was so powerful and so resistant to pain, that he often challenged people to try and choke him out. No one ever succeeded although it is said that thousands tried.

In his mail order course "Farmer" Burns laid out his training method for wrestlers ... and for that matter, anyone who wanted to improve his overall health. Although Burns' contributions to the wrestling world were great, his training method is even more impressive, as he was teaching in the late 1800's and early 1900's what most people today would consider "Eastern" martial arts principles.

Deep breathing exercises (known as chi kung in China) were the foundation of Burns' training method. Gymnastic and calisthenic exercises took the place of heavy weight lifting. Hand and foot movements were done speedily in order to develop timing. Light dumbbells were used to stretch the muscles more deeply in every direction. Bridging was done to develop the muscles of the neck and spine. Isometrics were done solo or with a partner for added resistance. Distance running and boxing were encouraged to build "wind." And wrestling was considered the greatest exercise an athlete could participate in. Martin "Farmer" Burns died at the age of 77. It may be hard to imagine, but can you picture yourself as a person who will devote nearly 70 years of your life to your chosen art? That's what "Farmer" Burns did. He championed "America's martial art" and showed why it was so effective.

In the U.S. we do not typically use the words "master" and "Grandmaster" for our wrestling champions and our great teachers. But as we enter this new millennium, it is time to make an exception. It is time to break tradition. It is time to give Martin "Farmer" Burns his rightful place in history. He is the Grandmaster of American wrestling.

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