I use the term “professional challenge wrestler” in many of the articles on this site when referring to the pioneers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But what exactly was a professional challenge wrestler?
The simple answer is they were pro wrestlers. However, I use the elongated term of professional challenge wrestler for two reasons.
Firstly, when someone says pro wrestler, people often immediately think of Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage. Cartoony characters, without legitimate fighting skill that participate in scripted fights. Their accomplishments are immediately questioned, and their value of teaching fighting techniques is dismissed. While these stereotypes are understandable for people who grew up in the last half of the twentieth century and beyond, it is incorrect to apply this thinking to the pre-television/pre-World War II world. Pro wrestlers of this era often had legitimate fighting backgrounds. Instead of thinking Irwin R. Schyster and the Gobbly Gooker, people should be thinking Brock Lesner and Ken Shamrock. However, even with legitimate fighting skills, these performers often worked at carnivals and circuses. While some of their fights were legitimate, the fighters’ close association with an industry known for cons, hustles, hucksterism and other chicanery further muddied the waters.
Rorion Gracie smartly recognized these stigmas and removed all references to carnivals, circuses, pro wrestling and worked fights (matches with pre-determined outcomes) from the “Gracie version” of the history of BJJ. Now that more light has been shed on our history, people need to understand that early BJJ has more to do with the world of P.T. Barnum and Vince McMahon than we could have ever thought.
I also avoided the term “pro wrestler” due to the fact than many of the fighters of this time did not just exclusively participate in worked fights. They fought in shoot matches (legitimate athletic contests) against other professional fighters and worked as “challenge attractions” at the circus and carnival pavilions. Challenge attractions were aligned to a subset of the carnival and circus business known as “At Shows”. Short for Athletic Shows, At Shows would appear alongside other attractions, such as Freak Shows or Animal Shows and contain gymnasts, contortionists, strongmen, boxers and wrestlers. In addition to the athletes performing legitimate as well as contrived feats for the crowds, attendees would be allowed to challenge the professionals for prizes. Rules varied significantly between fighters, promotions, time periods and regions. For the grapplers, the rules usually focused on takedowns, pins or submissions. The challenger might win by being the first to takedown/pin/submit the professional, to score more takedowns/pins/submissions on the professional than the professional scored on them or to survive a certain time period without being taken down/pinned/submitted.
Sometimes the challenger would win a cash prize. Other times they won a medal. The promotion earned revenue on the spectators’ ticket purchases and the fee that each challenger would pay to have the opportunity to face the professional. This was a difficult job for the professionals. They had no idea who they would face. It may be a complete pushover or it could be the town’s best up and coming fighter. Sometimes the challengers would significantly outweigh the professional. The challenge wrestler would usually to take on multiple fighters per day. Perhaps surprisingly, the challenge wrestler, even the legendary names, would lose matches to amateurs. This may have been due to several reasons:
1. As mentioned before, challengers may have had tremendous advantages over the professional in terms of size, strength, endurance or youth.
2. While many challengers had no training whatsoever, some were local strongmen or thugs. Some were well trained, local fighters looking to make a name for themselves.
3. The challenge wrestlers were paid per day of performing not per match won. It may have made more economic sense to not waist the effort or risk of injury to force a victory in every match.
4. This was still a period where fighters used fake names, fake records and fake backgrounds. They may not have felt pressure to win if they could just pretend the loss did not happen later.
So, while professional wrestling and the traveling carnival are now permanently linked to our story, we need to remember that many of the performers of this era were not just paper tigers performing exclusively in choreographed shows. Many of these men were skilled and experienced fighters who supported their families in any way they could. That usually meant a combination of teaching, fighting professionally and, yes, joining the circus.
Geo Omori, professional challenge wrestler and pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
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