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Every summer, locals flock by the thousands to Ulaanbaatar’s Wrestling Palace, a large arena just off Peace Avenue, the city’s main drag. They have come for Naadam a tournament for Mongolia’s Three Manly Skills: archery, horsemanship, and the most popular of all, Bökh—more widely known as Mongolian wrestling.

Mongolian Wrestling

Mongolian Wrestling

Mongolian wrestling’s roots stretch so deeply into history that it’s hard to say where they actually begin. It has been posited that it dates as far back as 7000 BC, as cave paintings found in the Mongolian province of Bayankhongor seem to depict naked men grappling in front of crowds of spectators. In more recent and verifiable history, Mongolian wrestling was a favourite pastime of Temüjin, known the world over as Genghis Khan. The legendary conqueror reportedly relied on the art to keep his soldiers fit and combat-ready. All this to say, Mongolian wrestling is a very old tradition.

Over the course of its long history, the Mongolian wrestling rule-set has split into several regional variations. The primary mission of a Mongolian wrestler, regardless of the regional rule-set they’re competing under, is to force a portion of their opponent’s upper body to the ground using sweeps, throws, trips, and occasionally, kicks. Just what part of the upper body has to touch the ground varies from region to region.

Mongolian Wrestling

Under some rule-sets, anything above the knee—the thigh, the elbow, the back, you name it—making contact with the ground counts as a “fall.” Under other rule-sets, the shoulder blades must touch the ground. The objective, however, remains the same: to take your opponent down while being careful not to overcommit and bei taken down yourself.

At a glance, Mongolian Wrestling might appear very similar to the grappling arts of nearby regions, such as Russia’s Sambo, and the Shuai Jiao of China. Yet while Mongolian wrestling does bear many similarities to these arts—possibly due to a common origin—it is unique in several ways.

No Weight Classes in Mongolian Wrestling Competition

Mongolian Wrestling

For one, there are no weight classes in Mongolian wrestling competition, which means it’s possible—in fact common—for a wrestler of 70 or 80kg to collide with a vastly larger wrestler of 150kg or more. These David vs. Goliath matches are a thrill for spectators, though they do not often go the way of the smaller wrestler.

Another interesting facet of the Mongolian wrestling rule-set is that there are no time limits. In the past, this has led to gruelingly long matchups, as two skillful wrestlers would spend long periods attempting to feel each other out, each reluctant to attack too hastily and be countered. More recently, adaptations have been made to the rules to assure that matches don’t go on too long. Not even the most passionate fans want to watch two wrestlers circle each other for hours on end, after all.

Mongolian Wrestling

Mongolian wrestling is also somewhat distinctive in the uniform competitors wear. Like they do in Shuai jiao, wrestlers wear a short-sleeved jacket. On their lower half, however, they wear a shuudag, which would look to unexperienced Western eyes like little more than a pair of cotton briefs.

This admittedly revealing lower half of the Mongolian wrestling uniform is intended to improve the mobility of competitors, and make it more difficult to attack their opponent’s legs. Mongolian wrestlers also wear boots called gutal, which are traditionally leather, but these are gradually being replaced by western wrestling shoes.

A Tradition as Old as Time

Mongolian Wrestling

So, what’s on the line in a Mongolian wrestling match? Well, in the small competitions that pepper the sprawling Mongolian countryside over the summer, the stakes are often little more than local bragging rights. At the Naadam festival, however, which features anywhere from 512 to 1024 of the best wrestlers in the country, the implications are much higher.

Competitors at Naadam compete to attain rank. At the national level, the lowest of these ranks—which is still a substantial honor to receive—is called Falcon of Nation. This rank is achieved by surviving to the fifth-last round. The next ranks are the similarly triumphant-sounding Hawk of Nation, Elephant of Nation, and Garuda of Nation, which competitors attain by making it to the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals respectively. The next rank is called Lion of Nation; an honor that can only be earned by winning at Naadam. Yet this is not the ultimate rank that a Mongolian wrestler can achieve.

Mongolian Wrestling

Higher still on the Mongolian wrestling hierarchy is the title of Giant, which can only be attained by winning multiple Naadam tournaments. Win twice, and you achieve the lifetime rank of Giant of Nation. Earn four Naadam wins, and you will forever be known as Wide Giant of Nation. Win five times, and earn the revered and permanent title of Undefeatable Giant of Nation.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? Well, as cool as it is, for a wrestler to earn the title of Giant is also a very rare occurrence. Since 1921, only 20 competitors have managed to do so. But these 20 wrestlers earned their chapters in the history book of a tradition as old as time.

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