History of Wrestling & UWW

A brief History of Wrestling


The first real traces of the development of wrestling date back to the times of the Sumerians, 5000 years ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh written in cuneiform, the sculptures and the low reliefs, are numerous sources that reveal the first refereed competitions, accompanied by music. There are also many historical and archaeological traces of wrestling in Ancient Egypt. Among them, it is worth mentioning in particular the drawings discovered in the tombs of Beni-Hassan representing 400 couples of wrestlers. These drawings, as well as many other vestiges, witness the existence of corporations of wrestlers in Ancient Egypt, wrestling rules and refereeing codes.

For the Greeks, wrestling was a science and a divine art, and it represented the most important training for young men. Athletes wrestled naked, with their bodies coated with olive oil and covered with a layer of very thin sand to protect the skin from sunlight or from cold during winter. After wrestling, they scraped this layer off with an instrument called strigil and washed themselves with water. Fights were similar to those of freestyle wrestling, as shown by drawings and inscriptions from that time. The competitor who first threw his opponent or first brought him down - either on his back, hips, chest, knees or elbows - was proclaimed the winner.

During the Ancient Olympic Games, from 708 B.C., wrestling was the decisive discipline of the Pentathlon. In fact, it was the last discipline to be held – after the discus, the javelin, the long jump and the foot race – and it designated the winner of the Pentathlon, the only crowned athlete of the Games. The most famous of all wrestlers was Milon of Croton (student of the philosopher Pythagoras), six times Olympic champion (from 540 to 516 B.C.), ten times winner of the Isthmic Games, nine times winner of the Nemean Games, and five time winner of the Pythic Games. Legend has it that when he tried to splinter a tree with his own hands, his fingers got stuck in the split tree-trunk and he was devoured by a lion.

Rupture and restoration

Wrestling in Roman Times was developed on the basis of the legacy of the Etruscans and the restoration of the Greek games. Wrestling was the favourite sport of young aristocrats, soldiers and shepherds. According to Classius Dion, the palestra was at the origin of the military success of the Romans. In 393, Emperor Theodosius I prohibited all pagan games and outlawed the Olympic Games. Olympic Values sank into the dark Middle Ages, but they were always latent, without ceasing to exist. During Middle Ages and Renaissance, wrestling was practiced by the social elite, in castles and palaces. Numerous painters and writers celebrated wrestling and encouraged its practice : Caravaggio, Poussin, Rembrandt, Courbet, Rabelais, Rousseau, Montaigne, Locke, etc. It is also interesting to mention that the first book to be printed came out in 1500, and that already in 1512 came out the wrestling manual in color by German artist Albrecht Dürer.

The attempts made to restore the Olympic Games were numerous, but it was not until 1896 that they were re-established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin. After the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894, the development of new international sport federations and Olympic committees were accelerated. The first Olympic Congress took place in 1894 at « la Sorbonne » and decided of the ten sports that would be part of the Olympic program : athletics, wrestling, rowing, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, weightlifting, swimming, shooting and tennis (see the congress minutes). During the wrestling tournament in Athens, there were no weight categories and all five competitors wrestled under rules similar to those of the professional Greco-Roman wrestling. The matches lasted until one of the competitors won. It was allowed to interrupt and resume the matches on the following day. The first Olympic champion – the German athlete Schumann – who was not a trained wrestler, was also the winner of horse jumping and parallel bars. Schumann succeeded to beat the English weightlifting champion Launceston Elliot, who was heavier than him, by executing a quick and accurate body lock.

In Paris, in 1900, and for this unique occasion in the history of the modern Olympic Games, the Games did not include wrestling in their program, even if at the same time, professional wrestling was at its best shape at the Folies Bergères and the Casino de Paris.

