Wrestling: A Look At The Oldest Combat Sport

Wrestling is believed to have begun as an integral part of hand-to-hand combat, often to train soldiers for warfare. It later evolved into a sport, a form of which required one contestant to submit, often to fatal results. Wrestling became such an honored sport that it appeared in numerous art depictions such as sculptures, paintings, and drawings as far back as 3,000 BCE. There are even some cave drawings found in France that depicted the sport. These paintings are estimated to be at least 15,000 years old. Some form of wrestling appeared in different documents from regions such as Greece, Sumer, Babylonia, Egypt, China, Japan, and India.

As a sport, wrestling was nowhere as revered as it was in Ancient Greece. It was so popular that it became a part of the Olympic Games beginning in 776 BCE. Initially, wrestling was used as a training method for soldiers, incorporating many brutal methods to ensure efficacy in battle. The young men of Greece entered wrestling schools called palaestras and this became the center of their daily social life. After the Romans conquered the Greeks in 146 BCE, they adapted the sport for themselves and it was later known as Greco-Roman wrestling. However, it was not as popular among the Romans as it was with the Greeks.

Types of Wrestling

Over the centuries, different wrestling disciplines were developed into eight distinct styles. These are:


Greco-Roman wrestling is a style that is used in international amateur competitions and in the Olympics. The modern-day Greco-Roman discipline was actually practiced in France in the 19th century, although this was adapted from the Greek and Roman practice of old, hence the name.

The sport involves the use of the upper body with the goal of pinning the opponent to the floor. It also allows the competitors to score points during the fight. Using the feet or legs to bring the opponent to the floor is prohibited and so are holds below the waist. The competition lasts over three rounds, with each round lasting two minutes long.

Turkish Oil Wrestling

Turkish oil wrestling is a type of wrestling that is practiced only in Anatolia. It is the national sport of Turkey. Olive oil is applied to the skin of the competitors before the fight to make the skin slippery. This helps increase the difficulty of the match. Competitors, known as pehlivan (Turkish term for champion or hero), wear a kisbet or leather trousers. To win a match, a wrestler must control the opponent using a firm hold of his kisbet.

In the past, oil wrestling could last for a whole day or even longer. However, the length of the match has been limited to 30 minutes and 40 minutes for the pehlivan and the baspehlivan, respectively. Oil wrestling is recognized as the oldest continuous sport competition, having been played since 1346.

Russian Sambo

Sambo is the shortened version of the Russian term Samozaschchita Bez Oruzhiya, which means “self-defense without weapons”. It was originally used to train the former USSR’s Red Army in hand-to-hand combat. Today, it is a popular martial arts discipline and fighting style. Sambo was recognized as an international wrestling style by FILA (International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles) in 1968. In spite of its popularity, Sambo is not yet officially an Olympic sport.

Unlike other forms of wrestling, Sambo allows punches, knee strikes, elbow strikes, and kicks on top of grappling, ground fighting, submission holds, and throws. Sambo is classified into two major sub-disciplines: Combat and sport. Other types include freestyle and self-defense sambo.

A Sambo match is held on a 14×14 m. or 11×11 m. mat. However, the match typically takes place in a circle that is 6-9 m. in diameter. The outer part of the mat is used only as a protective area. Each match lasts for 5 minutes. A competitor wins if he garners the most points before the match ends or if he earns an 8-point lead during a match. He also wins if he successfully submits an opponent using a hold or performs a perfect throw.

Beach Wrestling

Beach wrestling is a relatively new sport, with the first World Championships taking place in 2006. This form of wrestling is open to both male and female competitors. The match is performed on beach sand within a circle measuring 7 meters in diameter. The only moves allowed during a match are those that are performed while the two wrestlers are standing up.

To win a match in beach wrestling, a competitor must score points using takedowns, bringing the other wrestler down on their back, or pushing the other wrestler out. A match lasts for 3 minutes during which either wrestler must earn points. If neither one scores during a match, it continues until one wrestler gains a point.

