Wrestling Is Different
It may not seem so, but it is. Sitting patiently without distinction at the bottom of the list of winter sports, what it has in common with its peers (uniform sizes, practice schedules, booster clubs) belies an exceptional nature which it holds alone. It is not the same as other sports and it never will be. For while other sports use terms like endure, overtake, exhaust, and dominate as analogy and metaphor, in wrestling, they are not. For wrestling, they are what it is.
The difference isn’t easy to see in a culture which takes so many sports so seriously, but when viewed from a more fundamental perspective, it becomes very clear very quickly. Think of how we react and respond in those instances when we witness animals playing sports. Perhaps we go to SeaWorld and watch seals playing basketball. We view films of experiments where pigeons have been trained to play soccer. We attend the circus and see a chimpanzee in a baseball cap awkwardly pitching to his trainer. “How ridiculous it is to see animals playing sports so earnestly. How absurd” we say to ourselves without the slightest awareness of irony.
Yet watching animals wrestle is somehow not the same. Nothing seems unusual. Nothing seems out of place. The behavior is genuine, real and serious, often with stakes as high as they come. Even in those instances when we see young animals play at wrestling, the amusement we feel is tempered by an awareness that, in a few years, the same wrestling will not be so cute, not so bloodless, not so free from debilitating injury.
To be primitive in this sense is not to be less human, but more so. It is to be who we are. For this reason, a victory means more in wrestling than it does in any other sport. To win a basketball game is to simply say, “My group of individuals managed to throw an inflated leather sphere through an elevated ring more frequently than did yours, granted all personal transportation of the sphere was accompanied by repeated bouncing.” To win at soccer is to say, “Without the use of arms and hands, the eleven of us managed to redirect a plastic-tiled sphere into your netted rectangle more times than you did into ours.” But to win a wrestling match sends an entirely different message. To win in wrestling is to say to your opponent, “I dominated you. I forced you into a state of physical vulnerability from which you could not escape no matter how hard you struggled. I put you into submission. If I wanted to, I could have put a forearm across your windpipe and ended you. I didn't, but I could have."
This severity is not imagined; it is even seen in the strangely morbid guidelines of wrestling. For distinction, take a rule of lacrosse: “Interference occurs when a player interferes in any manner with the free movement of an opponent, except when that opponent has possession of the ball, the ball is in flight and within five yards of the players, or both players are within five yards of a loose ball.” Or a rule of football: “Whenever a team presents an apparent punting formation, defensive pass interference is not to be called for action on the end man on the line of scrimmage, or an eligible receiver behind the line of scrimmage who is aligned or in motion more than one yard outside the end man on the line.” And then compare them to a rule of wrestling: “Wrestlers are forbidden to apply holds that may endanger the opponent’s life or cause a fracture or dislocation of limbs.” Think whatever you like about the machismo of other sports, they are child’s-play next to one in which competitors are warned not to rip the arms off their opponents or kill them.
And also realize that athletes of other sports have teams upon which they rely. Wrestlers do not. To wrestle is to wrestle alone. There are teammates, there are coaches, there are training sessions, but only two colored anklets sit at rest in the center of the ring before each match. And there will be only two when it is done: one thrown in excitement, the other dropped in resignation. A victory means more in wrestling, but then, so too, does a loss. To be physically overpowered, driven into submission by another human in front of friends, family, teammates, mentors is to lose in a way unparalleled by any other sport. To step onto the mat at all is to take a kind of chance most athletes never will.
And yet somehow, this remains unnoticed. We exist in a culture which instead attends to pseudo-masculinity: ill-fitting clothes, sullen expressions, tattooed clichés. This is the currently fashionable veneer assumed by those who hope to look strong, a kind of pretension that almost takes less than no effort. But it demonstrates little more than conformity and impresses few beyond the easily-fooled. For others, there is still a way to rise above this vacuous posturing and to prove the possession of both strength and will. It is to participate in the world’s oldest sport, to join a lineage tracing back thousands of years, to embrace both the brutality and the athleticism of who we are and have always been. It is to wrestle.