The Hero with a Thousand Holds With Ruadhán MacFadden

I talk to Ruadhán MacFadden who runs a project titled The Hero with a Thousand Holds, which looks at the culture and practice of folk wrestling styles worldwide. In particular, the people and places that the styles have emerged from and not just the techniques they used.

We discuss some of the mythology and culture behind these styles and what the future holds for them. And we get into some of the particulars of Icelandic Glima and Irish Collar and Elbow Wrestling and Scuffling.

Listen To Ruadhán MacFadden



[00:00] – Introduction to Episode 027
[03:12] – His Martial Arts Background
[07:12] – How Did the Folkstyle World Map Come Into Being
[09:57] – The Voyage of Designing a Map of Folk Wrestling Styles
[11:55] – The Problem With The Folk Wrestling Wikipedia Page
[13:25] – The Need to Update the Map in Future
[14:38] – The Nitty-Gritty of Folkstyle Map Making
[17:11] – Grappling and Judo
[19:51] – Similarities in Different Forms of Wrestling Styles All Around the World
[22:54] – The Story Behind Mongolian Grappling Costumes
[26:12] – Cultural Influences on His Research of Folkstyle Wrestling
[29:49] – Ideology Behind Pinning the Opponent to the Ground
[31:12] – Submission Focused Grappling Style Is Mostly Used Now
[34:28] – Why Pinning Should Be Done Shoulders Down
[36:39] – Judo Is Committed to the Scientific Study of Submissions to Ground
[39:21] – Wrestling: Old Tradition vs New Tradition
[41:56] – Greeks, Romans and Their Take on Wrestling Games
[44:00] – Glima: A Friendly Form of Grappling
[47:21] – Catch Wrestling
[51:49] – Irish Collar and Elbow
[57:10] – Importance of Grip
[1:03:24] – The Flying Mare Move-In Wrestling
[1:08:10] – Future of Grappling Styles


Making Of World Map of Wrestling Styles

Ron McFadden has made a world map that lists all the different folkstyle wrestling styles found around different countries. Sharing how the idea to make a map of wrestling style come to him, he says that he loves travelling and knowing about other cultures, languages, and the history of the cultures, etc. His two favourite hobbies are travelling and grappling. So he combined them, and the result was the map of folk wrestling styles around the world and his podcast: The Hero With A Thousand Holds.

The Map Is Still Incomplete

He says if someone checks the map, s/he will find probably notice things missing from the map. It is the nature of the map. It has limited space to include things. The map is 100% not supposed to be an absolutely comprehensive overview of every folk wrestling style that has ever been practised. That would just not be visually possible to represent on one map because there are so many wrestling styles worldwide. There are so many little things that you might not even recognize as a style. It was just practised in one little village in the Swiss Alps for two years back in the 19th century. They didn’t even have a name for it, and you can’t put that on a map.

So he started focusing on the bigger styles like The Shai Joe from China, Mongolian wrestling, European styles, etc. And then he started drilling down and trying to find things that he hadn’t heard of, especially things that are a little bit more obscure and a little bit even more regional.

The problem with the Wikipedia page on Folk wrestling

There’s a Wikipedia page just called folk wrestling that nice overview of styles per country, and then sometimes per region of that country. Raudhan says, “I would never recommend to anyone that you use Wikipedia as the be-all and end-all source. Because while I was working my way through that page, I found some styles that were listed there that I couldn’t find a single other reference to online. So I decided that I’m going to try and find that elsewhere, throw it into Google, and every single reference leads back to that Wikipedia page, which is a little bit questionable.”

The nitty-gritty of techniques of different styles

He says, “There are so many different styles out there. But from an actual stylistic point of view, if we want to get down to just the pure, nitty-gritty of the technique, they are all incredibly similar.

