Here, we discuss how wrestling has been altered and whether pankration has a chance of getting back in.
Mark Hatmaker (Photo Courtesy of Mark Hatmaker)
QUESTION: How is Olympic wrestling different from the various styles of folk wrestling?
MARK HATMAKER: In a nutshell, you’ve got two forms of wrestling in the Olympics: freestyle and Greco-Roman. Both are blends of traditional wrestling styles designed to meet an agreed-upon competitive standard that will translate across many styles and cultures. There are differences between freestyle and Greco-Roman, but if we allow for the simplistic observation that freestyle permits shooting takedowns on the legs and working the legs — whereas Greco-Roman does not — we’ve got a good picture of the two.
Earlier versions of folk wrestling, many of which still exist, can differ on points as varied as one or both shoulders being required for a pin, mandatory grips, gear used in matches (belt wrestling and the like), time limits and so on.
QUESTION: Did being in the Olympics change wrestling from a martial art to a martial sport?
MARK HATMAKER: If legend is to be believed, the original incarnation of the Olympics had wrestling, boxing and, of course, pankratium in forms that were far more brutal. More latitude was given regarding the holds and locks that were permitted, and striking was not necessarily prohibited even in “straight wrestling” matches.
As such, this gives more weight to the notion that wrestling used to be practiced as a martial art or warrior art. Then, with the resurrection of the Olympics in 1896, we see the transition to codified and restrictive rule sets that moved wrestling into the territory of sport.
QUESTION: Has Olympic inclusion boosted the popularity of wrestling overall?
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MARK HATMAKER: This is a tough one to answer. The historical evidence seems to point to wrestling being quite popular in many cultures between the two Olympic eras. There’s hardly a village festival of note that didn’t include some gathering of locals to wrestle for bragging rights or town honors.
If we accept that, then modern wrestling was merely keying into that popularity. It seems to be more since the advent of show/entertainment wrestling that we’ve seen a marked decrease in the actual sport’s popularity and a gradual disappearance from festivals.
Some of this might be blamed on the show version of wrestling itself, where the spectacle of what’s clearly pretend becomes so entangled in some minds that — let’s face it — it delivers a crushing blow to the acceptability of what is legitimate.
Wrestling is popular with youth, but we must look to show wrestling as one of the drivers of this. As show wrestling was rising in the 1920s and ’30s and taking over the legitimate circuit, many shooters — real-deal professional wrestlers with actual wrestling prowess — became disenchanted and left the circuit. Many of these athletes didn’t want to give up on the game and wound up starting high-school wrestling programs.
QUESTION: Did the addition of wrestling to the modern Olympics change it from a form of self-defense to a “sport kids do in high school when they’re forced to”?
MARK HATMAKER: Adding a rule set to protect athletes moved it a bit into the less-than-real-world-martial-arts category, but I say that with some qualification. If we accept that MMA is a sport — which it is, albeit a sport that seems like it has good transfers to self-defense — and if we acknowledge that most MMA fighters believe there’s no finer base for MMA than wrestling, we must conclude that wrestling is a sport. But it’s a combat sport that will stand you in better stead in a real-world confrontation than, say, tennis or basketball.
All in all, the rules are there to protect the athlete, but anyone who’s been on the mat can tell you that, rules or not, if you aren’t prepared for what the wrestler is going to dish …