Having a deeper understanding of the history behind a sport can do more than give you insight into how it first came about. Respecting the sport you play and immersing yourself in everything from the history to the technique is one of the best ways to perform.
Wrestling is one of the world's oldest sports, but that's about as far as most people's knowledge of the activity extends. If you take a closer look at it, you'll find that wrestling has a surprisingly diverse and fascinating history that ranges from the cavemen to the Ancient Greeks.
You may be surprised to find that wrestling extends past the earliest days of humankind all the way to our genealogical ancestors. Before we get into the details, however, we have to make sure that everyone is on the same page by going over what comprises wrestling in the first place.
What is Wrestling?
Wrestling is a sport which can be defined very broadly, and for this guide, we'll take it to mean any sport which can be traced to modern Greco-Roman and collegiate wrestling.
Of course, you will also come across grappling-based martial arts like jiu-jitsu which can be technically defined as wrestling, but we’ll focus less on them.
To put it in plain terms, however, wrestling is a sparring sport in which both competitors must wrestle each other to the ground using grappling (hence the name). In the most traditional variations of the sport, the first person to submit is defeated, and the one who ends up on top is the victor.
The Earliest Days
Wrestling is more than a sport; it is an instinct. While this may sound preposterous, anthropologists have noticed similar actions in our distant primate ancestors. In fact, the behavior has been observed in some gorillas and other primates which are still present today, leading to the assertion that wrestling is written in our genes.
The idea is that wrestling was used as a display of prowess similar to rams locking horns or other competitive displays between male animals. As we eventually grew to the point of civilization, wrestling grew to adopt a less obvious meaning in the form of simple competition for sport as opposed to being used for reproduction.
Wrestling in the Prehistoric Era
Over time, as wrestling became more of a sport and less of an instinct, it began to draw crowds, and we have proof of this in cave paintings that date all the way back to 7000 BC. Of course, at this point wrestling competitions were still restricted to individuals in the same tribe or local area and there was no real equipment associated with the sport... no mouth guards, no head gear, no wrestling shoes!
We don't have too much information about the behavior of our cave-dwelling ancestors in general and even less about the activities that they used to perform for fun, so knowledge is pretty sparse. It took until the Ancient Egyptians for wrestling to truly become an organized competition.
Wrestling in Ancient Egypt
Further evidence of wrestling was found on tombs in Egypt, showing the progression of the sport from something spontaneous to a more codified activity. Distinct techniques began to become visible in these works of art, many resembling those which are used in freestyle wrestling to this day.
From the context of the images in these tombs, it was evident that wrestling was a huge cultural phenomenon in Ancient Egypt, being practiced by many different classes. While the sport was beginning to grow more organized, it was still not included in any written transcripts.
Ancient Greek Wrestling
Perhaps the most well-known form of historical wrestling, Ancient Greek wrestling was practiced in some of the earliest Olympiads, with it being confirmed as an event as far back as the eighteenth one. With the advent of this form of wrestling, rules were finally put in place in writing, giving the sport its first written historical documents.
Ancient Greek wrestling wasn’t all that different from modern iterations of the sport, with the competitors being placed in a delineated area and forced to grapple with each other. The first contender to press their opponent’s back to the floor is the winner in the type of wrestling.
The advent of Ancient Greek wrestling was also the debut of the tournament format, with competitors being placed into ranks and competing to get the top of the grid. Ancient Greek wrestling eventually became Greco-Roman wrestling when the Ancient Greeks were ultimately conquered by the Roman Empire.
Wrestling in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages (in the West, at least), as with many other aspects of society, wrestling regressed, and it grew less popular since the fall of the Roman Empire. The practice mainly continued in Germanic states and other European duchies and vassals, referred to as Ringen.
Some types of Middle Age wrestling differed quite immensely from any other forms we have already seen, with some competitors fighting to the death. This did not last long, however, as the sport eventually ended up growing organized.
The Golden Age
From the end of the 1800s up until the beginning of the First World War, wrestling saw a massive boom in popularity, and this period is referred to as the golden age. Legends like Martin “Farmer” Burns and William Muldoon came about in this era, and they changed the sport forever.
This period is responsible for much of the enthusiasm towards the sport that persists to this very day. Unfortunately, with the beginning of the First World War and the immense depletion of young manpower that it caused, wrestling grew less popular as 1914 came around.
The Modern Era
Since the end of World War I, wrestling has maintained its popularity steadily, having been split into the competition and the entertainment form in the 1920s. The sport has been practiced in modern Olympic games since 1904, and it will still be there for a long time to come.
As you can see, wrestling has a long history, and we’ve only managed to scratch the surface up until this point. From the instinctual urges that led to the sport’s beginnings all the way to the development of modern wrestling shoes, there is so much to learn. Thank you for your time.