By Oyungerel Tsedevdamba
It is Naadam time in Mongolia –a nomadic festival celebrated at the very least for centuries, and an important time for Mongolian wrestlers and horse-trainers, horse-riders and archers. The naadam tradition is truly ancient in its origins, predating, perhaps by millennia, the rise of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khaan) in the early Thirteenth Century. Naadam can be equated to the original Olympic Games of ancient Greece.
During the summer months, local naadams are held all over Mongolia. The biggest of them is the State Naadam held every July in Ulaanbaatar. Only the State Naadam awards national wrestling titles to successful participants.
Among all Naadam’s sports, the easiest to understand is archery. And you can easily see how horse races are run – for kilometers over the open steppe.
However, many foreigners are confused by Mongolian wrestling and may find it boring or too long. On the contrary, wrestling is actually the most interesting and entertaining Naadam sport. Every Mongolian understands and follows wrestling with a passion.
Here is how to follow the fun side and the intricacies of Mongolian wrestling.
Look at their hats first!
When the Naadam opening ceremony ends, and wrestling begins, you’ll see many wrestlers walking out onto the green field making eagle and falcon movements. That means they are about to start their first round of wrestling. In the usual 512-wrestler tournament, there will be nine elimination rounds of wrestling over two days. Or, during big anniversary years, there will be 1024-wrestler tournaments, also over two days.
In each succeeding round the number of wrestlers decreases by half because only the winners of a round go on to the next round.
So, why are hats important at the first round? For one thing, it makes watching the first round of 256 wrestling match-ups easier. Look at the wrestlers’ hats while they dance, walk or bow to the nine-white-horse hair-banners. Wrestlers’ hats have red strips hanging down. And some of the red strips also have yellow lines on them. Watch those guys! The more yellow lines they have, the higher ranking they are. Try to memorize the guys you want to follow because they leave their hats in the hands of their coaches when the wrestling commences.
When a higher ranking wrestler wins, people appreciate them, but when they fall or get strongly challenged, the real naadam starts!
Look at their body mass!
Long-term wrestling viewers immediately know who is going to do well on naadam by analyzing the wrestler’s body shape. You might think that if a wrestler is tough and muscular looking, he will do well. Actually it is more complicated than that.
There are many proven tactics for winning at Mongolian wrestling. 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. So, 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 and muscular guys are better off in sharp, short, artful wrestling, while the thicker ones with seemingly soft muscles are really good at endurance. So, when you chose your favorite wrestler to follow, it is better to pick two guys: one for sharp and short show and the other for stubborn success. Most naadam viewers are fond of sharp wrestlers, but more often than not the more stubborn and persistent contestant with good stamina becomes the ultimate victor.
Learn to catch the victory moment!
In Mongolian wrestling, one wins when the opponent’s elbow or knee touches the ground. Therefore, the Mongolian term for defeat is translated as ‘knee-dirtied’. However, touching the ground with the entire body or touching the ground with the head also counts as a defeat.
While in judo, hands wrestle with hands and legs wrestle with legs, in Mongolian wrestling, the wrester’s hands can touch everywhere—hands, torso and legs. But no one may grab the other’s head disrespectfully. In Mongolia, the head is the most sacred part of a person and even during wrestling contests one must respect the other’s head.
Because a wrestler can use both hands and both legs for tricks, and because most Mongolian wrestling tricks come from a standing position (because the knee must not touch the ground), wrestlers develop varieties of ‘air techniques’. Air techniques are done without clutching the opponent and therefore they’ll be very difficult to catch for the first time viewer.
Experienced viewers know how a certain technique works and immediately yell with excitement if such an ‘air technique’ becomes successful. Less knowledgeable viewers can enjoy the excitement of the audience and then ask an experienced viewer to explain what happened on the field. Oh, they’ll tell you, using their wrestling language, how the sudden trick worked geometrically and physically. It’s all about how to momentarily sense the change of the center of one’s balance, they’ll say. Sometimes it is understandable, sometimes it is just fun hearing from an expert viewer even though you don’t get all of what he or she says.
In general, most tricks are noticeable and easy to follow. Especially, when a wrestler grabs his opponent, lifts him off the ground and then puts him down. That kind of scene is quite common.
