But now the sport has been made less dangerous. And at the first official World Toe- Wrestling Championship, taking place in Derbyshire on Saturday, the rules have been tightened to ensure competitors' safety.
Toe-wrestling is similar to arm-wrestling. 'Except all you need is toes. That qualifies you, provided you've got a big toe with an adjoining small one,' George Burgess, the organiser, explains. 'The two competitors then sit opposite each other with their feet on a board, lock toes, and try to force their opponent's foot down. It's the best of three rounds and each round is known as a toe-down.'
The world championship takes place at Ye Olde Royal Oak Inn in Wetton, where Burgess, who is also the landlord, expects between 20 and 30 competitors of both sexes to limber up and sock it out for the title.
The pub has a long, proud history when it comes to toe- wrestling. When buying the establishment, Burgess noticed that the description supplied by the estate agent included the information that the 300-year- old inn was well-known as a venue for the unlikely sport. And inside there was even a set of rules on a board, as well as a small trophy, engraved 'Toe- Wrestling Champion', which will be dusted off for the occasion.
Burgess admits that there is a touch of tongue-in-cheek about the official championship history which claims that historical figures such as Sir Francis Drake used to enjoy a good toe-down before setting off to engage the Spaniards in more serious competition.
In more recent times, toe-wrestling sprouted in the early 1970s at Manchester University. At this time, injuries were commonplace. 'They resulted from opponents trying to force each other off stools,' Burgess says. Now the stools have been banished and instead of pulling your opponent, the emphasis is on pushing them over. But just to be safe there'll be a qualified nurse on hand to tend any unexpected injuries and to make sure that all toe-nails are neatly trimmed.
Despite the seemingly absurd nature of the sport, the rules have been designed to ensure that skill will be the main factor in deciding the outcome. Sheer body strength or body-rocking to gain extra power will not help. 'The competitor's other foot is suspended in the air and mustn't touch the ground. Their bottom must be flat on the ground, as must their hand. Our slogan is 'there's no arm in toe-wrestling',' Burgess says.
Burgess currently enjoys the title of self-proclaimed world champion, but insists that he won't be taking part in Saturday's competition. 'I plan to retire undefeated.'
Instead he will be devoting his energies to his other role as pub landlord. In addition to the wrestling, one-time world darts champion, Eric Bristow, will be on hand if competitors fancy taking time out from a toe-down to stand shoulder to shoulder on the oche with the Crafty Cockney himself.
World Toe-Wrestling Championship, 2.30pm 4 Jun, Ye Olde Royal Oak Inn, Wetton, nr Ashbourne, Derbys (033527 287)