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Wrestling History – From Ancient Egypt to Modern Sport

Having a deeper understanding of the history behind a sport can 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 history also contains lots of fascinating features about how the sport developed in the ancient world and the middle ages.

Wrestling history in ancient Greece seen in statue of a man wrestling with a centaur.

Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports. 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.

It may surprise you 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 with a broad definition. For this guide, we’ll take it to mean any sport which traces back to modern Greco-Roman and collegiate wrestling. 

You will also come across grappling-based martial arts. Some define grappling combat like jiu-jitsu as wrestling, but we’ll focus less on them.

Wrestling is a sparring sport in which both competitors must wrestle each other to the ground using grappling. In traditional variations of the sport, the first person to submit loses, 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 exists in some primates , leading to the assertion that our genes contain the impulse for wrestling.

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 civilization emerged, wrestling persisted in the form of simple competition for sport.

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 back to 7000 BC. Of course, at this point wrestling competitions featured individuals in the same tribe or local area. There was no real equipment associated with the sport either. 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. 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 History in the Ancient World

Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting wrestling in ancient egypt.

​Wrestling in Ancient Egypt

Further evidence of wrestling remains on tombs in Egypt. These show the progression of the sport from something spontaneous to a more codified activity. Distinct techniques emerged in these works of art. Many resemble those which still feature in freestyle wrestling to this day.

From the context of the images in these tombs, we see that wrestling was a huge cultural phenomenon in Ancient Egypt. Its practice spanned many different social classes.

Ancient Greek Wrestling

Perhaps the most well-known form of historical wrestling. Ancient Greek wrestling featured in some of the earliest Olympiads. Confirmed as an event as far back as the eighteenth Olympiad, the ancient Greeks considered wrestling an important sport. With the advent of this form of wrestling, rules emerged in writing, giving the sport its first written historical documents.

Ancient Greek wrestling shared many aspects with modern iterations of the sport. The competitors stayed in a delineated area and had to grapple with each other inside this area. 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 coincided with the debut of the tournament format. Competitors divided into ranks and competed to get the top of the grid. Ancient Greek wrestling eventually morphed into Greco-Roman wrestling as the Roman empire supplanted the Greek city-states.

​Wrestling History in the Middle Ages and Pre Modern Era

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 of Wrestling History

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.

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