Wrestling’s roots trace back thousands of years as a form of hand-to-hand mock combat and competition. Over time, many traditional wrestling styles developed worldwide, now called folk wrestling. Martial arts also incorporated grappling techniques into their unarmed fighting methods. In the 19th century, modern sports wrestling was codified, branching into Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling. This article explores the history of wrestling, its origins, rule changes, and impact from antiquity to today.
History of Wrestling in the Ancient World
Depictions in Ancient Art and Writing Some of the earliest evidence of wrestling dates back 15,000-20,000 years to cave paintings in France. Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian art also portrayed belt wrestling. Wrestling features in Sumerian and Babylonian epics like the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Egypt, tomb artwork and hieroglyphics illustrate wrestling techniques and competitions. The ancient Indian epic Mahabharata describes wrestling combat.
Sport in Ancient Greece and Rome Organized wrestling competitions first appeared in Ancient Greece, with matches being part of the Olympic Games since 708 BC. Greek wrestling awarded points for takedowns and forcing opponents out of bounds. Wrestling also gained prominence in the Roman Empire, spreading throughout Europe and North Africa.
History of Wrestling Through the Middle Ages
European and Middle Eastern Wrestling Arts
Forms of wrestling persisted through the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East. Unarmed combat systems included belt wrestling and other grappling arts. Oil wrestling was popular in the Ottoman Empire. Varzesh-e Pahlavani wrestlers trained in Persia, incorporating grappling into their martial practices.
Wrestling in Art and Writing Medieval art, literature, and friezes depicted wrestling in various cultural traditions. From the early Renaissance onwards, German combat masters recorded grappling techniques for sporting matches and self-defence.
The Emergence of Modern Wrestling
Development of Folk Wrestling Styles
Modern wrestling grew out of diverse regional European folk wrestling styles. These included the British Lancashire style, Scottish back hold, Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling, and various Germanic folk wrestling arts. Wrestling spread through Europe, particularly in rural areas.
Separation of Professional and Amateur Wrestling
In 19th century France, wrestlers performed theatrical shows, developing “professional wrestling” as entertainment. Amateur wrestling became a modern Olympic sport after being included in the 1896 Athens Games. Freestyle wrestling gained popularity in Britain and America, while Greco-Roman wrestling dominated mainland Europe.
Growth of Scholastic and Collegiate Wrestling
After the American Civil War, wrestling became a prominent high school and university sport in the United States with standardized rules. This fueled wrestling’s growth in American culture. Collegiate wrestling expanded further in the early 20th century.
The Golden Age of Wrestling
Wrestling boomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, becoming one of the most popular sports internationally. Champion wrestlers like Frank Gotch attained celebrity status. But after World War I, wrestling declined in popularity for a period.
Wrestling in the Modern Olympic Era
The resurgence of International Wrestling In the 1920s, new pro wrestling promotions drew public interest. Meanwhile, Dr Raymond Clapp standardized U.S. scholastic wrestling rules in 1927. This led to increased participation in school wrestling programs. In 1928, collegiate wrestling began holding a national championship tournament.
Introduction of Modern Rules Over the following decades, collegiate wrestling rules influenced international Olympic freestyle wrestling. Visible scoring systems were implemented. The first NCAA Wrestling Team Championship was held in 1929. Olympic wrestling gained global reach under the governance of FILA (founded in 1921).
Recent Trends and Impact
Wrestling’s declining popularity from the 1910s to 1920s separated entertainment pro wrestling from competitive amateur wrestling. Both forms impacted popular culture and participation over the 20th century. Today, various international wrestling styles retain strong followings as Olympic, collegiate and professional sports.
Start Wrestling at Apex MMA
Wrestling’s epic history proves it is one of humanity’s oldest and most universal sports. If you want to get on the mat and experience the excitement of grappling firsthand, sign up for a free trial class at Apex MMA! Our world-class coaches will introduce you to wrestling fundamentals in a fun, welcoming environment. You’ll learn takedowns, pins, releases, and defenses through drills and sparring with other beginners. Apex MMA also offers expert training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai and mixed martial arts. There’s no better place to discover your inner grappler.