Greco-Roman wrestling, as its name suggests, is a modern style of wrestling that’s designed to be as similar as possible to the styles of wrestling practiced by the ancient Greeks and Roman’s in competitions like the ancient Greek olympics. Thankfully the tradition of wrestlers competing naked didn’t get carried on into the modern version of the sport.
It’s believed that a number of styles of European folk wrestling were involved in the origins of greco-roman wrestling. United World Wrestling, the international governing body for amatuer wrestling (which includes greco-roman, freestyle and other forms), a French soldier in the Napoleonic era first developed the style. Jean Exbrayat performed at fairs and shows, calling his style ‘flat hand wrestling’. In 1848 he introduced rules that fighters couldn’t use holds below the waist or any painful torsion holds that would hurt an opponent. His style became known as French wrestling. While the British and Americans preferred the less restrictive freestyle of wrestling French wrestling became a popular sport across Europe. An Italian competitor, Basilio Bartoletti, first used the term greco-roman for the sport, to emphasise the ‘ancient values’.
Nearly every European capital city hosted Greco-Roman tournaments throughout the 19th century and many offered large prize purses for the champions. Rulers such as the Czar of Russia offered large sums of money to wrestlers to train and compete for him, and prizes as big as five thousand francs for tournament winners. The popularity and prestige of the sport across Europe meant that when the modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896 greco-roman was the first style that was registered. Since the inception of the modern Olympics Greco-Roman has been included at every Games, other than Paris in 1900 and St Louis in 1904 (when freestyle wrestling first got included in the Games).
The goal of competitions is to pin both your opponent’s shoulders to the mat simultaneously. The referee must see that you’re controlling your opponent, which is known as winning by fall. You can also win matches by points based decision, technical superiority (gaining an eight point lead), or by your opponent being unable to continue for any reason.
Competitors score points in a match by taking their opponents down, reversals (gaining control of an opponent from a defensive position), exposure (putting your opponents back on the mat, exposing them to a pin without pinning them), penalties for infractions of rules or putting your opponent out of bounds. An important feature of the sport is explosiveness and amplitude of throws and takedowns. A bigger, more powerful takedown that brings your opponent straight into a dangerous position scores higher than a simple takedown to a non-dangerous position.
While the Olympics is one of the most prestigious and widely watched Greco-Roman competitions, the rise of MMA has shown how competitive the skills of Greco-Roman wrestlers hold up against other martial arts. Some of the best known Greco-Roman wrestlers include Dan Henderson, Chael Sonne, Jon Jones and Alexander Volkanovski.