Listen to the background songs
When wrestling starts, background “long songs” begin. It is a philosophical guide for wrestlers. Those songs tell stories of a brother who shot his younger brother mistaking his horse and yellow deel (traditional Mongolian costume) for a gazelle and crying a river over his misdeed. Or the song will be about a placid universe where the beautiful sun rises and sets. Sometimes the long song is about two palomino horses of Chinggis Khaan and how a certain area is their pasture and no one should hunt deer in the protected area. Or the song will tell the story of a man who couldn’t marry the woman he loved.
Every naadam wrestling tournament plays traditional long song music. While the old time story is sung in the background, a wrestler dances for his victory while another falls to the ground. Life and show go on. One wins and the other loses. These things happen all the time. The philosophical long songs make the entire game peacefully entertaining, but not revengeful.
Accepting defeat in a noble and peaceful manner is one of the ancient expectations in Mongolian wrestling and the viewers certainly appreciate the defeated if he accepts his loss with a smile. However, they get frustrated and angry if a wrestler disputes his loss. In such cases, fans will yell to the seemingly defeated contestant, “Give up your tahim! Give up your tahim!” demanding the wrestler to do a mandatory gesture of acceptance of a defeat.
Such a gesture is visible to everybody when the defeated contestant unties the belt of his top and walks under the outstretched right arm of the victor. But sometimes it might be confusing when a young victor goes under the arm of a defeated older wrestler. In such a case, the gesture means that the young wrestler is respecting the older wrestler and does not want to oblige the older higher ranking wrestler to walk under his arm. Mongolians appreciate this kind of act and applaud the young victor.
Bigger guys win easily in the early rounds
There is no weight category in Mongolian wrestling. Sounds unjust? There will be more of such ‘injustice’ and at first it makes you feel that Mongolian wrestling was not a good sport to watch. But, don’t give up, it will be more fun later.
In the first two rounds you will observe many big guys wrestling with young and smaller opponents. This is because 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. The second ranked contestant wrestles the second to lowest contestant, and so on. Thus the nearly equal contestants (around 248-257 on the ranking list) will be wrestling each other. These equally matched wrestlers are the most interesting to watch.
Somehow such an arrangement makes Mongolian wrestling a game of ‘natural selection’ in the first two rounds.
In contrast, ‘social selection’ begins from the 3rd round. Those who expect that they’ll be beaten on the first round, still wrestle for victory. They are usually students or soldiers, or just young adults who love wrestling.
When you watch the first two rounds, do not spend all your time in the stadium. These two rounds take almost all of the first day of Naadam (after the usually spectacular opening ceremony). So, experienced viewers see the start of the 1st round and then go to other Naadam events such as the archery competition, the horse races and even the evening party on the main square. Some fans carry their radio with them so that they can follow the wrestling results – or even watch the games broadcast live on TV.
The third round is a “call” round
In the morning of the second day of Naadam, the stadium quickly fills.
By the beginning of the third round, the number of wrestlers will have decreased to 128. From this number, the highest ranking wrestlers will be praised by special juries called “zasuul”. Zasuuls will sing and praise them and loudly announce in song the opponent for the wrestler. 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 leery of surprises. So, they call weaker wrestlers whom they feel they can easily defeat. Of course, the outcomes do not always go as expected.
After every high-titled wrestler makes his call, there will remain two equally ranked wrestlers who remain uncalled. They are called the “remains”. These two become the center of the attention because often, their wrestling is the most interesting and competitive, and because both are young potential rising stars.
So, to announce the wrestlers’ first calls, zasuuls stand in two rows alongside the wrestlers. These two rows are called “left” and “right” sides. A zasuul on the left side will first praise the highest ranking wrestler and make a loud announcement of whom he chooses to wrestle from the right side.
The praising song of a wrestler is translated something like this, “Here’s the all-Mongolia’s greatest, ocean like, firmly unbeatable, champion (full name), who was born in the (name) soum of (name) aimag (province), came here in honor of the 2223rd anniversary of the Khunnu Empire, and the 808th anniversary of Great Mongolian State, and in honor of the 93rd anniversary of the People’s Revolution, and 25th anniversary of the Democratic Revolution and the national celebration of Naadam! He openly calls (name) province, (name) soum’s wrestler (full name) from the right corner, for an honest test of strength in front of all Naadam viewers.”
