Fighting Arts: Collar-and-Elbow Wrestling

Just looking at John McMahon’s mustache tells you he means business on the mat.

Whenever the fighting Irish are represented, it’s with fists raised, in a traditional boxing stance, and why not? The American Irish did produce a series of world-class boxers: Your John L. Sullivans, AKA the Boston Strong Boy; your Jack Dempseys, AKA nonpareil; you Mickey Rourkes.

But there are more ways to fight than the sweet science offers, and, by God, this blog will explore them all. Someday we’ll tell the story of “Dandy” John Dolan of the notorious New York street gang the Whyos, who wore shoes with an ax blade embedded in them and put copper eye gougers on his thumbs. Someday, but not today.

Today we look at wrestling. America has gotten a bit dull on this topic, reducing the mat arts down to two: Greco-Roman wrestling, which seems to be the primary way high school and college students accidentally spread Herpes gladiatorum to each other, and catch-as-catch-can, which is the style that professional wrestling draws from, comes from England, and appropriately, surged to popularity in carnivals.

But there were a lot of folk wrestling styles, and one of the most popular, Collar-and-Elbow, came from Ireland. Wikipedia gives a nice summary of the sport, and points out that while the style originated in Eire, it gained an early foothold in the US and was, for a long time, one of the country’s most popular pastimes. Who was great at it? George Washington was great at it — he was a county champion, and, really, never stopped tossing people around, flinging seven volunteers in Massachusetts into the air when Washington was in charge of the Continental Army.

What was Collar-and-Elbow like? The St. Albans Advertiser from 1877 offered up the rules, such as they were:

The men shall wear knit shirts and short coat or jacket, not extending below the hips, with strong collar and elbow for grasp of the opponent, and thin rubber sandals for his feet; each man shall take hold of the collar of his opponent with his right hand while with his left he must take hold of his elbow. Both men shall stand up, breast to breast, and show fair and equal play, either man who shall break his hold with one or both hands to save himself from a fall shall forfeit the said fall; kicking the limbs strictly prohibited, and the offense forfeits the contest; the falls must be square back falls, or two hips and one shoulder, or two shoulders and one hip, to strike the ground or floor, to constitute a fall; striking upon the face, side or knees, is no fall, and nothing shall be allowed for forcing a man from such a position to his back; going down on one or both knees is fair, as long as both men keep their hold; no butting shall be allowed under any circumstance; not less than ten or more than twenty minutes rest is allowed between each wrestling bout; the match shall be first fall, best two in three or three in five, according to stipulation.

Now that we know the rules, what was the match actually like? The Advertiser gives us a sense of that as well:

The floor upon which a “collar and elbow” contest occurs must be carpeted or covered with sawdust. In opening, the wrestlers seize each other by the collar with the right hand and by the right elbow with the left hand. Then follows a series of rapid plays with the feet, which are kept in constant motion, till a “lock” is secured, then follows a desperate effort on the part of one contestant to secure and on the other to prevent a fall. There are about a dozen well-known locks, but every wrestler has a number only known to himself, and which he only calls in play in closely contested matches. The play is always lively and graceful, and demands skill rather than brute force.

I’ll return to Collar-and-Elbow in future posts and introduce you to some of the legends of the sport, including the gloriously bewhiskered fellow above, John McMahon, who started in the Union Army during the Civil War and ended in a circus, and would sometimes wrestle for three continuous hours.

In the meanwhile, track down some rubber sandals and a short wrestling coat. Collar-and-Elbow is an almost entirely lost Irish-American art, and these things don’t revive themselves.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.