Dave getting tattooed at Blackwater Tattoo's in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. 

the roots of Mongolian wrestling

A tattoo doesn’t hurt as much as having your spinal cord snapped and being drug outside camp to die.

By David Kipper 

Although the horse thieving incident had happened a year earlier, Belgutei still smarted. The cut across his shoulder was little more than a scratch, but the insult went much deeper. Among steppe people drawing blood is somewhere between a taboo and an insult. This is why high ranking prisoners were often executed by being wrapped in expensive carpets and then trampled to death, to avoid contact with spilled blood.  Belgutei had been guarding his group’s horses as they feasted with the Jurkin group in an attempt to gain their support against the Tatars. When a Jurkin man had tried to steal one of his horses, Belgutei gave chase. Another Jurkin, Buri the Wrestler, blocked Belgutei’s attempt to apprehend the thief. Belgutei bared his chest in the traditional manner to issue a wrestling challenge. Instead of accepting the challenge, Buri drew his sword and slashed at Belgutei.

     Now, a year later, Belgutei finally squared off with Buri waiting for the match to start. The Jurkin had refused to support the Mongols in the Tatar campaign but the Mongols had one anyway. Belgutei’s brother had then attacked the Jurkin and slain all their leaders. He had adopted the rest of the Jurkin  into his clan and ordered a wrestling match between Buri and Belgutei. Buri had never lost.

    In Mongolian wrestling a match is won when any part of an opponent’s body other than the feet touch the ground. Matches are held in a flat meadow beneath the wide open sky, but Belgutei and Buri’s match was held within the large feast tent to celebrate the successful Tartar campaign. Belgutei threw Buri to the ground. However, the match wasn’t over. Belgutei, “mounted Buri’s rump like a horse, and upon receiving a signal from Temujin, he plunged his knee into Buri’s back and snapped his spinal cord.  Belgutei then dragged Buri’s paralyzed body outside the camp, leaving him to die alone.” (Weatherford, Jack; Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World, p-44-45).

     Belgutei’s brother Temujin went on to unify all the peoples of the steppe and then to conquer much of the then known world, incidentally spreading Mongolian wrestling along the way.  History remembers Temujin as Genghis Kahn.

     Mongolian wrestling, or bokh, has remained unchanged for centuries. Bokh is the most important of Mongolian sports and alongside horsemanship and archery, is one of the traditional, “Three Manly Skills”. And although Mongolian wrestling remains little known in the west, this changing as Mongolian wrestlers are making inroads in other well-known grappling sports such as Japanese sumo and judo.

     Mongolian wrestling matches are held under the open sky in a grass field or on bare dirt. There are regional variations which allow or disallow various grips but in general a match is won when an opponent’s back, elbow, or knee touches the ground.

     Wrestlers dance the eagle dance to begin and end each match. The loser passes under the winner’s arm to signal acceptance of defeat. There are no weight classes. Only men can wrestle. Tournaments are single elimination. The number of participants in a tournament must be divisible by two. Strikes, strangles, and locks are illegal. The most important tournament of the year is the Nadaam held in Ulaanbaatar, the capitol of Mongolia. Other towns and villages have smaller Nadaam celebrations. The Mongolian Wrestling Federation organized the world’s largest bokh tournament in 2011 with 6002 wrestlers participating over an eight day period.

     Mongolian wrestling is dynamic and fun to watch. And although the days of Genghis Kahn are in the past, bokh continues to spread across the world.