Johannes Josefsson: Iceland’s Colourful “King of Wrestling”

Above: a poster for Johannes Josefsson’s vaudeville act, displaying characteristic panache.

Due in no small part to the publicity surrounding Bartitsu circa 1899-1902, the first decade of the 20th century saw some substantial popular interest in “exotic” fighting styles.  Japanese jiujitsuka had quickly proved their art’s value in mixed-styles contests; French savateurs competed with English boxers and the revival of various Elizabethan styles of fencing continued to flourish.

Icelander Johannes Josefsson (1883 – 1968) was an enthusiastic proponent of the glima (“flash”) style of belt-wrestling, which he had learned while working as a stable-boy in the town of Modruvellir. During a stay in Norway Josefsson became involved in youth-work, and he co-founded the Icelandic Youth Association in 1907.

The Icelandic Glima Troupe at the 1908 Olympic Games in London; to the far left, Johannes Josefsson wearing a Viking costume.

In July of 1908 he arrived in London, intending to represent Iceland in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympic Games, where he would also demonstrate glima as an exhibition sport. On the opening day, political tensions arising from Iceland’s move towards independence from Denmark almost led to a physical confrontation between Josefsson’s small team of wrestlers and the Danish Olympic team.  The Danish athletes attempted to block the Icelanders from entering the stadium, but fortunately, Olympics organiser (and former Bartitsu Club president) Sir William Grenfell intervened and allowed the Icelanders to march in the opening parade.

Competing under the Danish flag, Josefsson was injured during the Graeco-Roman contest and was unable to manage better than 4th place.  While several newspapers offered brief reports on his glima display, as an  exhibition sport it was overshadowed by the official Olympic events.  His experience at the Games did, however, seed an interest in the confluence of showmanship and athletics which would define his career for the next two decades.

During 1908, Josefsson also wrote the first English-language book on glima wrestling. This was an excellent training manual, well-illustrated with numerous photographs.

Between 1909-19 he toured throughout Europe and the USA, taking on all manner of opponents who wanted to try their luck at Icelandic belt-wrestling. He had several famous (possibly “worked”) bouts against Japanese jiujitsu practitioners in the USA and supplemented his wrestling income by performing vaudeville acts, in which he fended off “savage Indians”, dagger-wielding street gangsters and miscellaneous exotic enemies.

While these exhibitions certainly featured elements of the glima style, photographs and reviews of Josefsson’s act strongly suggest that he also exerted some artistic licence in developing spectacular fight choreography that would “sell” to vaudeville audiences.  Josefsson also traveled with the Barnum and Bailey circus for a few years; part of that act involved wrestling with a bear.

Above: a poster for Josefsson’s self-defence performance, featuring belt-wrestling as well as counters to attacks by a dagger-man and a boxer.

In 1927 Johannes Josefsson finally retired from wrestling/showbiz and returned to Iceland, having amassed a substantial fortune of $120,000 US dollars. He invested this in the construction of a luxury hotel in Reykjavik, which he managed successfully until his retirement in 1960.

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