Wrestling is one of the oldest martial arts that has been around since ancient times, and a very popular sport included in the Olympic Games. It is practiced by many people in every country worldwide, with some countries being known for producing better wrestlers and being more successful than others. But which country is the best at wrestling?
Russia is statistically the best wrestling country in the world, having won the most gold medals across different styles of wrestling in both the Olympics and the World Wrestling Championships, the top two most prestigious wrestling competitions.
In this article, we will explore the top wrestling countries by examining their competition records and discussing the reasons behind their success.
History Of Wrestling
Wrestling is one of the oldest forms of combat, with a rich history dating back as far as 15 thousand years ago. Its origins can be traced to different ancient civilizations, such as Egyptians, Greeks, and Sumerians, where wrestling was used both for entertainment and military training. Over the centuries, wrestling has spread onto all continents, but it was the Greeks, in particular, who standardized and formalized wrestling as a sport and included it in the ancient Olympic Games.
Wrestling continued to evolve over time, with various cultures coming up with their own styles and variations. For example, China had its own style called Shuai Jiao, while folk wrestling was very popular in Europe. The modern variation of wrestling we have today began to emerge in the 19th century with the introduction of rules and regulations.
The sport style of wrestling received worldwide recognition when it debuted at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The two modern styles included in the Olympics are Freestyle, rooted in catch wrestling, and Greco-Roman, rooted in folk wrestling.
The US came up with a variation called collegiate wrestling, which is conceptually very similar to freestyle. But more importantly, collegiate wrestling is integrated into all educational levels and is considered a national sport.
Wrestling became more popular with the emergence of professional wrestling, an entertainment form where wrestlers engage in choreographed matches, performing pre-arranged moves. This form gained massive mainstream popularity worldwide, with some of the most famous athletes like Hulk Hogan or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson becoming sports icons.
Which Country Produces the Best Wrestlers?
Russia and the United States are known for producing the most successful wrestlers in history, and their programs are considered the most efficient when it comes to talent development.
However, determining which country is the best is often subjective, as different countries excel in different wrestling styles. But if you focus solely on the globally accepted styles like freestyle and Greco-Roman, then the following countries are widely regarded as the best.
Russia has established itself as a top wrestling country, and its athletes regularly dominate international competitions. The key behind their success comprises different factors, primarily the high-level infrastructure for talent development, state-sponsored financial and political support, comprehensive wrestling programs, and technical excellence.
Though Russia is a geographically large country, one region in particular is known for producing many Olympic and World champions: Dagestan and Chechnya. These small regions alone have produced dozens of Olympic and World champions.
In the Olympics, Russia has won a total of 56 medals:
- 31 gold medals
- 11 silver medals
- 14 bronze medals
In the World Wrestling Championships, Russia has won a total of 275 medals:
- 111 gold medals
- 68 silver medals
- 96 bronze medals
In Russia, many children start practicing wrestling at a very young age. Their wrestling program is designed to immerse these young children early in the wrestling culture to develop their skills to reach their full potential quickly.
On top of that, wrestling holds greater importance in Russian culture, history, and modern-day lifestyle than just viewing wrestling as a sport. Highly accomplished wrestlers are revered as national heroes. As such, it is no secret why many Russians become the best wrestlers. Some of the most famous Russian wrestlers in history are:
- Alexander Karelin — is the most accomplished Greco-Roman wrestler of all time. He won three Olympic gold medals and nine World Championships. Karelin is often considered to be the most intimidating wrestler of all time. Even very popular podcaster Joe Rogan has called him the scariest wrestler of all time. (Below is the video of Alexander Karelin)
- Buvaisar Saitiev — is a legendary freestyle wrestler who won six World Championships and three Olympic gold medals. He is celebrated in the wrestling community for his technical brilliance and longevity in the sport.
- Mavlet Batirov — is a Russian freestyle wrestler who won gold medals in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). He also won the gold medal at the 2007 World Championships.
- Abdulrashid Sadulaev – is also known as “The Russian Tank,” Sadulaev is a freestyle wrestler with two Olympic gold medals in Rio (2016) and Tokyo (2020) and 4 World Championship titles. He is known for his strength and versatility on the mat.
