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Kampfringen (“combat grappling”) was the term used for unarmed combat systems originating in the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It employed all ranges of fighting, from striking to ground-fighting, and included joint-locks, leverage throws, pain compliance grips, and various striking techniques. By modern definitions, it would be considered a hybrid martial art. It is closely related to historical dagger-fighting systems and some dagger-fighting might be considered to be a branch of kampfringen.

One of the primary men to have shaped kampfringen at the dawning of the Renaissance appears to have been Austrian master Ott Jud. Ott was a master of the early 1400s, probably from southern Germany. He is said to have developed a system of grappling to be used in combat, including joint breaks, arm locks and throws designed to cause serious injury. No treatise from Ott’s own hand has survived, but his system is taught by several fencing masters of the later 15th century, including Hans Talhoffer (1443), Peter von Danzig and Jud Lew. Paulus Kal counts him among the “society of Liechtenauer” (possibly a direct student of Liechtenauer’s), saying that he was wrestling teacher to the “lords of Austria” (possibly under Frederick III, c.f. Welle 1993, p. 259). According to both Talhoffer and Lew, Ott was a baptized Jew.

Welle (p. 260) cites an anecdote told by Martin Luther in a lecture on Genesis 32 (the wrestling of Jacob with the angel) published in 1580, according to which there was a famous Jewish wrestling master at the court of Frederick.

Later masters, including Fiore dei Liberi (c. 1410), Fabian von Auerswald (1462), Pietro Monte (c. 1480), and Hans Wurm (c. 1500), continued this tradition in manuals that detail both sword fighting and kampfringen. Many other masters also commented on the importance and efficiency of grappling in combat, but did not detail the systems they employed.

Many manuals combine fencing and wrestling into a specialized branch of kampfringen called ringen am schwert (“wrestling at the sword”), designed to be used during armed combat. This included closing techniques, disarms, weapon-seizures, pommel-strikes, and weapon-aided joint-locks. In many cases, such techniques were designed to be used on the battle-field against armored opponents, and included techniques for targeting the joints and weak points in armor.

In his 1657 work on rapier and unarmed combat, German master of arms Johan Georg Pascha reveals an extraordinary range of unarmed techniques (which some have said resemble styles of Chinese wing chun kung fu, due to its emphasis on rapid strikes at close range). This is generally considered to be a distinct branch of kampfringen, sometimes called “Pascha’s ringen”.

Kampfringen disappeared around the 18th century, as fencing lost all relevance to battle and self-defense and became focused on the ritual duel. Striking and grappling were considered dishonorable in this context, and so there was little need to learn such techniques. New systems of wrestling were developed for sport purposes, but have no connection to the ancient art. Kampfringen is currently being revived along with other historical fighting systems by organizations around the world.

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