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Mongolian Wrestling: a Powerful Blend of East and West Styles

by Andrew Bryan

Copyright – Eternal Landscapes Mongolia

Wrestling exists in every culture in one form or another. Japan has sumo and judo, China has Shuai Jiao, but Mongolian Wrestling or Bokh has always been fascinating to me. It exists in this space between the wrestling we associate with European cultures such as Greco Roman and Freestyle wrestling, and the jacketed wrestling of China and Japan. Today we’ll take a brief look at a fascinated and under-appreciated martial art.

The Rules

Mongolian wrestling does come in several different forms, as different ethnic groups in Mongolia have different approaches for wrestling. Generally speaking, the rules is that two competitors wrestle in a field, with shoes and a special jacket, called the zodog that can be used for grips, if any part of you other than your feet touches the floor, regardless of whether it’s a knee or your whole body, you lose.

In this respect it’s quite a bit like sumo. Which won’t come as any surprise to those who are into sumo wrestling, as the sport has been dominated by Mongolians for the last decade.

Bokh is typically wrestled in a single elimination tournament format, with literally dozens of competitors in any given tournament. There are no weight classes.

The Culture

Like most martial arts, you cannot separate the fighting sport from the culture surrounding it. Bokh, similar to Muay Thai and Sumo also comes with a traditional dance. In the case of Bokh, it’s the Eagle Dance.

Performed here by three Mongolian wrestler/judokas. The dance evoked the flight of the mythical Garuda, the mount of Vishnu. As with a lot of these traditional dances, it also serves as a light warm up for competitors. The bird represents power, and after losing a match, the losing wrestler will duck under the outstretched arm of the opponent as a sign of respect to their competitor.

Wrestling holds a special place in Mongolian culture as one of the three essential skills it is believed a man should have, alongside archery and horseback riding. This of course harkens back to the days of the Mongol empire, where the mongols were training for war. These three skills are tested each year at the national Naadam, the traditional festival, where either 512 or 1024 wrestlers will face off in a single elimination tournament until only one is left. While woman can compete in archery in the Naadam, they are not permitted to compete in wrestling.

Despite this, there are actually quite a few prominent female wrestlers who have medalled in the Olympics. They train in and with Bokh wrestlers, and represent Mongolia at the Olympics and compete in other Bokh tournaments, but are still not allowed to compete in the Naadam.

The Techniques

Here is where it gets more complicated, as the legal techniques vary from style to style. Some variants will disallow grabbing the legs, similar to judo or Greco Roman wrestling, other styles are fine with it, like freestyle wrestling.

Because wrestlers wear the zodog, which only covers the wrestlers wingspan, the name of the game becomes specifically arm control. While Judoka will fight for grips not only on the sleeve but on the lapel, Bokh wrestlers find their openings by using the sleeves and back of the jacket, pulling and pushing forward. The name of the game is to off balance and by gripping the sleeves and back, you can potentially cause an opponent to misstep, or overstep, allowing you a foot sweep or throw. When adjusting for no-zodog wrestling, this is going to translate into a lot of collar ties and bicep ties as you try to jostle your opponent off balance.

A full under arm grip, just behind the shoulder of the opponent acts as an effective replacement for underhooks in other forms of wrestling. These grips allow for powerful turns and pivoting sweeps

This under arm control and gripping the back of the jacket, unsurprisingly has translated heavily into the Mongolian approach to judo. Back grips are rare in judo, but for Mongolian judokas, it’s a staple.

Here we see Sainjargal gripping the back every opportunity he gets and it results in some impressive throws.

As in wrestling competition you cannot touch the ground with anything but your feet, the matches are not only about the ability to stop a takedown, but also about the agility and freakshow balance required to stay on your feet after multiple attempts to throw you. We see the wrestlers being launched in the air, and their response is to not safely breakfall to prevent injury but pivot in mid air to somehow land on their feet.

Bokh is an interesting martial art because is exemplifies something that is often forgotten about grappling. That a good grip, is a good grip. When we see wrestlers transition into other styles, we typically find that while they do adjust to newer rules, they will go back to those same grips and are always able to make them work, even if adjusting for shirtless competition like in sumo.

There is still much more to be said about Bokh, but unfortunately it is largely unknown to the Western world, with only a handful of people from outside of Mongolia competing in the sport and spreading the knowledge throughout the rest of the world. I can only hope this changes in the future.

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