Everybody Was Khan Fu Fighting

Athletes from all over the country come here to the capital city of Ulaan Baatar to compete in the three traditional “manly sports” of horse racing, archery and Mongolian wrestling.

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By David G. Allan

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the November 2002 issue of The Martial Arts Journal. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject

ULAAN BAATAR, Mongolia — To see the best Mongolian wrestling in the world, you need to come here in mid-July and follow the hordes into the city’s main stadium during the Nadaam Festival, the biggest event in the Mongolian calendar.

Athletes from all over the country come here to compete in the three traditional “manly sports” of horse racing, archery and Mongolian wrestling. These are the nomad Olympics, three ancient tests of skill, strength and courage. But it’s the wrestling that’s considered the most “manly,” and in addition to being the toughest and most revered, it is the only one of the three in which women cannot compete. It also pays the best to the winner. This year’s national champion will get more than 1.5 million tugriks ($1,500), contrasted to the winner of the horse race, whose purse is only 600,000 tugriks, even though the equestrians put themselves at greater risk.

The colorful (bordering on bizarre) opening ceremonies in the National Stadium included a hodgepodge of characters: dozens of traditionally dressed Mongolians (including the beloved Genghis Khan) parading around the track to military music, shaman dancing, a float of acrobats, a unicyclist, a stiltwalker, four clowns, a juggler, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Dumbo and one of Snow White’s dwarves. There was a feral wolf on a leash, well-groomed yaks, a performance by the National Horsehair Fiddle Orchestra, and a speech by the president of Mongolia. Most impressive were the two dozen parachuters who jumped out of a biplane and landed in the stadium. One unfortunately missed the stadium and crashed into the outer wall, and the last jumper shot fireworks from a bag at his feet but failed to shoot them all. When he landed the finale went off at ground level. Fireballs skipped across the field and bounced up into the stands. An elderly woman, not 20 feet from me, had a cartoon-like hole the size of a grapefruit burned through her dress. She was carted off to an infirmary, and minutes later the wrestling began.

Mongolian wrestling begins with the Eagle Dance, or devekh, performed, in honor of the judges and the nation, around ancient horsehair flags. Each wrestler enters the arena and circles the totem while slowly flapping his arms and lifting his legs. To the outsider, the sight of a 200-pound-plus, big-bellied, scantily-clad wrestler doing an imitation of a bird appears a bit absurd, but no one laughs. The audience is hushed as the wrestler then flutters over to his coach, called a zasuul or “second,” and hands him his hat.

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A wrestler’s hat is the most sacred part of an elaborate outfit, complete with pointed elfin-like boots (called gotul), colorful Speedo-sized hot pants (shuudag) and a skimpy open-chested vest (zodog). Legend has it that powerful female wrestlers were once able to dominate competitions, and the zodog was introduced to rout them out. Marco Polo spun a story of a Mongol princess who became a spinster after she announced that any man who could pin her would win her hand, and none could. The chest-exposing zodog laid those tales to rest.

I was ready to see how ridiculous I would look in the getup a few days before the national competition when I went to a preliminary county (or soum) Nadaam tournament eight hours outside the capital.

At the local level any male can wrestle, even a crowd member can join in if the participant turnout is too low. So, we had to wait as men from the stands went home to get their outfits at the soum Nadaam I attended. My Mongolian friend Gala asked me if I wanted to test my mettle, and I agreed. The excitement (and my girlfriend’s nervousness) lasted only a few minutes while Gala went to sign me in, because he soon returned with the sad news that first-timers were not allowed to compete. Apparently the officials were certain I’d be injured.

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With front row seats at the soum tournament you’re only feet from the wrestlers. The match begins with the locking of one arm while the other hand paws around for a good grip, like posturing in a thumb wrestling match. Once locked in, each man combines leverage, strength and agility to throw their opponent off-balance. You can grab limbs or clothing and (without hitting or biting) do whatever it takes to tumble the other wrestler to the ground. Kicking, tripping, pushing, flipping, and pulling, a wrestler presses on until he feels he has an edge and then will strike in a sudden fast move for the takedown.

If you can get your opponent’s head under your chest, roll him over by his arms or get purchase on a leg, you’re halfway home. It’s all about balance and strength and the best of the best can keep these stances for hours without fatigue. Once the tension is broken, the weaker man can get thrown hard. Injuries are not uncommon. A round finishes when a wrestler is forced to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the sole of his foot or the palm of his hand.

