Many of us today think of wrestling as merely effeminate pageantry, coupled with too much bravado and not enough skill, this is thanks primarily to WWE, which is essentially theatre peppered with a miniscule amount of wrestling, a basterdized embarrassment that is so far removed from the honourable masculinity which the traditional and purest form of wrestling encapsulates. To understand true wrestling, an art form that requires physical and mental strength, skill, perspicacity and stoicism, we must look to the ancients, first to Ancient Greece, where this pinnacle of masculine sports manifested, firmly rooting itself in the consciousness of Western civilisation.
The Greeks devised the grappling sport that would quickly become the most popular in all of Ancient Greek civilisation, and an Olympic worthy event which to this day is still practised, all be it a modified version of. Producing two legendary wrestlers Milo of Croton and Leontiskos of Messene, famed for their skills and technical prowess. Greek wrestling rules were quite simple, a point was scored when one player touched the ground with his back, hip or shoulder, or conceding defeat due to a submission-hold or was forced out of the wrestling-area. Three points had to be scored to win the match. Winning the game would elevate the champion to a status akin to that of a Herculean warrior, as is the same in every other major and local style of wrestling.
When the baton of cultural dominance passed from Greece to Rome, the Romans, who had long possessed their own distinct style, incorporated the fundamentals of Greek wrestling. As their empire expanded across the West and the East, their form of wrestling, a melded concoction of Roman and Greek rules, techniques etc, was exported, weaving its way into various cultures and becoming imbedded.
In the East, the Ancient Persians devised a heroic sport that not only taught a man grappling and fighting skills, but furthered his mind in poetry and spirituality. Varzesh-e Bastani, born 3000 years ago during the Parthian Empire, it was, as Hasan Karami writes “Originally an academy of physical training and a nursery for warriors against foreign invaders similar in purpose to martial arts.” As empires rose and fell, Varzesh-e Bastani adopted elements of each, which today includes “the richness of Sufism, rituals of Mithraism, and the heroism of Iranian nationalism.” In the days of the Safavid Empire, Shia rituals were also incorporated.
With its specific rules that a fighter should possess a great moral strength along with physical and mental strength, Varzesh-e Bastani has helped many a man to reach a state of physical and mental superiority that supersedes his peers.
A variety of styles have been devised by men across the globe. Folk wrestling has long been a way for a man to learn battle skills as well as understand his own culture a little better. In the Caucasus, wrestling styles can be markedly different from one tribe to the next, of course they all essentially follow the same rules, furthermore wrestling remains one the most preferred sports across the entire region, for example in Chechnya boys begin learning wrestling around the age of 8 -years-old and are encouraged to pursue the sport professionally as they get older.
In Georgia many of the wrestling styles have been heavily influenced by the Persian Varzesh-e-Pahlavani, but for the most part are the pure essence of the culture and the tribe. Solomon Gulisashvili writes “Wrestling has always been a favourite sport of the Georgians, and this sense of love became the basis for our legends and myths.” He says further “Georgian folk wrestling varieties are dedicated to the names of the Saints, with different rules, manners and weight categories, which were always held during feast days. Any courageous volunteer could fight a Titan and the winner was considered a champion.”
The patron Saint of Georgia is Saint George, a warrior of God who slayed the evil dragon, and a man of divinity that is a superb representation of this warrior like people. Today, the capital Tbilisi is home to the annual Koshti-Pahlavani World Cup, part of the larger fitness competition of Varzesh-e Bastani.
In Turkey, the country’s most recognised variation of wrestling is Yağlı Gűreş (oil wrestling) with its origins in ancient Babylon. Similar to Varzesh-e Pahlavani and other folk styles, oil wrestling is structured with ancient rituals, on a foundation of honour and respect. Prior to a fight, the wrestlers will oil one another to show a degree of balance, there is a show of macho posturing of course, but even after the match, the greatest approbationwill be shown to the defeated.
The use of oil complicates things, as traditional grappling, although still a major element of the sport, is difficult to properly achieve, so other skills must be employed if a man is to become champion. A winner is determined by keeping the other opponent in submission, putting his hand through the others kisbet (leather pants). Oil wrestling is rich in its similarity to Ancient Greek wrestling, as the latter has been submerged in a majority of contemporary techniques, resembling very little its former self, oil wrestling has managed to retain its ancient methods.
Northern Europe is home to an exceptional variety of folk wrestling, stretching from Cornwall, England to Helsinki, Finland. Scottish backhold wrestling, with its origins stretching back to ancient Celtic times, long prior to the Roman invasion, has lasted from its inception to today. There’s little historical information regarding its exact origins, yet it has great similarities with other wrestling variations across the British Isles, as Trev Hill writes – “Scottish-Backhold is almost identical to the Cumbrian-Westmoreland style of Northern England (it is also practiced in Northumberland), involving largely the same techniques.” He goes on further to say “This style of wrestling differs from the well-known “Olympic” styles of “Greco-Roman” and “Freestyle” in that there is no ground-wrestling. Furthermore, the hold must remain constant. Whereas Greco-Roman does not allow trips and holds to the legs these are fundamental features of Backhold. Techniques like the ‘Inside Hype’, where a wrestler lefts and throws by using the knee against the opponent’s inner thigh, are spectacular. Techniques from other styles, such as the suplex from Greco-Roman, have also been absorbed into the wrestler’s arsenal.”
As the world changes, wrestling will always remain a firm test of a man’s strength, helping him further understand his own masculinity in the process.