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A Modern Take on Wrestling

Welcome back to the Viking Strength Sports blog! If you were here last week, or had a chance to catch up today, you'll know that we are on the second post in our series on strength sports in history and today. Last week we started with wrestling, one of the oldest documented strength sports, with appearances in the art and literature of Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), and Greece. Wrestling remains one of the most popular sports today, and encompasses a broad range of subtypes.


Youth wrestlers may start training as early as the age of 4 or 5 in wrestling “clubs” which are not affiliated with a school sports program, developing awareness of their bodies, coordination, and learning good sportsmanship. According to Coach Bill Campbell, early training is critical for a wrestler's long term success “Wrestling is a sport involving very complex technique that can take many years to master. A great high school athlete with little or no wrestling experience has little or no chance against an 8 or 10 year veteran.” According to his Parents Guide to Youth Wrestling, there are three main subtypes of wrestling within the United States: Folkstyle, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman, each of which has different goals, rules, and structure. At competitions or tournaments, athletes are grouped by age and weight class, before being matched with an opponent.


Folkstyle is the most popular form of scholastic wrestling in the US and is conducted under rules and regulations established by the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations. In Folkstyle wrestling, the goal in each of three periods during a match is to gain control of the opponent and to “pin” him/her with both shoulder blades on the mat for at least two seconds. Wrestlers begin the first period in a neutral position, where both competitors stand facing one another on the mat. In the second and third period, each athlete has the option to choose to begin in the neutral position, or to begin from the “Referee's Position” as either the top wrestler or the bottom wrestler. The top wrestler begins with control of the bottom wrestler, and is positioned behind/on top of the opponent. The bottom wrestler starts with hands and knees on the mat, with the objective of an escape or reversal. A competitor can win the match by successfully pinning the opponent, or by achieving a lead of 14 points or more over the opponent. Points are awarded for the following moves:

-“Takedowns” - in which both wrestlers begin from a neutral position and one wrestler gains control of the other and brings him or her to the mat.

-“Escapes” - in which the wrestler in the bottom position breaks away from the wrestler in the top position and regains a neutral position.

-“Reversals” - in which the wrestler in the bottom position not only breaks the hold of the wrestler in the top position, but also gains control and moves the top wrestler to the bottom position.

-“Back Points” or “near fall” - in which one wrestler gains control and then comes close to pinning the opponent to the mat. Points may also be awarded when a penalty against one's opponent is issued.


Freestyle and Greco-Roman Wrestling are practiced internationally, and are the forms of the sport which can be found at the Summer Olympic games. The rules and regulations are established by the International Wrestling Federation (FILA). Depending upon the age of the competitors, these matches consist of either two ninety-second periods or one five minute period. Both wrestlers begin the match in the neutral position. The Referee's Position is not used in Freestyle or Greco-Roman matches. The objective is to pin one's opponent to the mat on his or her back for one second, which can end the match at any time. However, points are awarded more liberally for the wrestlers' techniques in achieving a takedown, and once both wrestlers are on the mat in “par tarre” position, the impetus is on the top wrestler to execute a hold exposing the opponent's back, usually within 15 seconds. If the top wrestler does not achieve this objective in that timeframe, the referee will stop the match and re-start the match with both wrestlers in the neutral position. In the Greco-Roman variation, all attacks upon an opponent must be above the belt, whereas Freestyle wrestling allows trips and other leg attacks.


Modern wrestling extends well beyond these categories. The International governing body, FILA, recognizes a total of eight disciplines within International Wrestling, including Greco-Roman and Freestyle. Many readers will be familiar to some extend with the increasingly popular sports of Combat Grappling/Mixed Martial Arts/MMA.


Grappling is a hybrid combat sport that incorporates components of Brasilian Jiu Jitsu, Sambo, wrestling, and Judo, as well as other non-striking martial arts. Competitors aim to force their opponent into submission through locks, chokes, and other moves, but excludes any strike/hit/kicking movement.


Beach wrestling is pretty much exactly what it sounds like! Matches take place during one three minute period, on beach sand. Any part of the body (besides the feet) coming into contact with the ground constitutes a takedown.


Oil Wrestling is also fairly self-explanatory, but holds the distinction of being the National Sport of Turkey. It also happens to be the main event of the longest running (uninterrupted) annual sanctioned sport competition, known as Kirkpinar, which has taken place every year since 1346 AD.


Pankration began as a no-holds-barred boxing/wrestling hybrid sport, first incorporated into the Olympic Games in 684 B.C.E. Biting, gouging of an opponent's eyes, nose, or mouth, and attacks on the genitals were out of bounds; otherwise competitors could engage in any number of strategies to overcome their opponent. The modern Olympics (since 1896) have not included Pankration, but interest in the sport picked up in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to Jim Arvanitis, a Greek-American martial artist. Many MMA fighters have some background in Pankration, so fans may see similarities in the Octagon.


Sambo is a Russian combat sport and martial art which was developed gradually by Russian fighters with extensive background training in Japanese Martial Arts including judo and jiu jitsu. For the incredibly interesting history of this sport that almost disappeared under Stalin, check out this excellent article: https://punchermedia.com/russian-sambo-explained/


As you've probably gathered by now, wrestling today enjoys a presence as diverse as ever. We hope you've enjoyed exploring this fascinating topic in its history and in its modern incarnations! Please join us next week as we continue our series on strength sports in history!


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