The Right Coast

February 03, 2005
Hollywood wrong about Gladiators
By Tom Smith

Were Roman gladiators martial artists who fought demonstration matches again and again, and not to the death? That's what this article in the last New Scientist says, based on some archeological evidence.

I have been planning a more elaborate post about American professional wrestling, but I might as well make my main point here in brief form. Like many people interested in martial arts, I viewed professional wrestling for many years as a perversion and an abomination. But I now realize that view was somewhat simple minded. The truth is, all fighting arts exist on a continuum between practicality, sport and display. Pure combat training is what you want to save your life in battle, but it not as fun to do, or as fun to watch, as more sport oriented arts. Even supposedly no-holds-barred fighting, such as UFC, have rules that prevent such tactics as eye gouging and biting, that can permanently disable fighters, who, after all, promoters want to fight again. Similarly, some of the most effective tactics in a real fight are boring to watch, such as riding a mount on an opponent until he gives up from exhaustion. UFC had to change its rules to exclude this effective, but audience boring tactic. So, in truth, short of the real, brutal thing, the human equivalent of dog fighting, rules are imposed to make fights more entertaining to watch. So-called professional wrestling is just the extreme end of that spectrum. It is all entertainment and display. It's not for me, but it is on the same spectrum as the most Zen like kung fu match. The connection here, of course, is that even gladiators (perhaps) did not fight no-rules fights to the death. Why? Because, counterintuitively to some, matches to the death with no rules would be less fun to watch than displays of elaborate techniques and stunning physical prowess, not to mention much more expensive and difficult to manage.