Most people consider pro wrestling to be a relatively modern genre, however evidence suggests even ancient gladiatorial battles were staged to work the crowds.
Archaeology.org reports that rather than being the muscular warriors portrayed by Hollywood, real gladiators were fat – and it was deliberate.
You see if you have no excess flesh protecting your body, you’re more likely to be fatally wounded in a sword fight. Matches wouldn’t last very long, and stories to get the fans interested could not be told. Promoters and gladiator schools therefore realized that fattening up their rosters, would result in exciting and bloody battles, but less actual death.
Of course the gladiators of old would put ECW to shame in terms of mortality rate, but a superficial flesh wound to a fat gut, was much easier to manage than a slash that reached the internal organs.
Who else used their bodily padding to lessen the impact of spots?
Gladiators that learned the art of “blading” and working the crowd, had much more success and longevity than those who fought to the death. It was extremely brutal, but still an early form of show business.
Contemporary accounts of gladiator life sometimes refer to the warriors as hordearii–literally, “barley men.” Grossschmidt and collaborator Fabian Kanz subjected bits of the bone to isotopic analysis, a technique that measures trace chemical elements such as calcium, strontium, and zinc, to see if they could find out why. They turned up some surprising results. Compared to the average inhabitant of Ephesus, gladiators ate more plants and very little animal protein. The vegetarian diet had nothing to do with poverty or animal rights. Gladiators, it seems, were fat. Consuming a lot of simple carbohydrates, such as barley, and legumes, like beans, was designed for survival in the arena. Packing in the carbs also packed on the pounds. “Gladiators needed subcutaneous fat,” Grossschmidt explains. “A fat cushion protects you from cut wounds and shields nerves and blood vessels in a fight.” Not only would a lean gladiator have been dead meat, he would have made for a bad show. Surface wounds “look more spectacular,” says Grossschmidt. “If I get wounded but just in the fatty layer, I can fight on,” he adds. “It doesn’t hurt much, and it looks great for the spectators.”
Even more interesting is a recent piece on LiveScience.com, which notes that researchers have uncovered an ancient Greek contract between two wrestlers, agreeing to fix their match.
In the contract, the father of a wrestler named Nicantinous agrees to pay a bribe to the guarantors (likely the trainers) of another wrestler named Demetrius. Both wrestlers were set to compete in the final wrestling match of the 138th Great Antinoeia, an important series of regional games held along with a religious festival in Antinopolis, in Egypt. They were in the boys’ division, which was generally reserved for teenagers.
The contract stipulates that Demetrius “when competing in the competition for the boy [wrestlers], to fall three times and yield,” and in return would receive “three thousand eight hundred drachmas of silver of old coinage …”
There were no pins in this Greek style of wrestling, and the goal of the wrestlers was to throw the other to the ground three times. A wide array of holds and throws were used, a few of which look a bit like a body slam.
Pro wrestling may have grown out of the carnival tents, but its roots appear to be much deeper.