As one of the oldest and most diverse masculine sports, wrestling has taken on many forms since it was first cultivated back in the early days of human civilisation. Today, many of us think of wrestling as a fixed sport, more theatre than actual man-to-man combat. However, the grandiose, ridiculous and money grabbing play acting of WWE et al is only a tiny part of the rich and ancient traditions of wrestling.

Alex Cunha & Clement Chabernaud Photographed by Ohnur for Esquire Spain, May 2014

In the Western world, it was in the cradle of European culture – Greece – where the sport became a respected art form, lauded at the Olympic Games and a test of a man’s masculinity for the ancient empires armies, such as the Spartans.

Ancient Greek marble fresco depicting two wrestlers – Photo via Google

As the baton of cultural and political dominance passed from Greece to Rome, the art of wrestling that the Greeks perfected was absorbed into Roman culture, but various other forms of folk wrestling began to germinate. It wasn’t until the time of Napoleon that Graeco-Roman wrestling was first experimented with, which incorporated numerous styles of wrestling from the ancient Mediterranean, and became the dominant wrestling style of the West.

Turkish oil wrestling / Yağlı Güreş – Photo by Basil Pao

If you look at the world culture by culture, each has it’s own distinctive wrestling style, that form a unique part of their society. In Turkey, the most famous and the national sport is oil wrestling or Yağlı Güreş (the second being Karakucak) essentially oil wrestling is a heroic sport, which requires a wealth of skill and good spacial awareness, as the inclusion of oil on the body complicates things, making it tougher to get a good hold of your opponent.

The origins of oil wrestling in Turkey stretches back to ancient Babylon and Sumer, with the sport being perfected during the time of the Ottoman Empire. It’s fair to say that Ancient Greek elements of wrestling were incorporated into the sport during its early days.

Persian wrestlers from the early 1950’s – Photo via Wikipedia

In Iran the varieties of wrestling are endless, they include War Wrestling and Koshti-ye Bachoukheh amongst others, but the national style and one which is still revered and practiced today is Varzesh-e Pahlavani or آیین پهلوانی و زورخانه‌ای which means Heroic Sport. A lot of ritual, exercise regimes and male bonding takes place prior to actual combat.

Culturally, Varzesh-e Pahlavani is the most historically rich forms of wrestling in the world, with the rituals incorporating a number of Zoroastrian, Shia and Sufi elements, and combat styles that incorporate a broad sweep of elements from regional Persian styles, including Kurdish.

In combat, the main style is grappling and pits one man’s strength and skill against the other. The practice is taken very seriously, with each session beginning with a praise to God, the Prophet and his family by the Morshed (Master) In training, the Morshed also recites poetry and extracts of the Shahnameh to the fighters.

Young Pehlwani fighters practicing – Photo by Soumaya Ghoshal

Finally, the most famous South Asian style of wrestling is Pehlwani, practiced predominantly in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, although its popularity is sadly dwindling. Developed during the Mughal Empire and heavily influenced by the Persian Varzesh-e Pahlavani yet with a base firmly grounded in traditional Indian wrestling, it is again a grappling sport, which requires a great deal of strength and skill to master your opponent.

Like Varzesh-e Pahlavani, Pehlwani is heavy on rituals and intense training methods. Pehlwani fighters usually train early, with boys of 6 and upwards being taught by a guru of the sport. The rituals and training include the teaching of yoga and other added spiritual elements.

Pehlwani is considered one of the most masculine and heroic forms of wrestling in the region.

Wrestling and other martial arts are always beneficial for men, particularly young men, to take up, helping to build a sense of mastery, mental strength, discipline and courage. There’s a good selection of tips from YouTubers, FightSmartTrav being one of my particular favourites, to get started with learning. Also, this article in The Art of Manliness by Brett and Kate McKay gives a quick rundown of ways to test your strength.