Wrestling: The Genesis

The five-minute buzzer sounds and you congratulate your training partner on a good roll. You wipe sweat off your face and look around to see who needs a partner for the next round. You see him across the mat and you wave him over. He walks over and you chit chat while the timer resets. We all know this guy. He’s in every gym. He wrestled in high school or college, and instead of starting seated and playing guard, you agree to start from standing. You’re eager to try out those tips on clinches and single leg takedowns you saw on YouTube. But alas, your plan soon begins to fall apart. Every time you go for the takedown, you’re stuffed, and then he’s on your back like a hump on a camel. Every time he goes for the takedown, he railroads through you and you end up flat on your back desperately trying to regain position. Whenever you think you’ve made strides in your takedown or stand-up game, he will politely demonstrate that you still have a lot of work to do.

Widely recognized as one of, if not the best skill set to have in MMA, the competitive spirit, the strength, and the technique used by wrestlers to take down opponents is among the best in the world. Whether its folk oriented wrestling like that found in Senegal, Mongolia or the Caucasus Mountain ranges, or the folkstyle favored by American colleges, the art of closing distance, tying up the arms and grappling, followed by throwing or tripping, and then pinning and submitting a fully resisting opponent is one of the most ancient arts studied by man. Ancient tales from Greece, cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia, statues from Egyptian tombs and still extant records of exploits of certain Samurai and modern Japanese grapplers abound. Naturally, the question arises as to who developed these methods and techniques first, and then how it spread.

Who the first culture, the first group, tribe, or clan to systematize and formulate the techniques needed to defeat a person in grappling is unknown. Current thinking points to evidence indicating that these skills were developed by different cultures, whether known or unknown, in tandem with each other.

As stated earlier, ancient Egyptian tombs, mostly in Saqqara, have decorations of wrestlers with the form and attempted technique clearly visible. Of course, one of the first places we can turn to start a discussion of anything ancient, would be the proto human history legends of Mesopotamia. There we find one of the oldest and original texts dealing with grappling and “contests of strength” in the epic “Gilgamesh”. In it, the characters Enkidu and Gilgamesh engage each other in a match, with Gilgamesh emerging victorious. Other Mesopotamian texts also exist with stories of the Annunaki, visitors who came from “above”, to teach mankind various skills, warfare included. While it can be certain that both the Babylonians and Assyrians knew, practiced, and applied grappling in their respective militaries, it cannot be verified with certainty how well these skills were disseminated amongst the rank and file.


One military and culture where grappling can be verified as being a staple of the training is in ancient Greece. The phenomenal endurance, skill, and power of the men in the various Greek city states is, quite literally, the stuff of legends. Greek culture worshipped strength, and were enamored with the beauty of the physical form and used grappling as one of their main sources of conditioning. The legends and myths of the Greeks also revolved around physical prowess. In reading these legends, it becomes clear that they were obsessed with the idea that a man, a god, or demigod, could develop strength and power, and then overcome all odds put up against him. This is especially true in the legends of Hercules, most notably his fight with Antaeus. Antaeus was the half giant son of Poseidon. As long as he remained in contact with the Earth (Gaia, who was his mother), he was invincible, and killed all who challenged him. Hercules, who was on his way to carry out his 11th Labor, agreed to fight him. Knowing he could not throw, or pin and submit Antaeus, Hercules sees his inherent weakness, and thus lifts Antaeus up, crushing him in a bear hug.

The Greeks were not one dimensional. They considered physical power to be on par with mental education. A man was not complete if only intelligent, likewise if only strong. He should nurture both qualities to be truly whole. Grappling in ancient Greece was divided into two styles: 1) the more sport-oriented wrestling called Pale, and 2) the more militantly focused grappling known as Pankration. Pale wrestling was won by scoring 3 points. A point was scored by forcing the opponents back, shoulder, or hip to touch ground, or by applying a submission and forcing a concession of defeat. Pankration, however, though also considered by some to be a sport, was substantially different in mindset and tactics. Victory was decided by means quite similar to modern MMA. The word “Pankration” itself translates roughly as “all [your] power”. It involved both boxing and wrestling, and although knockouts were common, most matches were decided on the ground. Fighters were free to strike or apply joint locks and chokes. Only eye gouging and biting were illegal moves (except in Sparta). Pankration, like Pale, was part of the Olympics, but unlike Pale, Pankration was part of the arsenal of ancient Hoplites.  Our word “Agony” comes from the Greek “agonia”, the name of their athletic games. The strain and the endurance, the constant effort exerted, showed to any observer the pain required to compete at a high level. 