The matching wrestler’s zasuul on the right corner would sing back loudly, “Here we heard your call!”
There is no shyness in calling a small guy compared to oneself. The ultimate aim is to be the last wrestler standing after winning all nine rounds. So, clever high ranking wrestlers will usually choose smaller, weaker, less experienced opponents except when some tricky wrestling politics intervenes!
Yes, you read it correctly. There is a lot of wrestling politics. Some high ranking wrestlers who think they cannot claim for higher rounds, may decide to “help” young and promising wrestlers by calling them and falling for them. Usually this happens when the younger guy is from the same province, or from the same school or even sometimes money is involved. Viewers hate to see such things happen, and they nickname it “nairaa”- which means “impure deal”. Therefore, those who reach titles and success by pure wrestling talent are most admired by the public and loved as true heroes.
Round four - full of surprises
Many newspapers and organizations announce guessing games on who’s going to win in nine rounds. It is not exactly betting, but very similar because those who win the guesses receive big awards after the Naadam.
It is relatively easy to guess the first three rounds. However, beginning from the fourth round all the guesses get broken because the fourth round selection rule is again “folding”. By the end of the 3rd round, all 64 remaining wrestlers would be ranked from top to bottom and the list is folded. Again, the lowest ranking guy would wrestle with the highest ranking wrestler.
But this time, this folding is not as easy for the high ranking wrestlers as it was in the first two rounds. At this stage, even the lowest ranking wrestler can be a future champion. All 64 wrestlers are quite competitive and no one is afraid of any other wrestler at this stage. So, many high ranking guys fall on the 4th round and many young new potential stars emerge. This makes the 4th round especially exciting.
But the real question of round four is who from these new stars will receive the title of Nachin (Falcon) in the next round! Experienced fans who can’t wait for the start of the 5th round list the names of newly emerging young wrestling stars and make tallies of their origin and wrestling ‘fire-camps’.
A wrestling ‘fire-camp’ is a Mongolian form of wrestling club where a group of wrestlers from the same province, same city or the same school join together to prepare for Naadam. Usually a high ranking wrestler leads such camp where he and his colleagues train new young wrestlers while also polishing their own skills. As a rule, the leader of the ‘fire-camp’, who is expecting to wrestle in future rounds, will not call a co-camper if he has plenty of other wrestlers from which to select an opponent.
On the other hand, a leader of a camp who calculates that he is unlikely to succeed in the next round, might intentionally choose his camp-student in order to give him a chance to win and get closer to a Falcon title.
As you can see, the origin of the wrestler becomes very important at this stage. So, the more experienced and knowledgeable the viewer, the easier it will be to correctly guess the wrestling matches in the upcoming 5th round.
5th round-- Stars are born!
Like in the 3rd round, the 5th round commences with long praises and calls where all the high ranking wrestlers can be warmly praised and their choice of wrestlers are sung out.
The praises are a slow start of something really exciting because by the 5th round, people want to watch only one thing—who will become new Falcons!
Falcon is a magic word in every Naadam. It is a dream title for every young wrestler. Because it means that they have won the 5th round and therefore qualify for their first state title. Titles are awarded by a decree of the President of Mongolia, and young wrestlers are eager to earn it. And the fans are even more eager to cheer for the new stars!
If those who already have state titles win this round, almost no one cares. All the attention is directed towards young un-titled wrestlers with fans wishing that many of them win the new title. In a very good year 6-7 falcons are born from 32 wrestlers. But more often, only 2-5 wrestlers reach this level. In some years, only one falcon is born.
When there are chances for more falcons, another strategy game begins. This is called “timing”. It means that the young wrestlers compete to become the title-winner as early in the round as possible, even if it means just a minute earlier. Why is this important? It is because in future, similarly titled wrestlers will be ranked according to the time of their title win. Therefore the wrestlers try to claim for a title as quickly in the round as possible.
6th round - New Stars Dance!
