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Mongolian wrestlers doing their famous 'eagle dance' prior to competing at the Mongolian wrestling competition

Mongolian Wrestling

Naadam (Eriin Gurvan Naadam to give it its full title) is here. If you’ve heard of the Three Manly Games then you’ve heard of Naadam.  Naad means games and Naadam highlights the ‘three manly games’ of Mongolian wrestling, archery and horse racing. It is one of Mongolia’s festivals as can be found on our Mongolia Festivals website page.

To clear things up, Naadam (whether the State Naadam in UB or one of its rural counterparts) is a favoured public holiday, one of Mongolia’s top sporting events, a celebration of culture and tradition and pride, and a vibrant festival. It is important that you see Naadam from a Mongolian perspective. Naadam is for Mongolians and we as visitors will not understand or necessarily agree with every aspect of it (such as the use of child jockeys). It’s a celebration of ordinary people and century’s old tradition melded together. It is a time when Mongolians eat, sing, drink and enjoy life to the full. It is a true celebration celebrating all things Mongolian. Just relax and enjoy being part of something so special and unique. 

 This is your concise (almost) introduction to this fantastic event. First up is Mongolian wrestling….

Mongolian wrestling (known as bokh) is one of Mongolia’s most popular sports. During the national Naadam* Festival, held in Ulaanbaatar, 512 wrestlers compete in a single elimination tournament of nine rounds but in rural areas there may be a smaller number of rounds. *Naad means games and Naadam (Erviin Gurvan Naadam) highlights the three manly sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing. Naadam is a favoured public holiday, one of Mongolia’s top sporting events, a celebration of culture and tradition and pride, and a vibrant traditional Mongolian festival. In all wrestling events there are no age, weight or height restrictions. The object of a match is to get an opponent to touch his back, knee or elbow to the ground by using a range of techniques (mekh– including throws, lifts and trips) based on the assessment of their opponents strengths and/or weaknesses. It is a game of strategy, weight andstrength. All wrestlers wear a typical outfit as seen in this great photo taken by our guest Egon Filter of the Bayandalai Naadam in the southern Gobi. The shodog are the small, tight fitting shorts – designed to make the wrestler more mobile and to prevent the opponent from taking advantage of long pants to get a better grip. Gutal are the boots and the zodog is the wrestlers top. The overall winner of the national Naadam event become a national hero. Its a sport that all members of the EL team absolutely love – including me! You can explore more of the images that Egon Filter took during his Eternal Landscapes Mongolia experience here.

Mongolian Wrestling – Yes! There are rules!

Mongolian restling is virtually the same in every Naadam except that the more local Naadams have fewer rounds according to the numbers of participating wrestlers. Also, the winners of local Naadams receive aimag (provincial) and soum (district) titles, but never a state title. 

  • 512 wrestlers compete in a single elimination tournament. These numbers are specific to the State Naadam. 
  • There are nine rounds with no age, weight or height divisions. The number of rounds does change if it is a rural Naadam. 
  • Wrestlers have little or no limit of space. In the open field they are free to move over a wide area and they have little time constraint. 
  • The object of a match is to get an opponent to touch his back, knee or elbow to the ground by using a range of techniques (mekh – including throws, trips and lifts) based on the assessment of their opponent’s strengths or weaknesses. Ritual acts show the strength of the wrestler. It is a game of strategy, weight and strength. Experienced Mongolian viewers know how a certain technique works and immediately yell with excitement if such an ‘air technique’ becomes successful. 
  • The number of rounds won by each wrestler determines rank. In ascending order, the ranks are: Falcon (Nachin, 5th round), Elephant (Zaan, 7th round), Lion (Arslan, 9th round) and Titan (Avarga, the winner from amongst the Lion rank). The ranks given are names of powerful winged creatures or of animals considered the strongest on earth. Every subsequent victory at the national Naadam festival adds an epithet to the title of Avarga, such as “Invincible Titan,” “Invincible Titan to be remembered by all” and so on. The Mongolian parliament added two additional ranks, Hawk (Hartsaga, 6th round) and Garuda (8th round) in 2003.

Two wrestlers battling it out at the Mongolian wrestling tournament at Kharkhorin Naadam. Standing behind keeping an eye on the match is a 'zasuul' or judge.

Mongolian Wrestling – Which Wrestler To Follow

  • Mongolian’s who follow wrestling (nearly the whole population then) know immediately who is going to do well during Naadam by analysing the wrestler’s body shape. You might think that if a wrestler is tough and muscular looking, he will do well. Actually….not necessarily. 
  • Some wrestlers have tactics to win fast by moving quickly and employing unexpected tricks while others aim to prolong the process by not doing decisive movements while wearing down their opponent. 
  • The leaner more muscular men are typically better off at sharp, short, artful wrestling moves, while the ‘thicker’ ones are really good at endurance.

