Origins of Wrestling

Posted: September 1, 2014 in history
Tags: , , ,

Cave Drawing

Wrestling is probably the oldest of all sports and has been depicted in cave paintings dating back 15,000 years. It was a sport practiced in many ancient societies. The first wrestling matches were likely part of military training. The Ancient Greeks were the most prolific wrestlers, and they elevated it to a physical art form. They realized that wrestling is like playing chess with your body, utilizing techniques and moves to outwit your opponent and, in the process, dominate him.

The Greeks also created the Olympic games, and wrestling was one of only a few events featured in the very first Games in the eighth century B.C. Wrestling was also the decisive event on the ancient pentathlon. Later, after the fall of the Greek Empire in the fifth century A.D., the Olympic Games ceased, and the sport became less of an art form (reverting to its more barbaric militaristic beginnings). In time Greek style wrestling (Greco and Submission styles) spread to the Roman (Greco Roman) and Byzantine Empire and beyond. The ancients weren’t the only ones that loved wrestling. John Locke one of the most influential of the enlightenment thinkers thought it important fathers help their sons be a good wrestler. When the Olympics resumed in 1896, one of the first sports offered was wrestling.

 1904 Olympic Wrestling Match

1904 Olympic Wrestling Match 



Wrestling in the Americas

Many Native American tribes practiced wrestling, but little is known about their distinct styles, which are likely to have varied from tribe to tribe. While the styles may have been different, the goal was the same — to become skilled at dominating other men in competition or in battle.

During the 1700’s, wrestling graduated from a form of combat into a genuine spectator sport. It was the major contact sport among men of all classes of people in America. The wrestling style of the day was collar and elbow, named for the starting position. Standing face to face, each wrestler placed one hand behind his opponent’s neck and the other hand behind his elbow. This form did away with dirty tactics, such as “bull rushing” and throwing dirt in the opponent’s eyes, and allowed for different techniques specific to a wrestler’s size and strength.

America’s ‘First’ Sport

George Washington was one of our country’s first champion wrestlers; at age 18, he held a collar-and-elbow wrestling championship that was at least county- wide. Washington wrestled through much of his youth and continued to hold a winning record. Even at the age of 47, ten years before he became President, the “Commander of the Continental Armies” was able to defeat seven consecutive challengers from the Massachusetts Volunteer Guard.

Abraham Lincoln was also well known for his wrestling skills and was the wrestling champion of his county as early as 1830, at the age of 21. Lincoln was an imposing physical specimen, with a tall (6’4”), thin and muscular body strengthened by years of manual labor. Lincoln was likely the best and toughest of the “wrestling Presidents.” Sometimes he deviated from the formal collar-and-elbow style, opting for the catch-as catch can, which ultimately turned into freestyle wrestling that we know today.

Lincoln Wrestling

More American Presidents have been wrestlers than any other type of athlete, including:

  • Chester A. Arthur
  • Calvin Coolidge
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • Andrew Jackson
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • William H. Taft
  • Zachary Taylor
  • John Tyler
  • George Washington

Other famous American people that grew up wrestling:
Robin Williams, Steve Buscemi, James Cagney, William Baldwin, Tom Cruise, John Belushi, Kirk Douglas, Ashton Kutcher, Mr. T, Jay Mohr, Jay Leno, Harvey Keitel, Vince Vaughn, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray Lewis, Jim Thorpe, Larry Holmes, Ken Kesey, Kurt Cobain, Garth Brooks.

People that wrestled in their youth tend to be over represented in challenging and bold careers, from Astronauts, to the military to other sports. Wrestlers are generally attracted to intense professions.

Modern Wrestling in America

The first organized national wrestling tournament was held in New York City in 1888, and the first AAU championship was held in 1895. Soon after, many wrestling clubs were formed around the country.

In 1905 the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles began to standardize and formulate rules. Freestyle wrestling débuted in the 1904 Olympic Games held in St. Louis. Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) launched the first college wrestling program just before World War I, and they went undefeated for a decade in various competitions.

After World War I, many high schools across the country introduced wrestling to their programs. The NCAA held the first championships in 1928. Throughout the 20th century folk-style wrestling (high school and college) has been the most popular version of wrestling in America.

It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that American participation in Olympic wrestling was publicized and respected. Since then, the U.S. has produced many talented Olympic-style wrestlers. However America’s folk-style has remained the most popular form of wrestling in the country. Today, many folk-style wrestlers go on to compete very successfully in Mixed Martial Arts and International styles of wrestling.


I’ll be back with a history of wrestling in Pennsylvania.  Follow me to see more.


  1. headgear says:

    nice summary of the history, how about more detail from different countries? Keep it up! Let’s see PA history.


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