Wrestling with my squeamish side - What is the appeal of combat sports?
Updated: Sep 27
Even though I'm not a fan of combat sports, I'm curious about the fascination others have with it. When I stumbled upon the fact that Eugene Pertuiset, the quirky character in my novel "Manet and the Lion Hunter," started his career as a wrestler and strongman, naturally this piqued my interest, and I dived headfirst into the wrestling rabbit hole.
Wrestling as a genuine show of skill probably had anthropological origins
Wrestling goes as far back to prehistoric times. Like young animals play-hunting and play- fighting, wrestling as a form of staged combat and display of strength, has ancient origins that predate human civilization, and which can be observed in monkeys and apes, which just shows how ingrained it is in our DNA. The practice of wrestling was depicted in art 15,000-20,000 years ago in ancient cave drawings in southern France. The Ancient Greeks (1,200 BC - 600 AD) were big fans of wrestling in their literature and philosophy and showcased it at the ancient Olympic Games, where it was quite brutal. Then the Romans (700 BC - 500 AD) stepped in and added some rules to make it a tad less violent. It was a genuine show of skill back then, not the scripted drama we tune into today.
Fast forward to America's early days. When European settlers brought wrestling traditions to America, they found a similar love for the sport among Native Americans. As it became integrated into the colonies, it was often showcased at country fairs, where it became something of a carnival act, which explains, perhaps how wrestling became as much a staged spectator entertainment as a competition of skill. A significant moment in the sport's journey was the first national wrestling tournament in New York City in 1888.
The appeal of combat sports: A spectator's perspective
From a spectator's viewpoint, I can understand the allure of combat sports - the physical prowess, strategic thinking, and the thrill of victory. And I can appreciate the adrenaline-fueled excitement and the captivating universal narratives that draw a crowd into the drama of underdogs rising and champions falling. It's like watching Rocky Balboa in the first movie, which I found very touching except for the last scene where he is getting thrashed - I had to close my eyes. I've always had a soft spot for the underdog and tend to find myself rooting for the losing team - feeling their loss and crushed hopes - which, naturally is less enjoyable than identifying with the winners, like most normal people do. I enjoy the drama and tension and physical intrepidity of team sports. But when it comes to combat, it's just too easy to imagine the humiliation and the physical pain that is being inflicted. It's not just about the poor guy getting the shit knocked out of him but the thrilled crowd enjoying the spectacle.
Inside the ring: Where's the joy in getting hurt?
But for me, here's the kicker – (pun intended) - what's the deal with willingly risking getting hurt and humiliated? And if these wrestling fights are scripted, are the fighters genuinely experiencing pain and willingly enduring it, or just hamming it up for the audience?
My sister, a certified black belt butt-kicker in Tae Kwon Do and an occasional boxer, sheds some light on the matter. For her, it's about determination, courage, self-discipline, resilience, dedication, and real skill - which, she says, make it totally worth it despite the occasional injuries she's endured over the years. And as she points out, fighters willingly embrace the challenges, participating not as coerced gladiators, but out of a genuine passion for the sport.