There is a fallacy that is often presented in martial arts (and physical culture as a whole) that for people on the outside looking in there is no point to practicing. Why learn to fight with a sword, choke a person out, or lift a heavy weight if those things do not translate to a real-world situation where you have to perform that exact motor action?
I call this the "why not buy a gun?” argument, which in many ways has merit but is a little two-dimensional. I think anyone who practices martial arts gets this question once in a while, and it simply boils down to “what’s the point?” Or to put it another way, why do we practice?
It’s an important question because at its heart there’s an indication of something problematic within modern society. As a culture, we have lost many of the physical practices that kept us healthy, happy, social and capable, to the point where someone who studies martial arts for its own sake meets a wall of resistance, where the answer “because I want to” is not enough. A good example of this is wrestling, which is more than likely the world’s oldest sport and exists (or has existed) in some form or another all over the world.
The fact that wrestling is common everywhere is not surprising. It’s just grappling, and grappling is an intrinsic part of fighting whether armed or unarmed. However, when we examine different historical traditions from around the world, it becomes clear that wrestling is often not thought of in the context of fighting or self-defence. Many traditions believe that wrestling serves a greater purpose both for society and the individual.
We know that many of the most famous figures in classical Greek philosophy and thought were athletes as well (one source gives “Plato” as a nickname coined by the philosopher’s wrestling coach due to his broad shoulders1, and to the Greeks, a tempered balance of the physical and the cerebral was often more important than excellence in either. Wrestling and athletic competition as a whole did not just serve to strengthen the people who participated in them and prepare young men to be warriors; for the Greeks, athletic competition was a way of teaching virtue and imitating the heroes of old. Champions were held up as embodiments of the gods themselves. One of the most famous examples of this belief is the tale of how Milo of Kroton – considered one of the greatest Greek wrestlers of antiquity – led an army into battle wearing his Olympic crowns, wielding a club, and draped in a lion skin like the hero Heracles2, patron god of wrestling.
In the Indian wrestling tradition of Kushti (in which participants wrestle in mud pits for up to 25-30 minutes per match), a similar emphasis is placed on self development, and many of the practices hold spiritual overtones. Practice begins at 5am with a prayer. The sport's widespread appeal is generally regarded as the legacy of the historical figure Ramadasa – known as the father of Indian athletics – who in the 17th century urged others to take up physical activities in honor of the god Hanuman. Modern Kushti retains much of this. Unlike most sports, which teach using examples of strategies from past matches with little focus placed on personal conduct, disciples of Kushti are taught of the great Gama, an Indian wrestling champion, and the example he set morally as an athlete. These students (who generally begin a gruelling training regimen from the age of eight) focus as much on the Great Gama’s actions outside of the ring as well as inside. For these practitioners, the example set by the Muslim wrestler in the wake of Pakistan and India’s apartheid are as much a part of his story as his wrestling wins, when he stood and defied a crowd of violent rioters in defense of his Hindu neighbours during the 1947 partition.3 “A wrestler without a moral grounding will be a disaster,” says Appasaheb Kadam4, a modern Kushti great.
Finally, in Japan, we see patterns of study which follow a similarly vein. When Jigoro Kano – the founder of Judo – decided to study Ju-Jitsu (a traditional Japanese martial art which incorporates both armed and unarmed fighting of almost every variety), he found it very difficult to find a teacher willing to show him much of this well-known and long-established art. Although an integral part of Japanese history, there were very few teachers in the late 19th century who desired to teach Ju-Jitsu. This can be attributed to the cultural shift toward western values and practices that occurred in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, when trade was officially opened between Japan and the outside world and many old traditions were retired in a rush to embrace modernity. When Kano finally managed to find an instructor, he discovered more than simply a way to fight or become physically stronger, although that had been his goal at the outset. Encoded in Ju-Jitsu was a way of living that for many Japanese people was outmoded and harkened back to a "less civilized" time, but for Kano the art offered much more and from it he developed Judo. He later said of the art: "the ultimate objective of Judo discipline is to be utilized as a means to self-perfection, and thenceforth to make a positive contribution to society.”5 As with the other traditions we have looked at, Judo is seen as a way of building character, and for this reason it became a staple of Japanese schools and a hugely popular sport in its own right.
This stuff always seems slightly wishy-washy in martial arts when you put it down on paper, and if you feel that way reading this then that is understandable. If this whistle-stop tour does nothing else (and it may not – it feels painfully brief to me, but probably not to the poor person who has to edit it), I hope it will make you curious as to why so many cultures enshrined wrestling as being so much more than just a way of getting someone to the ground and keeping them there.
As for myself, in re-reading this piece I am not sure whether it even begins to do justice to how much you can get out of the act of studying wrestling. Therefore, if I did not manage to convince you during the course of reading this piece, my advice to you is this:
I don’t know if I can get across how much fun wrestling is or how vastly it can improve your confidence and well-being, but I think everyone should at least try it for themselves. Because ultimately, martial arts is about self-discovery. The worst-case scenario in trying it out (if, hypothetically speaking, you end up taking the plunge and decide afterward that my advice was poor indeed), is that you’ll have at least become a better fighter for it, and that’s no bad thing at all.
Together with Roland Cooper, Jon runs a small study group at Academie Duello which meets on Fridays at 3:30pm. The focus of the study group is German Medieval wrestling. Primary source material for the class is Jessica Finley’s book, Medieval Wrestling: Modern Practice of a Fifteenth Century Art.
On Saturday May 30th, Academie Duello will be hosting Mike Panian of Martial Energy Workshops and Swordfighters BC, who will be teaching a four-hour Wrestling Foundations workshop. Try it out and see for yourself!
1. Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, trans. C.D. Yonge (1853), 4th ed. Peitho's Web, ed. R.S. Boyes. 13 May 2015 <http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/diogenes/dlplato.htm>. VI.
2. Poliakoff, Michael B. Combat Sports in the Ancient World, 1st ed. (Connecticut: Yale Univ P, 1987).
3. I can't find a good source for this as a true story, though Gama was certainly present and lost much to the upheaval. However, even if the story is hyperbole the fact it is told still illustrates the emphasis on ethics in Kushti.
4. The Hindu. October 31st, 2013, 13 May 2015 <http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/the-culture-and-crisis-of-kushti/article5297790.ece>., "The culture and crisis of kushti".
5. Murata, Naoki. "From 'Jutsu to Dō: The Birth of Kōdōkan Judo", Budo Perspectives, ed. Alexander Bennett (Auckland: Kendo World), 2005.