The History of Wrestling, Part I

By | October 19, 2021
Over the years there has been plenty of arguments regarding which martial art is the oldest, and the father of all the others? With a little research, I believe you’ll find the answers here.
Three to four million years ago Homo sapiens appeared on earth . . . naked, hungry and in constant danger. Survival meant developing the absolute ability to gather food, acquire clothing, find shelter and defend themselves against animals and those of their own kind.
Those that mastered these necessities were believed, at least in the world according to Darwin, to be the fittest. Those that didn’t had a relatively short existence. But regardless if it was food, shelter, clothing or defense . . . survival meant being skilled at open hand fighting, the precursor of today’s wrestling.
Regarding the acquisition of game for food and hides for clothing, man had to risk his life and limb in the struggle. This is how he learned the earliest techniques of wrestling, by mirroring the behavioral movements of the very animals he was harvesting for food. It was a collectively learned process; each encounter with prey would build upon others giving way to increased technical knowledge and accompanying success rates.
This evolutionary process became the basic tenets of today’s attack and counter attack style of combat. Survival then, as it is now, means the speed at which information is gathered and assimilated. The faster early man learned to grapple with nothing more than his hands and a little courage determined if he ate or was eaten, the quality of his cloths, where he slept and with whom.
The oldest known reference to wrestling is estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 years old. The remaining self-defense forms aren’t mentioned in history until the fifth century BC. The first documented proof of wrestling in Asia occurred during the rule of Emperor Huang-ti of China between 2698 and 2598 BC and suggested its techniques imitated the movements “of the goat, tiger and bear.” Six hundred years before the birth of Christ another reference to wrestling in Chinese history ranked wrestling (shuai chiao) as a military skill on par with archery and chariot racing.
In comparison, the history of Japan’s jujitsu, based on the philosophy of self-defense without weapons, dates back to 1532 AD. It’s interesting to note that this form of martial art uses similar references to wrestling’s goat, tiger and bear styles of fighting with their dragon, snake, tiger, leopard and crane forms of self-defense.
Brazilian Jujitsu, one of the two premier ground-fighting martial arts of today uses a wide variety of wrestling techniques in combination with assorted methods of joint locks and choking. A direct descendant of Kodokan Judo and often referred to as Gracie Jujitsu after its founder, this fighting system is one of the most effective and respected in the world.
Karate’s history can be traced back some 1400 years to Western India and Daruma, the father of Zen Buddhism. He developed what is known as “empty hand” grappling or fighting. Kung fu, a close relative to karate, had its beginnings about the same time in northern China at the Shaolin Temple.
Both disciplines effectively incorporate many of the striking, blocking, trips, throws and joint manipulation techniques from the earliest forms of wrestling.
Judo, a later offshoot of jujitsu, is a relative newcomer to the martial arts family. Started in 1882 by Dr. Jigoro Kano, the sport adopted the best of over 40 different self-defense forms, integrating the most formidable techniques of each into a sport. Grand Master Kano called it Kodokan Judo. Many of the throwing, choking and pinning techniques used in this form of self-defense developed from jujitsu and pankration wrestling, an ancient Olympic form of military fighting without weapons.
Probably the most effective, feared and toughest of all the martial arts today comes from the Soviet Union and is known as Sombo (the Americanized term) or Cambo (the Soviets).
Developed at the request of Lenin immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, Sombo Wrestling quickly established itself as the preeminent martial art. Initially taught at the Soviet’s Dinamo physical training center for the Red Army’s Special Forces, it combines the most aggressive techniques from jujitsu, judo, kung fu and karate with the basic control tenets of wrestling.
Today, wrestling’s family tree has over one thousand different self-defense forms scattered around the globe, each one a martial art of its own, each one a unique fighting system. But in every case their origins have a common thread, a martial art called wrestling.

6 thoughts on “The History of Wrestling, Part I

  1. Rick S.


    I believe the earlier forms of wrestling had all the moves of today’s wrestling and today’s martial arts as well as a level of brutality akin to actual fighting.

    What should we expect the wrestlers to know when they step on the mat? It seems we treat all wrestlers like they have never stepped on the mat before.

    For example, the Tori needs to know how to “throw” the Uke, but the Uke needs to know how to fall. In modern wrestling, we treat all wrestlers like they are inexperienced Uke who don’t know anything.

    Wrestlers should earn belts. The belts should indicate a level of proficiency.

    One might not be able to use a flying mare on a white belt, but it should be perfectly acceptable to use a flying mare on a black belt. One might have to protect a white belt Uke when applying a chicken wing, but a black belt Uke should know what to do to keep from getting injured.

    It’s a pity professional wrestling is staged and fake.

    I’d like to see amateur wrestling use some rules similar to professional wrestling, without being fake.

    Some of my suggested rule changes are based on different types of professional wrestling matches.

    One could conduct wrestling matches based on a circus concept of a three-ring circus with a rule set similar to a professional wrestling iron man match. In a professional wrestling iron man match, the time limit is fixed. The match might last 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour. The winner is the wrestler with the most 3-second pin-falls in that time limit.

    In two hours, with a three-ring circus, with 15 minute matches, we could have 12 matches wrestled.

