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InterMat Rewind: Wrestlers in History

Mark Palmer

12/7/2010
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Wrestling bills itself as "the oldest and greatest sport." Yet, sadly, too many wrestlers, coaches and fans have little understanding of the history of wrestling, and the famous individuals who have participated in the sport.

Richard White has set about to correct that situation with Wrestlers in History: Real People and Legends. This new 246-page book, published by Westview, Inc., tells the stories of an incredible variety of individuals who have wrestled, from figures from mythology, to military leaders, to U.S. Presidents and corporate CEOs.

Meet the author

Richard White has an interesting history of his own. Born in northwest Indiana 85 years ago, White was introduced to wrestling at Roosevelt High in East Chicago, Indiana. White then headed south to Terre Haute, where he did his undergraduate studies at Indiana State. During White's time at ISU during World War II, the school did not have a wrestling program ... but White competed in an AAU (American Athletic Union) tournament in Indianapolis, where he placed third in the heavyweight bracket. Continuing in the world of academia, White later earned a Ph.D. in physiology, and taught medical students at the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee for 44 years.

So how did White come to write Wrestlers in History?

"My interest in writing a book came from Don Sayenga, the wrestling historian," White said in an interview with InterMat. "Reading his work 30 years ago in Amateur Wrestling News, I called Don to talk about Teddy Roosevelt and his involvement with wrestling. That gave me the idea that I should write a book about the history of wrestling."

White may have known he'd be destined to write such a book even earlier. "Since high school I collected books and magazines about wrestling and wrestling history, along with books from ancient times," said White. (That's nearly 70 years worth of materials.)

White's quest to obtain knowledge about wrestling knew no bounds. In his research trips to nine countries over the years, White acquired books on wrestling, and visited various sites of interest to fans of the sport, including the Tokyo Museum of Sumo Wrestling, and the home of early 1900s professional wrestling champ George Hackenschmidt.

"I thought there would be general interest in a comprehensive history of wrestling," White continued. "There are other books that have taken on this subject in different ways -- Graeme Kent's 1968 book, Pictorial History of Wrestling, and Mike Chapman's American Encyclopedia of Wrestling. In the summer of 2008, I decided, 'Heck, I'm going to do this!' So I started writing a book at age 83."

Covering a lot of ground, one individual at a time

When asked how he would describe his book, White said, "It's a comprehensive history of the sport that non-wrestlers or any history buff would enjoy. It captures the scope of the times of the individuals I write about."

In a nutshell, Wrestlers in History tells the stories of famous individuals who have wrestled. White's book organizes these stories into broad sections, starting with characters from ancient times ... then an overview of great Americans who have wrestled ... a presentation of the connections between amateur and professional wrestling ... then wrestling in other parts of the world.

Art Griffith
Readers of Wrestlers in History will come to learn the wrestling backgrounds as well as "big-picture" aspects of some giants of history, including ancient Greek Olympians such as Plato, Pythagoras and Milo ... and the thirteen U.S. Presidents who had wrestled at one time, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt.

The book also provides historical perspective on organized amateur wrestling in the U.S., starting with the first AAU mat event in 1888. Into this narrative White weaves in concise biographies of legendary coaches such as Oklahoma State's Ed Gallagher and Art Griffith, and Charles Mayser at Iowa State who helped shape the sport ... along with the stories of all-time amateur mat greats like Bruce Baumgartner and Dan Gable.

Pleasurable time-travel

Ask Richard White what he enjoyed most about writing Wrestlers in History, and a couple things came to mind.

"The biographies are the most engrossing," said White. "I felt like I really came to know the people I wrote about."

In addition, White said, "I had a great deal of fun describing the various styles of wrestling over timeā€"collar and elbow, Cornish, Westmoreland. Some books mention these styles without describing them."

From reading Wrestlers in History, it appears White also enjoyed writing about the connections between amateur wrestling and old-school professional wrestling in the chapter titled "Real Professionals." In that chapter, White provides fascinating details about the life of the pro wrestlers from early in the 20th century, including William Muldoon, Tom Jenkins, Frank Gotch, and George Hackenschmidt. The popularity of these early sports superstars helped give amateur wrestling a firm toehold in much of the U.S.

Wrestlers in History: Real People and Legends brings together a wide range of facts from various sources about individuals who participated in wrestling at some point in their lives. The book provides readers of all ages a sense of the importance of wrestling as it shaped the lives of individuals and whole societies. And it incorporates positive historical comments about wrestling -- such as historian Will Durant's assertion that in ancient Greece, no one could be considered to be intelligent unless they wrestled -- that could be used to help promote the sport even today.

Wrestlers in History: Real People and Legends may be purchased at major bookstores, as well as online at Amazon.com

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