Professional Wrestling

Professional wrestling began in France around 1830. Wrestlers who had no access to the wrestling elite, formed troupes that travelled around France showing their talent. Wrestlers thus frequented wild animals’ exhibitors, tightrope walkers and bearded women. Showmen presented wrestlers under names such as “Edward, the steel eater”, “Gustave d’Avignon, the bone wrecker”, or “Bonnet, the ox of the low Alps” and challenged the public to knock them down for 500 francs. In 1848, French showman Jean Exbroyat created the first modern wrestlers’ circus troupe and established as a rule not to execute holds below the waist. He named this new style « flat hand wrestling ». Upon Mr. Exbroyat’s death in 1872, Mr. Rossignol-Rollin attorney from Lyon assumed the direction of this troupe and was soon noticed for his ability to advertise, to « arrange » matches and to reward wrestlers in the name of the audience.

The French influence extended to the Austrian Hungarian Empire, to Italy, to Denmark and to Russia and the new style circulated under the name of Greco-Roman wrestling, classic wrestling or French wrestling. Professional wrestling matches were thus organized everywhere in Europe with variable programs and competition rules according to the taste of wrestlers, of managers and of the audience. In 1898, the Frenchman Paul Pons, also named “the Colossus”, was the first Professional World Champion just before the Polish Ladislaus Pytlasinski. Some other great champions succeeded him, like the Turkish Kara Ahmed (the eastern Monster), the Bulgarian Nikola Petrov (the lion of the Balkans) or the Russian Ivan Poddoubni (the Champion of Champions).

At the end of the 19th century, professional wrestling was the most in vogue sport in Europe, but it started to degrade from 1900 because of the pre-arranged matches, the announcement of forgery, false victories and false nationalities of the competitors. The rediscovery of Olympic amateurism encouraged the creation of numerous clubs and schools that finished professional wrestling off. However, from a historical point of view, professional wrestling has its indisputable merits. Competitions contributed to making wrestling more popular, the physical aspect of wrestlers served as a model to young men and the training system allowed amateur wrestling clubs to rapidly become more structured.

Modern Olympic Wrestling 

In 1904, freestyle wrestling was first introduced during the St. Louis Games and was only disputed by American wrestlers. It was only during the fourth Olympic Games held in London in 1908 that competitions were organized for both styles. At the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912, freestyle wrestling was again absent from the program and glima competitions (Icelandic wrestling) were organized. Wrestling matches took place on three mats in the open air. They lasted one hour, but finalists wrestled without limit of time. The match which confronted the Finnish wrestler Alfred Johan Asikainen and the Russian Martin Klein lasted 11 hours and 40 minutes and appears on the Guinness Book of Records. Both wrestlers, having the same score, were separated by two periods of three minutes of ground wrestling. The Russian finally defeated the Finnish who weighed 8 kilos (17.64 lbs) more than he did. Exhausted by this match, Martin Klein could not beat the Swedish Johansson who won the gold medal for the 75 kilos (165.35 lbs).

From this date, and encouraged by the newly created International Federation, wrestling developed in every country. Northern Europe countries maintained during many years the monopoly of Greco-Roman wrestling, whereas freestyle wrestling was largely dominated by the English and the Americans. In Amsterdam, in 1928, the Egyptian wrestler Ibrahim Mustafa was the first African wrestler to win an Olympic title. The Japanese Shohachi Ishii won the first Asian title at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, in 1952. Numerous legends shaped the history of wrestling around the world and it would be impossible to name them all. However, four wrestlers have deeply changed the history of Modern Olympic Games by winning three Olympic titles : the Swedish Carl Westergren (Greco-roman wrestling in 1920, 1924 and 1932), the Swedish Ivar Johansson (Greco-roman and freestyle wrestling in 1932, and freestyle wrestling in 1936), the Russian Alexandre Medved (freestyle wrestling in 1964, 1968 and in 1972) and the Russian Alexandre Karelin (in 1988, 1992 and 1996). After obtaining his third title, Alexandre Karelin decided to conquer his fourth title at the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, but to the general surprise, he was beaten by the American wrestler Rulon Gardner. In 2002, during the World Championship held in Moscow, FILA awarded the title of Best Wrestler of the Century to both Russians : Alexandre Medved (for freestyle wrestling) and Alexandre Karelin (for Greco-roman wrestling), offering them the FILA Gold necklace, award generally reserved for heads of state.

