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]

Disputes Over Jackets

One of the things that distinguished Collar and Elbow from the other popular wrestling styles of the 19th century was that both competitors were required to wear jackets, on which the necessary hold would be taken. In the early days in Ireland there were no written specifications for the jacket. You were just reasonably expected to show up in something suitably sturdy.

Predictably, this sometimes led to pre- or mid-match disputes when one wrestler felt his opponent’s jacket provided him with an unfair advantage due to it being, for example, too long or too flimsy to take a suitable hold on. John Ennis, writing in 1907, recorded two such disputes that took place in bouts several decades previously.

When the men entered the ring, quite a wrangle ensued between their backers over the coat worn by Cullen. It was of the fashion known in those days as the “set-to” (a corruption of surtout). Dunne claimed its long skirts would prevent his seeing Cullen’s legs but Cullen refused to use any other, and finally Dunne acquiesced and the contest began.

After a short rest the men came together again and it was evident Cahill was in ugly humour. He tried to use rough tactics, but the referee cautioned him; he then crouched, spread his feet and acted entirely on the defensive. In trying to pull his man towards him Brennan ripped Cahill’s coat up the back, rendering it useless for a hold. Brennan refused to go on unless Cahill got another coat, and this Cahill refused to do.

The Leinster Leader (Kildare), Mar. 16 1907

Once the first written rules emerged in the US, they sought to eliminate this kind of gamesmanship by specifying that jackets needed to be short, so as not to hinder the range of leg attacks the style was known for, and strong enough that they wouldn’t tear mid-bout.

James, Ed. “Manual of Sporting Rules: Comprising the Latest and Best Authenticated Revised Rules“. Ed James (self-pub.), 1873.
Two American Collar and Elbow wrestlers in 1880, after the Ed James rules had become the standard international framework under which bouts would be contested. Note the short jackets not extending below the hips.

But gamesmanship will always find a way, especially in those big national championship bouts where significant cash prizes were at stake. A common tactic – or at least a common complaint – involved jackets that were too loose for an opponent to take a useful hold on.

A brief breathing spell followed, when time was called and holds again taken. This bout was ever fiercer than the first, and the men resorted to numerous inner and outer grapevines, hip-locks, and other movements. Then some little disagreement arose in regards to the looseness of their respective jackets, each claiming that the other had the best of it. It ended in their going at each other savagely, jerking and flinging each other around at a great rate.

Buffalo Morning Express (New York), Oct. 20 1880

For two hours this sort of boy’s play was continued, and it was evident that Owens had met his match in Dufur and his backers, who were determined that under no consideration should the Marlboro unknown go to the ground on his back. The audience at last became angry, and demanded fair play or their money. The claim was then made by Owens that Dufur’s jacket was too large, as it prevented his retaining his hold when once made. Dufur refused to put on his coat, and a disorderly scene ensued from 10:30 until 1 ‘o clock, during which time the wrestlers once dressed themselves and started to leave the hall, but the audience insisted the match should go on and they returned to the platform again.

St. Albans Daily Messenger (Vermont), Mar. 3 1877

In the recent struggle between these rival champions, McMahon’s jacket was not fair, and McLaughlin objected to it, but as McMahon had no other McLaughlin waived his objections rather than break up the match. The jacket was so loose that it pulled over the wearer’s head whenever McLaughlin had him in a tight place. As the articles of agreement specify that each shall wear the same style of jacket, the next struggle may result differently from the last.

The Boston Globe, Dec. 1 1878

This is one of the reasons we are currently working on developing dedicated jackets for future Collar and Elbow bouts. One, to ensure the modern sport has its own visual identity, but also to that everyone is on the same sartorial page. Every wrestler that steps into the ring will have the same grips, cut, and strength of material to work with.

Breaking the Hold

A key aspect of many traditional wrestling styles is the concept of the fixed hold. In contrast to modern styles like BJJ, Judo, and Sambo, in which you’re (mostly) free to take any grip you like, traditionally it was much more common for a style to centre around one set-in-stone grip (or “hold”) that both competitors were required to keep throughout the entire bout. It is quite typical to read accounts of old wrestling challenges in which the challengees’ response amounted to “Sure, what hold will we use?”.

