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

Cageside Guest Columnist John S. Nash brings us another feature edition of his fascinating series chronicling the origins of MMA. This time, we travel to Iceland. Yes, Iceland.

"Johannes Josefsson, ‘Glima King'", circa 1908
"Johannes Josefsson, ‘Glima King'", circa 1908
image via

This is a revision of an article which was originally cross-posted at our fellow SBNation Blog, Bloody by Cageside Features Guest Columnist, John S. Nash on Dec 7, 2011 [†]

At 3 o'clock in the afternoon of March 30, 1913, some 200 of the most unusual spectators crowded onto the roof of Madison Square Garden to witness a most unusual wrestling match. [EN1] The assembled company was mostly from the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was currently engaged for a string of performances in 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, Otagawa 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 differently than the scores of bouts that preceded it. He would be mistaken.

A reporter for the New York Times chronicled the encounter:

"Otagawa insisted 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 the 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 period. 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 converged into catch-as-catch-can wrestling from the Occident (Cornish, Cumberland, Devonshire, Lancashire, Westmorland, Scottish backhold, collar-and-elbow, lutte Parisienne, rangein, and schwingen,) and the Orient (jujutsu, judo, karakucak, pehlwani, sumo, and yağlı güreş).

What Johannes Josefsson added to the mix was the Norseman's glima. [EN2]


Johannes Josefsson, born in 1883,

"...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]

Johannes would grow up to be a master of glima, winning the coveted Grettisbelti (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, Josefsson 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,

"He can throw either man in less than two minutes." [EN6]

He was,

" 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]

"There is not a man in the world who can subdue a clever glima exponent," he said, "unless he does it with glima. It is simply the art of using one's feet and legs instead of one's hands. I finish five men at every performance, and let me tell you, their attack on me is not staged the same way every day. They are continually trying new "stunts" to get me, but it never takes more than two minutes to stop them all."


His boasts were not without some merit, having proven himself in numerous matches across Europe:

  • In St. Petersburg of the Russian Empire, the 148 pound Josefsson felled a 400 pound opponent in a mere 23 seconds.[EN8]
  • At the Alhambra Theater in London he threw the jujutsu master Diabatsu twice in only 57 seconds total time. [EN9]
  • In Lodz, Poland, he took on one of the Zbyszsko brothers (which one is unknown) in a catch-as-catch-can wrestling match, winning by toehold after 47 minutes of grappling.
  • The French heavyweight boxer, Roche, was reportedly unable to stay more than 85 seconds with him.
  • A Belgian heavyweight, whose name is not recorded, lasted even less time. [EN10]

He finally landed in New York on March 16, 1913, with a two-year Barnum & Bailey [EN11] contract in his pocket, though of course, the terms where what he had come to recognize as, "an absurdly low salary".


On the stage, he often demonstrated glima as a form of self-defense, billed as an "Icelandic Jujutsu", albeit superior to jujutsu. Goodwin's Weekly, previewing Joseffson's upcoming show at the Salt Lake City Orpheum, translated glima as:

"... being Icelandic for "treat ‘em rough"

and described it as,

"a combination of jiu jitsu, wrestling, pugilism and the toehold." [EN12]

During these exhibitions, he would face and defeat three opponents at once, or demonstrate effective defenses against gun toting and knife wielding hoodlums. [EN13]

He remained in the United States until 1927,

..."circussing in the summer, vaudevilling in the winter, even lecturing to Rotary Clubs. In the end, he was pulling down twelve-hundred dollars a week, with seven people in his act, [for] an Indian sketch called, 'The Pioneer.' Married before he left, he added to Iceland's meager population two Americanized daughters." [EN14]

Eventually, he retired with his family to Reykjavik, where he used his athletic show earnings to open the Hotel Borg in 1930, which he operated until his death in 1968, at the age of 85.


† -- This article by our guest columnist has been 'crossposted' to today (Nov. 14, 2012). In addition to delving into wrestling's past for Cageside Seats, Mr. Nash has regularly chronicled the forgotten history of mixed martial arts at our fellow SBNation Blog:, where this article was also posted back on Dec 7, 2011. Cageside Seats is proud to present the cross-posting of his entire archive of articles in this exclusive guest column for your enjoyment. To read more fascinating articles from Mr. Nash, simply bookmark this link and remember to check back frequently for new content.



EN 1: The whole encounter is taken from the March 31, 1913 New York Times story "Icelander Downs Jiu Jitsu Wrestler". The match took place on the roof of the second Madison Square Gardens, which was raised in 1925 to make way for the third such named building.

EN 2: For a brief history and explanation of glima, see The Gripping History of Glima by Peter Kautz.

EN 3: The Circus Scrap Book - No. 10, April, 1931

EN 4: Literally, Icelandic Wrestling by Johannes Josefsson

EN 5: The final standings for the Mens Middleweight, Greco-Roman.

EN 6: "Icelander in Tacoma Offers Challenge to Gotch or Cutler for World Champ Wrestling" Tacoma Times, February 2, 1915

EN 7: "Wrestling Wizard of Iceland Defies All Highwaymen", New York Tribune, April 4, 1920.

EN 8: Pegar Jóhannes á Borg Glímdi við Rússa; Grein í Lesbók Morgunblaðsins, 1943

EN 9: This feat is made even more impressive by the fact "Diabatsu" was the London stage name for Akitaro Ono, a Kodokan Judo 4th-dan who was also one of the four "Kings of Cuba", a group of Japanese jujutsu practitioners who gained fame on the professional wrestling circuit. There are two sources for this match: Íslensk Glíma í Erlendum Blöðum; Grein í Morgunblaðinu, 1919; and Glima by Johannes Josefsson, January 1911; Strand Magazine - vol 41; and "How a Girl Can Outwit the Payroll Bandit", The Evening Tribune, January 13, 1924.

EN 10: "Wrestling Wizard of Iceland Defies All Highwaymen", New York Tribune, April 4, 1920

EN 11: "The Big Circus is in Town", The Toronto World, June 19, 1913

EN 12: "With the First Nighters", Goodwin's Weekly, March 22, 1919. The actual translation for glima is "game of joy". Many of the holds and maneuvers Josefsson demonstrated as part of his exhibitions were illegal techniques forbidden in the sport of glima, but are included in what has became known as "dangerous glima" or "combat glima".

EN 13: A typical show is outlined in the October 2, 1918 edition of The Watchman and Southron Newspaper

EN 14: The Circus Scrap Book - No. 10, April 1931


  • "Jossephson wearing the Grettir Belt" image via
  • "Johannes Josefsson and two of his Icelanders" image via February 4, 1915Tacoma Times
  • "In the Throws! Glima, ‘The Secret of Iceland'" image via The Sketch, December 10, 1910
  • "Wrestling Wizard of Iceland" image via

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