Freestyle Wrestling

Freestyle wrestling is another wrestling style that is used in international amateur competitions. Along with the Greco-Roman style, Freestyle is a variant that is used during the Olympic Games. In freestyle wrestling, all fair holds, throws, and trips are allowed. Wrestlers may also use their legs for both offense and defense. Kicking, headbutting, punching, and grappling the opponent’s uniform are forbidden. However, wrestlers are allowed to grab a hold of their competitor below the waist.

Each round lasts for five minutes and the competition is held on an octagon-shaped wrestling mat with a circle within. To win, a wrestler must be able to perform a “fall” or “pin”, in which he/she tackles the opponent and keeps the opponent’s shoulders against the mat for several seconds. A wrestler may also score points on different moves, such as takedowns, reversals, and exposures.

Each freestyle wrestling match consists of two 3-minute sessions during which the wrestler must score points to win or pin his/her opponent down. If neither wrestler is able to score in two minutes, the match referee will choose the passive wrestler who will then be allowed to score within 30 seconds. If he/she fails, the other wrestler will be given a point.


Grappling is a type of close-range sport that requires a wrestler to grip or seize the opponent. There are many different techniques used in grappling, which include: submission holds, takedowns, reversals, sweeps, turnovers, throws, clinch fighting, and pinning. Grappling may be performed standing up or on the ground.

To win, a wrestler must be able to physically impose a position over his opponent or cause an injury. Once a wrestler takes down the opponent and gains ground control, the opponent will submit or tap out. This is when the match ends. Grappling is a style that is prevalent in other contact sports such as jiu-jitsu, judo, and sambo.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)

Mixed martial arts is a sport that combines several combat sport techniques from jiu-jitsu, boxing, judo, Muay Thai, karate, and wrestling, among others. Initially, MMA had strong opposition from groups who did not support the no-holds-barred and seemingly no-rules game that the sport was known for. Gradually, however, it became one of the most popular sports in the world, gaining fans and players from different countries.

MMA is considered the modern incarnation of pankration, a Greek combat sport used to train men for war. This earlier incarnation combined boxing, streetfighting, and wrestling. For example, a competitor was allowed to hit or kick an opponent who is already down. The match only ended when one competitor conceded defeat or becomes unconscious. The sport was so brutal that it was fatal to some competitors. Pankration was banned in 393 C.E.

Its incarnation reappeared centuries later in Brazil, where the sport was reborn as vale tudo, Portuguese for anything goes. The most prominent practitioners of this sport were the Gracie brothers, who were largely responsible for popularizing the sport in Brazil. The brothers later showcased the sport in the U.S. where it gained a cult following initially. In 1993, a tournament was held in Colorado. This tournament was known as UFC 1 (Ultimate Fighting Championship). This organization became the top promoter of mixed martial arts events.

Initially, mixed martial arts matches allowed competitors to fight using different martial arts styles. For example, a judoka would be fighting against a boxer, or a kickboxer would be fighting a wrestler. With its evolution, fighters later trained in different techniques to dominate a match.

As with pankration, MMA only prohibited biting and eye-gouging. As the sport evolved, changes were made to how the fighters competed. To protect the competitors, additional rules were added to the sport, along with timed rounds, weight classes, and fouls. Strikes or hits that could potentially maim a competitor were also prohibited. These include throat strikes, downward elbow strikes, hits to the back of the head and spine. In the U.S., MMA is largely regulated by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Opposition to the sport has also died down.

Non-championship MMA matches consist of 3 rounds, each lasting 5 minutes. There is a break between rounds lasting 60 seconds. Championship matches, on the other hand, consist of five rounds. The goal of the match is for one fighter to force his/her competitor to submit. This is done when the competitor taps out or verbally expresses surrender. A match also ends when one fighter is knocked out. Fights are judged by three individuals using a 10-point system taken from boxing. Under the UFC, men’s MMA consists of nine weight classes while women’s MMA has two.