The Northern Pacific Farmer, Jan. 27 1881

An over-under “hug” clinch is still a common hold (Scottish Backhold, Cumberland and Westmorland, Sardinian S’istrumpa), as is a belt grip (Icelandic Glima, Central Asian Alysh) or a trouser grip (Lucha Leonesa). Collar and Elbow’s was exactly as it the style’s name suggests – right hand on the collar of the jacket, left hand on the sleeve just above the elbow. And once you had it, you could not let go. You could use your arms to push, pull, twist, and generally off-balance your opponent while you worked to trip or throw them, but if you released your grips either by design or by accident you conceded a fall. So wrestlers couldn’t “accidentally” catch their balance mid throw, then just say “Whoops, let’s start again”. You had to work within the rules of the game.

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

Here are some examples of that particular rule in action:

At Indianapolis, December 16, the Turkish wrestler Hali Adali nearly met with a reverse. Duncan C. Ross, who was in Australia some years ago, pulled the Eastern champion over in the Collar and Elbow bout, and, not understanding the style, Adali broke holds. Ross got the fall.

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), Feb. 11 1899

The wrestling up to this point had been in the Cumberland style, but the remaining two falls were in the Collar and Elbow style, sack jackets being put on by the competitors. The excitement now became intense, each effort of the wrestlers being heartily applauded. The Maori was very determined throughout, and after five minutes’ play threw his opponent very cleverly. The remaining fall lasted more than an hour. The Maori got a fall, but he let go his hold, and the fall was given against him.

Marlborough Daily Times (New Zealand), Mar. 19 1886

After the men had wrestled for two hours and thirty-five minutes, the tall man caught a right inside lock on the Vermonter, which the latter neatly broke, and in a twinkling twitched his adversary so nearly on to his back that he broke his hold to save himself and lost the fall as a consequence.

Boston Post, June 28 1878

Modern Collar and Elbow bouts include this crucial rule too. Take your grips, work your trips and throws, but your hands have to stay in place!

19th-Century Anti-Stalling Rules for Collar and Elbow Bouts

Modern combat sports like Judo and Sambo have fairly strict rules in place to prevent stalling in matches. Rules that forbid, for example, overly defensive grips or taking an excessive number of steps backwards without engaging. Collar and Elbow was no different. The grips were set in stone (right hand on collar, left on elbow), and the first written rules for the style specifically included a point intended to tackle the two most common methods of stalling – namely, stiff-arming an opponent away, and bending forwards with your upper body in order to keep your legs away from his attacks.

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

Predictably, competitors still attempted to pull the odd bit of gamesmanship when things weren’t going their way, but all in all the rules and the referees enforcing them seemed to do the trick.

Cox clung to defensive tactics throughout, and it [wasn’t] long before Dufur became very aggressive. The sagging back of the former was very much complained of by the partisans of the Marlboro man, but it was not clear that he had transgressed any rule of the sport; still the referee frequently reminded him to ‘straighten up’.

Boston Post, June 28 1878

Another short breathing time was taken, during which McLaughlin called the referee’s attention to the fact that Martin persisted in keeping his arms stiff, when the rules expressly provide that in Collar and Elbow wrestling the men shall stand breast to breast and give their arms free play. The referee acknowledged the justice of the complaint, and instructed Martin to keep within the rule.

St. Louis Globe, Mar. 27 1876

Canvas jackets were again worn, each man taking hold at his opponent’s collar and elbow. Dinnie at once went on the defensive, standing well out, and lowering his head so to watch the other’s legs that he lost inches of his height. In a little while Cannon complained of this. ‘Stand up to your work, man,’ said he, but without avail. He then appealed to the referee, who, in reply, remarked, ‘Stand up, Donald, and let us see some wrestling.’ Dinnie quietly smiled and obeyed orders.

Sportsman (Melbourne), Mar. 9 1887

Essentially, as tempting as it might have been for a wrestler in a tight spot to stiff-arm and run down the clock, anyone attempting such a strategy (as the gentleman on the left here appears to be doing) would ultimately do nothing more than put themselves at risk of a caution or outright disqualification.