By the start of the 6th round you can suddenly notice that big, thick guys start dominating the game. Few of the 16 remaining contestants would be considered small or thin. Why? It is because after five rounds of competition, only the most well trained men who can endure several hard wrestling rounds remain. Defeating these big guys is the main task for the newly entitled Falcons.
Watching the wrestling of the 6th round is easy and fun. New falcons show beautiful courageous tricks at this stage. It is because they are not afraid of falling at this point that they like to give care-free and happy shows to the public. Fans really enjoy seeing beautiful, surprising and brave wrestling after the stressful 5th round.
Usually newly born falcons fall on this round even though they 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 (Kestrel). When that happens it becomes a game changing wrestling event and the audience shouts and whistles their excitement.
7th round - Endurance game!
In this round, the new title’s name is Elephant, if only a young star can endure this round. By this stage, only eight wrestlers remain. Most possibly, seven of them don’t need the title Elephant because they might have already achieved this title years ago and may be aiming for an even higher title such as Lion and Champion and Double Champion (Dayan Avarga), or Triple Champion (Darhan Avarga), etc.
If there is at least one wrestler who’s aiming for Elephant, the seventh round becomes the year’s favorite round. Especially, if he wins the title, the viewers get really excited. Elephant is a Big Star!
For a tourist, a new Elephant is not an emotional thing. But for a Mongolian viewer, it becomes a very special moment if the Elephant is your favorite wrestler or from your native area.
It is a good idea for a tourist to write down the name of the province the new Elephant is from. It may be the area where you will travel later. If so, make sure you write down the name of the new Elephant. Use his name in your conversation with the locals. You’ll see how much easier and fun the nomadic life becomes if you know the name of the favorite wrestler of the locals!
One boring part of the 7th round is the endurance game. Because the ultimate victory of the Naadam is quite close, the big wrestlers don’t attempt risky moves. They wrestle carefully, slowly, sometimes intentionally slowly in order to make the other wrestler tired or so frustrated that he tries too risky a move. Those who are confident in their endurance capacity, intentionally do not make decisive movements. Instead, they grab the other guy and just press on him for a long time. This is called “Uya”, meaning “tire” or “rope”. Like entangled on a rope, wrestlers don’t do much.
So, impatient viewers might demand the Uya wrestlers to move, but the tactics of those wrestlers are difficult to change. 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.
In the past, when the rule was to wrestle with no time limit at all, all the rounds beginning from the 7th round were terribly long. Wrestlers would play endless endurance games and the wrestling would end very late.
8th round - Tired stars!
Imagine yourself as one of these four strong guys. By this round, you’ve all wrestled seven rounds, maybe with very difficult opponents. You are tired, sweating like crazy, your eyes are sore from running salty sweat. You want to drink, sit down, rest, and take off these already too tight and wet wrestling costumes… if you were these guys. These tired stars of the 8th round move much slower than they did in earlier rounds. If one makes a fast, sharp trick on this round, it means the guy had super training and unimaginably good preparation for this naadam. Viewers accept slow wrestling at this point very comfortably because it is one of the most tiresome stages of naadam for any wrestler who reached this round.
At the 8th round, viewers are impatient to see who will be one of the finalists. If one wins this round for the first time, his title will be Garid—the fairytale heavenly bird. But nobody cares about this new title. Instead, everyone is excited only about the upcoming 9th round, the final competition.
If one or two of these tired four 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 happily loud! Even long after the Naadam, viewers will be talking about such wrestling techniques just because it is very unusual to witness speedy wrestling at this stage.
Congratulations for staying with the Mongol wrestling fans ‘til the end. By this stage, you might be excited, like every Mongolian, to know who the ultimate winner will be. For a tourist, any winner is fine, you might think.
For a Mongolian, depending on which province a contestant is from, the final round can be quite emotional. If a finalist is from one’s native area, whole communities pray their wishes for the soon-to-be winner!
The title of Lion is given to a first-time naadam winner. One earns the title Champion only after two naadam victories from 512 wrestlers, or from just one such victory in a 1024-wrestler tournament.
