Wrestling: The Timeless Art

The five-minute buzzer sounds and you congratulate your training partner on a good roll. You look around to see who needs a partner for the next round and you motion to him. You walk over and wait while the timer resets. We all know him. He’s in every gym. He wrestled in high school or college. Instead of starting seated and playing guard, you agree to start from standing. You’re eager to try out those tips on double 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 the best skill set to have in MMA, the competitive spirit, the strength, and the technique used by wrestlers to take down an opponent is among the best in the world. The art of closing distance, grappling, throwing or tripping, and then pinning and submitting a fully resisting opponent is one of the most ancient arts studied by man. Tales abound of Greek, Mesopotamian, and Asiatic grapplers of great renown. It is also a constant feature of our existence, no matter how advanced weaponry becomes; whether unmanned drones patrolling the air, tanks and other heavy mechanized armor on the battlefield, there is always the face-to-face human element in warfare. The inevitability of man-to-man engagement has been shown again and again. There are stories from World War I and World War II, particularly on the horrific and unforgiving battlefields of the East Front and the Pacific Theatre. These stories are of men who ran out of ammunition and resorted to fighting with shovels, being choked, clubbed with rifle stocks, or being beaten to death with whatever was handy, whether boxes, wrenches, and other random objects.

Naturally, the question arises: who was the first?

Who was the first culture, the first group, tribe or clan to systematize and formulate the techniques needed to defeat a person in hand-to-hand combat? In short, it is unknown. No doubt man has been trying to kill one another since the beginning.  Current thinking points to evidence indicating that these skills were developed by different cultures, whether known or unknown, in tandem with each other. Ancient Egyptian tombs in Saqqara have decorations of wrestling, with the techniques being demonstrated clearly visible. One of the original texts is the epic “Gilgamesh”. In it, the characters Enkidu and Gilgamesh engage each other in a contest of strength. Ancient Mesopotamian texts also exist with stories of the Annunaki, visitors who came to teach mankind various skills, including warfare. While it can be certain that both the Babylonians and Assyrians knew, practiced, and applied grappling in their respective military, it cannot be verified with certainty how well these skills were disseminated amongst the rank and file.

One military where grappling can be verified 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. In their own stories and histories, the Greeks were obsessed with a man, god, or demigod developing strength and power and overcoming all odds. The legends and myths of the Greeks revolved around physical prowess. This is especially true in the legends of Hercules, especially his fight with Antaeus, where Hercules crushes his enemy to death. The Greeks 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. Our word “Agony” comes from the Greek Agonia, the name of the games. The strain and endurance, the constant effort exerted, showed the pain required to compete at a high level.  Preeminent among these city states, however, was a group of people who were known to be of a higher caliber in military matters. Their culture, bizarre even to other Greeks, demanded from a young age constant and rigorous mental, physical, and emotional conditioning: Spartans.

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. Grappling in ancient Greece was divided into two styles: 1) the more sport-oriented wrestling called Pale, and 2) the more militantly oriented 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 much more 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. The Spartans were notoriously aloof and ignored most invitations to the games, so their techniques could not be stolen or used against them. The Pankration training allowed the Greek states to produce the best heavy infantry of 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 knows the Spartans. They have gone down as the undisputed badasses of the ancient world. But there are other 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. These fighters 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. Greek mercenaries married Persian women. And Greek fighting followed suit.

The Romans, too, were fond of wrestling in the Greek fashion. They Romanized the name from “Pankration” to “Pankratium”, but otherwise kept it. The Greek method of grappling had come to them through the Etruscans, and was then modified to fit Roman culture. The Romans were much more preoccupied with war than the Greeks. The Greeks viewed these games as a testament to the skill, strength, and beauty of the participants. They liked to get philosophical and wax poetic about the virtues grappling produced. The Romans, not so much. They could and did appreciate wrestling, but the Romans preferred boxing.  Whether due to being a world power and needing a constant level of readiness, or having to keep the masses entertained, or a combination of both, the Romans really liked to see two guys beat the ever-loving brains out of each other in Pankration matches.

The “Munera”, or blood sports, as they were called, due to the injuries usually sustained, were the favorites of the Romans. The fighters were at the bottom of the social stratus, despite their skill, and despite being willing to be scarred and disfigured just to entertain. It was not until the Christian influence at the end of Imperial Rome that the matches were outlawed.

Wrestling itself, of course, never went away. From the “barbarian” hordes who invaded Rome, the Viking raiders, the Slavic tribesmen, the Mongolian horsemen of the Steppe, all peoples have some form of wrestling in their culture. Thus, it continued to flourish. In the 19th Century in France, some of the modern rules were developed and incorporated, and virtually all capital cities in Europe continually hosted matches. In 1896, the first modern Olympic games were held, and Greco Roman wrestling was the first style registered for the games.

Giles Alexander

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