Preeminent among the Greek city states, however, were the Spartans. This group of people were known to be of a higher caliber than any other in military matters. Their culture, bizarre even to other Greeks, demanded from a young age constant and rigorous mental, physical, and emotional conditioning. At the age of seven, Spartan boys were taken from their homes and placed in a military academy. Here they learned the skill set which would dominate their lifestyle. Like the other states, Spartans loved wrestling. Unlike the other states though, the Spartans were notoriously aloof and ignored most invitations to the games, so their techniques could not be observed and stolen or used against them. The Pankration training in all the city states was intense and severe. This allowed the Greek states to produce the best heavy infantry in the ancient world, as discovered by the Persians in two wars. In the infamous “last stand at Thermopylae”, the ancient accounts tell us that, on the last day of fighting, the Spartans fought with “bare hands and teeth” after their spears and swords broke.

Pretty much everyone know something about the Spartans. They have gone down as the undisputed badasses of the ancient world. There were many non-Spartan fighters who were regarded with the same awe, and many were Athenians. One of these was Hermolycus, who distinguished himself at the Battle of Mycale. Others include Arrihichion, Dioxippus, and Polydamus; fighters who in their day were considered invincible. Dioxippus was even held in such high regard that he was allowed into the inner circle of Alexander the Great, becoming one of his personal training partners, and defeating some of Alexander’s best men. In doing so, he inadvertently assisted in the spread of the Greek form of grappling east, into the areas of Persia and the middle east conquered by Alexander. As the Greeks marched east, their culture spread with them. Cities sprang up with Greek names, and Greek mercenaries married Persian women. Naturally then, Greek fighting followed suit.

The Land of the Buddha

In the pantheon of cultures who have had a major impact on human civilization, India is one of the most paramount. One of the oldest, and in ancient times most advanced areas of the world, the peoples and cultures of the Indus River valley and the surrounding Kingdoms have a rich history of submission grappling. Most likely as old as grappling in Greece and the Levant, one the first styles referenced historically is Malla Yuddha. Similar in scope and focus of Pankration, Malla Yuddha originally was divided into 4 types, each progressing in level of intensity with the first type being purely sport focused, and the 4th type being a brutal full contact affair, Yuddha. In the final stage, pretty much any method was applied to defeat the enemy. These methods, including biting, hair pulling, punching, and kicking, were all acceptable tactics. As with the Greeks, Indian legends also incorporate their martial arts into the quests and adventures of their deities, such as Krishna.

The culture of wrestling in India has a unique style, most likely due to its age and the age of the cultures there. Amongst all social classes, wrestling was highly regarded and was a popular form of entertainment. Wrestling against animals was also not uncommon by the rural peoples, and was a sign of great strength and manliness if one could pin the animals head down successfully. The Indus river cultures produced some of the earliest still extant religious texts, and many of these texts also include reference to martial prowess on the part of certain adherents. In their quest for martial skill, many Indian warriors became deeply introspective and sought out holy men to further educate themselves. Arguably the most famous of these holy men, is Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

The Buddha Himself

Siddhartha Gautama was born into royalty sometime between 560 – 480 BCE. Deeply affected by the suffering of the common people, he renounced his status, and embarked on a journey religious discovery and self fulfilment. Siddhartha had received an education befitting a man of his class, and this included martial arts, most notably Archery and Swordsmanship. He also was well versed in grappling. In his development of his religious philosophy, this factor did play a part, and as his followers spread his teachings, different teachers placed different amounts of importance on this factor and its ability to help the student reach enlightenment.

India’s cultural impact on the societies of southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia was immense. It also had, by extension, an impact on the religious and philosophical teachings of China, Korea, and Japan. The martial cultures in these countries and societies have marked similarities, arguably all martial arts do. But when one scratches through the surface, intrinsic differences between these arts start to become clear, i.e., the difference between Karate and Muay Thai. To the untrained observer they may look the same, but very quickly, the technical and formulaic differences become clear. By the time Buddhism reached Japan by way of China, many sects had already been formulated, with Chan, or Zen as it became known in Japan, eventually becoming one of the most prolific amongst the Samurai, and Tendai amongst the Sohei (warrior monks).

Grappling arts continued to evolve and change with the times in India, with Pehlwani being the most well known derivative. The word Pehlwani itself, it has been suggested may come from the word “Pehalavi,” meaning people from the area now known as Iran, an area also known for its strong wrestlers. When a one sees a demonstration of Pehlwani, the similarities between the Greco-Roman style is obvious. This could be because the human body only moves in certain ways, and eventually all cultures figured this out and developed take downs, pins, and submissions based around the human body and its ergonomic facets. One interesting side note however, is the hypothesis that has been proposed by some scholars and Hoplologists, that as Greek culture and fighting technique spread east into Persia, it took root there, and thus eventually found its way to India during the Mughal Era of the 16th century, where it developed the previously mentioned spiritual dimensions. Whether this is factual cannot be verified, but it is an interesting possibility.

Catch As Catch Can

As has been discussed and emphasized, the grappling and submission wrestling developed by all peoples is centered around the same physical attributes we all possess. Thus religious, philosophical and sport oriented rule sets are the differentiating factors. By the late 19th / early 20th century, the various European grappling styles had over successive generations morphed into the style which is now considered in the US, albeit in another form, as “wrestling.” Strangely enough, it wasn’t formulated in the US, but in Britain, by a certain JG Chambers. It took years, with a little success in his native Britain, for the sport to be recognized, before it finally jumped the Atlantic and took hold. When it did, again, it wasn’t where one would assume. Instead of being popular with brawlers and the military, it took hold with the promoters and organizers of circuses.

