Wrestling is one of the oldest forms of combat and has been a part of the Olympic Games since ancient times. Throughout history, wrestling has spread all around the world, and naturally, many new styles and forms have emerged. You may wonder, how many styles of wrestling are there? What are the different styles?
All the wrestling styles can be split into four main categories: sports wrestling, traditional wrestling, submission (hybrid) wrestling, and professional wrestling.
In this article, we are going to explain different wrestling styles in more detail and see how they differ from one another.
What is Wrestling?
Wrestling is one of the oldest grappling-based martial arts. The concept revolves around two people engaging in a standup grappling exchange where the main goal is to take the opponent down utilizing a broad range of takedown techniques.
When one of the wrestlers scores a takedown, the main goal is to hold the opponent in the bottom position and subdue them with pins to win the exchange/match. Some styles also involve advanced positioning as well as finishing techniques such as chokes and joint locks.
The origins of wrestling go back to 3000 BCE years ago, making it probably the oldest combat sport. Many cave drawings in ancient Egypt, France, and Babylon show people wrestling in front of spectators.
Throughout history, wrestling would go through a lot of changes, and many different styles would emerge. It also influenced the birth of other distinct martial arts, such as Judo, Sambo, and many others.
There is a clear difference between traditional styles, sports styles, submission styles, and styles that are used for entertainment. In the following paragraphs, we’ll talk more about these differences.
Traditional wrestling styles
Following is a list of wrestling styles practiced in ancient times, notably during the early Olympic Games. These styles have influenced the development of modern styles, which we are going to discuss later in this article.
Greek wrestling was a very popular sport during the glory days of Ancient Greece. In terms of rules, this style is very similar to the modern “freestyle.” And it was also much safer than other styles of wrestling during that time, as the main goal was to win a match by scoring more points with no striking.
The way point scoring worked in competition at the time was very simple.
Wrestlers would receive one point for a successful takedown when their opponent hit the ground with their back, hip, or shoulder, and they needed to accumulate three points to win a match. Contestants could also win by catching the opponent into submission, with chokeholds being one of the most popular.
Pankration was a form of wrestling and, to some degree, a precursor to modern MMA. It first appeared at the 33rd Olympiad, hosted in 648 BC, and was a very popular sports event. As a system, Pankration was a brutal sport that combined striking and wrestling techniques.
Fighters could strike each other with punches and kicks, execute takedowns or submit utilizing chokes and joint locks on the ground and there were very few restrictions overall. There were no time limits, protective gear, or other forms of safety. Thus, serious injuries and deaths were quite common and considered a win.
Although it was a hybrid mix of striking and grappling, the wrestling aspect was the most important one. Skilled grapplers dominated the sport just as they do in modern MMA.
Shuai Jiao is a wrestling style that emerged in China over 4,000 years ago. It is a generic term used to describe various wrestling styles that had been practiced in China during this period. Shuai Jiao could be further split into various sub-styles such as Zhili, Beijing style, Tianjin, Baoding, and Shanxi.
Shuai Jiao is also known as “jacket wrestling.” Some styles are very similar to judo, as competitors must wear a similar uniform. The emphasis in most styles is on powerful throwing techniques and takedowns, blocks, joint locks, and powerful kicks to off-balance the opponent.
After conquering Greece, the Romans adopted the concept of wrestling, and they made slight modifications to develop their own variation called Roman Wrestling. This wrestling style was very popular during the reign of the Roman Empire from 510 BC to AD 500.
And it would later evolve into what we now recognize as the “Greco-Roman” wrestling style, as it will be further explained later. But during ancient times, Roman wrestling had a style all its own.
Lancashire wrestling is a style developed in Lancashire, England. In the wrestling community, this style is considered a precursor to catch wrestling, also known as “catch-as-catch-can.” Apart from regular wrestling takedowns, the Lancashire style included groundwork and was known as one of the most brutal combat sports.
There were no points in competitions as the emphasis was on breaking the opponent’s bones, choking them unconscious, and even causing deaths.
The term “folk wrestling” refers to any traditional wrestling style that may or may not be practiced as a modern sport. Here is an example of different folk wrestling styles around the world:
- Britain — has two main folk styles: north and West Country styles. The most famous North Country style is Lancashire, which was a precursor to catch wrestling. West Country styles are Cornis and Devon wrestling.
- Ireland — has a style called “Barrog” developed in the 9th century and the famous “Collar and Elbow” style or “Jacket wrestling”.
