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.