What is freestyle wrestling? Rules, scoring, techniques and Olympic history
Probably the most popular among the many styles of wrestling practised around the world, freestyle wrestling made its debut at the Olympics at the 1904 St Louis Summer Games.
However, it wasn’t until the 1920 edition in Antwerp that freestyle wrestling became a permanent fixture at the Olympic Games alongside Greco Roman wrestling, which had been a regular discipline at the quadrennial event since 1908.
The two styles of wrestling – Greco Roman and freestyle – are still part of the Olympics and will feature at the Tokyo Games in 2021.
Here’s everything you need to know about Olympic freestyle wrestling.
Freestyle wrestling rules and scoring
A typical freestyle wrestling bout, much like Greco-Roman, is divided into two periods of three minutes each with a 30-second break in between. For official Under-15, cadets and veteran competitions, the periods are curtailed to two minutes each.
Two competing wrestlers face each other on a mat, nine-metre in diameter, with the primary objective of pinning the opponent’s shoulders to the mat for a short duration of time, that hands the wrestler an instant victory by ‘fall’.
Ways to win
In modern-day wrestling, however, particularly big events like the Olympics and the World Championships, victory by fall is a rarity. There are, however, several other ways to win a bout.
The most common, perhaps, is victory by points. Wrestlers can try and score points by executing legal holds, throws, takedowns, manoeuvring the opponent to expose his back to the mat for several seconds or by executing reversals.
Reversals involve negating an opponent’s position of advantage from a defensive position and gaining control of the situation.
Moves carry points in accordance to their degree of difficulty and a single move can carry from anywhere between 1 to 5 points. High scoring moves, generally arching throws, generally carry the maximum number of points.
Players can also gain points if his opponent causes infractions, like executing illegal holds, trying to flee a hold rather than defend it, being too negative or passive and so on. These often result in cautions. Accumulating three cautions during a bout automatically results in the guilty wrestler getting disqualified.
At the end of the six-minute period, the total scores are tallied and the wrestler with more points wins. In case of a tie, the wrestler who has scored the maximum number of points from a single move is declared the winner.
What if the points are equal at the end of a bout?
If wrestlers are level in that aspect as well, the least number of cautions and final point scored are taken in order as the tie-breaking factors.
In the event of a freestyle wrestler building up a 10-point advantage over his opponent at any stage of the match, the bout is declared over and the leader is declared the winner by technical superiority.
Freestyle wrestling techniques
While scoring systems and format of matches are more or less the same for freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling, the crucial difference between the two styles is the use of legs. In Greco-Roman, holding the opponent below the waist or using the legs for any defensive or offensive purpose is strictly prohibited.
In freestyle wrestling, however, no such restrictions apply. Inspired from catch-as-catch-can wrestling - a combination of multiple wrestling styles and combat sport popular in English carnivals during the late 1800s - freestyle wrestling allows a lot more freedom as it allows attacking the opponent’s hips, legs and feet.
As a result, freestyle bouts generally start with wrestlers taking a very low stance in order to defend the legs.
Also, unlike Greco Roman wrestling where wrestlers need to stay in contact with the opponent through the course of a throw, freestyle wrestlers are allowed to let go and re-establish contact afterwards to complete a move.
These facets allow for a much larger variety of techniques to be utilised, making freestyle wrestling a much more fluid style than, perhaps, a more rigid Greco-Roman variant. Smooth transitions to string together moves become imperative in freestyle wrestling, with rhythm playing a big part.
“With freestyle, transitions are more important. We try to be more fluid with our movements...You can utilize more of your body and more of your opponent’s body because you can make more contact.” - US Wrestler J’den Cox
Passivity in freestyle wrestling
Modern-day wrestling rules are devised to reward active wrestlers and penalising passive wrestlers attempting to employ negative or passive tactics, like being overly defensive.
In freestyle wrestling, the first instance of passivity from a wrestler earns them a verbal warning from the referee. If they continue to be inactive, a 30-second mandatory scoring window is issued.
If either wrestler manages to score within this window, no penalty point is awarded. However, if neither can score within that 30-second window, the opponent of the designated passive wrestler is awarded a technical point.
However, in case the referee deems a wrestler to be passive with less than 30 seconds remaining on the clock for either period, they immediately receive a caution and the active wrestler is awarded a point.
In freestyle wrestling, passivity calls are also utilised to stimulate a match if neither wrestler manages to score a point within the first two minutes of the first period.
In such a case, the referee must identify the more passive wrestler of the two and enforce the mandatory 30-second scoring window on them.
Olympic freestyle wrestling
While Greco-Roman wrestling featured in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, freestyle wrestling made it into the Summer Games’ programme during the 1904 edition in St Louis, with only local wrestlers from the United States participating.
It was also the first time in Olympic history where weight category events were introduced. The Greco Roman event in 1896 was a unified event without any weight class divisions.
Freestyle wrestling was taken off the Olympic schedule for the 1912 Games but made a return in the 1920 edition.
It has been a permanent fixture in the Olympics calendar since then but it was only at the Athens 2004 Games that women’s freestyle wrestling was introduced. Greco Roman, meanwhile, is still exclusively a men’s event.