One sport that I’ve really taken a liking to while out here in Mongolia has been wrestling. During Naadam, the wrestling matches would go on all day, and you could see all manner of wrestler come into the ring: Seasoned veterans, short and scrappy newcomers, the joke entries, tall, thin, fat, and short alike. While visiting Ondorkhaan in the East, my girlfriend and I happened to stumble on a wrestling tournament going on at the cultural and sports palace. We found out about it because we saw the wrestling officials eating at a cafe outside the temple we were visiting.
Inside, we saw a unique sight that neither of us had encountered: A live wrestling tournament with young boys and teens. Their coaches lined the gym in track suits, sweats, and baseball caps, standing sternly, eyeing the competition. The boys sat around in the bleachers, joking with friends, waiting for the time when they would have to remove their deel and enter the arena. The “arena” was a few rows of green carpet rolled out hastily on the basketball court. There was no padding, and wrestlers often found themselves being slammed onto the court itself.
The interesting thing about wrestling is that several matches go on at the same time. The officiating gentlemen call them out in pairs, the wrestlers exchange a handshake of sorts (usually a hand slap), and begin grappling. At one point, there were eight different matches going on in the gym. It’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on, especially if you’re a wrestler: You have to keep an eye out to make sure another set of combatants doesn’t smash into you during your own bout.
Often times, wrestlers won’t make any progress. They will either stare each other down without touching for too long or get stuck in a deadlock with a death grip on one another’s jackets. When this happens, the officials, often at the angry outcries of the coaches and crowd, will go to set things straight. If they aren’t grappling, the official will place one hand on the jacket and one on the bottom seam of the wrestler’s uniform. If they are locked and not doing much, the officials will often yell something to the pair and slap them on the butt to get them in gear.
It was fascinating to see these young boys and men getting their feet wet in the ring: One boy from my girlfriend’s school hurt his elbow quite badly and had to leave. Another injured his eye and couldn’t get off the ground, and yet another cut his head mid-match and bled down his face and on his opponents chest. There was one incredible upset where a dominating wrestler, who was rather large, was defeated by a smaller, nimbler opponent.
To anyone in Mongolia: If you have a chance to watch wrestling live, I highly recommend it. If not, check out Mongolian wrestling online. It’s worth the watch!