Wrestling, Freestyle. Encyclopedia of World Sport

In freestyle wrestling, competitors may take a wide variety of holds on both the upper body and legs but they
may not grasp the opponent’s clothing to secure a hold.
A freestyle wrestler can win the bout either by pinning
the opponent or by scoring points for successful tactics. Wrestling is virtually alone among combat sports
in allowing the opportunity for full physical confrontation with limited possibility of serious injury.
Depictions of wrestling appear as early as 3000 B.C.E. in
the ancient Near East. Essentially all the tactics seen in
modern freestyle wrestling, including the most sophisticated throws, can be found among the 406 wrestling
pairs depicted on the walls of the Middle Kingdom
tombs at Beni Hasan in the Nile valley, and both sculpture and literature from Mesopotamia show that the
sport was popular there in antiquity. References to
wrestling festivals are frequent in epics and hymns of
ancient and medieval India, and in a story remarkably
akin to the Greek legend of the female warrior and athlete Atalanta, Marco Polo tells of a Tartar princess who
challenged her hapless suitors to a wrestling contest.
Wrestling was part of the Olympics of ancient Greece
since the Eighteenth Olympiad in 704 B.C.E. The Greeks
appear to have been the first to structure their competitions as a formal elimination tournament. The earliest surviving work in Western literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, describes wrestling, as does the earliest
surviving work of Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad.
The Nuba of the lower Sudan have held wrestling festivals for centuries, if not millennia, and there appears
to be remarkable continuity between the costumes of
the Nubian wrestlers seen in Egyptian sculpture and the
gourd-strung skirts that the Nuba wrestlers still wear. A
highly popular folk wrestling of India performed on the
mud surface of the akhara also continues an ancient tradition. Freestyle wrestling has been popular in the
British Isles for many centuries, and the Lancashire
style in particular has had a profound influence on
modern wrestling. In this tradition, often called “catch
as catch can,” contestants begin standing and continue
the contest on the ground if neither contestant scores a
fall from standing. In the Irish collar-and-elbow style,
wrestlers begin the bout by grasping the collar with one
hand and the elbow with the other; if neither man
achieves a fall from this position, open wrestling continues, both standing and on the ground, until a fall is
scored. Irish immigrants brought this style to the United
States, where its tactics were widely adopted.
Amateur freestyle wrestling developed slowly in
Europe. Freestyle did not appear until the St. Louis
Olympics of 1904, where there was competition in
seven weight categories. Since 1921, the Fédération Internationale des Luttes Amateurs (FILA), with headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, has set the rules,
scoring, and procedures that govern wrestling competition at the World Games and the Olympics, and these
were adopted by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) in
the United States for its freestyle competitions.
Freestyle wrestling spread rapidly in the United
States after the Civil War, and by the 1880s its tournaments drew hundreds of participants. Urbanization,
increased industrialization, and the disappearance of
the frontier formed the context in which this highly individual combat sport—along with boxing—found
new and heightened popularity. A professional circuit,
by no means corrupted into the staged theatrics of its
later years, emerged in this era, as did amateur organizations. 1900 saw the first intercollegiate wrestling
match. Professional wrestlers formed the National
Wrestling Alliance in 1904.With the first Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association tournament in 1905 a
rapidly expanding roster of tournaments for college
and secondary school wrestlers began. In 1927, rules
were formulated for intercollegiate wrestling and in the
following year, the first NCAA wrestling tournament
took place.
Time limits for bouts and a system for determining
a victor when neither wrestler has gained a fall are developments of the 20th century. By 1911, rudimentary
guidelines for determining victory by the referee’s decision in intercollegiate matches emerged, also keeping
those bouts to a maximum of 15 minutes. This time
length has decreased steadily over the century; in 1996,
FILA bouts consist of two periods of three minutes
each with a 60-second rest period between the periods,
and intercollegiate bouts consist of one three-minute
period, followed by two periods of two minutes each.
Intercollegiate rules do not allow a rest period.
Rules and Play
Under modern international rules, a wrestler scores a
fall on his opponent and immediately wins the bout by
holding his shoulders motionless on the mat long
enough to allow the referee to ascertain the total control needed for a fall. U.S. intercollegiate rules specify
that the shoulders must be pinned: motionless for one
full second for college competition and two seconds
for secondary school contests. Under earlier FILA
rules, rolling an opponent across his shoulders
counted for a fall; under current rules, this tactic
counts for two points.
Under current FILA rules, if neither wrestler scores
a fall, victory is determined by the number of points
scored for successful tactics. These include taking the
opponent to the mat or exposing his shoulders to the
mat. Up to five points are awarded for “grand technique,” in which one wrestler lifts his opponent in an
arc of great amplitude or height and returns him to the
mat with his shoulders exposed in danger of a fall.
NCAA rules allow up to three points for a “near fall”but
do not award extra points for “grand technique.” In
both FILA and NCAA rules, when one wrestler scores
15 points more than his opponent, the judges will stop
the bout and declare him the winner by technical superiority. “Time advantage”—the time each contestant
has had his opponent under his control on the mat—
counts for one point at most today. Modern FILA and
intercollegiate rules divide contestants into 10 weight
Reflecting contemporary values of sporting ethics
and recreational hygiene, FILA and intercollegiate rules
from their earliest years stressed the safety of the competitors. Holds and tactics that jeopardized life or limb
or whose object was punishment of the opponent,
rather than leverage, have been consistently illegal.
These include the full nelson, strangleholds, twisting
hammerlocks, the flying mare with the opponent’s arm
locked, and slamming the opponent to the mat. Modern
rules have gone farther in banning virtually any hold
that pressures a joint in a direction contrary to its normal movement. (These refinements stand in stark contrast to the roughness of ancient Greek wrestling, which
allowed strangleholds and granted Olympic titles in 456 and 452 B.C.E. to a wrestler named Leontiskos, whose
principal tactic was breaking his opponent’s fingers.)
The intensely individualistic nature of the sport
makes it an excellent touchstone for a society’s posture
toward the polarities of competition and cooperation.
Whereas the ancient Greek poet Pindar twice spoke of
the disgrace that accompanied the defeated wrestler,
anthropologists report that despite the importance of
wrestling to the Nuba of present-day Sudan, defeat is
borne gracefully. Among the nomadic Mongolians, the
wrestler who lost in the festivals had to give his clothing to his opponent and hold a banquet for him and all
his kin; in contrast, a Muslim chant sung at Turkish
popular tournaments reminded victors and defeated
that on the last day, all stood equal in the Prophet’s
Wrestling was regularly a rite of passage for gods,
heroes, and kings. Perhaps the best-known wrestler in
Western civilization is the biblical Jacob from the book
of Genesis, who can become the patriarch Israel only
after wrestling all night with a mysterious being identified in the biblical text merely as “a man” (‘iysh). The
Sumerian hero Gilgamesh, whose epic antedates Genesis, only emerges as a serious and determined leader
after wrestling the formidable Enkidu. The 8th century
C.E. Byzantine king Basil I, according to court historians, defeated a boastful Bulgarian wrestler, and at the
Field of the Cloth of Gold pageant in 1520, Francis I of
France threw Henry VIII of England in a wrestling
bout. Although the stories of George Washington as a
wrestler are of dubious provenance, contemporary
sources tell of Abraham Lincoln’s wrestling prowess.
In modern international wrestling, wrestlers from
the former Soviet Union have had remarkable success,
with strong showings also from Japan, Turkey, Iran,
Sweden, Finland, and the United States. Given its long
history and broad significance beyond simple sport,
wrestling remains well postitioned for a strong future.