Designing the Modern Jacket for Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling

“The first rule in Collar and Elbow is that the men shall wear short coats or jackets, made of canvas, not extending below the hips, with strong collar and elbow, suitable for grasp of an opponent”.

Australian Town and Country Journal, 24 June 1899

“[Collar and Elbow] is recognized as the national style of Ireland. The wrestlers wear a short coat or jacket, with stout collar and sleeves, to obtain a good grip. Each man seizes the collar of his opponent with his right hand and with the other hand takes a firm hold on the sleeve at the elbow. During the struggle, neither grip must be relaxed, on pain of losing.”

The World Book: Organized Knowledge in Story and Picture, 1917

“Collar and Elbow wrestling, they called it. It took rugged men, and a rugged shirt.”

The Burlington Free Press, 29 Aug. 1967

Jacket wrestling as a form of human competition and recreation is something that spans the length and breadth of Eurasia, from the mountains of Tajikistan to the fields of Brittany. The rules and means of victory naturally differ from region to region (indeed, often from village to village) but the distinguishing feature remains the same: wrestlers wear a sturdy garment such as a jacket or shirt, on which they are permitted to take their grip during the bout. In the modern day, the most widely practiced form of jacket wrestling on the international level is Judo, followed perhaps closely by Sambo in the nations of the former Soviet Union. Other styles are immensely popular on either the national level (Georgian Chidaoba, Mongolian Bökh) or regional level (Breton Gouren).

The jackets worn in these styles vary significantly in terms of cut and material. In many cases they are based on traditional clothing that was once worn in everyday life, and thus the attire seen in the wrestling circles of Eurasia is as diverse as the peoples and cultures themselves. Some jackets have long sleeves, some have short sleeves, some have no sleeves at all. Some are made of canvas, some of densely woven cotton, some of leather and metal studs. The nature of the jacket dictates which grips are possible, or which throws are more likely to succeed; thus, local culture (via the legacy of traditional clothing that persists to this day as folk wrestling attire) has directly moulded the metagame of many indigenous wrestling styles.

Jackets are an integral aspect of Collar and Elbow, the national wrestling style of Ireland. From the earliest accounts of bouts in the 19th century, we see competitors entering the ring wearing a variety of sturdy attire ranging from “sleeved waistcoats of the jerkin variety” to simple “sack jackets”. Once they met in the centre and the referee completed the formalities, they would take hold of each other’s jackets and begin the intricate battle of trips that so characterises Collar and Elbow as a style.

It is important to note that, in the 19th century, there was no such thing as a truly uniform, regulation jacket for Collar and Elbow. Wrestlers were simply expected to enter the ring wearing something suitably robust, with a strong collar and durable sleeves upon which their opponent could take the necessary grip. Since the average wrestler in 19th-century Ireland would have been a farmer, carpenter, blacksmith (etc.) who wrestled on a recreational basis, the jacket he wore while wrestling would in all likelihood simply have been the same he wore in everyday life, while working in the fields or driving his animals to market. Even during Collar and Elbow’s heyday in the United States, when professional athletes competed for national titles on some of the largest stages in the land, there was nothing approaching a standard “wrestling jacket” to be seen. As long as it was strong enough to stand up to the rigours of a prolonged bout, it was good to go. Predictably, this lack of standardisation often led to vigorous disputes over jackets when one wrestler felt that his opponent’s choice of attire would lend him an unfair advantage.

It is precisely for this reason that most folk wrestling styles eventually elected to standardise their attire. In 19th-century Brittany, a group of shepherds and sailors may have shown up to wrestle in whatever combination of shirts and coats were available, but at a modern Gouren tournament all competitors wear the standard roched. Just as everyone in a modern Georgian Chidaoba tournament wears the chokha, and everyone in a Mongolian wrestling naadam wears the jodag. The uniform cut and material of the wrestling garb helps to ensure a level playing field, by preventing any competitors from enjoying undue sartorial advantages due to their jacket being e.g. too loose or too flimsy to grip properly. An additional benefit is that it helps to establish a distinctive visual identity for the sport. One does not enter a Judo tournament wearing a Sambo kurtka, for instance.

As part of the modern revival of Collar and Elbow, the decision was made to introduce a standard jacket that can be used in competition and in training. The following guiding principles were established:

  • A cut that emphasises the characteristic collar-and-elbow grip.
  • A colour that is distinct from the standard white/ royal blue/ red of other grappling sports.
  • Historically grounded in the culture that produced the style.

