Wrestling, a one-to-one unarmed combat sport in which the participant grapples with his opponent on a mat delimiting the field of play in an endeavour to defeat him by winning points for gaining various advantages or by scoring a ‘fall’ (that is, overcome him by forcing him to the ground), has a worldwide recorded history stretching back beyond antiquity. Sumo is a form of wrestling that makes much of its place within Japanese tradition; various rituals certainly add an air of solemnity, but not many Western spectators get beyond marvelling at the huge bulk of the fighters who clash only for very brief bouts in the course of championships that take place over a fortnight.
   From the outset, the Olympic movement recognized two styles of wrestling, and in both combatants compete in a range of weight divisions, as in boxing, so that physical differences are to some degree evened out. Graeco-Roman wrestling, which is practised particularly in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, observes rules that are based on those attributed to the legendary Theseus and observed in contests described in Homer’s epics. The basic rule is that only the arms (and not the legs) may be used in an attempt to score a fall, and holds below the waist are not allowed. Freestyle wrestling involves no such prohibition, though kicking, biting, punching and dangerous holds are banned. Freestyle wrestling evolved from Lancastrian catchas-can, which, like the Cumberland and Westmoreland and the Devon and Cornwall styles that still survive, was popular as both a participation and a spectator sport at country fairs. Professional wrestling also follows the freestyle code. In the nineteenth century it had a status among sporting events similar to that of professional boxing nowadays, but standards were not maintained. The bouts, which are presented in the halls and on television with glitzy razz-matazz, are ostensibly contested with savage ferocity and a total disregard for referee and rules as if reflecting unbridled rage and boundless personal animosity. But, in the eyes of many who note how rarely the fighters’ seemingly unbridled ferocity results in serious injury, these bouts, like those of women’s professional wrestling, appear not as genuine sporting encounters but rather more or less choreographed display combats designed to thrill fans whose noisy partisanship is all part of the entertainment.
   See also: boxing
   Further reading
    Kent, G. (1968) A Pictorial History of Wrestling, London: Feltham.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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