According to Joe Rogan wrestling is the greatest skill to have in the octagon, and a wrestler is the best ‘base’ to build a top level MMA fighter from. Fantastic wrestling skills allow you to control where the fight happens, and therefore expose an opponent’s weaknesses. Your opponent is a striker? Take them down and beat them up. Your opponent is a submission expert? Keep the fight standing and beat them up on the feet. Your opponent hasn’t got the best cardio? Keep them against the cage and grind them down. Control where the fight takes place and you control the fight. That’s why freestyle wrestling is one of the most commonly trained skills in MMA. But where does the art of freestyle wrestling come from?
According to United World Wrestling, the international governing body for amateur wrestling, freestyle wrestling originated with the catch-as-catch-can wrestling of Great Britain and Ireland. There were several regional variations dictating where the two wrestlers started the match, but it was always on the feet, and the aim was always to pin your opponent’s shoulder to the floor – known as a fall. If the initial takedown did not lead to a fall, the wrestling continued on the ground, and basically every lock and hold was allowed. This wrestling was popular at village and town fairs across the U.K, and eventually Irish immigrants brought their variation to the United States, where it grew rapidly in popularity – in fact catch-as-catch-can was practiced by at least half a dozen presidents, including Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt.
Whilst freestyle wrestling grew in popularity in the U.S it struggled to get a foothold in Europe due to the interest in professional Greco-Roman wrestling across the continent during the 19th century. This meant it wasn’t until 1904, at the St. Louis Olympics, that freestyle wrestling appeared, with 40 fighters taking part – all of who were Americans. The rules were more or less the same as catch-as-catch-can, but with the more dangerous holds outlawed.
Sine 1921 the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) has laid out the rules for Freestyle wrestling, with rules that govern the scoring of matches, and the major tournaments like the summer olympics. By 1960 matches were becoming much more organised, with time limits being set (some old school Greco-Roman matches could last 8 or 9 hours) and judges scoring matches, indicating their decisions at the end of the match, if no fall occurred, using coloured paddles. Dr Albert de Ferrari, who became the FILA president, introduced a scoring system that was visible during the match, where fighters could see who was in the lead during the progression of the match. Freestyle wrestling has continued to grow in popularity over the years, with the help of Olympic popularity, and today fighters from Iran, the US, Bulgaria, Cuba, Turkey and Japan all have the strongest showing at the Olympics.
Freestyle and other forms of wrestling, have also gained popularity for application in MMA, with many top fighters having achieved high levels in wrestling, including Miesha Tate, Daniel Cormier and George St-Pierre, to great effect in the octagon.
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