In a way, the show folk who latched onto catch wrestling as a type of carnival trick, were rather similar to the military and athletic professionals who had come before them. Even though they endeavored to put on a show for spectators, they still looked for a purity of technique, not least due to the fact of constant contact with fighters and brawlers due to their travels and close proximity to the dregs of society.

Powerlifters, boxers, and various other professional fighters were a constant feature of circus caravans, and soon the circuses and carnivals of America were known to host and put on shows of tremendous athletic and martial prowess. Many great grapplers who would go on to achieve acclaim in various fields, such as George Hackenschimdt, Frank Gotsch, and Mitsuo Maeda, were all fighters of great acclaim who earned their reputations on the road fighting with and against carnival fighters.

The term “Catch as Catch Can” essentially means, “grab the guy where you can”. Unlike Greek wrestling rules, grabbing below the waist is allowed. One peculiar aspect, is the fact a match can be lost by a combatant rolling onto his back. Many of the most common holds in catch wrestling are the same as found in Jiujitsu, such as arm bars and legs locks. Physical strength was a core component of any catch wrestlers training regimen. A strong neck, good for takedowns, takedown defenses, and resisting head locks was also considered pivotal to success. Speaking of necks, have you ever heard of Martin Burns, also known as “Farmer” Burns? Allow us to introduce you to him.

Farmer Burns

Martin Burns is one of the most dynamic historical figures in the grappling world, and yet, most people have never heard of him. A man of iron will, an equally hard work ethic, and moral disposition, he deserves a book all to himself, but this synopsis of his skill and contribution to wrestling will have to suffice. Martin Burns was born in Iowa in 1861. He began working at an early age, doing the type of physical labor that most young people today avoid like the plague. He worked mainly on farms, but also took on jobs doing various manual labor to help pay his families bills. Working during the day, and wrestling during the night, Burns engaged in many challenge matches from around age 12. In 1889 Burns went to Chicago and in short order found a venue to test his skills against other grapplers of high acclaim. It didn’t take long for the “unknown farmer”, as he soon was known, to be the man to beat if you wanted to make a name for yourself in the wrestling circuit.

Burns became “Wrestling Champion of America” in a time when matches were true contests of power, endurance, and martial skill. Burns was known for his knowledge of many kinds of joint locks, chokes, and throws, but was considered a master of pinning moves. Unlike amateur Catch bouts, freestyle, the type Burns preferred, had no time limit, and was often no holds barred (some, however, did bar chokes, or toe holds). What also set Burns apart from most of the grapplers of his day was his methodical and Spartan like training regimen and lifestyle. He ate only natural, fresh foods, avoiding anything overly salty, sugary and greasy. He did not drink alcohol, coffee, or tea. He did not swear. He used a combination of body weight, and medium barbell/dumbbell weights for his training, believing that for the most part, the human body could be put into positions that made it difficult enough to lift or elevate without the need for heavy weights. He also encouraged his stable of trainees to run and box to build endurance.

When it came to his personal training, there is another distinct technique Burns used that set him apart from the rest; he would hang himself to strengthen his neck. With a noose around his neck, he would drop 6 inches or so and hang there sometimes even whistling while dangling there. The constant hanging helped him develop a neck of incredible size and strength. He was never choked out, and his neck grew eventually to be 20 inches in circumference – amazing for a man of only 160lbs.

Burns also included training methods that could only be described as “Eastern Mysticism.”  He used deep breathing exercises to strengthen the diaphragm and increase blood circulation. Burns understood that controlling one’s breathing was the key to success in the no time limit matches of catch wrestling; if a man couldn’t control his breathing, he was soon winded, and then gassed out. Defeat followed. He also was a fan of, and was well versed in Japanese Jiujitsu and Judo technique, which share many of the same throws, and joint lock moves in catch wrestling. Burns died at the age of 77, having become a staple of the high school, and college wrestling culture in Iowa.

Then and Now

There is no physical pursuit like submission wrestling. Like any fighting method, it is found in every corner of the world, amongst all cultures in various forms. But unlike boxing, or weapons training, grappling can be practiced in a relatively low impact way, up into an older age. In 1896, the first modern Olympic games were held, and Greco Roman wrestling was the first style registered for the games. There have been many Olympics since then, but it has only been recently, in the last 10 or 15 years or so, that wrestling in its original or at least older forms, has seen a resurgence of interest. Fighters like Daniel Cormier, Josh Barnett, Matt Hughes, and Tyron Woodley amongst many others, all credit their wrestling background with their success. The future is wide open, and is exciting to see how things will continue to change and evolve in the sport. It is timeless, after all.

Giles Alexander

Giles Alexander is a purple belt residing in Seattle and representing Kindred Jiu-Jitsu.

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