Freestyle wrestling enjoys a worldwide popularity as one of the two styles of wrestling (the other being Greco-Roman) included in the Olympic Games. Along with track and field, Freestyle wrestling is among the oldest organised sports in history with evident presence in nearly all known human cultures.
Archeological findings of Sumerian cave drawings in Mesopotamia indicate that wrestling has been around for more than 7,000 years.
The Egyptians refined the activity into a science. Tombs around the village of Beni Hasan dating to 2500 BC contain hundreds of wrestling technique drawings. Many of the depicted moves mirror today’s performances from the international and Olympic wrestling arena.
During the Middle Ages, the sport gained popularity among the knights and royalty. Henry VIII of England was an avid wrestling enthusiast who challenged King Francis I of France to a legendary throwdown in June 1520. However, the English king quickly lost and Francis scored not only a takedown but also cross-channel glory.
Wrestling has global cousins in schwingen (Switzerland), sumo (Japan), kurek (Kazakhstan) and numerous other folk styles. In the New World, Indians were wrestling long before the continent was “discovered.”
However, wrestling would not be where it is today if not for the ancient Greeks
Wrestling, also known as “Pale” was imbedded in their society. The chief-deity of the Greek pantheon Zeus outwrestling his forefather Cronus for possession of the universe, marks a turning point in the Greek mythology, a feat that the worshipers celebrated by making wrestling the decisive, final event of the pentathlon in the ancient Olympic Games. One of wrestling’s early sportswriters was Homer, who recounted epic matches and one of sport’s noted practitioners was the philosopher Plato who wrestled at the Isthmian games which the Greeks held both at the year before and after the Olympic Games.
The complexity of wrestling as physically and mentally demanding activity that builds self-discipline, character and ultimately develops agility, strength, stamina and strategic thinking elated its status to a paramount training discipline in the ancient Greek army. It was required for Greek soldiers to be educated in the art of wrestling, as well as academic disciplines like mathematics and language arts.
The Greek style allowed two competitors to grapple until a certain number of points were scored or one of the competitors conceded defeat due to pain or fear. Scoring occurred when one competitor was thrown to his back, pushed out of the wrestling area or forced to submit to a hold. Three points had to be scored to win a specific bout.
Its rules were considerably underdeveloped and its style different but Greek wrestling was an extremely popular form of competition and a foundation of the sport that is practiced on mats around the world today.
Although Greco-Roman is an evolved form of Greek wrestling, its ruleswere established in1848 by a French soldier named Jean Exbroyat. His style, called “flat-hand wrestling” excluded holds below the waist or painful locks as opposed to other styles where striking and dangerous holds were permitted. French wrestling quickly became the definition of sport in Europe during the 19th century. It was during this time that Italian wrestler Basilio Bartoli came up with the name “Greco-Roman,” connecting the modern style to the sport’s ancient values.
When Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games in 1896 more than 1,500 years after Greek wrestling was established at the Olympic level, officials tried to connect to the ancient past by introducing upper-torso-restricted Greco-Roman wrestling as an event.
The 1904 Games in St. Louis, Missouri saw the introduction of Freestyle wrestling, , a faster-paced discipline that permitted the use of the legs to attack and defend above and below the waist.. This new style was an evolution of the popular “catch-wrestling” style (or “catch as catch can” wrestling) that simultaneously emerged and gained wide acceptance in both the United Kingdom and the United States in the 18th and 19th century. Freestyle wrestling allowed wrestlers to incorporate pushing, lifting, tripping and other techniques using the lower body. Since the establishment of Freestyle, both of the international styles have gained popularity and respect throughout the world – so much so that a universal governing body needed to be put in place to accommodate the growing needs of the wrestling community.
From FILA to UNITED WORLD WRESTLING (UWW)
By the turn of the 20th century, wrestling had evolved from being an ancient art with various rules and styles, to becoming a major form of organised competition, recreation, and entertainment throughout the world. In 1905, the first international federation for wrestling was created to unify and organise the different styles of the sport (American folkstyle wrestling including) but especially the rapidly growing international styles of Freestyle and Greco-Roman.
This organization would take on many names among which the widely known until recently FILA (International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles). Since 1994 FILA set many goals in order to expand the sport: the establishment of a unified world championship, the creation of regional training centers to build the current level of competition, and the communication and networking between all wrestling nations. Since the creation of this world committee, other non-Olympic styles have been affiliated with FILA, including traditional forms of wrestling such as belt wrestling and pankration. FILA has also backed emerging styles like beach wrestling, which was established in 2004. However, a historic landmark for all wrestlers was that another division based on gender was sanctioned as an Olympic event: Women’s Freestyle wrestling.
Although women have participated in the sport of wrestling for many years, organised women’s divisions first became present in the 1980s European competition. The rules in the women’s divisions changed frequently until it was decided that the same rules as male freestyle divisions will apply with very minor alterations. In 1984, FILA included women’s freestyle wrestling in its association and a few years later, the first women’s world championships were held in Lorenskog, Norway.
Women’s wrestling has snowballed into a major force on the world level with established by now tough all-female teams from numerous countries. Some of the best female wrestlers come from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Japan, China, Ukraine, Russia and the United States. The establishment of the women’s freestyle division at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens confirmed modern society’s view of equality and the definition of true athleticism.
However, the rapid change of the sport with its demands to accommodate assets and obstacles alike proved to be too big of a challenge for the world’s wrestling governing body. In the wake of the latest summer Olympic Games in London 2012, wrestlers around the world were shocked to hear that their sport was dropped from the Olympic program. Due to growing costs, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had adopted a system where “core sports” would continue indefinitely in future Olympics but “non-core” sports would be selected for inclusion on an Olympic game-by-game basis. By a decision made on 12th February 2013, wrestling was detached from the core Olympic sports body and cast into a lot of seven other sports vying for inclusion on the 2020 and 2024 Olympic program.
In response, the wrestling community came together to keep the sport in the Olympics. Wrestling’s international governing body made several changes intended to modernize the sport. Among them were dropping two men’s events and adding two women’s freestyle events, changing the round format from three two-minute periods to two-three minute periods and implementing a cumulative scoring system rather than a system where a wrestler has to outscore their opponent in two-out-of-three rounds. A committee to “Save Olympic Wrestling” also began soon afterwards and enlisted several notable athletes and celebrities, including Billy Baldwin, Mark Ruffalo, Ashton Kutcher, Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz. At the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, the IOC voted to include wrestling on the Olympic program for the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.
The organisational change in the wrestling’s governing body, triggered by the Olympic system restructuring, resulted in the election of a new President Nenad Lalovic who took over the vacated position at a special congress in Moscow on May 18, 2013 and the change of FILA’s name to UNITED WORLD WRESTLING on 7th September 2014. Mr Lalovic was largely credited with modernizing the sport of Amateur Wrestling and restoring its rightful place in the Olympic list for the years 2020 and 2024 .