Honest wrestling is grueling sport, too little understood in U.S.
April 18, 1955

Amateur wrestlers suffer from two embarrassments: 1) many people who never have seen amateur wrestling confuse the sport with professional wrestling, a gaudy fraud; 2) those who have seen the real thing often conclude that honest wrestling is a poor spectator sport—perhaps because their judgment has been fuddled by the chromatic dramatics of TV's wrestling stars (SI, April 11), perhaps because of something inherently ascetic in amateur rules.

The first embarrassment is totally undeserved. The Golden Gate is a fine, long bridge but it could not begin to span the gulf between amateur and professional wrestling. Still, the two are so mingled in some minds that parents have forbidden their sons to take up wrestling at school. Too brutal, they think, unaware that dangerous or "torture" holds are barred in amateur wrestling and are only faked in the professional vaudeville.

As for the second embarrassment, a little knowledge on the spectator's part—perhaps half as much as the average fan brings to baseball—would add rich enjoyment to a sport which has had its enthusiastic followers in every land since before history began. And aside from that, the Amateur Athletic Union recently has met the prospective fan half way by changing from modified college rules to the more interesting, because more aggressive, international freestyle.

There now are three major wrestling styles in U.S. competition—intercollegiate, international and Greco-Roman. Holds below the waist are barred in Greco-Roman wrestling, as are tripping and scissors holds. Once the prevalent style in America, Greco-Roman gave way during the 19th Century to catch-as-catch-can, an outgrowth of plain rough-and-tumble, with the emergence of a hero—Tom Jenkins, a one-eyed rolling-mill worker from Cleveland who was America's No. 1 wrestler until the slighter but wilier Frank Gotch threw him.

Intercollegiate and international wrestling are very much alike, so far as holds are concerned, but their strategies are different. In this difference, some wrestling enthusiasts hope, may lie the chance that amateur wrestling again will take its place as a major American sport—though, with 144 colleges fielding wrestling teams, it is by no means puny now.

Until a few years ago virtually all wrestling in the United States was under college rules or the then similar AAU rules. These require the wrestler mostly to show ability to control his opponent, though he may win by a fall if he can. But the sight of a college wrestler "riding" his rival, performing only the negative feat of maintaining a position of advantage for as long as possible, is fine for aficionados but not one to lift the average sports crowd to its feet.

In international freestyle wrestling, adopted by the AAU shortly before the 1952 Olympics so that the United States might do better in foreign competition, a wrestler loses face with the judges unless he aggressively works to win by a fall. It is not necessary that he pin his man—he can win a decision by flawless execution of holds and well-maneuvered takedowns—but let the judges get the impression that he is trying only to preserve an advantageous status quo and he starts losing ground on their score sheets. What would be shrewd "time-advantage" wrestling in a college match is mere stalling under international rules. Because of this emphasis on aggressive wrestling, spectators at international matches get a full share of thrills.

It is even more imperative, under Olympic tournament rules, that the wrestlers try for a fall. For each match won by a decision the winner gets one demerit and five demerits eliminate him. Thus he could win five matches in a row but if he scored no falls, would be out of the tournament.


It may be, as international-style partisans hope, that AAU's new rules some day will be adopted by the colleges, partly to develop spectator interest, partly to build a reservoir of international-trained athletes for Olympic and other foreign competition. However, some college coaches kicked up a storm when they heard of AAU's shift and simultaneous hints that it be made the intercollegiate standard. The coaches' howls were not so much due to vested interest in a style which has taken them years to perfect as to the fact that those who know intercollegiate wrestling love its special qualities. With this peculiarly American style, the superiority of one wrestler over another can be determined quite accurately without need for the kind of judging which, under international rules, is based pretty much on qualitative opinion.

College matches are for a maximum of nine minutes, divided into three equal periods. International matches run 15 minutes—an opening period of six minutes followed by three of three minutes each, or, by choice of the leading wrestler, one period of nine continuous minutes.

To score a fall, which wins the match, the opponent's shoulder blades must be in continuous contact with the mat for two seconds in college wrestling, but under international rules only a momentary contact, except in the case of a rolling fall, is necessary.

Under the point system used in college wrestling a near fall may count either two or three points. This occurs when the offensive wrestler has his opponent in a pinning combination with both shoulders within two inches of the mat for two seconds (two points) or both shoulders in contact with the mat for one second (three points).

A predicament occurs when the offensive wrestler has his opponent in a pinning combination but not quite at the near-fall mark. Thus, both shoulders may be in contact with the mat for less than a full second, or they may be held within four inches of the mat for two seconds, or one shoulder may be on the mat and another within an angle of 45° of the mat for two seconds. It scores one point.

A takedown (bringing the opponent to the mat) is worth two points. An escape (the defensive wrestler gains a neutral position) counts one point and a reversal (the defensive wrestler comes from beneath and gains control) counts two points.

