Wrestling combat sport is also considered as a martial art, and this sport involves grappling with an opponent and striving to throw them in certain positions where you’ll have the “technical” advantage according to the rules. Wrestling has different types of grappling methods, which include clinch fighting, throws and takedowns, joint locks, pins, and other grappling holds.
Wrestling combat sport is so effective that organisations such as martial arts, combat sports, and military systems have incorporated it into their fighting styles. In ancient times, wrestling was purely performed for sport, but in our modern times, where violence is viewed negatively, it is also performed for entertainment purposes (i.e. professional wrestling).
The different competitive forms of wrestling include:
- Luta Livre
- Shuai Jao
Wrestling combat sport was first seen in Greece during their 18th Olympiad in 708 BC. In both the traditional historic and modern styles of wrestling, there are a wide range of styles with varying rules established by their organisers.
History of Wrestling Combat Sport
Wrestling represents one of the oldest forms of combat sport. Some 15,000-year-old cave drawings in France suggest that the sport may be pre-historic in origin. Also, among the oldest civilisations on earth, like the Egyptians and Babylonians, have wall reliefs that show wrestling matches with various holds that are still being used in our modern wrestling combat sport.
Literary references to wrestling occur as early as the Old Testament and the ancient Indian Vedas. According to the Bible, particularly in the Book of Genesis, Jacob, the Israelite patriarch, wrestled with God somewhere near the Jordan River. Homer’s Iliad also mentions wrestling during the Trojan War of the 12th century BC. Famous Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata tells of heroes and gods engaging in a wrestling match.
The ancient Greeks dedicated a significant portion of their legend, literature, and philosophy to the martial art of wrestling too! The Greeks not only made wrestling combat sport authentic, but also a brutal one. It is, in fact, one of the main events in their ancient Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, the Roman Empire, having many similarities with its predecessor – the Greek Empire – borrowed much from Greek wrestling; however, they toned down the brutality that the Greeks once allowed in theirs. The Romans made wrestling into a more friendly, competitive sport by implementing various rules relating to safety.
Wrestling remained relevant during the Middle Ages (5th – 15th century AD), and royal families from France, Japan, and England patronised the sport.
Even the first colonisers in America held wrestling competitions as a pastime for both monetary and entertainment purposes. When the Native Americans observed this foreign sport, they also joined and competed to bring honour to their tribes. Amateur wrestling combat sport would become popular among the North American colonies, and later on became the core entertainment at country fairs, holiday celebrations, and in military exercises.
By 1912, an international governing body for the sport was established, and it was called the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), then, later on, was changed to United World Wrestling (UWW), which had its headquarters in Antwerp, Belgium.
The Different Disciplines of Wrestling in the World
The UWW classified wrestling disciplines into two categories:
- International wrestling disciplines
- Folk wrestling disciplines
There are also Olympic disciplines in wrestling, namely;
- Greco-Roman wrestling
- Men’s freestyle wrestling
- Women’s freestyle wrestling
- Associated styles include:
- Amateur pankration
- Belt wrestling alysh
- Pahlavani wrestling
- Beach wrestling
- African wrestling
FILA, the predecessor of UWW, declared in 1966 that Sambo would be given a status as an international style of wrestling combat sport.
The Greco-Roman wrestling style is an international discipline and the most prominent of all the wrestling combat sport styles, because it originated in the ancient Greek Olympic Games. This discipline focuses on upper body attacks, where explosive “high amplitude” throws are emphasised.
One of the primary rules of the Greco-Roman style is the rule against attacking an opponent below the belt. When a wrestling combatant attacks, he or she must consider the following actions:
- Restricting holds
- Active but not passive usage of the legs
The wrestler may earn points when:
- They executed the throw amplitude in a manner consistent with the rules of the sport
- The opponent’s back is exposed to the mat
- The opponent concedes the match
An auto-win is only considered when a Greco-Roman wrestler has skillfully found a way to hold both of an opponent’s scapula to the mat. This attack is known as the “fall.” Alexander Karelin from Russia is a famous Greco-Roman wrestler.