If you take someone from Mongolia, and you take someone from Bolivia, and put them in a room together and tell them to have a conversation, it’s not going to work. But if you take them, you put them in a room together. You tell them to wrestle, and they will be able to figure that out very quickly because this guy who has grown up on the steppes of Mongolia doing his wrestling style versus someone who has grown up in the mountains of Bolivia is doing his wrestling style. It’s like a Spanish speaker meeting a Portuguese speaker. You’ll be able to say, okay, that word looks a little bit familiar. I think I know what you’re saying; let’s meet somewhere in the middle.” So like that, grappling is universal.

Universal Nature Of Grappling and Wrestling Techniques

Grappling is universal all around the world, most likely done since before we were people. You can observe it even amongst great apes like gorillas in a kind of mud combat. They’ll be arm dragging each other and colour tying each other. We were doing that around the earliest campfires as well.

And in terms of the human body and the laws of physics, there are only a certain number of ways that you can grab someone, and you can manipulate them, either to throw them to the ground or to pin them on the ground or to apply submission hold.

There is an inbuilt physiological barrier as to how unique one can be in that regard. So what you see stylistically from Mongolia to Japan, Bolivia to Ireland is essential all the same techniques. So from a stylistic point of view, there’s not much variation, which makes it more unusual when you come across a style that does look a little bit unique.

Wrestling and its relation to mythology

In mythology and folklore, gods are depicted as very powerful in terms of martial arts or prowess on the battlefield. In Nordic mythology and Indian mythology and all in The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest mythological tales, there’s a wrestling match between Gilgamesh and who is initially his enemy and then becomes his friend Enkidu. So wrestling as a form of the contest is a means of establishing how powerful a character is hugely common.

This also trickles into things like the names of techniques, deities, or even animals that you would identify with because animals are another widespread aspect of folktales because animals, like bears, tigers, wolves, etc., have significant influence in naming the techniques. Wherever there is a large predatory animal in the environment that is usually worshipped or feared. The warrior class would often identify with that animal as a totem because it was considered very fierce, very aggressive, very intimidating. For example, in Mexico, among certain indigenous peoples, they identify with the Jaguars.

Grappling and pinning

Grappling in a global and historical context almost always revolved around a stand-up contest where you won if you threw the guy to the ground. And then, in some cases, pinned him. The pin is not even as common as you might think. Very often, it just off-balance your opponent, and you make him hit the ground. And sometimes, it is as little as making him touch the ground with any part of his body that is not the soles of his feet. Sumo, for instance, if you hit a snap down on a guy, and he bases out with his hand to stop from faceplant, and you when you have made him touch the ground with his hand, and from our perspective, as big as your people are just as modern, submission oriented grapplers.

Why pinning should be done shoulders down

He says, “In the vast majority of wrestling styles around the world where the pin is a factor, it is always shoulders down and back down. My theory is easier to judge in a sporting context; shoulders down are much more ambiguous than chest down.

How do you judge chest down if he still has his elbows in under him? Does that count? If he manages to, elevate him slightly in a weird push-up position? Does that count? Do you have to have his hands behind his back? I think there would be much more variables involved in calling what would be a chest-down pin. Whereas two shoulders to the ground, it’s pretty straightforward; you can’t argue against that. So my theory is that when grappling started becoming more sport defied shoulders down is just so much easier to see.”

Collar and Elbow Tie Up

There is a position in pro wrestling called the collar and elbow tie-up, basically a single collar tie. It’s like a slightly theatrical single collar tie, with the elbows flared out so that the opponents can talk to each other. And can throw the Hulk Hogan punches to the face. But that’s the collar and elbow tie-up. And that’s what people just, based on the name, assume the collar and elbow looked like if you had a single collar tie and his move each other around.

The truth about flying mare

He says, “It’s not exclusive to the collar and elbow, it comes from Cornish wrestling. So from Cornwall in the southwestern of England. What a flying mare is is any throw that caused your opponent’s feet to go flying up over his head. So it’s a fairly high-impact dynamic throw, that was called the flying mirror. Basically, if we call it a hip throw, but it would send someone’s feet flying over their head.”

Ruadhán MacFadden Resources


“No piece of work is ever going to be perfect. There are always going to be little tweaks that you could conceivably make in hindsight.”

– Ruadhán MacFadden


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