So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
We have been at this wrestling a long time. The images and narratives are ubiquitous, man against God, man against man, man against beast, man against his own heart and mind. The wrestler quite simply IS Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” The victorious wrestler saves his family, his culture, his nation, and not least important, despite the odds, he saves himself. Every wrestling match wraps the wrestlers in this tradition, whether they know it or not. The critical thing is to win, of course. It is not enough to endure the punishment of Cool Hand Luke, or to give a good show with a stiff upper lip. Unique among sports, one does not play wrestling. One wrestles, and in wrestling there are no moral victories.
Wrestling entered the Olympics as a sport in 708 BC, an elimination style tournament, and we can take solace that there were, in fact, a democratic set of rules, most comforting among them a strict prohibition against “grasping of the genitals.” Hitting, kicking, and biting were prohibited, although even a quick review of the later Roman sculpture and mosaics reveals a shocking lack of adherence to these rules, particularly the genitalia construct. Ah, the Romans. The classical Greek version survives in our modern Olympics, with surprisingly similar rules, despite a recent attempt by the IOC to banish wrestling to the bin. Wrestling, it seems, does not sufficiently pump the ticket sales. No real wrestler is surprised to hear this. Nor does he–and increasingly she–care. Some things perhaps, should survive on their own merits, immune to the vagaries of ratings.
My own wrestling career began at the age of six. I was terrified, of course, trembling on the edge of the mat until the referee brought us together to shake hands in the middle. Across from me stood another trembling six year old. His name was Hiawatha Miles, a Maidu Indian from Greenville, California, and over the next decade we would wrestle each other countless times in various tournaments, until he outgrew me and was shuffled off to another weight class. He won some, I won some. But in this first instance, lacking any grace, or skill, I simply charged at him when the whistle blew, tackled him crudely, and pinned his shoulders to the mat. His parents groaned. He cried. Watching him, consoled in the arms of his parents, I felt bad. It was my first taste of the hard realities of a trying sport. A wrestling tournament is largely a space full of people in the various stages of grief, and it is an axiom that at some point in the season every wrestler will cry. Wrestling teaches basic truths of self reliance and responsibility: if you lose, there is no one to blame but yourself. Get back in the wrestling room. Work harder. It is no wonder the wrestling rooms of modern America are largely empty.
American wrestling has provided an alternative pantheon of athletic heroes, unknown champions who never made any money, murdered their estranged wives, or got themselves shot in a nightclub. They toil in obscurity, mostly, for love of the sport, their fellow wrestlers, and the few die-hard Universities who hire them on as coaches. There is Dan Gable, of course, who lost only once in four years at Iowa State, and wrestled through the Olympics without surrendering a single point–perhaps an unparalleled achievement in all of sports. Wrestling has given us the Schultz brothers, John Smith, Joe Robinson, Rulon Gardner’s epic defeat of The Russian Bear, Alexander Karelin, previously undefeated in 13 years of international competition. Of course there is the legendary Cael Sanderson, undefeated four time national champion, Olympic champion, and the current coach at Penn State. If there is one thing this small sampling of men has in common, other than supreme accomplishment obscured by the blitzkrieg of high profile, self-promotion athletics, it is their quiet dignity.
A wrestling tournament is one of the few places left to learn the hard lessons of natural selection. In a coddling world, wrestling refuses. Practices are long and brutal. Tournaments are worse because a win means only one thing: the next match will be tougher. Coaches are famously fanatical in their discipline. My own high school coach was known for his heat of the match phraseology. With a voice thundering above the raucous crowd he would toss out such gems as “You’re rolling over like a tired whore,” or “We’re gonna get a knee pad for your forehead.” In victory he would stand at the edge of the mat, smiling broadly, clap your shoulders with bear paws and say “Well done, Sunshine.” In defeat he wasn’t even there, and it was a long, lonely, head drooping shuffle back to the bleachers and ignominy. Once, at a tournament in northern California, he referred to the dilapidated gym as “Worse than a shitter with no doors,” which says something about the conditions wrestlers endure. Wrestling, like Special Forces, demands extreme sacrifice and severe personal discipline, and as the saying goes: It’s not for everyone. But there is a flip side. If it is for you, it will permanently shape the rest of your life.
Finally, wrestling is decidedly not MMA, that vulgar television bloodsport, a kind of pseudo-roman sideshow of freaks, fixers, and charlatans, loudly narrated by obnoxious comedians in too small shirts and hair products, complete with “walk-up music”, pyrotechnics, and soundbyte cheap shots. For starters, the event involves (requires) a cage, a deliberate nod to the “Texas Cage Match” mentality of the beer swilling, trailer park cult of “professional” wrestling–itself an obvious and inevitable evolution of the deep south tent revival. Animals go in cages. One thinks of bear-baiting, cockfights, the crowd-rapture of sanctioned murder in the Coliseum–perhaps not our finest foot forward. Pre-fight pressers now routinely devolve into Don Kingesque show brawls, tables flipped, women squawking, pandering to the lowest and basest of our emotions, stoking ticket sales and outrageous pay per view fees, a kind of brutal foreplay for the Tap-Out wardrobe set. Don’t get me wrong, these are tough men (now women too) and would likely pound most of us into quick submission, but somehow the art is lacking, or absent altogether, to say nothing of the sublime understatement of real genius, now replaced by a kind of post-modern brachiation and commercialized battery.
Wrestling, like all art, has rules. Deny this and find your stabs at painting, or poetry, or storytelling, imperiled. The Greeks understood that sheer brutality was not an art form, rather a shameful, horrifying spectacle. The Romans, craven and conceited, forgot this much, and so the beauty of the Uffizi wrestlers, originally Greek, was eventually lost in Roman art. The Romans could not hold the line, and as they leaned toward spectacle, they leaned also toward ruin. The well-prepared and supremely controlled imposition of will, the internal fortitude to live as a disciplined, responsible, humble champion, are the glue of civilized life. Looking around, I fear we risk losing much of that, in the era of Justin Bieber and reality television, and perhaps are in fact losing much of that, so I return to the ancients, wrestling as a physical, spiritual, and metaphorical lift, the physical contest still demanding intellect for interpretation.
If I am lucky, some late nights, I can still dial around the networks and find that quiet dignity broadcast on a spinoff sports show– wedged between Real Housewives of Rochester, and Cops Reloaded. Close your eyes and picture this, then: an empty, poorly lit gymnasium somewhere in the dark winter snows of Iowa, an understated announcer with a bad microphone, a part-time referee. And then, as if by magic, two resolute warriors meeting in the center of the mat, shaking hands quickly, the whistle blown and the match underway, two men forehead to forehead, hand fighting in the pure poetry of strength, and will, of bedrock desire, a struggle on some moonlit sandy shore, unwitnessed and ignored, and still worthy of scripture across the ages.