- Central Asia — has Mongolian (Bokh and Buryat) and Turkic (Alysh, Koras, Kurash, Khuresh, etc) wrestling styles.
- East Asia — is famous for different Chinese styles such as Shuai Jiao, Die Jiao, Gi Ge, Beiga, and many others.
Sports wrestling styles
In modern times, sports wrestling is among the most popular forms of wrestling in general, and some are part of the Olympic Games. Here is a list of the most popular sports styles and a detailed explanation of each one.
Also known as “classical wrestling,” Greco-Roman is one of two wrestling styles included in the Olympic Games since 1896. This style is unique as wrestlers are not allowed to grab or hold on to any part of the body below the waist.
They can’t grab the opponent’s legs to manipulate their weight and balance and execute a takedown. This rule prevents them from using techniques such as single/double leg or trips. Instead, the emphasis is on powerful and explosive throws.
Freestyle wrestling is arguably the most popular and exciting style of them all. It is the second style included in the Olympic Games that differs a lot from the Greco-Roman in various aspects. Freestyle enables a wrestler to grab and hold on to the opponent both above and below the waist to get a takedown.
They can grab onto their arms and legs. Apart from pure wrestling takedowns like single and double leg, freestyle wrestlers can also utilize trips and sweeps, similar to the ones in judo and sambo. Once on the ground, the main goal is to pin the opponent to the mat to win points, which results in a win.
Freestyle is very similar to collegiate wrestling, and people tend to mix these two with one another. Although these two styles are similar, there are more than a few important differences between them.
Freestyle wrestling focuses on exposure points, whereas folkstyle wrestling focuses on controlling your opponent. In freestyle, for example, when stuck in the bottom position, the goal is to avoid being turned or exposed. In contrast, in folkstyle wrestling, the goal is to escape from the bottom position.
The goal of freestyle is to pin or expose the shoulders of your opponent to the mat.
Folkstyle (Collegiate) Wrestling
Collegiate wrestling is, in some ways, the American variation of freestyle wrestling. It is integrated into high school and university athletic programs in the US.
In fact, collegiate wrestling events are popular and often aired on sports networks. In some way, collegiate wrestling is stamped deep into the culture of America. And this is one of the reasons why American wrestlers have so much success in the Olympics.
This specific style emerged in early 1900 when wrestlers from different universities started competing against each other. It quickly became not just the most popular form of wrestling in the US but also one of the most popular amateur sports in the country, mainly thanks to the intense rivalries between universities and their athletes. Later on, the NCAA would make collegiate wrestling an official sport.
Sumo is a Japanese full-contact wrestling style that is very well known throughout the world. Unlike in most other styles, the main objective in sumo is to force the opponent out of the circular-shaped fighting pit or manipulate their weight and balance to wrestle them to the ground.
Sumo is integrated into the culture of Japan, and sumo athletes are very popular public figures. Despite its centuries-long history, sumo is now classified as a modern Japanese martial art that can be considered both traditional and sport wrestling.
Submission wrestling styles
There are many styles of wrestling that, apart from takedowns and other throwing techniques, also include advanced grappling on the ground, commonly referred to as “submission wrestling.” Though they are all derived from wrestling in one way or another, submission wrestling has various styles. As such, each style is viewed as a separate martial art, as listed below.
Catch wrestling (catch-as-catch-can)
J.G. Chambers created catch wrestling in 1878 in the United Kingdom. It is rooted in older wrestling styles such as “Lancashire” and “coral and elbow” wrestling. In terms of pure wrestling techniques, catch style is very similar to freestyle, as it allows you to manipulate any part of the opponent’s body. However, catch wrestling also includes submission holds and other finishing techniques on the ground.
What’s interesting, however, is that catch wrestling was once included in the 1904 and 1920 Olympic Games but was no longer a part of the Olympic game due to the sport’s violent nature. However, a few drastic changes needed to be implemented to make this style suitable for the future Olympics. One of the key ones was to get rid of dangerous techniques, including submission holds.
The rules were codified by FILA, and this new variation often called “amateur catch wrestling,” became known as “freestyle wrestling.”
Sambo is a Russian military system developed in the 1920s. The system is a mix of different wrestling styles, judo, jujutsu, and striking techniques from boxing and kickboxing. There are two main styles of sambo:
Sports Sambo — focuses only on wrestling and grappling and is very similar to judo. There is no striking, as the entire focus is on powerful takedowns and throws and submissions like leglocks.