A hundred years after the introduction of freestyle wrestling in the Olympic program, worldwide wrestling entered a new era with the acknowledgement of female wrestling as an Olympic discipline on the occasion of the Athens Games in 2004. This decision is part of the policy of the IOC that aims at establishing equality in sport, and legitimized the efforts made by FILA to sustain the development of female wrestling since the end of the 80s.


History of UWW

History of United World Wrestling

The first International Federation for the development of wrestling and weight lifting was created in Duisburg in 1905 by the Deutsche Athleten-Verband (DAV). A committee was then created, made up by the following members: Mr. Monticelli (ITA), the brothers van Elst (NED), Mr. Koettgen (GER) and Mr. Stolz (GER). The goal of the Federation was to set in order the organisation of the World Championships.

The first International Wrestlers’ Union (Internationaler Ring Verband) was created on the eve of the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912. The organising committee of the Olympic Games entrusted the Swedish Athletics Federation with the organisation of a congress to draw up the statutes and the rules of an international governing body. Two Hungarians were temporarily elected : Dr. Péter Tatits as President and Mr. Mor Csanádi as Secretary General. It was decided that the first congress of the International Wrestlers’ Union would take place in Berlin in 1913. The designation of "First Congress” was a mere formality, since the constituent congress of the Wrestler’s Union had already taken place in Stockholm.

The congress in Berlin took place from June 5th to June 9th, 1913 and the delegates from the following countries participated : Germany, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Hungary, Austria, Bohemia and Great Britain. The International Wrestlers’ Union became the International Union of Heavy Athletics (Internationaler Amateur Verband für Schwerathletik) and was responsible for the development of wrestling (Greco-roman style), boxing, weightlifting, rope wrestling and weight throw. German was adopted as the official language. The length of wrestling matches was set to twenty minutes, with a one-minute break. A board was established, whose members were appointed as follows : President, Dr. Péter Tatits (HUN); Vice-presidents, Mr. R. Preuss (GER) and Mr. Mor Csanádi (HUN); Secretaries, Mr. James Borg (SWE) and Mr. F. Koller (AUT) and Members, Mr. J. Lindstedt (FIN), Mr. A.R. Nielsen (DEN), Mr. P. Longhurst (GBR), Mr. R. Schwindler (Bohemia) and Mr. L. Zsaplinsky (RUS).

Creation of IAWF 

During the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920, the IOC recommended the creation of independent Federations for each sport. The International Amateur Wrestling Federation (IAWF) was thus created during the IOC Olympic Congress in Lausanne in 1921. The statutes of nineteen National Federations and those of IAWF were approved on that occasion. Mr. Einar Raberg, Swedish official and former wrestler, was elected President. English was adopted as the official language. The new Federation assumed the responsibility of promoting the two wrestling styles and made some corrections to the existing rules. Greco-Roman World championships were organised in Helsinki (1921) and in Stockholm (1922). The creation of IAWF legitimized wrestling towards the IOC, the National Olympic Committees, the National Wrestling Federations, the governmental and non-governmental organisations and the public opinion around the world.

In 1924, Einar Raberg resigned and was replaced by the Hungarian Alfred Brüll, who stayed until 1929, date in which the Finnish Viktor Smeds was elected. In 1946, Viktor Smeds convened a congress in Stockholm and some new members were elected : Mr. Roger Coulon (FRA) as Secretary General, treasurer and technical director, Mr. Vehbi Emre (TUR), Mr. Per Tamm (SWE) and Mr. Streit Jr. (USA) as Vice-presidents, Mr. Ratib (EGY), Mr. Himberg (FIN), Mr. Perrel (NED), Mr. Cortenbosch (BEL), Mr. Mackenzie (GBR) and Mr. Salvatorelli (ITA) as Bureau Members. From this date, the IAWF began to work very actively. New rules were adopted and Roger Coulon organised the first referees’ course in Paris in 1957.