With those principles in place, the design process could begin…

First Draft

In terms of settling on a distinctive colour, the choice was easy. The Irish national sporting colour is green. Whether it be the Olympics, the World Cup, or the Six Nations tournament in rugby, you will invariably see the Irish team taking to the field in green kit, typically coupled with white highlights. When the time came to design a jacket for the national wrestling style of Ireland, then, green immediately emerged as the leading contender.

Thankfully, producing a test version of a green grappling jacket was as simple as dyeing a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gi the necessary colour.

This first draft quickly established two things. One, Irish sporting green worked very well when applied to a grappling jacket, and two, in the interests of historical accuracy it was going to be necessary to move away from the gi-style cut that is otherwise quite common in grappling uniforms.

The gi as we know it today was first developed in the late 19th century by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, who based his design on the everyday garments worn in Japan at the time. (According to some sources, Kano was possibly also influenced by the heavy hemp hanten jackets worn by Tokyo firefighters). Over the years, his original gi design underwent several modifications, such as the introduction of longer sleeves and pant legs, but nonetheless remains recognisably rooted in the time and place of its birth: 19th century Japan.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Sambo, two grappling styles that arose directly out of and were heavily influenced by Judo respectively, based their uniforms closely on that of their Japanese precursor. And since Judo, BJJ, and Sambo make up the “holy trinity” of jacketed grappling styles in terms of international popularity, it comes as little surprise that the gi-style cut has come to be inextricably associated with jacketed grappling in the popular imagination.

However, one of the guiding design principles for the Collar and Elbow jacket was that it would be accurately grounded in the historical clothing of 19th-century Ireland. BJJ (Brazil) and Sambo (USSR) both have close ties to Judo, so despite their geographically dispersed proving grounds there was at least a lineage that easily justified their adoption of a Judo-style gi jacket. Collar and Elbow was developed on the other side of the planet, so it would have made very little sense to introduce a modern jacket for the style based on Meiji-era Japanese casual wear.

So while the colour was good to go, the cut was going to take some thinking.

Second Draft

As previously mentioned, the average wrestler in 19th century Ireland could have been anything from a farmer, a blacksmith, a fisherman, a carpenter, or even a priest in his day-to-day life. He would not have had specialised sporting attire like the athletes of nowadays; he would simply have worn whatever combination of everyday clothing met the necessary standards of comfort and durability. Sports like Gaelic football and hurling could be undertaken with a relatively minimalist outfitting of shirt, pants, and shoes (perhaps not even the latter in some cases), but Collar and Elbow had the additional requirement of a jacket – ideally one that did not necessarily need to remain in pristine condition.

Thankfully, there is plenty of visual evidence for how the jackets of the time looked.

From there, it was just a case of making several modifications in order to standardise the appearance of the jacket and streamline it for the purposes of wrestling. For instance, many 19th-century jackets were quite long, reaching down to mid-thigh, and sometimes even as far as the knees. This, predictably, is not ideal in any sporting scenario, and particularly not in Collar and Elbow, where the legs play such a crucial offensive role. There was in fact a famous dispute that occurred before an 1863 bout in Kildare, in which one man complained that his opponent’s lengthy coat would prevent him from seeing and reacting to his trips. When the first written ruleset for Collar and Elbow was published in the United States, it attempted to pre-empt any further disputes of that nature by specifying…

“The men shall wear knit shirt and short coat or jacket, not extending below the hips, with strong collar and elbow for grasp of the opponent…”

This length requirement was mirrored in all subsequent written rulesets. As such, the decision was made to reflect that in the cut of the modern jacket, along with some other modifications such as short sleeves to emphasise the regulation grip.

These sketches were handed over to a design team, who promptly produced a physical version that showed us we were on the right track.

Third Draft

After several months of testing to ensure that the jacket could stand up to the rigours of a wrestling match, we confirmed that we already had something very close to a finished piece on our hands. In fact, from a purely functional point of view, the jacket could do exactly what was required of it. But there is more to traditional wrestling attire than just functionality…

In Senegal, a wrestler will often open the proceedings by loudly reciting a bàkk, a boastful account of his own prowess and achievements stylistically rooted in West African storytelling traditions. The sumo wrestlers of Japan cast handfuls of salt before them to purify the ground on which they will compete. The Xingu of Brazil approach each other on all fours imitating the throaty roar of the jaguar. When a wrestler wins a bout in Georgian Chidaoba, he will frequently celebrate with a vigorous Caucasian folk dance before leaving the arena. The victorious party in Mongolian Bökh jogs in a circle while rhythmically raising his arms up and down in imitation of an eagle.

