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Articles about Wrestling, Self-Defense, and Mixed Martial Arts > Wrestling- The Natural Self Defense

Is it a Martial Art?
2 Nov 2008




The Natural Art

     Is it a Martial Art ?  


Professor Jody Perry


            When I am among fellow martial artist and wrestling colleagues, I like to bring up and listen to the many different answers I get when I ask whether or not they believe wrestling is a martial art. Not surprisingly, I find that the majority of the people I ask are unsure and do not know what to think. The martial artist wants to say no, and the wrestlers opinions split both ways. To help them make a decision, I like to suggest that they first try to define “Martial Arts.”  

What is a martial art? Again not surprisingly I think it’s funny that when asked this question, many people find themselves tongue-tied. To take the conversation deeper, I also like to discuss whether or not the martial arts came entirely from the Asian countries; and whether or not the Asian countries should be solely credited for the development of the martial arts? Then back to wrestling, where does it come from?  Does it originate from the west or from the east?

In search of the answers to these questions, let’s first define what  “Martial Arts” means. When we break the two words down, Webster’s dictionary defines “Martial,” as; “in relation to or connected with the armed forces or military profession.”  “Art” is defined as:  “A system of principles and methods used in the performance of a set of activities.”  When the two words are combined to become “Martial Arts,” Webster defines this as “Any of several Asian arts of self-defense or combat, as Karate, Judo, or Tae Kwon do, practiced as sport.”  Given these definitions, we have no choice but to conclude that “martial arts” are military oriented. However there still seems to be a question about the self-defense, combat, or sport application of these military arts. Are the martial arts a military self-defense to be used in combat, or are they sports or contests of sport that military personnel engage in for conditioning or recreation? So far, it seems that the dictionary has only left us with more questions.

Next let’s turn to wrestling. When most people think of wrestling they envision smoke filled auditoriums, flashing lights, blasting music, screaming crowds, and costumes and masks that make each event a flashback of Halloween. Although the wrestlers are acting, and not all their aerial assaults are as effective as they appear, they are all true athletes regardless of the ‘rejected red headed stepchild’ respect they receive.  But wrestling is not just about what you see on WWF. Wrestling at the Olympic level consists of two distinctive styles. One is Greco-Roman wrestling (Greek and Roman style wrestling) and the other is Freestyle wrestling. Freestyle wrestling is the most popular of the two styles and is similar to High school and Collegiate style wrestling. Greco-Roman is a style that does not allow any attacks below the waist. All clinches and throws are initiated above the waist.

 Wrestling has to be one of the most common activities we perform everyday as human beings, it is as natural to us as walking and breathing.  If there were just one word in our vocabulary that described the majority of our daily activities, physical or psychological it would have to be the word, “wrestle.” We wrestle to get out of our clothes at night to get into bed. We wrestle to get out of bed in the morning. We wrestle with the thoughts and decisions we make each day. We wrestle with our dreams, with our past and with our future. We wrestle with the groceries, with the laundry, and with our kids. We even wrestle in our sleep. As a matter of fact, humans have had to wrestle in, and with, life since the day we wrestled our way out of our mother’s womb. To wrestle, as defined in Webster’s dictionary is; “To struggle; to strive in an effort to master.”

Struggling through, and trying to master our lives is a life long objective.  Life is full of events that will require us to “struggle/wrestle” through. Like it or not, or whether you agree or not, every breathing human being wrestles. With all that said, we could say that the sport of wrestling is a sport of struggling to gain control or superiority of an opponent.

Webster’s dictionary defines “Wrestling” as; “A gymnastic exercise or contest between two competitors who attempt to throw each other by grappling.” “Grappling,” is defined as; “A contest in which the participants try to grip or clutch each other:” and “To struggle or to come to grips in hand-to-hand combat.” These definitions seem to indicate that wrestling is a sports oriented “contest.” Besides the word “combat” there is no indication that wrestling has anything to do with the military. So is it a martial art?

The definitions given previously seem to indicate that in order for an art to be considered a ‘martial’ art, it has to be taught or practiced by military personnel. Wrestling for those that do not know, “is” and has been taught and practiced by the military for many years. As a matter of fact, many of our National, International and Olympic team competitors are members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Just for the record, between the years of 1980, 1984, and 1988 while I was training for a berth on the Freestyle and/or Greco-Roman Olympic wrestling team, I competed against members of all the branches I just mentioned.  During that time period, the Navy dominated the Freestyle-wrestling world, and the Marines dominated the Greco-Roman wrestling world. The Army and Air Force produced competitors in both styles. Even West Point Military Academy in up state New York has a wrestling program.  I know this because I trained with them.

 Now that everyone has been enlightened that wrestling is taught and practiced in the military, again we ask, “is wrestling a martial art?” And if it is this connection to the military that makes it a martial art, then what about the other sports taught, like boxing, fencing, soccer, etc.?  I do not believe that these questions have a firm “yes” or “no” answer. But they do make for interesting conversation.