    A wrestler would need to learn how to use and conserve energy wisely while draining an opponent’s energy.

    Have you seen the YouTube video:

    1. Rick S.

      Yikes, I did the math wrong.

      In two hours, with a three ring-circus, with 15 minute matches, we could have 24 matches wrestled, not 12 matches as I said above.

      In an hour and fifteen minutes, with a three-ring circus and fifteen minutes matches, with 15 minute matches, we could have 15 matches.

      This would work for high school. There are less than 15 weight classes in high school.

      For college, we can go to 30 minute matches.

      In an hour and thirty minutes, with a three-ring circus and 30 minute matches, we could have 9 matches.

      This would work for college. There are 9 or fewer weight classes in college.

  2. Rick S.

    Sadly, I do not agree with your assessment.

    Humans became the dominant species because of their intelligence. They learned to make tools and weapons. They learned to make a variety of traps and snares. It can be argued the opposable thumb was a precursor to the development of human intelligence.

    Humans must practice the arts of killing. They can practice throwing stones which might have been the precursor to the discuss and the javelin. They can practice archery. They can practice sword play which might have been the precursor to the various sports of fencing. They practice shooting guns.

    Wrestling is another form of practice. It is most effective against other humans.

    I would suggest only a fool would try to wrestle a wild bear or a pack of wild wolves or a wild lion. The idea one can wrestle wild animals is dangerous; the man wrestling a bear is wrestling a tame bear. The bear is wearing a muzzle.

    Wrestling does have it’s uses. I believe wrestling helps humans develop strength and balance and leverage and stamina and courage. I believe wrestling helps huamsn become self-aware of their bodies and immediate surroundings.

    Wrestling can be a way to develop skill and strategy although I question if the development of one (skill or strategy) leads to a lessening of the development of the other (strategy or skill). I’m hoping you will disagree.

    Wrestling is great exercise. Wrestling develops all the muscles, not just certain muscles. Lifting weights focuses on certain muscles. Running or cycling develop stamina and certain muscles. Wrestling is a much more rounded exercise.

    I believe wrestling served another purpose.

    Wrestling was a way for one human to show physical dominance over another human without killing the other human. Showing dominance is a good way to attract a mate or establish pecking order within a group where the group members are physical. We show our dominance through physical prowess and bluffs in such a group. This is akin to our showing verbal dominance in groups that are verbal.

    Finally, wrestling is good practice when one must use hand-to-hand combat. If I am threatened, I will use weapons first, and hand-to-hand combat as a last resort. If you bring a knife, I want a gun. If you bring a gun, I want a bigger gun. The greatest unarmed fighter will die to an elderly, crippled woman in a wheelchair if she has the strength to point a gun and pull the trigger.

    I will agree with your argument, various forms we call wrestling are the precursors to modern martial arts. I would suggest we are taking liberties when we compare ancient forms we call wrestling, such as pankration, with modern forms of wrestling. It is said, pankration was brutal. Modern forms of wrestling have been made “safe”.

    Take the last 100 years of wrestling itself. Rule upon rule has been introduced to make wrestling more and more safe. There are several moves and holds that were allowed a hundred years ago that are forbidden today.

    Modern martial arts retains some of those moves and holds that we removed from today’s wrestling styles. Chokes and submission holds are examples that were allowed in wrestling up to the late 1800s, but not today.

    The strategy of riding an opponent to exhaustion, working an opponent over as it were is forbidden today. Instead, today, wrestlers must be clever and skillful. The action must be constantly changing. If wrestlers aren’t “making progress”, the referee calls stalling. I am disappointed the rules don’t punish wrestlers who are “losing progress”. I am disappointed the rules don’t say “making progress” to what? Making progress to a pin? Making progress to scoring a certain point spread?

    In the Naval Aviation Physical training manuals, “Wrestling”, 1943, there exists a derogatory sentence that referring to aspects of our modern style of wrestling. Page 76, “Through the ages, there have been many “”Fancy Dan”” methods figured out to pin a man, but the simple, direct and basic maneuvers are what “”pay off”” in a hard match against a worthy opponent.”

    Our modern style of wrestling is even worse than any “Fancy Dan” methods that were being referred to. Those “Fancy Dan” methods were ways to pin an ill-prepared opponent. Many times, we don’t even try to pin.

    How many wrestlers make it to state who either don’t know how to pin or don’t try to pin?

    It is my belief, if the rules used were from a hundred years ago, and a wrestler of today were to meet a wrestler of a hundred years ago, the wrestler of today would out-skill the wrestler of a hundred years ago, but eventually, the wrestler of a hundred years ago would gain the top position and ride the wrestler of today to exhaustion before turning and pinning the wrestler of today.

    It would be brutal. The wrestler of today would be as a lamb being fed to a hungry lion.

    1. Wade

      I guess the real question is, did Eve run first which would have put track ahead of wrestling.

      Although I used the sport of wrestling here, maintaining it was the first one, maybe you’re right about javelin or track, again, running from a bear works so much better than deciding to go toe to toe with him.

      Either way, the biggest point I was trying to make was that of all the combatives, wrestling is the oldest of all the other martial art forms.


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