The dramatic moment of the naadam’s final victory becomes the entire year’s favorite video piece. So, if you sense the final drama approaching, make sure you record the moment with all its excitement and shouts from the full stadium of spectators!
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. The energy of the stadium is truly beautiful at this very moment! This is Naadam!
At the close of the wrestling, the President’s decree for a new title is announced. Right after this the two finalists come to the President of Mongolia to accept their awards. The ultimate winner doesn’t “walk on the ground” since the moment he won until he leaves the stadium. It is because the winner is lifted by crowds of men and carried on their shoulders to the podium area and also when he leaves the podium heading for the stadium exit.
Where to see more wrestling
The State Naadam is not the only place to see wrestling.
Naadam is, as mentioned in the beginning of the article, an ancient nomadic festival which Mongolian governments of all times funded and still fund every year. Naadam always took place in Mongolia whether the country was under communist regimes and during our deepest post-communist economic crises.
As the State Naadam is funded by the state budget, the local Naadams are funded by local budgets and community fundraising. A true Naadam is never a commercial event. It also doesn’t involve betting. All over Mongolia between July 7 to July 20 and sometimes beyond, there will occur some form of naadam somewhere in the country while the biggest Naadam takes place in Ulaanbaatar on July 11-13.
During all these various naadams, at least 22,400 wrestlers will be wrestling, 105,000 horses with child-riders will be racing, and 9,500 archers will be shooting arrows in front of local spectators. As mentioned, the tradition of supporting local naadams began thousands of years ago and continues until today because it is the biggest event for local nomadic herders to come together. Of course, Ulaanbaatar’s Naadam is the biggest tourist attraction in our country although every naadam in all 321 locations across the country is culturally interesting and fascinating.
Wrestling is virtually the same in every naadam except that local naadams have fewer rounds according to the numbers of participating wrestlers (32-256). And the winners of local naadams receive aimag and soum titles, but never a state title.
For those tourists who visit Mongolia during non-Naadam season and who would still like to experience Mongolian wrestling, there is one place you must visit on the right dates, the Wrestling Palace of Ulaanbaatar.
The Wrestling Palace hosts 128-265 wrestler tournaments prior-to and during national holidays and important anniversaries.
Below are the holidays during which the most interesting wrestling tournaments take place. To attend these tournaments tourists should check with their host company prior to the tournament. Sometimes the tournaments take place one day prior to a national holiday and sometimes they take place on the very day of the holiday. The most popular tournaments are:
- Post-holiday regional naadams (see the dates from the calendar of events at www.mongolia.travel)
- Mongol Pride Day, the first day of winter according to Lunar calendar (mid November);
- Independence Day, November 26;
- Democracy and Human Rights Day, December 10;
- National Liberation Day, December 29; This is the third most watched wrestling tournament after the State Naadam and Tsagaan Sar Eve’s. In this tournament only the best 128 wrestlers qualify to participate. The winner receives the President’s Cup.
- Constitution Day, January 13;
- Tsagaan Sar Eve (Lunar New Year Eve), Tsagaan Sar Eve wrestling is the second most famous wrestling tournament after the State Naadam’s.
- Patriots’ Day, March 1;
- Army Day, March 18;
In addition to these state funded tournaments, many tournaments are funded by companies, organizations and even by families and private individuals.
Can a tourist wrestle in naadam?
It is very hard to wrestle in the State and aimag naadams. The organizer of the wrestling tournaments is a non-government body, the Mongolian Wrestling Association, and the Association works all year round to watch and register every wrestler so that the ranking of wrestlers for any significant tournament goes smoothly and without controversy. So, for any wrestler who is not in the ranking database participation in important tournaments is impossible.
However, soum (county) naadams are quite relaxed. Most new wrestlers, young adults and students, try their first wrestling at soum naadams. And some soums accept tourists to wrestle in their naadam. The most tourist-friendly naadam takes place in Khatgal town near Khuvsgul Lake. Khatgal’s naadam wrestling tournament has accepted tourists for the past decade and many tourists have wrestled there. However, no foreign tourist has thus far won a soum naadam. If one does win a soum naadam, his official title will be Soum’s Elephant. But remember, you’ll probably be folded over in the first round and be obliged to wrestle the soum’s top wrestler!