As long as there have been people there have been conflict and war, but also sport. And as long as there has been sport there has been wrestling. As is well known, a great many sports (as opposed to games) developed as a manner for people, usually boys and men, but with notable and formidable exceptions girls and women, to hone the skills necessary for war. Martial arts and undisguised attempts at perfecting one’s combat abilities, despite all the philosophy and cultural context in which we may find them. Archery, fencing and even the equestrian sports are all direct descendants of military games designed to tweak and perfect and practise war skills.
Wrestling however requires only a body, unlike other martial sports in which one needs a sword or a horse or a gun or some other instrument of war. The fact that so little equipment—in fact, absolutely none, in many cases—is required means that it’s one of the most ancient and universal of sports.
Although wrestling has been with us as human for centuries and centuries, speaking from a Western-perspective, it isn’t really until the mediaeval and early modern times that it began being seen as a formalised sport. The German-speaking world is where we, in Europe, begin to find distinct forms of fighting that led, among other martial arts, to wrestling. These early forms of wrestling are often called folk wrestling and are more accurately described as grappling. In Europe it wasn’t until baroque times that this combat-training past-time became more codefied and therefore ‘dignified’ enough for nobles and people of societal rank to participate, which eventually brought us to the times of sports beloved by so many fans today.
By no means was wrestling confined to Europe, however. In regions that are included in modern-day Iraq and Iran wrestling is as old as civilisation itself. In the epic tales of the demigods of Gilgamesh and Shahnameh, there are already references to wrestling—this at a time when in Europe the foundation of Rome wouldn’t be for another two thousand years!
One of the most prominent forms of wrestling is that of Greco-Roman wrestling. invented in the mid-1800s throughout Europe, at the same time that in UK a form of wrestling known today as ‘freestyle’ was being developed. This Greco-Roman style became very popular and the so-called golden age of wrestling was about 10 years on both sides of 1900. At that time, wrestling competed with boxing and horse-racing to be the most popular sport. This was the area of wrestling mega-stars like Paul Pons, known as The Colossus, unsurprisingly for his dominating stature.
The first World War saw a decline in the popularity of the sport as many athletes fought and often died in the wars. Although wrestling never quite regained its pre-war popularity it has remained a favourite the world over with many dedicated fans.