Freestyle wrestling is an internationally-recognised discipline and is one of only two wrestling disciplines that are featured in the Olympic Games. It has a men’s and women’s category as well. Unlike the Greco-Roman style, where wrestlers are not allowed to use their legs for offence or defence, the freestyle wrestling discipline is not strict about this action of attack. Freestyle wrestling originated from catch wrestling (catch-as-catch-can wrestling), where points are rewarded to the wrestler who beat their opponent s by throw amplitude, exposure of an opponent’s back to the mat and opponent passivity.
Just like in the Greco-Roman style, a combatant wrestler can win a match instantly by using the “fall” attack manoeuvre. American scholastic and collegiate wrestling adopted the discipline of freestyle wrestling, with the only difference being that freestyle wrestling has a greater emphasis on throw amplitude. Women’s wrestling in American college circles employ two sets of rules, where in the NCAA they use the freestyle wrestling doctrine, while in the NCWA is for standard collegiate wrestling discipline.
Grappling is one of the many forms of associated style of wrestling combat sport, and it incorporates all forms of holds from different wrestling disciplines. It also has the most unrestricted ruleset compared to all other wrestling styles. There are two types of grappling, and one is called “no-gi,” and the other is “gi.” The categories vary only in the uniforms they wear, where no-gi (GNG) combatants wear shorts and a compression shirt called rashguard, while in gi (GWG), athletes wear a kimono. The winner of the match is the one who takes down their opponent and forces them to submit via locks and chokeholds.
Another associated style of wrestling is the Pankration (PK), from the Greek words pan and kratos and meaning “all of power.” The Pankration was first seen in the Ancient Olympic Games in 648 BC, although it differs from the Greco-Roman form of wrestling. Pankration evolved into a form of mixed martial arts (MMA) in our time, where both grappling and striking techniques are used that have been adopted from multiple systems.
Belt Wrestling Alysh
A unique variation of wrestling from Turkey, Alysh is a wrestling combat sport, where the participants wear jackets, trousers and belts. There is only one rule in this associated style of wrestling – the athletes must hold on to the belt of their opponents to the end of the match. The person who loses their grip from the belt of their opponent first will lose the match.
Historical accounts reveal the origins of Pahlavani wrestling goes back to the Persian Empire around 500 BC, where Persian champions and athletes used military weapons and equipment like mace, shield, and bow as workout tools for practicing Pahlevani exercises. According to legends, the Pahlevani exercises were first practiced by Persian mythological heroes. This regional wrestling discipline combines elements from martial arts, strength training, callisthenics and music.
It is the only wrestling combat sport recognised by UNESCO and is considered as one of the longest-running sports in the world! The title pahlevan (hero) is awarded to the champion wrestler. Pahlavani wrestling is very similar to freestyle wrestling, with a minor difference only in their sports attire. Pahlavani wrestlers wear pants, belts and tank tops, and are allowed to grab onto this clothing when engaging in a fight.
Beach wrestling is a rather new form of wrestling, which was officially accepted by the UWW just recently in 2004. The notion that beach wrestling can only be done at the beach is incorrect, because it could be done anywhere, as long as there is a ring, which is basically a 7-meter circle filled with sand. Although, ideally, it is best suited for a beachside location, as the name suggests.
In this wrestling discipline, wrestlers use swimsuits rather than special wrestling uniforms. Optional wear may include athletic shorts or spandex. Rules for winning the match include takedowns, pushing their opponent out of the ring, or tackling their opponent to the ground.
Professional wrestling is not an authentic wrestling combat sport performed for entertainment value and financial profit. Typically, they’re wrestling exhibitions with winners generally pre-determined to coax the fans and create massive support for the preferred athlete. In return, the wrestler will get a hefty salary plus multiple product endorsements, as well as movie and TV show appearances. The star wrestler often gets transitioned into Hollywood to become a box office action star like Hulk Hogan, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena.
Professional wrestling was developed from the catch-as-catch-can contests of the late 19th century. They mostly employ the freestyle discipline and was treated seriously up until the 1940s when wrestlers found out that they could make good profit from their skills, the sport grew more theatrical. Today, the MMA is considered more serious and real than pro wrestling.
