The Martial Chronicles: Glima, the Ju-Jitsu of Iceland

Since a recent (and very interesting) fanpost on the martial arts of the Viking era has brought attention to the Scandinavian wrestling style known as glima I thought I might be able to add something by posting this material which was originally meant for Ultimate Fighting of the Belle Epoque but unfortunately failed to make the final draft. Enjoy.

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of March 30th, 1913, some 200 of the most unusual spectators crowded on to the roof of Madison Square Garden to witness a most unusual wrestling match.[EN1] The assembled company were mostly from the Barnum & Bailey Circus which was currently engaged for a string of performances at the arena beneath them. Amongst the attendees "There were many Japanese on hand, there were silk-hatted folk innumerable, and there were freaks from the circus side show, for the midgets especially did not propose to miss the match, and the elder Barnett swaggered around with a miniature fur coat on his arm and a whisp of a cane swinging jauntily."

The match they had gathered for was to be a "grudge bout" between Otagawa, a Japanese exponent of jiu jitsu, and Johannes Josefsson, an Icelandic wrestler. "It grew out of the jealousy between the Icelander and the Japanese, they said" over who was truly the champion of their circus.

As they faced off Otagwa gazed calmly at his opponent. He had taken on and defeated numerous wrestlers as part of his "act" and there was no reason for him to think this encounter would play out any different than the scores that preceeded it. He would be mistaken.

A reporter for the New York Times chronicled the encounter:

Otagawa insisted that they wrestle with jackets and belts on, and although Josefsson had never tried it he was willing to fight one bout that way and one without. Thus appeased, the little jiu jitsu champion went at him, and there was some fine tussling. Despite the handicap of the unfamiliar jacket the fair-haired man threw Japanese twice and there was much cheering, which was not loud enough, however to drown the tempest of outspoken woe from Hekla, the 2-year- old daughter of Josefsson, who could not understand what it was all about.

The Icelander would be declared the winner after Otagawa refused to fight the promised bare-armed second encounter unless his opponent wore a jacket.

This match was only one of many such mixed "jiu jitsu versus wrestlers" contests held around the world during this time period, but what made it noteworthy was not so much the match itself, but the style of wrestling employed by Josefsson. During the Belle Époque many of the world’s wrestling styles from the Occident (Lancashire, Cumberland, Westmorland, Scottish backhold, Cornish, Devonshire, collar-and-elbow, rangein, schwingen, lutte Parisienne) and the Orient (karakucak, yağlı güreş, pehlwani, sumo, jujutsu, and judo) were converged into catch-as-catch-can wrestling. What Johannes Josefsson added to the mix was the Norseman’s glima. [EN2]


Johannes Josefsson, born in 1883, "was the son of a cod-fisher-man, born in a tiny house on the edge of Akureyri, the little metropolis of Northern Iceland, and as a boy gutted herring and laid split codfish out to dry." [EN3] He would grow up to be a master of glima, winning the covetedGrettisbelti (championship belt) and being crowned Glímukóngur (King of Glima) after throwing twenty-four competitors in six hours without incurring a single fall against him in 1907. He would repeat this accomplishment the following year. His skill as a glimukappi was viewed as unparalleled, having literally written the book on the subject. [EN4]

After attaining his second Grettiselti, he left his Island home to take part in the 1908 Summer Olympics in London, where he came in fourth in the middleweight division wrestling under the Danish flag (Iceland would not gain its independence until 1918) in the Greco-Roman event. [EN5] Shortly thereafter he began his professional career in Berlin, and for the next two decades he would travel extensively throughout Europe, Russia, and the Americas taking on all challengers in Greco-Roman, catch-as-catch-can, and mixed competitions, while also giving exhibitions in his own craft.

His confidence in his own fighting skills and the merits of glima was supreme. He challenged both the current and former catch-as-catch-can heavyweight champions, Charlie Cutler and Frank Gotch, insisting "that he can throw either man in less than two minutes." [EN6] He was "so confident of his skill with his feet that he would meet Georges Carpentier and Jack Dempsey in the same ring and would guarantee to toss them both off without drawing a long breath." [EN7]

The rest of Josefsson's story can be found at Head Kick Legend. Or by clicking HÉR.

\The FanPosts are solely the subjective opinions of Bloody Elbow readers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloody Elbow editors or staff.

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