“Weird and somewhat horrible”: the Novelty of Submission Wrestling in 1901 London

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Friday, 23rd June 2017

Although E.W. Barton-Wright had been lecturing upon and demonstrating jiujitsu since his return to England from Japan in late 1898, it was not until September of 1901 that London music hall audiences saw the Japanese art applied in full earnest against a European wrestling style.  Barton-Wright’s “New Art” was represented by Yukio Tani, while Percy Longhurst of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Amateur Wrestling Society championed the English school.

Longhurst was, in fact, the first British wrestler to accept Barton-Wright’s challenge to compete under his rules, which declared that a bout would continue until one grappler signalled submission to the other.  The concept of submission wrestling was entirely novel at that time and place; the extant regional British and European wrestling styles were predicated upon throwing an opponent onto his back, or wrestling to a pin fall position in which the shoulders were pressed to the mat.  The closest analogue to jiujitsu in the early 20th century European canon was the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style, which employed some holds that could force the opponent into a pin position through pain as well as leverage.

Thus, Percy Longhurst was at the considerable disadvantage of playing Tani’s game and it is neither surprising, nor to his discredit, that he lost every “test”.  Afterwards, a newspaper reviewer expressed distaste for the spectacle of a wrestler being forced to submit to joint-locks, describing the techniques as “weird and somewhat horrible”, while admitting that jiujitsu seemed ideal for true self-defence against Hooligans.

Thereafter, London’s wrestling fraternity remained wary of the Japanese style, despite Barton-Wright’s inducement of £100 – a very substantial sum of money – to any challenger who could defeat the Bartitsu Club champions.

One would-be challenger, who claimed to be an exponent of “the Russian style” of wrestling, made it as far as the stage wings before his courage seemingly deserted him.  A few more amateurs did consent to square off against Tani or his colleague Sadakazu Uyenishi, but none came close to winning the prize money.  Barton-Wright struggled to get any of the established champion wrestlers to compete under jiujitsu rules and, by October of 1901, he had resorted to advertising his challenges in the pages of the Sporting Life, as seen here:

There followed some vehement arguments, both via “Letters to the Editor” columns and in person during Barton-Wright’s music hall displays, with many challenges and counter-challenges being bandied about.  It would still take some time, however,  before wrestling vs. jiujitsu contests became fully established in England.

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