Freestyle wrestling is a form of amateur wrestling that is practiced throughout the world. Along with Greco-Roman, it is one of the two styles of wrestling contested in the Olympic games. It is, along with track and field, one of the oldest sports in history. American high school and college wrestling is conducted under different rules and termed collegiate wrestling.
Freestyle wrestling, like its American counterpart, collegiate (also known as scholastic or folkstyle) wrestling, has its origins in catch-as-catch-can wrestling and both have the prime victory condition of the wrestler winning by pinning his opponent on the mat. Freestyle and collegiate wrestling, unlike Greco-Roman, also both allow the use of the wrestler's or his opponent's legs in offense and defense.
According to the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), freestyle wrestling is one of the four main forms of amateur competitive wrestling that are practiced internationally today. The other three forms of wrestling are Greco-Roman, grappling (also called submission wrestling), and sambo.Freestyle wrestling, according to FILA, is said to have originated in Great Britain and the United States by the name of "catch-as-catch-can" wrestling. "Catch-as-catch-can" wrestling had a particular following in Great Britain and the variant developed in Lancashire had a particular effect on freestyle wrestling. "Catch-as-catch-can" wrestling gained great popularity in fairs and festivals during the 19th century. In catch-as-catch-can wrestling, both contestants started out standing and then a wrestler sought to hold his opponent's shoulder to the ground (known as a fall). If no fall was scored, both wrestlers continued grappling on the ground, and almost all holds and techniques were allowable. A Scottish variant of Lancashire wrestling also became popular, that began with both wrestlers standing chest to chest, grasping each other with locked arms around the body, and if no fall was made, with a match continuing on the ground. Also, there was the Irish collar-and-elbow style, where wrestlers started out on their feet with both wrestlers grasping each other by the collar with one hand and by the elbow with the other. If neither wrestler then achieved a fall, the contestants would continue both standing and on the ground until a fall was made. Irish immigrants later brought this style of wrestling to the United States, where it soon became widespread, especially because of the success of the wrestling champion of the Army of the Potomac, George William Flagg from Vermont. Catch-as-catch can was the style performed by at least a half dozen U.S. presidents, including George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Because of the widespread interest in and esteem of professional Greco-Roman wrestling and its popularity in many international meets in nineteenth century Europe, freestyle wrestling (and wrestling as an amateur sport in general) had a tough time gaining ground on the continent. The 1896 Olympic Games had only one wrestling bout, a heavyweight Greco-Roman match. Freestyle wrestling first emerged as an Olympic sport in the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904. All 40 wrestlers who participated in the 1904 Olympics were American. The 1904 Olympics sanctioned the rules commonly used for catch-as-catch can, but imposed some restrictions on dangerous holds. Wrestling by seven weight classes (47.6 kg, 52.2 kg, 56.7 kg, 61.2 kg, 65.3 kg, 71.7 kg, and greater than 71.7 kg) was an important innovation in the Summer Olympics.
Since 1921, the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), which has its headquarters near Lausanne, Switzerland, has set the "Rules of the Game", with regulations for scoring and procedures that govern tournaments such as the World Games and the competition at the Summer Olympics. These were later adopted by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) for its freestyle matches. Freestyle wrestling gained great popularity in the United States after the Civil War. By the 1880s, tournaments drew hundreds of wrestlers. The rise of cities, increased industrialization, and the closing of the frontier provided the affable environment for amateur wrestling, along with boxing, to increase in esteem and popularity. Amateur wrestling teams soon emerged, such as the wrestling team of the New York Athletic Club, which had its first tournament in 1878. Professional wrestling also developed (which was not like today's "sports-entertainment" seen today), and by the 1870s, professional championship matches offered allowances of up to $1,000.
Nineteenth century wrestling matches were particularly long, and especially Greco-Roman bouts (where holds below the waist and the use of the legs are not allowed) could last as many as eight to nine hours, and even then, it was only decided by a draw. In the 20th century, time limits were set for matches. For more than forty years into the twentieth century, freestyle and its American counterpart, collegiate wrestling, did not have a scoring system that decided matches in the absence of a fall. The introduction of a point system by Oklahoma State University wrestling coach Art Griffith that gained acceptance in 1941 influenced the international styles as well. By the 1960s international wrestling matches in Greco-Roman and freestyle were scored by a panel of three judges in secret, who made the final decision by raising colored paddles at the match's end. Dr. Albert de Ferrari from San Francisco who became vice president of FILA, lobbied for a visible scoring system and a rule for "controlled fall", which would recognize a fall only when the offensive wrestler had done something to cause it. These were soon adopted internationally in Greco-Roman and freestyle. By 1996, before a major overhaul of FILA rules, an international freestyle match consisted of two three-minute periods, with a one minute rest between periods. Today, wrestlers from the countries of the former Soviet Union, Japan, Turkey, Iran, Sweden, Finland, and the United States have had the strongest showings. Alexander Medved of Russia won 10 world championships and three Olympic gold medals, in the period of 1964-1972. Gold medalists from the United States include: Doug Blubaugh, Ben Peterson, John Peterson, Dan Gable, and John Smith, who in 1988 won first place in the Summer Olympics as well as winning six world championships in the period of 1987-1992. Many collegiate wrestlers have moved on to freestyle competition, particularly internationally with great success.