Folk wrestling is a cultural activity; one that often includes a significant amount of overlap with other elements of culture such as song, dance, religion, art, and poetry. Wrestlers proudly carry their culture with them into the ring, in the ritualised movements they use to warm up, in the names they use for techniques, in the clothing they wear. In the latter case, that can often take the form of aesthetic flair added to a particular garment, such as the intricately woven leg sleeves (tuhuu) worn by wrestlers in Inner Mongolia. The artwork on these sleeves is entirely unique to each individual wrestler. It serves absolutely no functional purpose whatsoever, other than to represent who they are, and where they and their style came from.

Ireland has a similar form of intricate knotwork that was used extensively in artwork and sculpture for centuries. These snaidhm Cheilteach (“Celtic knots”) appear as a form of peripheral decoration on a vast range of manuscripts, up to and including one of the nation’s greatest historical treasures, the Book of Kells. In manys ways, that style of knotwork has become almost a visual shorthand for Irish culture. What better way to add a touch of homegrown flair to an Irish wrestling jacket?

Final Version

The final touches involved little more than adding a second colour option, since, for the purposes of competition, this can be a useful manner of distinguishing between competitors. For instance, blue vs. white in Judo, blue vs. red in Sambo…

And green vs. navy in Collar and Elbow.

And that’s the story of how the national wrestling style of Ireland finally got its own custom jackets. Here’s a look at them in action at their competition debut in July 2021.

Building the Modern Ruleset for Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling

On 31st August 2019, the first Collar and Elbow bouts of the 21st century took place in Heidelberg, Germany. The rules for those bouts were fairly rough-and-ready, cobbled together in the weeks beforehand and communicated to the competitors verbally in a short workshop directly before the event. There was, at that point, nothing resembling an actual rulebook to refer to.

Subsequently, with the growing recognition that there was significant international interest in holding further bouts, the decision was made to properly codify a modern ruleset. That ruleset, which you can find online here, is intended to act as a guide for anyone wishing to organise competitive Collar and Elbow bouts of their own – or simply casual practice bouts among their friends and training partners.

When compiling the modern rules, the question naturally arose as to which aspects of the historical ruleset(s) should be preserved, and which aspects should be adjusted – or indeed, outright removed – in order to better fit the standards of competitive grappling in the present day. For instance, the lack of a time limit was a perfectly acceptable element of 19th-century wrestling contests, but the titanic three-hour struggles that often resulted would not be tenable in a modern tournament setting. Nor would vague, unwritten “gentlemen’s agreements” that differed from village to village, and frequently resulted in confusion for wrestlers, spectators, and officials alike.

In his foreword to my upcoming book on Collar and Elbow, Guy Jaouen (founding president of the International Federation of Celtic Wrestling) noted that the revivalist movements for Breton and Cornish wrestling similarly acknowledged that certain aspects of their respective sports required a touch of modernisation.

“The revivalists of these different regions recognised the need to restructure their old sports in order to render them compatible with modern society. Initially, none of the traditional styles were codified, and featured few if any rules to guide competitors or referees alike. There were no time limits, so matches could last well over an hour. There was sometimes no clear method of victory, so actual wrestling could be interspersed with prolonged passages of stalling and passivity that proved extremely boring for spectators.”

Some of the tenets of 19th century sport simply do not transfer to the 21st century, and the modern ruleset for Collar and Elbow needs to be crafted accordingly. Before we dive into the reasoning behind the modern ruleset, however, let’s have a quick look at the most common historical rules for Collar and Elbow as it was practiced at its height.

The Historical Rules

In Ireland, regardless of where the bout took place, the overall framework for Collar and Elbow wrestling in the 19th century was invariably the same – both competitors took the eponymous grips on each other’s jackets, and then worked primarily with their legs to trip/throw each other to the ground and score a “fall”.

There were certain regional variations in what was considered a fall. Most notably, in Dublin a wrestler was required to throw his opponent so that both shoulders hit the ground simultaneously,1 whereas in Kildare (by all accounts the strongest wrestling county in Ireland) it was sufficient to simply make one’s opponent touch the ground with any part of the body above his knees.2 Additionally, certain authors maintained that wrestling contests in Ireland were declared over if any part of a competitor’s body other than the soles of his feet touched the ground.3 And while it is highly unlikely that this was as universal as they suggest (especially given the accounts to the contrary from first-hand observers such as Ennis and Stoker), it nonetheless suggests that the “any point down” approach was applied in some parts of the country.

What is quite clear from historical accounts is that wrestlers from Kildare, Dublin, and other neighbouring counties like Meath and Laois regularly competed against each other, so skilled wrestlers were clearly quite capable of adapting to the different regional conditions for victory as necessary.