College rules provide one point for time advantage. Two timekeepers record the number of seconds each wrestler maintains a position of advantage. At the end of the match the lesser is subtracted from the greater and one point is given for a full minute or more of accumulated net time.

International scoring is not so precise. Judges act almost as critics gaining a general impression of the performance of each wrestler, with special credit for activity, special discredit for passivity. One to three points may be given for a near fall; one for a takedown; one for a reversal in the first and fourth periods and, at the discretion of the judges, in the second and third periods; and one for activity in the first or fourth period.


At the end of six minutes of international wrestling the judges vote on whether one contestant is markedly ahead, in which case the leader has a choice of continuing the bout in the same situation as when it was interrupted or of starting anew with ground wrestling. If neither has a strong lead they resume with ground wrestling. Under college rules, ground wrestling starts the second and third periods from the referee's position (see cut) but in international matches the underneath wrestler may be attacked from either a standing or kneeling position and wrestling begins when he is touched by his opponent.

Greco-Roman rules give an edge to men with powerful arms, shoulders and neck muscles (just as college rules, because of time-advantage scoring, give a tall wrestler with plenty of reach an advantage).

Greco-Roman has been revived largely because Joseph Scalzo, a Toledo patent lawyer with muscles, went to the 1952 Olympics as a wrestling judge and came away seething because the U.S. had no entries in the Greco-Roman events. Russia piled up 56 points in Greco-Roman alone. Since then Scalzo has been developing Greco-Roman wrestlers in America, persuading amateurs to add it to their repertoire. A test of strength and endurance, more than of agility and adroitness, Greco-Roman often presents the spectacle of two men locked in straining embrace for minutes on end. By American standards it is not exciting but Europeans, and, in fact, two-thirds of the world, regard it highly.

As Scalzo, intercollegiate 145-pound champion from Penn State in 1939, has been booming the Greco-Roman style, another great amateur, Henry Wittenberg, has been holding clinics to familiarize judges, wrestlers and fans with the new AAU freestyle rules. A former New York cop who is now an advertising executive, Wittenberg was 191-pound Olympic champion in 1948, eight-time national AAU champion and at one period went undefeated in 350 successive bouts.


A preview of this American representation at Melbourne was had recently at Amityville (N.Y.) Memorial High School during the national AAU championships in freestyle and Greco-Roman. A Japanese team led by Ichiro Hatta, the president of the Japanese Wrestling Association who introduced occidental wrestling to Japan 25 years ago, won both freestyle and Greco-Roman national titles in the three lightest weight divisions. But Americans put great hopes on William Kerslake of Cleveland, who retained his heavyweight championships in both styles. Dr. Melvin Northrup, 47-year-old San Francisco veterinarian who continues to wrestle because a spinal arthritic condition recurs every time he retires from the sport, won his fourth AAU freestyle title.

Oklahoma A & M is to wrestling what Notre Dame is to football. The Aggies won their 18th team title in 25 years at the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships held last month at Cornell. Sixty-six colleges sent 181 wrestlers, the biggest field to date, to the tournament.

There were 3,800 spectators at the intercollegiate finals, by no means a football crowd but an indication of sturdy interest in the sport. The Eastern Intercollegiate championships at Penn State drew 13,000 in four sessions. Lehigh University's dual meet with Navy jammed Grace Hall, holding about 3,800, and about 7,000 attended the Lehigh-Penn State meet.


Wrestling does not lack for fans so much as it lacks for understanding. At an occasional match someone will be delegated to explain the general concept to the audience and sometimes a college referee will make clear, not only to the timekeepers but to the spectators as well, how the match is going in terms of advantage and points scored. It helps a great deal to have a referee who addresses himself partly to the audience when he advises the timekeepers that one wrestler has scored a point or has gained a position of advantage but unfortunately international rules forbid this practice.

It would help also if more of the audience could understand that wrestling is a sport which, though wonderfully suited to athletes who are too small for football, too slow of foot for track, too dim-sighted for tennis (blind amateurs are fairly common), nevertheless calls for the utmost in body conditioning, in skill and in courage. At the end of nine minutes of wrestling competitors normally collapse into attitudes of exhaustion. Wrestlers who have played football contend that a nine-minute match takes more out of them than four quarters of football.

It is a small sport, as Daniel Webster once said of Dartmouth, but there are those who love it. Anyone who has ever tried it, respects it.


Wrestling holds have no standard nomenclature, and the ones shown here are by no means all that are likely to turn up during a meet. Some top-notch wrestlers plan an entire series of holds in advance, called "chain wrestling," very much as a chess player will plan a series of moves. If one of the holds is countered the chain wrestler proceeds to a new series. While holds designed solely to inflict pain are banned in amateur wrestling many of them are decidedly uncomfortable. The wrestler on one knee (above) could not slam his opponent to the mat from a standing position but can do so with one knee on the mat. In Greco-Roman wrestling the legs must be "passive" and cannot be used, as in the scissors, to subdue an opponent. The flying mare (lower right) is most valuable in Greco-Roman but also is seen in freestyle.