When the match ends, the winner once more soars like an eagle around the flag and prances back to the loser, lifting one hand over the loser’s raised arm in what looks like a high five that missed. The winner is symbolically passing his wing over the inferior opponent. A shared pat on the rear afterward shows mutual respect though. The loser trots off and the winner steps up to the official table of cheese curd (a staple of the Mongolian diet), takes a hulk-sized handful, bites triumphantly into the curd, and tosses the rest to the crowd who scramble to catch and eat it.

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Mongolians love their national wrestlers. Being in the presence of one (or munching on his leftover curd) may impart some of his power, many believe. In houses or nomad dwellings (called gers) are hung paintings of national champions, frowning, arms akimbo, against a Mongolian backdrop of green hills. City billboards in Ulaan Baatar feature champions sponsoring products promising to be as powerful as their pitchmen.

The titles bestowed upon these champions make clear the rank they hold in Mongolian society. At any tournament, a wrestler who wins five rounds is called nachin (Falcon); seven rounds and you’re a zann (Elephant); and nine rounds earns you the title of arslan (Lion). A two-time Lion is an avarga (Titan) and beyond that winners’ titles get as elaborate as a wrestler’s imagination because the best can crown themselves. So “Titan” becomes “Invincible Titan” and then “Invincible Titan To Be Remembered By All.” “Champion” and “Greatest Man in the World” are also popular. The 11-time champion, Baterdene (most Mongolians have only one name) is known as “The Eye-Pleasing Nationally Famous Mighty and Invincible Giant.”

Mongolian wrestling is marked by the simplicity of its rules, which have barely changed since the 13th century. There are no weight classes (the best tend to be the biggest), no ring boundaries, no stopping for rain, and no time limits. A few years ago the length of the matches extended the Nadaam festival’s third day so long that closing ceremonies were cancelled. This year a new rule inserts breaks every 20 minutes for the wrestlers take turns assuming preferential holds, intended to end the match sooner. But there is still no actual time limit.

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At the national Nadaam the competition is single elimination. The best matches to watch are the ones immediately after the opening ceremonies, where smaller guys are pitted against the biggest and best. The matches are usually short, but since a dozen or so are going on at any one time, it’s like watching a battle, with weaker fighters getting thrown at every glance. The crowd rallied behind one short wrestler who managed to hold off his Goliath for several minutes before being tossed on the turf, chest-first, landing with a thud.

While the big guys grunted into each other, pulling and pushing in a slow elephant walk of power, another part of the arena featured the younger wrestlers — teens who hope to one day be big and bulky and throw their weight around when they reach their prime wrestling age (sometime after 30). The juniors are fresh and scrappy and move in tandem so quickly it looks like aggressive modern dance.

After the first few rounds, the heavyweight matches slow down (read get boring). Most spectators empty out of the stadium within the first half hour of wresting to go see the archery and horse racing taking place outside. While Mongolian wrestling holds the top spot in nationalistic pride, it isn’t the only man-to-man sport popular in this rugged nation. Sumo and boxing are also big, and gaining some momentum is a new sport called “dog-fighting,” a mix of boxing and wrestling (that does not involve dogs). The Mongolian version of Sumo, called hasu, has a five-minute time limit, takes place on mats, and was recently permitted by the government to be a betting sport. Mongolians rank among the best Sumo wrestlers in Japan and Mongolian athletes qualified for the Sydney Olympics in judo, wrestling and boxing.

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But the “manly sports” of Mongolia are actually older than the Greek Olympics. According to the UB Post, they’ve been organized as a competition since 206 BC. And wrestling was part of military training back when Kublai Khan ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen, stretching from Hungary to the Pacific Ocean and down through China to the border of India (back when the Mongols’ most technologically advanced weaponry was a bow and arrow shot from horseback). Mongolian wrestling is a holdover from a time when Mongolia was the world power. Today’s wrestlers are living history, moving examples of the muscle the nation once flexed.

The techniques and styles unique to Mongolian wrestling (outsiders tend to dismiss it as a less structured form of Sumo) are largely unknown simply because Mongolia is unknown. Mongolian wrestling is probably the least learned and least watched martial art in the world. You have to fly to this beautiful country, remotely sandwiched between Siberia and the People’s Republic of China, just to watch it. Mongolia has slipped from its Khan-era position as the greatest empire in the world, but in the valleys and peaks of this rugged and handsome nation live some of the toughest sportsmen alive today. Too bad so few get to see them in action.

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CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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