When I was growing up in London in the 1980s, my Grandad Giuseppe told me the best form of self-defence was wrestling. Half a millennia earlier in 1480s Milan, fencing maestro Pietro Monte, described wrestling as “the foundation of all fighting”, both armed or unarmed.
He wasn’t the only fencing master to think so either. Grappling — abrazare in Italian and kampfringen in German — was inseparable from fencing from the C15th to C18th. All the famous Italian masters: Fiore dei Liberi, Lippo Bartolomeo Dardi, Guido Antonio di Luca, Fillipo Vadi, Antonio Manciolino, Achille Marozzo, Giovanni dall’Agocchie, Camillo Agrippa, Salvator Fabris, Ridolfo Capoferro and Francesco Ferdinando Alfieri taught grappling techniques as part of their fencing. Wrestling was no less popular with the German fencing masters, Johannes Liechtenauer and his student Ott Jud (the Jewish wrestler) are credited with developing Kampfringen, which was also taught by Peter von Danzig, Hans Talhoffer, Paulus Kal, Fabian von Auerswald, Johannes Lecküchner, Albrecht Duerer, Hans Wurm, Jorg Wilhalm, Paulus Hector Mair, Joachim Meyer and Johann Georg Passchen.
In the C15th there were distinct differences between Italian abrazare and German kampfringen. In abrazare the emphasis was on standing binds, disarms, elbow dislocations and takedowns, Pietro Monte was very critical of the German method of ”unterhalten” (holding down). But there was a good reason for the unterhalten, a lot of recorded duels of the time ended with wrestling on the ground with daggers. There is an obvious advantage in pinning your opponent, which is a tactic my great grandfather used when he served in the Arditi during the Great War.
The Arditi were initially taught dagger fighting from the Flos Duellatorum, which they soon abandoned in favour of their own scherma di pugnale militare (military dagger fighting), which was better suited to their tactics of throwing grenades at enemy then stabbing to death any of the survivors before they had a chance to react. They trained in ground wrestling and knee wrestling — with and without their daggers — because so many of their fights ended on the ground. They were also adept at wrestling with soldiers armed with rifles and pistols.
My Grandad also had no problem taking a fight to the ground but he didn’t rate joint locks at all. his view was: why struggle with an arm or wrist lock, when he could end a fight with a Greco Roman throw? A souplesse on tarmac resolves many a Socratic debate on a Friday night.