No sport is older or more widely distributed than wrestling, often in highly local styles that have persisted to the present day.
The first real traces of the development of wrestling date back to the times of the Sumerians, 5000 years ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh written in cuneiform, the sculptures and the low reliefs, are numerous sources that reveal the first refereed competitions, accompanied by music. There are also many historical and archaeological traces of wrestling in Ancient Egypt. Among them, it is worth mentioning in particular the drawings discovered in the tombs of Beni-Hassan representing 400 couples of wrestlers. These drawings, as well as many other vestiges, witness the existence of corporations of wrestlers in Ancient Egypt, wrestling rules and refereeing codes.
For the Greeks, wrestling was a science and a divine art, and it represented the most important training for young men. Fights were similar to those of freestyle wrestling, as shown by drawings and inscriptions from that time. The competitor who first threw his opponent or first brought him down - either on his back, hips, chest, knees or elbows - was proclaimed the winner.
During the Ancient Olympic Games, from 708 B.C., wrestling was the decisive discipline of the Pentathlon. In fact, it was the last discipline to be held – after the discus, the javelin, the long jump and the foot race – and it designated the winner of the Pentathlon, the only crowned athlete of the Games. The most famous of all wrestlers was Milon of Croton (student of the philosopher Pythagoras), six times Olympic champion (from 540 to 516 B.C.), ten times winner of the Isthmic Games, nine times winner of the Nemean Games, and five time winner of the Pythic Games. Legend has it that when he tried to splinter a tree with his own hands, his fingers got stuck in the split tree-trunk and he was devoured by a lion.
From the 18th century on, a procession of wrestlers or strongmen appeared at fairs, in theatres, and in circuses, challenging all comers, beginning with the Englishman Thomas Topham of London in the 18th century and culminating with Eugene Sandow, the German-born international figure, who continued into the 20th century. Early in the 1800s wrestling became a part of the training regimen of the German turnverein gymnastic movement. In the United States, wrestling was popular as a frontier sport (Abraham Lincoln was a noted local wrestler), bouts usually going until one contestant submitted and with few holds barred.
In the second half of the 19th century, two wrestling styles developed that ultimately dominated international wrestling: Greco-Roman wrestling and catch-as-catch-can, or freestyle wrestling. Greco-Roman wrestling, popularized first in France, was so called because it was thought to be the kind of wrestling done by the ancients. Greco-Roman wrestling involves holds made only above the waist and forbids wrapping the legs about an opponent when the wrestlers go down. Originally it was professional and popularized at international expositions held at Paris, but after its inclusion in the revived Olympic Games in 1896, Greco-Roman wrestling events were held at subsequent Olympic Games except in 1900 and 1904.
In 1904, freestyle wrestling was first introduced during the St. Louis Games and was only disputed by American wrestlers. It was only during the fourth Olympic Games held in London in 1908 that competitions were organized for both styles. Wrestling matches took place on three mats in the open air. They lasted one hour, but finalists wrestled without limit of time. The longest recorded match, between the Finnish wrestler Alfred Johan Asikainen and the Russian Martin Klein lasted 11 hours and 40 minutes and appears on the Guinness Book of Records. Both wrestlers, having the same score, were separated by two periods of three minutes of ground wrestling. The Russian finally defeated the Finnish who weighed 8 kilos (17.64 lbs) more than he did. Exhausted by this match, Martin Klein could not beat the Swedish Johansson who won the gold medal for the 75 kilos (165.35 lbs).
From this date, and encouraged by the newly created International Federation, wrestling developed in every country.
Although women have participated in the sport of wrestling for many years, organized women's divisions did not become present until the 1980s in European competition. The rules in the women's divisions took on many forms and changed frequently at first. Over time, however, the same rules as male freestyle divisions were applied with very minor alterations. In 1984, FILA included women's freestyle wrestling in its association. Just a few years later, the first women's world championships were held in Lorenskog, Norway.
Women's wrestling has snowballed into a major force on the world level, fielding tough all-female teams from numerous countries. Some of the best female wrestlers come from Azerbaijan, Japan, Canada, Ukraine, Russia and the United States. The establishment of the women's freestyle division at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens refreshingly confirmed modern society's view of equality, and with it the definition of what an athlete truly is.
While wrestling clubs are known to have been in existence in New Zealand since early last century, it wasn't until 1931 that the first New Zealand Amateur Wrestling Championships were staged. With the exception of World War II, the Championships have been held annually ever since.
In the early days, the administration of amateur wrestling was affiliated with the professional side of the sport. However, in 1965 it was felt we needed to distance ourselves from ‘Professional Wrestling’, and since then we have been identified as the Olympic sport we are.
The New Zealand Olympic Wrestling Union & Associated Styles [Inc.] was formed and we have been a fully independent national sport organisation ever since.