Naadam: Wrestling

This post is part of a four-part series on Mogolian Naadam (Three Manly Sports). Naadam is a festival traditionally held within the first half of July every year in Mongolia. You can read the other sections here: Horse Racing, Archery, Ankle Bones.

“Wrestling is I think the most national of all Mongol sports. It excites and combines the same kinds of passion that some people in the United States have for boxing and others for baseball or, elsewhere, for soccer football.”

-Owen Lattimore (Nomads and Commissars, p. 20)

The Three Manly Sports are meant to develop the skills of a great warrior. Out of the three, wrestling is by far the most popular in the nation. There are many color-coded maps of the world floating around the internet which show what the nation’s most popular sport is. On all of the maps I’ve seen, there is one nation that adores wrestling above all others: And that nation is Mongolia. The sport is hugely popular, with wrestlers all very well-known. One such wrestler, Baterden, ran for president of Mongolia in 2013.

One such map, courtesy of
One such map, courtesy of

Wrestling in Mongolia has no weight classes, so the small and the large alike grapple. Your standard uniform includes Mongolian boots, loin-cloth, and jacket. The jacket isn’t a standard jacket: it covers the arms and only the upper portion of the back, leaving the chest exposed. I am told the jackets are designed this way because long ago, the jackets covered the chest, and a woman entered the wrestling tournament, disguised as a man. She defeated all of her opponents, winning the tournament. The men were none-too-pleased, so they modified the jackets so that no cunning and powerful women could embarrass them again.

Sometimes, they forgo the traditional garb and wear pants and sneakers. These participants rarely win, however.
Sometimes, they forgo the traditional garb and wear pants and sneakers. These participants rarely win, however.

Before starting to wrestle, wrestlers will enter the arena and do what I have affectionately dubbed “The Eagle Dance.” They spread their arms out, sometimes flapping, to imitate the strength of an eagle. They will do so around the flag once or twice, and then they will rotate around the official before bending down so that the official can remove their hat. Somewhere in this all, they will slap their thighs three times to show their intent to wrestle. Once both hats are removed, the official will begin the match.

Eagle dance statue.
Eagle dance statue.

The rules are simple: Get any part of your opponent to touch the ground that aren’t his feet. Smaller guys try to use the weight of the larger guys against them, while the larger guys try to throw their weight around to knock the smaller guys off-balance. If they’re evenly sized, a protracted grappling match will commence, each waiting for the other to make a mistake that will be their undoing. Some matches are quick, and will be over in seconds. Others will last an hour or more.

Two wrestlers in a soum (village) Naadam.
Two wrestlers in a soum (village) Naadam.

After the match, the winner will do another Eagle Dance around the flag, after the losing wrestler passes under the winners arm. Usually, the winner will tap the loser’s backside before moving on to the dance. After the Eagle Dance, the winner will grab some aarul or fried dough bits and toss them into the sky. If there are any lucky spectators in the area, they can catch them. Nothing’s better than receiving something from a victor.

Previous Posts

Naadam: Horse Racing (Prose)

Little Girl (Poetry)

Next Posts

Grapple (Poetry)

Naadam: Archery (Prose)


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