2 – Wrestling (8th Century BC, codified 2nd Century AD)
“Force has no place where there is need of skill.” Herodotus, Ancient Greek historian
If boxing was the first sport invented by humans, then wrestling was probably the second. In fact, all the evidence shows that, in the very, very early years of human civilisation, the difference between the two was negligible. So single culture can claim the invention of wrestling: it features in cave paintings from Mongolia from 7000BC, in carvings from ancient Iraq that date back to at least 3000BC and tombs in Ancient Egypt that are estimated to come from around 2000BC.
The techniques of wrestling can be seen in murals on the walls of Egyptian tombs and the carvings in Iraq show two wrestlers with a crowd, showing that even in antiquity, the practice was both a spectator sport and a martial art, with codified training and teachers. By the time of the Greeks, wrestling had become a big deal: it was one of the most anticipated sports in the Olympics, with a bracket-style system of competitors, established rules and mentions in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. As the Greek empire spread, they brought their love of wrestling to Rome and between them, the modern-day Greco-Roman Wrestling style was formed.
The sport as it currently exists draws its origins from that period, but it is far from the only style that has been found around Europe and beyond. In Germany, the sport was known as “ringen” and was widespread in the Middle Ages, while folk wrestling in France and Great Britain was widely popular in every social class: at the famed summit known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, there were bouts between wrestlers from Brittany and Cornwall, and Henry VIII himself is said to have been felled by a nifty trip by the French king, Francis I.
The Olympic Wrestling events were traditionally dominated by the Soviet Union and the vast majority of their successful Olympians came from the Caucasus region, in the very south of the country. It was in this area, as well as neighbouring nations such as Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia, that wrestling also developed and was pioneered into the sport of today. It is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a foundational document of Middle Eastern culture, while the sport of oil wrestling spread through Turkic culture, ranging from Anatolia in the west, through Dagestan and Cheyna and into Georgia, Uzbekistan and central Asia.
The American form of wrestling as seen at collegiate level began with the first immigrants to the United States. They brought with them a background in Irish and British folk wrestling – the name “catch wrestling”, as it became known, sprung from this background. In the early days of the sport in North America, it was often derided due to the ambiguity over whether or not the fight was real: the modern pro wrestling of the WWE and its contemporaries was also in its infancy, and many were unable to discern the amateur, Olympic version of the sport from the worked, fake version. It was not until the growth of the modern Olympic movement and the standardisation of the NCAA version of the sport in America that the original, classical (in both senses of the word) wrestling became the norm.
Of course, the idea of pro wrestling, with all the fakery and showbiz held therein, was appealing to many people. It wouldn’t be long until the UFC took that attitude and applied it to real fighting: however, the concept of an all-in, no holds barred dust up for sport is as old as time itself and, indeed, featuring alongside wrestling and boxing in the original Olympic games. It was Pankration.