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History 01 - Origins of the Sport

Long before it was ever considered a sport, the activity we call wrestling was a key element of the human condition. The activity has most certainly been around almost as long as the human species itself. It seems logical to assert that the first humanoids to walk upright engaged in running and wrestling as their first forms of securing food, evading predators and contending with one another for position in the tribe.

Often referred to as Mankind’s Oldest Sport, wrestling dates back at least five thousand years in recorded history. Drawings on Egyptian tombs portray various wrestling holds. The oldest piece of extant literature in the world is a poem known as The Epic of Gilgamesh. One of the main themes is a wrestling match between the hero/king Gilgamesh and a forest warrior known as Enkidu. The Epic of Gilgamesh was composed over four thousand years ago in ancient Sumer — which is located right where Iraq is today.

Wrestling is one of the most honored sports of the earliest Greeks stories, The Iliad and The Odyssey. It is the first sport mentioned in the Bible, when Jacob wrestled the angel of the Lord in Genesis.

Wrestling was one of the ten original sports of the early Olympics, held in ancient Greece over three thousand years ago. Milo of Krotona, which is a small village on an island near Italy, is regarded as the greatest hero of the ancient Olympics, and he was a wrestler.

Kings have wrestled, as have American presidents and political leaders. Among the most prominent wrestlers of the Western Hemisphere are Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s most honored president, and Teddy Roosevelt, a President noted for his vigor and physical fitness. Current leaders with strong wrestling backgrounds include Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of the United States Congress, and Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for President George W. Bush.

Hastert wrestled in high school and college and coached on the high school level in Illinois for many years, prior to entering politics. Rumsfeld, also from Illinois, wrestled for 12 years, including four in high school, four in college (Princeton) and four more while serving in the navy.

Famous actors like Kirk Douglas, Tom Cruise and Billy Baldwin and Academy Award-winning author John Irving were all wrestlers in their scholastic days.

WRESTLING CAME to the New World with the first wave of colonists and was a popular activity along the eastern seaboard in the 1700s. Vermont was a bastion of great wrestlers in the mid 1800s. Men like John McMahon and Ed Decker earned reputations as terrific collar-and-elbow men. The term “collar-and-elbow” refers to the way wrestlers tie up, of course, and it became the name by which wrestling was known for decades.

These men toured the nation, as it was then back then, taking on all comers in contests that drew considerable interest and betting. There were several styles of wrestling and rules were often loosely enforced. It was a tough sport for tough men.

Decker and McMahon were among the best, no doubt. They were well versed in all the roughest elements of the sport, including choking and submission holds.

But there were others thirsting to get their share of attention and money from the betting game. William Muldoon was only fifteen when he enlisted in the Civil War, and learned his wrestling in the camps of the Union soldiers, between battles. By the time he returned home to Belfast, New York, in 1865, Muldoon was a seasoned veteran of many matches. He took a job as a New York City policeman and began wrestling in opera houses on the weekends.

Muldoon has the honor of being the first really wrestling star, an athlete whose prowess was known far and wide in his prime. He even was featured in one of the very first sports card sets, appearing in the Allen & Ginter’s set of 1888!

Photo provided by Wrestling Museum

Amateur and professional wrestling were close cousins in the 1800s, sharing many of the same holds and training methods. The only real difference was that amateurs wrestled for “fun” and received no payoff for their efforts, and that professionals were allowed to use submission holds.

But the two versions of the same sport were soon to go there own separate ways. The sport was gaining popularity in gymnasiums along the east coast. In 1887, a group known as the National Association of Amateur Athletics (NAAA) hosted what it called a national tournament. It was in New York City and limited all wrestlers to under 135 pounds, presumably to keep professional wrestlers from entering.

The next year, a new group, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), was formed and it held its first national tournament April 6, 1888, in the Metropolitan Opera House. It limited contestants to just two categories — under 120 pounds and over 158 pounds. The event was held in conjunction with the national boxing and fencing contents, and drew a number estimated at 3,500.

The AAU eventually developed into the nation’s most powerful amateur athletic group and held that position until the college organization known as the NCAA began to flex its muscles in the 1920s.

For many years, amateur wrestlers vied for state, regional and national honors under the auspices of the AAU. In 1928, the NCAA held its first official national tournament in Ames, Iowa. It drew just forty competitors from a handful of colleges. By the year 2002, there were 323 colleges with wrestling programs at all levels (Divisions I, 2 and 3 and the smaller NAIA division). The 2003 tournament in Kansas City drew over 80,000 fans for the three-day event.

For a wide range of gift shops items — including books, posters, videos and trading cards for wrestling — be sure and check the web site of the International Wrestling Institute and Museum (641-791-1517) in Newton, Iowa. The web site is www.wrestlingmuseum.org

Story By MIke Chapman, Newton Iowa

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