As I just mentioned in a previous paragraph, I trained for 12 years in the sport of Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling trying to secure a berth on an Olympic team. I started wrestling as a sophomore in High school, wrestled at a Jr. College, then began freestyle wrestling at age 25. As I started getting older, and still wanting to compete against the younger competitors, I turned to the martial arts in hopes of finding an edge to make up for my age difference. My search into the martial arts began with Kung Fu and continued through 21 different arts and styles over a period of 20 years. At the Olympic level, it is known that competing for an Olympic berth requires at least 11 hours a day of constructive training. With that serious mentality I sometimes trained in 2 or 3 different arts at a time. In each art I searched for techniques that could be applicable to my wrestling. Unfortunately I found that many of the arts were limited in their grappling skills. So I studied the basics of that particular style or system, then moved on to the next system or style. My search then found me turning to Sambo, the Russian Martial art. In Sambo my wrestling skills played a major role in helping me win National titles and make a World team. Sambo, however, requires the athletes to wear judo type jackets; therefore most of the techniques of Sambo were inadequate for bare skinned wrestling. So my search continued. Then one day I walked into a school in Hawaii that was run by Relson Gracie, one of the older brothers of the Gracie family and 22 time National Brazilian Jujitsu Champion. It was there that I found technique that was applicable for my wrestling.  Jujitsu, was the martial art that gave me an edge in my wrestling, but I found it  ironic that it was my wrestling that gave me an upper hand in jujitsu. I remember Relson always calling me “Wally Gator.” One day when I asked him what that meant, he said he meant I was tough like an alligator. He said that he saw that because of my wrestling mentality I couldn’t be choked-out, and that I always fought and ended up on top no matter how much I was outweighed. Besides my perseverance to never miss training 3 hours a day, 3 days a week, my wrestling helped me to advance in the Gracie school. As a matter of fact, in all the styles I studied, in one way or another it was my wrestling background/training that helped me get through the rigorous martial arts training programs, and excel in the class.

I will never forget that in my first martial arts study, Kung Fu, I used to want to cry before practice because I knew the practice would be very exhausting and demanding. I also wanted to cry after training because I was so happy that I made it through the class. But it was the mental conditioning that I acquired through wrestling in the earlier years that gave me the drive to keep pushing. To not give up. Maybe it was the millions of miles I ran over the years, or the zillion push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and dips. Maybe it was the endless jump roping. Maybe it was the days and nights that I would go without eating, or the many hours of sitting in a 110-degree dry sauna to make sure I made weight for my division.  Maybe it was the hours, and hours, and hours I spent on the mat getting my butt kicked and kicking butt that carried me through anything that was thrown at me during my martial arts training. Whatever it was that helped me to excel to the level of Grand Master in the martial arts world came from the physical and mental conditioning incorporated in the foundation of basic wrestling.

      I feel that the twenty plus years of training in the martial arts have empowered me in my life, and spirit. Martial arts have helped me see many applications of technique that were right in front of me yet unseen by my untrained eyes. The martial arts have helped to forge my discipline and respect to the arts, to my community, to the world, to the universe, and to myself. The martial arts have taught me, and brought me respect and recognition. The mystique that surrounds the martial arts world has kept me hungry, and enthusiastic to continue researching, and learning. The martial arts, along with wrestling, have allowed me to test and understand the true me.

In conclusion, by definition, in order for an art to be considered a martial art, it has to be “in relation to or connected with the armed forces or military profession.” Both wrestling and the Asian/Martial arts have “combat” in their definitions. Both can be used for self-defense purposes. Both have techniques that can maim or kill. Both are practiced as a sport in and out of the military. The only difference between the two is application and intent.

 Wrestling then, by all the aforementioned is a “Martial Art,” but not just a martial art. It is a natural art. Wrestling is different in so far as it comes naturally to everyone. It is a no-thought process. It is an instinctive human natural ability. Therefore wrestling has no formal origin.  Only techniques and systems of principles and methods of wrestling that are practiced, organized, and documented have origins. Instead of worrying about whether wrestling is a martial art or not, how about we consider that wrestling is an art of its own. It does not need to be labeled. It does not need to be a martial art to be recognized. It should be appreciated for what it is. Forget about trying to categorize it under the martial arts umbrella. Who really cares? Who is feeling threatened? Why worry about mixing apples and oranges? Wrestling is wrestling, an art in its own right, and it deserves as much honor and recognition as any martial art.

On the question of whether or not the martial arts came entirely from the Asian countries; and whether or not the Asian countries should be solely credited for the development of the martial arts, is an endless debatable subject. Most of the Asian countries have seen years and even centuries of war. Developing and redeveloping strategies to combat their enemies has always been a way of life. If they are to be credited for the development of military fighting arts, it is because they have had to live the life of military warfare all their lives. They have had to consistently battle to save their different civilizations. It is very sad that the arts came from techniques used to defend the lives of men women and children, but they did. Many countries throughout the world have had to develop hand-to-hand techniques to be used in combat by their military. So my opinion is that we cannot say that the Asian countries should be solely credited for the development of the martial arts. Instead we could say that any country that has a military organization probably has some form of a military art – “Martial Art.”



Staying Alive


And then he said

“Let there be light”

and from the light stepped man onto a land

where everything was equal

With no restrictions of nature’s course

Man finds himself the prey of a creature’s hunger

He retreats looking for shelter

but finds none

Faced with the attack

he wrestles his nightmare to the ground

He gains control

He loses control, then finds himself on his back

Again he gains control, then mounts the beast for the advantage

He squeezes, bends, twists, pulls, pushes, punches and kicks

Finally, he manages to hurt the beast,

Hurt the beast long enough to flee for safety

He “Wrestled” and fought his way to freedom

His natural instincts,

His natural abilities,

His wrestling, saved his life


Grandmaster Jody Perry