Combat Sambo — is a more versatile variation as it includes both striking and grappling. It shares similar wrestling and submission grappling techniques with sports form, but also adds striking with all limbs and various other techniques.
Luta Livre is a Brazilian submission grappling martial art very similar to jiu-jitsu. The key difference is that jiu-jitsu derived from Judo and uses many of the same techniques.
Luta Livre, however, is rooted in wrestling and is also known as “Brazilian catch wrestling.”
As a system, Luta Livre is a hybrid mix of catch wrestling techniques and Judo in terms of grappling. It also includes full-contact striking utilizing kicks, elbows, knees, and punches.
There are two forms of Luta Livre: esportiva (sports version) and vale tudo (anything goes).
Esportitva style is known as a “softer” variation as the focus is on grappling techniques and submissions on the ground, and there is no striking. Contestants can win a match by scoring more points with takedowns and being in a dominant position or submissions like leglocks, armlocks, etc.
Vale Tudo resembles modern MMA as it is a hybrid mix of only the most effective striking and grappling techniques.
Professional Wrestling (Pro-Wrestling)
Wrestling is also widely used to entertain people of all ages, and this type of wrestling is commonly referred to as “pro-wrestling.” These wrestling events are staged shows where wrestlers perform a carefully scripted set of acrobatic moves to entertain the crowd.
This form cannot be seen as “competitive” as every element of the show is staged, including the result. But it is highly entertaining and popular, especially in the US and South America.
There are more than a hundred professional wrestling promotions and leagues worldwide. Some of the most popular ones are:
- World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)
- New Japan Pro Wrestling
- Impact Wrestling
Is wrestling considered a martial art?
Wrestling is not only a real martial art, but it might be one of the oldest as well, and a precursor to many martial art styles that came in ancient, medieval, and modern times. Although it is not widely recognized in the public as a combat system synonymous with martial arts such as karate or judo, wrestling is a martial art that includes all the elements of being a martial art.
First, wrestling has a long history and codified techniques and rules. It is practiced both in the form of amateur and professional competitions for the purposes of self-defense and personal growth. It promotes strong moral and ethical values, and above all, it influenced the birth of many systems that are actually considered martial arts.
For example, jiu-jitsu is considered a martial art, and it adopts a lot of techniques and elements from wrestling.
What is the Best Wrestling Style For MMA?
Freestyle wrestling is widely regarded as the most practical style for MMA. Greco-Roman works well too, but freestyle fits better within the rules of the sport, includes a broader range of techniques, and covers more aspects.
MMA is freestyle combat, the closest humans have gotten to legal street fighting. It enables the athletes to grapple both on their feet in the clinch and on the ground. There are very few restrictions when it comes to how you take the opponent down. You can grab them by the legs, arms, waist, or whatever part of the body you want to, and this is why freestyle is better than Greco-Roman.
Freestyle wrestlers are allowed to manipulate both the opponent’s upper and lower bodies to score takedowns, while Greco-Roman focuses only on the upper body above the waist. However, bear in mind that there have been many successful MMA fighters from both of these styles.
LEARN MORE: Why Do Wrestlers Dominate MMA?
Which style of wrestling is best for self-defense?
Submission wrestling styles such as catch-as-catch-can wrestling are known to be the most effective for self-defense and street fighting in general.
Other popular styles, such as freestyle and Greco-Roman, are also practical. However, these are less versatile, and here is why.
Freestyle and Greco-Roman enable you to take the opponent down using powerful takedowns and other techniques. It helps you build power and strength and teaches you how to manipulate the opponent’s balance and weight to take them down and hold them down to the ground.
At the same time, submission wrestling styles teach you the same techniques and help build the same athleticism as freestyle and Greco-Roman styles. But the key difference is that submission wrestling systems also include advanced ground fighting utilizing positioning, chokes, and joint locks, which make you superior on the ground. Some of these styles also include the basics of striking offense and defense, such as sambo.
So, submission wrestling styles prepare you for more situations you might face on the street and give you a better practical technique to deal with an attacker.
1. Greek wrestling. (2021, October 6). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_wrestling
2. Folk wrestling. (2022, December 6). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folk_wrestling
3. Making the Transition from Folkstyle to Freestyle. (2014). Team USA. https://www.teamusa.org/usa-wrestling/features/2014/march/18/making-the-transition-from-folkstyle-to-freestyle