Today, we’ll be looking at the origin of professional wrestling. How did it change from a sport dating back to ancient times, to a global entertainment phenomenon? In this short piece, I attempt to summarize the basics behind its rise. To do so, we have to start all the way back in 1830’s France, during the July Revolution.
It is said that during this time, wrestlers were first given nicknames. Also, the tradition of an open challenge being issued to the general public was born. There was commonly a reward of 500 Francs to anyone who could knock a wrestler down to the ground. This is where circuses got the idea from.
As of 1848, new circus troupes adopted a style of wrestling called “First Hand Wrestling”, which became known as Greco-Roman wrestling; where holds below the waist are restricted. It also outlawed painful holds causing severe damage. With this style, throws became more common as they could no longer work on bringing opponents down with leg hooks. It became known as Greco-Roman to highlight its link to ancient wrestling, although Greek Wrestling allowed leg hooks and the rules were quite different.
With this came much intrigue, as it was more entertaining to watch. By the end of the 19th Century, the first professional wrestling champion was crowned in Paul Pons. He claimed to be the World Greco-Roman Wrestling Champion, while other wrestlers won tournaments of their own. The one guy Pons couldn’t beat however, was Georg Hackenschmidt. This young prodigy always triumphed over Pons, and by the early 1900’s, many were stating their claims that Hackenschmidt was the real champion.
First Worlds Heavyweight Champion
While Greco-Roman wrestling proved popular around the world, it was not so much in the United Kingdom and United States. This is because they preferred Catch-as-catch-can Wrestling, which is more like the wrestling we see today. It was a combination of several types of wrestling practiced throughout the UK, with more influence from the Lancashire style. Leg hooks were allowed, and there was more emphasis on mat wrestling and submissions. This soon found its way to the USA, where carnival wrestlers would use it against members of the public in open challenges. Submissions, otherwise known as “hooks”, would end these bouts quickly to avoid any shock defeat or underhanded assault.
It was in 1905 than Georg Hackenschmidt, a known Greco-Roman wrestler, entered the US and became the first known World Heavyweight Champion by defeating American Champion Tom Jenkins. Promoter Charles B. Cochran suggested to Hackenschmidt that he was so dominant, they could make more profit from future bookings if he were to play with his opponents. In other words, he wanted to fake the contests and make them more competitive because the marks would keep coming back if they thought he was beatable. With this business philosophy, catch wrestling soon transitioned in to becoming professional wrestling, and many other countries adopted the same; knowing there was more money to be made predetermining bouts for entertainment value. It all relied on keeping to kayfabe that wrestling remained a sport in the eyes of the public.
Gold Dust Trio
Frank Gotch was the second World Heavyweight Champion (pictured wrestling Hackenschmidt in the display image), who remained wrestling’s biggest star til his retirement in 1913. With the looming war, and the fact that some marks were already expressing their doubt over the legitimacy of the sport, wrestling took a quick nosedive. At least til the 1920’s. Enter Ed Lewis, Billy Sandow, and Toots Mondt, otherwise known as the Gold Dust Trio.
Thanks to their unrelenting promotional skills, they dragged wrestling up from the doldrums by introducing new concepts like tag team wrestling, time limits, and finishing moves. It was also became less random, as they paired teams up for long periods, along with storylines being allowed to flourish between rivals. The UK caught wind of this, and soon introduced their own style called “All-In Wrestling”, which brought in foreign weapons like steel chairs and women wrestling in mud.
Soon enough, professional wrestling developed in to a worldwide concept, especially after the lineage of the original World Heavyweight title was broken up during Lou Thesz’s time in the fifties. But that’s a story for another day. What is important to know is that these three promoters were the godfathers of professional wrestling. They took it from something which was almost dying from exposure, to becoming entertainment that kept the lie firmly in a headlock for decades to come. And to this day, the original foundations remain, albeit everyone’s in on it. If you are interested, please let me know if you would like to see this history lesson on the origins of professional wrestling continued. Thanks for reading!