Professional wrestling created the sports entertainment branch of the general sports sector in the United States. The WWE, AEW, Impact Wrestling and ROH are some of the biggest pro wrestling organisers that operate professional wrestling events throughout the world. While it is very entertaining to watch NFL or NBA, no one in those sports make the games theatrical. Nothing is fixed, and the winners win due to sheer determination and skills; unlike in pro wrestling, everything is scripted, and both wrestlers who perform “pretend wrestling” to a huge crowd of spectators will get paid for their performance.
Pro wrestling also peaked in popularity in the United Kingdom and other European countries, but due to the heavily marketed American pro wrestling, British and European wrestling dwindled down until it was completely overtaken by imported American-style pro wrestling. Since this is similar to American pro wrestling and it may be considered as an associated style wrestling, it is still not a real wrestling combat sport.
The Japanese also caught on with the spreading fame of American professional wrestling, and developed their own pro wrestling style called “puroresu.” Like the British/European wrestling, they did not try to make their pro wrestling complicated with contrived storylines and angles; instead, they fostered an atmosphere of realistic sporting competition. But like its British/European counterpart, it also faded into obscurity and was replaced by real sports competition.
This professional wrestling that was developed in Mexico is not fake wrestling, but it involves real matches with athletes pitching real skills to win. It is one of the most entertaining and authentic wrestling combat sport to watch. Most luchadores wear masks when they start their careers, but over time, as their fame grows, they tend to become less shy and introduce themselves to the public. The publicity comes with a lot of benefits, including getting TV and movie contracts, and even a slot in American pro wrestling where financial opportunities are abundant. Lucha Libre is still very much alive today and is famous not only in Mexico but in other parts of South America as well.
Circus wrestling became particularly popular in France during the 19th century. Although they utilise the Greco-Roman style in their performances, which is a real wrestling combat sport, it was done so for entertainment purposes. The ones who usually performed circus wrestling were the resident strongmen. It spread to Russia and became the feature performance in circuses up to the Soviet era, until Russia started welcoming Western entertainment when the Soviet Union fell apart, including American pro wrestling and circus wrestling died down in popularity.
Judo is a Japanese martial art, which derived from Jujitsu which is also a form of wrestling combat sport. Judo is similar to the Turkish Alysh belt wrestling, where the athletes wear trousers and a thick jacket and belt. This associated style allows the wrestlers to grab the suits of their opponents with the goal to throw or pin an opponent etc. Judo is a popular martial art/wrestling in the majority of the regions of the world.
During the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union (today, the Russian Federation) created a unique kind of martial art for their army. Sambo is actually a Russian acronym for “self-defence without weapons.” It is similar to the Israeli Krav Maga martial art, wherein it borrowed techniques from other combat sports, including the styles of Greco-Roman and freestyle to judo, jujitsu, European styles of folk wrestling, and even fencing. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Sambo survived and became the international wrestling combat sport that we now know today.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
Mixed martial arts or MMA its acronym, can be said to have evolved from the ancient violent form of wrestling, Pankration. An ancient Greek martial art that was one of the most popular sports at the ancient Olympics. Before the rise of the UFC, there were Shooto and Pancrase, and these were popular matches that were based on shoot wrestling. Because of the nature of this wrestling combat sport, the UFC produced more MMA champions compared to other champions from a different martial arts discipline.
Among them include:
- Dan Severn
- Don Frye
- Mark Coleman
- Randy Couture
- Mark Kerr
- Kazushi Sakuraba
- Pat Miletich
- Dan Henderson
- Ken Shamrock
Wrestling is one of the oldest combat sports in the world and is also one of the core martial arts techniques in nearly all forms of hand-to-hand combat. Law enforcement agencies and militaries around the world recognises its usefulness and have incorporated it into their core combat martial arts training for self-defence and survival, especially when they go behind enemy lines, or as a last resort weapon.
The most popular forms of wrestling combat sport include the Greco-Roman style and the freestyle wrestling. Other wrestling styles that fall under the associated styles and are popular in the world today are the MMA and Professional Wrestling.