Structuring of FILA 

In 1952, Roger Coulon was elected FILA President and renamed the Federation: International Federation of Amateur Wrestling during the congress in Tokyo in 1954. During the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956, new FILA board members were elected : Mr. Vehbi Emre (TUR), Mr. Arvo Himberg (FIN), Mr. M. Mackenzie (GBR), Mr. Ichiro Hatta (JPN), Mr. A. Katouline (URS), Mr. Albert de Ferrari (USA), Mr. Mihaly Matura (HUN), Mr. Anselmo Baficio (ITA), Mr. M. Ratib (EGY), Mr. Per Strömbäck (SWE), Mr. Jules Perrel (NED), Mr. M. Pascal (FRA), Mr. Milan Ercegan (YUG) and Mr. M. Hergl (GER). In 1965, Mr. Coulon moved the FILA headquarters to Lausanne and made FILA the first International Federation to settle in the Olympic capital. In 1967, Roger Coulon created the GAISF (General Association of International Sports Federations) to allow International Federations to better communicate and control the evolution of the international sports movement.

During the sixties, FILA showed creativity in several fields and especially in its organisation. A certain improvement was noticed in the exchange of information with the National Federations : the FILA Bulletin started coming out, the wrestlers’ licences were introduced and a good qualification system for the referees was set up. Under the direction of Mr. Milan Ercegan, Secretary General of FILA, educational videos for referees were first produced.

After President Coulon’s death in 1971, Secretary General Mr. Milan Ercegan was appointed temporary President and was elected FILA President through a voice vote during the congress in Munich in 1972. He published the first book for coaches (Theory and Practice of Wrestling) in 1973 and organised the following year the first coaches’ course in Dubrovnik. He also created the Advanced School for Coaches in 1974. During his 30 years of presidency, numerous works were published, notably the three major books from Bulgarian Professor Raïko Petrov : Olympic Wrestling throughout the Millennia (1993), 100 Years of Olympic Wrestling (1997) and The Roots of Wrestling (2000). In 1994, FILA was renamed International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles after it broadened to other wrestling styles. Thanks to its programmes, Milan Ercegan opened some new perspectives to the promotion of wrestling. He started the ‘FILA Golden Plan’ whose goal was to provide technical assistance for developing countries. At the end of his term in 2002, about a hundred wrestling mats and a considerable number of books, magazines, videos and other pedagogic tools were distributed for free to National Federations. During this period, FILA introduced new competitions to its calendar (junior World Championships and cadet Continental Championships) and Mr. Ercegan revolutionized the world of wrestling by admitting female wrestling as a full-fledged discipline within FILA and the National Federations.

New World of Wrestling 

In 2002, FILA entered a new era with the election of its new President, Mr. Raphaël Martinetti (SUI), Bureau Member since 1980 and Vice-president responsible for the Refereeing Department since 1986. Since his election, President Martinetti has worked under the slogan “Welcome to the New World of Wrestling” and has set up a strategy of modernisation to promote wrestling around the globe. To this day, the activities that have been undertaken or are being undertaken are :

  • The creation of a website and email addresses for all National Federations affiliated, so that all FILA members can communicate effectively.
  • The introduction of female wrestling to the Olympic programme and the consolidation of Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling by seriously amending their rules.
  • The setup of a professional structure for the organisation of the World and European Championships.
  • The signature of numerous TV contracts to effectively broadcast wrestling around the world and the broadcasting of the main Championships via the FILA web TV.
  • The setup of FILA continental training centres in Thiès (SEN) for the African continent, in Sofia (BUL) for the European continent, and in Doha (QAT) for the Asian continent. The centre for the American continent is under construction and, in the meantime, Cuba operates as the training centre for this continent. FILA also financed the centre for traditional wrestling in Niamey (NIG).
  • The setup of the Master degree programme to allow a gradual and progressive learning of wrestling outside the constraint of competition.
  • The moving of the FILA headquarters to optimally fulfil its role towards its National Federations.
  • The creation of World Committees to manage non-Olympic styles affiliated to FILA such as Grappling, Pankration, and Belt Wrestling.