United States (US)
The United States is widely regarded as the top wrestling country due to its impressive record in international competitions and its long wrestling tradition. The country has a strong wrestling culture because, like Russia, it also has a comprehensive wrestling program that has consistently produced champions for over a hundred years.
In total, the US has won 138 Olympic medals:
- 55 gold medals
- 44 silver medals
- 39 bronze medals
In the World Wrestling Championships, the US won a total of 300 medals:
- 86 gold medals
- 105 silver medals
- 109 bronze medals
Folkstyle, or collegiate wrestling, is the most practiced style in the United States, deeply integrated into American sports culture and educational system. Just about all elementary schools, high schools, and universities across the country offer competitive wrestling programs that provide a pathway to international competition.
The US is also known for having one of the world’s finest high-level wrestling coaching staffs, which features former Olympians and World Champions working collaboratively to develop future champions.
Some of the most famous American wrestlers are:
- John Smith — is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling (1992 Barcelona and 1988 Seoul) and a four-time World Champion. He is known for his technical mastery.
- Dan Gable—within the amateur wrestling community in the U.S., he is widely regarded as the most respected wrestler and the true icon of the sport. After winning NCAA championships, Gable won a gold medal in the World Wrestling Championships and then a gold medal in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games as a freestyle wrestler. Gable’s lifetime achievements were recognized when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020.
- Cael Sanderson — Sanderson was an undefeated collegiate wrestler who won four NCAA titles. He also captured an Olympic gold medal In Athens in 2004.
- Jordan Burroughs — is a freestyle wrestler who has won multiple World Championships and an Olympic gold medal in London in 2012. He is known for his athleticism and explosive style.
- Kyle Snyder — is another accomplished freestyle wrestler with Olympic and World Championship titles. He became the youngest American wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
- Kurt Angle—before becoming a WWE Hall of Fame professional wrestler, Kurt Angle was a highly skilled freestyle wrestler who won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games despite suffering severe neck injuries early in the Olympic trials.
Kurt Angle winning an Olympic gold
Wrestling is considered the most respected sport in Iran, and this country has one of the most passionate and dedicated wrestling fan bases. The sport is deeply rooted in Persian traditions and history, making it an integral part of the culture. Iranians see wrestlers as role models.
In the Olympics, Iran has a total of 47 medals:
- 11 gold medals
- 15 silver medals
- 21 bronze medals
In the World Wrestling Championships, Iran has a total of 215 medals:
- 70 gold medals
- 66 silver medals
- 79 bronze medals
Wrestling matches are broadcasted on all sports networks in Iran due to its popularity and large audience at major events. But what enables Iran to produce decorated wrestlers consistently is a well-established structure and programs. The Iranian government provides substantial support for developing top wrestlers, including funding for training facilities, coaches, and athlete development.
Iranian wrestlers have consistently performed well on the international stage, earning medals at the Olympic Games and World Wrestling Championships, and their wrestlers particularly excel in freestyle and Greco-Roman styles. Some of the most famous Iranian wrestlers are:
- Gholamreza Takhti — won the Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling in 1965 and is a two-time World Champion. He remains an iconic figure in Iranian sports history.
- Mansour Barzegar — is a highly successful Greco-Roman wrestler who won multiple World Championships and the silver Olympic medal in 1976.
- Hamid Soryan – is a Greco-Roman wrestler who won the Olympic gold medal in 2012 at the London Olympics and has 6 World Championship titles to his name. He is celebrated for his tactical brilliance.
- Hassan Yazdani – is a freestyle wrestler who won the gold medal in 2016 at the Rio De Janeiro Olympics. He is known for his powerful wrestling style and agility.
Wrestling has a long history in Japan, with styles like Sumo practiced since ancient times. Amateur wrestling was introduced in the late 19th century during the Meiji era, while professional wrestling became popular in the 20th century.
Japan is home to several top wrestling promotion companies, including New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW), Pro-Wrestling NOAH, and DDT Pro-Wrestling. But unbeknownst to many, the country also excels in producing high-level amateur freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestlers who regularly bring in gold medals from all international competitions, especially athletes from the women’s wrestling team.