“The Hollow” in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, where wrestling contests took place every Sunday throughout the 19th century

One common feature of all these regional Irish rulesets is that they were passed on in word only – they were never written down in any kind of official rulebook or manual. This is, of course, quite typical of traditional sports and games around the world. When the knowledge of how to play the sport exists and is widely understood within the community, there is no need (and in the times before widespread literacy, no ability) to commit a ruleset to paper. In Ireland, Collar and Elbow was practiced at village fairs, football games, and inter-parish gatherings the length and breadth of the country, and was never governed by anything more than unspoken rules that appear to have been widely agreed upon. Indeed, even at the prestigious weekly wrestling contests that took place in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, during which a significant amount of regional pride would have been at stake, observers noted the remarkably sporting and gentlemanly atmosphere that persisted despite the lack of any written rules or regulatory body.4

However, when reading accounts of 19th century bouts we can see the cracks appear in this approach. We see arguments over grips,5 over the type of jackets that were allowed,6 over how much kicking was permitted7 – arguments that could have been quite easily resolved if the officials had had a set-in-stone list of written rules to point to.

It was exactly this line of thinking that led to the publication of the first written rules for Collar and Elbow in the United States in 1873.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules.” Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.

The “Ed James rules”, as they would come to be colloquially referred, nailed down all the things that had already been key features of the style, and enshrined them in word so that there could be no pre- or mid-bout attempts to game the system. The grip would be right hand on collar, left hand on sleeve, and had to be held for the entire bout. The jacket would be strong and short. There would be no heavy footwear allowed, and attempting to win via damaging kicks was forbidden. Victory would be determined by a back fall, defined as three points hitting the ground simultaneously (both shoulders and a hip, or both hips and a shoulder). This was the ruleset under which the vast majority of championship-level Collar and Elbow matches were decided in the latter decades of the 19th century, both in the US and abroad. Notable champions often specifically issued challenges under the Ed James rules.8 At one contest in 1876, every single spectator was provided a copy of the Ed James rules, so that everyone present could effectively act as an official and ensure that the proceedings unfolded in an atmosphere of fairness.9

Subsequently, other written rulesets were published for Collar and Elbow, such as the Police Gazette rules (sometimes also known as the “Richard K. Fox rules”, after the name of the magazine’s publisher) or Spalding’s Sporting rules, but in essence these were simply repackaged versions of the Ed James rules. The wording may have been slightly different, but the framework was one and the same: fixed grips on the jacket, fair back falls to win.

“Spalding’s Official Sporting Rules.” American Sports Publishing, 1894.
“The Official Book of Rules for All Sports.” Richard K. Fox Publishing Company, 1913.

So when the time came to compile a modern ruleset, we were fortunate enough to have a significant amount of published material to draw upon. However, while seeking to adhere as closely as possible to those old 19th-century rulesets, we nonetheless acknowledged that certain things needed to be changed. Let’s go through the main points of the modern rules and see how we have attempted to strike a balance between the old and the new.

The Grips and the Jacket

This was an easy choice. Whether at home in Ireland or as far away as New Zealand, the collar-and-elbow grip on a sturdy jacket was always a fundamental aspect of the style. The historical written rulesets clearly specify the standard grip configuration (right hand on collar, left on sleeve) and confirm that it was a fixed hold, meaning you could not release it at any point throughout the bout. It was precisely this fixed hold requirement that led to the development of Collar and Elbow’s renowned arsenal of trips and other leg attacks. The modern ruleset would thus be perfectly recognisable to any 19th-century wrestler who competed under the Ed James rules – you take your grips, and you keep them until your opponent hits the ground.

How To Win

This is where we start to deviate slightly from the Ed James rules in the interest of incorporating more features from the Irish rulesets of the time.

The James rules specified that the accepted means of winning a Collar and Elbow bout was with a square back fall. That is, tripping or throwing your opponent so that they hit the ground with three points at the same time – either both shoulders and a hip, or both hips and a shoulder. A fall would also be counted against a wrestler who released his collar-and-elbow grip at any point. There are records of individual falls being lost this way (for example, if one man purposely released his grip in order to catch his balance),10 but never entire bouts. So although it was conceivably possible to win if your opponent repeatedly lost his hold on your jacket for some reason, the lost-grip rule was never the primary path to victory. A clean back fall after a skillful trip or throw was the goal of any self-respecting wrestler.