What To Look Out For In Mongolian Wrestling

Mongolian wrestling has certain codes of conduct that are concerned with etiquette. For example:

  • Before and after the match, each wrestler does the traditional “Eagle Dance” (devekh) based on the flight of the mythical Garuda bird –said to symbolise power, bravery and invincibility. When a wrestler loses the match, he then symbolically passes under the arm of the winner as a sign of respect. Each wrestler has a zasuul who acts as both coach and herald. During lulls in the match the zasuul slaps his wrestler on the back and exhorts him to struggle on.

Mongolian wrestlers doing their famous 'eagle dance' prior to competing at the State Naadam Mongolian wrestling competition

  • When a wrestler’s clothes get loose or entangled, his opponent is expected to stop attacking and help the former to re-arrange them – even though it might mean giving up a good winning opportunity. The wrestler who loses the match unties his jacket which is said to represent that he respects his opponent’s strength.

Local Mongolian wrestlers queuing to bless the state standard before the Mongolian wrestling tournament at Khatgal Naadam in northern Mongolia

Mongolian Wrestling Rounds

Rounds 1-2 – All 512 wrestlers are listed according to their rank from the top and in the first two rounds the ranking list is folded – meaning the highest ranking contestant wrestles the lowest ranking wrestler. Thus the nearly equal contestants (around 248-257 on the ranking list) will be wrestling each other.  

Third Round – By the beginning of the third round, the number of wrestlers will have decreased to 128. Beginning from the highest titled wrestler, the wrestlers themselves choose whom they want to wrestle. This launches a totally different game. First of all, the high titled champions, knowing that they must conserve energy for the remaining six rounds, will not call (select) a wrestler whom they have never before wrestled because they are vary of surprises. So, they call weaker wrestlers whom they feel they can easily defeat. Of course, the outcome is not always as expected.

Fourth Round – Beginning from the fourth round the selection rule is again “folding”. 

 Fifth Round – the start of the state titles. Falcon (winner of the fifth round) is a dream title for every young or new wrestler as they qualify for their first state title. If those who already have state titles win this round, almost no one cares. All the attention is directed towards young un-titled wrestlers 

Sixth Round – By the start of the 6th round you will notice that the bigger wrestlers are starting to dominate the game. Why? It is because after five rounds of competition, only the most well trained men who can endure several hard wrestling rounds remain.  Usually the new ‘falcons’  fall on this round even though they can and do employ surprising tactics. However, one or two of the new falcons might survive elimination in the 6th round and therefore qualify for a new title— Khartsaga (Hawk or Kestrel). When that happens it becomes a game changing wrestling event and the audience shouts and whistles their excitement.

Seventh Round – The Endurance Game (for you and the wrestlers!). In this round, the new title is Elephant. By this stage, only eight wrestlers remain. Because the ultimate victory of the Naadam is quite close, the big wrestlers don’t attempt risky moves. They wrestle carefully and slowly in order to make the other wrestler tired or so frustrated that he tries too risky a move. By the end of 30 minutes of non-result, the judges draw who will receive the right to have his preferred grab. If the lucky one doesn’t succeed with his preferred grab, the next grabbing choice is made by his opponent. In this way, the judges force the wrestlers to compete faster.

 Eighth Round – If a wrestler wins this round for the first time, his title will be Garuda —the mythical bird. If any of the wrestlers finds enough stamina and speed to “disturb the field” (meaning to do speedy, surprising tricks rather than just slow wrestling), then the audience becomes happy and loud and shout their support. 

Ninth Round – Finally! For a Mongolian, depending on which province a contestant is from, the final round can be quite emotional. The title of Lion is given to a first-time Naadam winner.

 

Mongolian wrestling competition during a local Naadam in Mongolia's Gobi Desert

Mongolians know how a certain technique works and immediately yell with excitement if such an ‘air technique’ becomes successful. When that classic winning moment finally occurs and the entire stadium rocks with shouts, yells, whistles at their loudest, you’ll feel that you are in the right place at the right time. This is Naadam!

If you’re considering experiencing Naadam, why not do so with Eternal Landscapes? All images used on this post were taken by guests of EL. We provide you with a more flexible yet personal and up-close experience of this fantastic festival. Get in touch for details.

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. Together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia. http://www.jessbrooks.co.uk/
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