Japanese wrestlers are known for their technical prowess, strong work ethic, and dedication to the craft. They often blend traditional wrestling principles with innovative techniques, making their style unique.
Some of the most popular Japanese wrestlers are:
- Kaori Icho – is one of the most successful Olympic wrestlers in history. She has won four consecutive gold medals in freestyle wrestling at the Olympic Games. Her gold medals came in the 2004 Athens Olympics, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2012 London Olympics, and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, all in different weight classes.
- Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu – is another accomplished male freestyle wrestler from Japan. He is known for his gold medal win at the 2012 London Olympics, a significant achievement in Japanese wrestling history.
- Saori Yoshida – is another highly decorated Japanese wrestler. She won three consecutive gold medals in freestyle wrestling at the Olympics: the 2004 Athens Olympics, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2012 London Olympics. Yoshida established herself as one of the all-time greats in women’s wrestling. On top of that, she won the World Championships an astonishing 13 times.
- Yui Susaki – She’s a phenomenal technical freestyle wrestler who’s won four gold medals in the World Wrestling Championship. Yui also won a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to cement her legacy as one of the greatest female wrestlers in history.
Wrestling is a deep-rooted tradition in Turkish culture. In Turkey, wrestling practice dates back to ancient times. Turkey is known to have a very interesting form of wrestling called Yagli Gures (Turkish oil wrestling), a cultural phenomenon. Apart from oil wrestling, another popular Turkish folk wrestling style is Karakucak Guresi.
In the Olympics, Turkey has won 66 medals in total:
- 29 gold medals
- 18 silver medals
- 19 bronze medals
In the World Wrestling Championships, Turkey has a total of 205 medals:
- 60 gold medals
- 62 silver medals
- 83 bronze medals
Over the course of history, Turkey has produced many legendary wrestlers, and the following is a short list of the most popular ones:
- Hamza Yerlikaya — is one of Turkey’s most iconic wrestlers, having won two Olympic gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) and multiple World Championships.
- Riza Kayaalp – is a prominent Greco-Roman wrestler known for his consistency in winning medals. He has won 2 gold medals in the Olympic Games (2000 and 1996) and 3 World Championships and is also an 8-time European champion.
- Taha Akgül – is a freestyle wrestler who has achieved great success, including an Olympic gold medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, three World Championship titles, and 9 European titles.
Which Country Has the Most World Wrestling Champions?
With a total of 415 medals, the Soviet Union is still technically the most successful nation in the World Wrestling Championship, despite the fact that this transcontinental country collapsed in 1991. If you exclude the Soviet Union, the most dominant country is Japan, with 296 medals, followed by Russia with 275 and the United States with 300. See the table below for a breakdown of medals won by each top wrestling country.
Which Country Has the Most Olympic Wrestling Champions?
Although the Soviet Union has won fewer total medals (116) than the United States (142), they are considered the most successful wrestling nation in history due to winning more gold medals than any other nation.
|Soviet Union (URS)
|United States (US)
What Are the Different Styles of Wrestling?
There are dozens of different wrestling styles out of which the most popular ones are:
- Freestyle (Olympic style)
- Greco-Roman (Olympic style)
- Shuai Jiao (China)
- Folkstyle (Collegiate; United States)
- Professional Wrestling (Japan; US)
Freestyle vs. Greco wrestling—What is the Difference?
Freestyle wrestling involves using both arms and legs to attack all parts of the body. In contrast, the Greco-Roman style only uses the upper body as it does not allow attacking below the waist.
This means freestyle wrestlers can use their arms and legs to attack or defend the opponent. They can grab the opponent by the legs and use various holds, takedowns, and throws to score points.
On the other hand, Greco-Roman wrestlers are only allowed to use their torso and arms to attack their opponents. For this reason, they are prohibited from attacking the opponent below the waist, so they must focus solely on the upper body to score takedowns. As a result, the Greco style places heavy emphasis on explosive throws and lifts.
Since these two styles emphasize different segments of wrestling and use different techniques, there is also a lot of difference when it comes to scoring, tactics, and strategies.