A short history of wrestling
As totally opposed to, for instance, the history of bodyboarding, the history of wrestling and that of grappling sports, in general, is a long and complicated one, that stretches well into prehistoric times.
There are many traditional forms of wrestling that survive, grouped under the name folk wrestling, while more formal systems have been included in martial arts worldwide, with grappling techniques representing an important subcategory of unarmed fighting. It is widely considered that the modern history of wrestling begun with a rise in its popularity during the nineteenth century, an evolution that generated a great impact for the history of Greco-Roman wrestling, who experienced a surge at the turning of the twentieth century on the European continent.
During the 1920s, a separation was made between show wrestling as a form of entertainment (which would later become professional wrestling) and competitive sports wrestling (now known as amateur wrestling).
The roots of wrestling are quite heavily of an anthropological nature, given its use both as a type of mock combat and a display behavior. The documented history of wrestling begins with pictorial representations, the oldest being the paintings found in the caves of the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia, dating back to the Neolithic age of 7000 BC and showing two naked men grappling while surrounded by a crowd.
Findings in several different locations in the Near East range from a painted stone slab which depicted three pairs of wrestlers and was dated from around 3000 BC to a cast bronze statue that showed a wrestling hold and was dated to around 2600 BC. In Egypt, the earliest visual evidence of this sport was encountered in more than four hundred tombs and burial chambers. As to written testimonies, they began to appear and circulate thanks to the ancient classics, the Greek and Sanskrit epics, in particular, namely the Iliad and the Odyssey (Greek) and Mahabharata (Sanskrit).
The visual representations continued to be made, with wrestlers being depicted on coins, vases or sculptures. During antiquity, the most popular form of wrestling was the Greek type, in which touching the opponent’s back to the ground meant gaining points and forcing said opponent out of bounds. Three falls determined the winner.
A noteworthy fact from the perspective of the history of wrestling in the Olympics is that this form of martial arts was featured as a sport at the eighteenth edition of the Olympic games, in 704 BC. After the conquest of the Greeks by the Romans, Greek wrestling was absorbed and became Roman wrestling for the duration of the Roman Empire, between 510 BC and AD 500.
During medieval times, wrestling continued to be practiced both by the nobility and the lower classes. It continued to remain popular during the Renaissance as well, one of its best-known figures being the Austrian master Ott Jud, who was said to have designed a system of grappling to be used in combat and which included joint breaks, arm locks and throws designed to cause serious injury.
Although no writing by him has survived, his system continued to be taught by a number of fencing master towards the end of the fifteenth century. Wrestling was later gradually abandoned by the European nobility with the emergence of a self-imposed, more “dignified,” code of behavior in the Baroque period, remaining a pastime of rural populations.
In the Middle East, wrestling was mentioned in the epics of Gilgamesh and the Shahnameh. Oil wrestling was recorded in ancient Sumeria and Babylon, while in Persia and Parthia traditional grappling or “koshti” was practiced by the upper and lower classes, both for sport and as training for battle. In Asia, one can speak about the history of sumo wrestling, a form of wrestling with deep roots in Japanese legend and history, dating back over 1500 years.
Archaeological discoveries proved that sumo was performed in prehistoric times as part of the rituals for the gods in order to determine the success of farmers’ crops; it was also practiced at Imperial court ceremonies during the seventh and eighth centuries. In 1909, sumo was established as Japan’s national sport, becoming a very popular form of entertainment in today’s world.
As a modern sport, wrestling developed in the nineteenth century in the form of two regulated styles: freestyle and Greco-Roman. A tendency to combine wrestling and showmanship, a veritable cornerstone for the history of professional wrestling, has its origins in 1830s France, with showmen presenting wrestlers under names such as “Edward, the steel eater” or “Bonnet, the ox of the low Alps”; they also challenged members of the public to knock them down for five hundred francs.
In 1848, French showman Jean Exbroyat created the first modern wrestlers’ circus troupe, establishing a rule that holds below the waist were banned — this style he named “flat hand wrestling.” It soon spread to the rest of Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, Denmark, and Russia under the names of Greco-Roman, classic or French wrestling. The veritable “golden age” that wrestling experienced at the turn of the twentieth century was cut short by the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914.
In 1898, the title of first Professional World Champion was awarded to Frenchman Paul Pons, nicknamed “the Colossus.” During this period, the most renowned European wrestlers were men like Georg Hackenschmidt, Stanislaus Zbyszko, and Constant Lavaux; they often enjoyed the status of popular heroes.
In the United States, the big names were those of Martin “Farmer” Burns and his pupil, Frank Gotch; William Muldoon was another renowned American wrestler. When the First Modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, Greco-Roman wrestling was introduced as one of the disciplines.
After not being a part of the 1900 Olympics, sports wrestling was reintroduced in 1904 in St. Louis, this time in freestyle competition. Beginning that time, Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling have both been featured at the Olympics. From the point of view of the history of women’s wrestling, the first appearance of women freestyle practitioners at the Olympics was recorded in 2004.