Given its central role in the 19th-century world of Collar and Elbow, the square back fall naturally had to be included in the modern ruleset. However, the three-points-down definition of the fall has one notable drawback. Namely, it can be remarkably difficult to achieve, particularly against a skilled opponent who can artfully twist in mid air and land slightly on their side (or even on both feet) instead. The great Vermont champion Henry Moses Dufur was famously proficient at such mid-air manoeuvring, meaning that his opponents often had to throw him many times before scoring a definitive fall. Even less prodigiously athletic competitors could often manage to turn themselves just enough to deny their opponent the necessary three points of contact, resulting in prolonged disputes between them, their backers in the crowd, and the unfortunate official caught in the middle. These post-throw disputes could be extremely prolonged, dragging the momentum of a bout to a halt, and in some cases leading to it being called off entirely.

In Walter Armstrong’s classic 1889 work Wrestling, he noted similar arguments that frequently arose at events for Cornish and Devonshire wrestling – two English styles that also required a three-point fall.

“The two shoulders on the ground and one hip, or two hips and one shoulder, generally described as ‘three points’, which is the Devon and Cornwall definition of a fall is somewhat more reasonable [than Lancashire’s ground wrestling]; yet the dissatisfaction these conditions frequently give rise to when a decision has to be given in a close fall is sometimes vexatious in the extreme, the result in many cases culminating in a wrangle.”

Armstrong, Walter. “Wrestling.” Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1890, pg. xi.

When the three-point fall is the only method of winning a Collar and Elbow bouts, the accompanying disputes are invariably not far behind. As such, when building the modern ruleset we decided to incorporate more diverse paths to victory.

  • The Kildare strategy: Score a fall by tripping or throwing your opponent so that they touch the ground with any part of their body above the knees. Best two of three falls wins. (Note: a fall will also be scored against anyone who releases their collar-and-elbow grip at any point)
  • The Phoenix Park strategy: Win the bout instantly by tripping or throwing your opponent so that they land cleanly on their back. “Cleanly” in this case means that both of their shoulders hit the ground at the same time – i.e. the two-point definition of a fall used at the great weekly wrestling matches in Dublin.

A very similar framework can be found in Gouren (one of Collar and Elbow’s Celtic cousins), in which competitors accrue points via successful takedowns, but alternatively can win the bout at any point by landing a clean back fall, called a lamm.11 Modern Collar and Elbow wrestlers are likewise free to choose how they want to approach a bout: win via the “best of three” method by scoring smaller trips and throws, or attempt to win outright with a clear, decisive back fall.

Time Limit and Weight Classes

These are two concepts that were entirely absent from any of the historical rulesets. Collar and Elbow matches in the 19th century could take place between opponents of any size, and would last precisely as long as it took the winner to achieve the specified number of falls. The lack of any time limit, coupled with the demands of landing a satisfactory three-point fall, meant that, in practice, bouts were often very prolonged affairs, particularly when two evenly matched opponents stepped into the ring.

In their 1884 match in Detroit, it took Henry Moses Dufur 7 minutes to score the first fall against his towering opponent, J.H. McLaughlin. It took McLaughlin 13 minutes to return the favour, and then a further 42 minutes to score the third and decisive fall of the night.12 The match, which had commenced at 8:12pm, ended just before 10:00pm – an entirely typical length for a 19th-century wrestling event. Three-hour bouts were far from rare, and there are references to at least one that lasted all through the night.13 (Which, incidentally, still manages to pale in comparison to the longest wrestling match ever recorded – the gruelling, 11-hour war of attrition between Martin Klein and Alfred Asikainen in the Greco-Roman semi-finals at the 1912 Olympics).

As viscerally impressive as these combative feats are, they are simply not feasible in a modern tournament setting, when dozens of other competitors are waiting to take to the mats. If the first bout of the morning lasts for three hours, then the schedule for the entire day is thrown into disarray. For this reason  – and in the interest of encouraging a brisk, decisive pace to bouts – we have implemented a time limit in the modern ruleset: 5-minutes for normal bouts, with a recommended longer length of 10 minutes for championship bouts.

Likewise, we have added suggested weight classes in order to make it easier to match up competitors at a tournament. 

In Summary

The modern ruleset for Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling preserves the most characteristic aspects of the historical style, such as the fixed grips on the jacket and the focus on leg attacks. To this, it adds a framework (time limit, weight classes) that encourages a lively pace in bouts, and enables competitive events to be organised in a safe and professional way. In addition, by including both the “Kildare” and “Phoenix Park” paths to victory, it pays homage to the diversity of wrestling traditions that were once common all over Ireland. 

These rules are a living document, and will surely evolve as additional feedback is gathered from competitive bouts. In the meantime, they are available here. Please feel free to check them out and use them as the basis for holding some practice bouts or tournaments of your own.

And if you have any questions or feedback, you can contact me at macfadden[at]