John Zilcosky

Headshot of John Zilcosky, 2022 winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Germanic languages and literature

From Plato to Hulk Hogan: Researcher tells the surprising tale of wrestling

There’s more to wrestling than meets the eye, and University of Toronto researcher John Zilcosky is writing a book to share the fascinating story with the world. His work on the project, Wrestling: A cultural history from Plato to Hulk Hogan, is supported by a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship.

A professor of German and comparative literature, Dr. Zilcosky argues that wrestling – as the world’s oldest sport – was crucial to the birth of civilization.

“One of my arguments is that Plato actually saw the importance of wrestling in developing a rational society…unlike any other sport, wrestling encapsulates the violence that we do to each other.”

His book will explore why we wrestle and why wrestling was humanity’s first sport. Dr. Zilcosky will trace its history from early civilizations through the classical, Renaissance and modern eras to today’s ‘pro’ wrestling industry. He will explore wrestling’s presence in Indigenous cultures and with women practitioners.

“In this first book examining wrestling’s historical arc, I argue that its defining quality is the simultaneously staging and containing of both violence and sex: Two men embrace aggressively yet do not kill or rape the other,” he says. “We watch as people try to hurt and not hurt each other, personifying the ambivalence that made us human.”

Dr. Zilcosky grew up as a competitive wrestler and competed with Harvard as an undergraduate. He calls the research project a “labour of love” and hopes his new book will resonate with a diverse audience and catalyze new thinking about sport and civilization.

On winning the Guggenheim, he says it’s encouraging because so much of his work is done in isolation. “So to be recognized by a major foundation, like the Guggenheim, it just gives you as a researcher this sense that other people care, that your work is important. It allows me to take risks I might not normally have taken and to make my project even more ambitious, to really say things about how wrestling is connected to the dawn of civilization itself, and what it means to be human – things I might have been a little too shy to say without the encouragement of a foundation like this.”

Learn more about the Guggenheim Fellowship

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