Crucible Mongolia: Wrestling Champions Made on the Steppes

Antonio Graceffo

 

The Mongolian steppes are relatively flat, devoid of trees and buildings. In summer, they are covered in low, thick grass of the deepest green that meets the blue skies of a country that only has a handful of rainy days per year. In winter, the temperature drops as low as -40 degrees. Snow blankets the earth and green is replaced by white. Forty percent of the country’s 3 million people still live in gers (yurt tent-houses), earning their living by herding animals. True nomads, they take down their houses and move their families and animals to fresh pastures with the change of seasons, as their ancestors have done for thousands of years.

 

Unlike the ancient Mongols, many modern herders use motorcycles and trucks, but camel riding is not uncommon and horseback riding is a normal aspect of everyday life. Apart from the blue skies, the livestock and the horses, a staple of Mongolian pastoralism is wrestling. Boys born on the steppes begin wrestling at age 5. They grow up in families in which their older brothers, fathers, and uncles also wrestled. And they are surrounded by peers who grew up the same way, with wrestling as one of the most common pastimes.

 

Thousands of miles away in Nagoya, Japan’s fourth-largest city, sumo wrestler Hakuhō Shō dominated the July sumo tournament. In recent years, there had been calls for his retirement as Yokozuna, sumo’s top rank. But his performance in this tournament solidified in the minds of his fans and critics alike why he is deserving of the title. The Mongolians watching the match via satellite, however, were not surprised by his victories. They believe that wrestling prowess is genetic, passed from father to son.

 

Born Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal, in Mongolia, the wrestler known as Hakuhō Shō is the son of famed Mongolian wrestling champion Monkhbat Jigjid, Mongolia’s first Olympic medalist and seven-time winner of the Naadam wrestling championships, a tournament originally established by Genghis Khan himself. For his extraordinary accomplishments, Monkhbat Jigjid was awarded the title "Darkhan Avarga" (Invincible Champion). It seems only logical that the son of the Invincible Champion should become a sumo Yokozuna.

 

Dandar Jamsran, coach of Mongolia’s wrestling high school, said “Hakuho is the child of such a great person. This is why when Hakuho gave an interview recently, he mentioned how his father participated in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and showed off his father’s Olympic silver medal.”

 

 

The Japanese, like the Mongolians, have a deep wrestling culture and reverence for their elders. During the modernization of Japan, the Meiji Restoration, the samurai class were effectively stripped of their titles and powers. In 1876, they were forced to cut off their distinctive top knots and forbidden from wearing their swords. The sumo, however, were restored by the emperor Meiji, becoming a national symbol of power and pride.

 

 Since 1998, five of the six wrestlers promoted to sumo’s highest rank of Yokozuna, were Mongolians. The reigning Yokozuna, going into the July 2021 tournament was the 36-year-old Hakuhō Shō, who has held the title of Yokozuna since 2007. Additionally, he holds the record for the most top division championships, most undefeated championships, most consecutive championships, most career wins, and most top division wins. Many have called him the greatest sumo wrestler of all time.

 

The most anticipated match of the July 2021 tournament pitted Yokozuna Hakuhō Shō against Ozeki (second rank) Terunofuji, who is also Mongolian. Having two foreigners competing in the oldest and most revered Japanese sport is similar to the final game of the baseball World Series being played between Mexico and Canada, while the Americans sit back and watch.

 

After the tournament, Mongolia’s Terunofuji was promoted to sumo’s highest rank, becoming the 73rd Yokozuna in sumo history. Written records about Yokozuna promotions extend back to 1749, when Maruyama Gondazaemon became the third Yokozuna. Now, nearly 300 years later, the fifth Mongolian will reign over Japan’s oldest, and most culturally significant, sport.

 

Mongolia breeds champion wrestlers and in recent years, Mongolians have consistently won medals at the world level in both sambo (Russian submission fighting) and judo. One FC, Asia’s largest mixed martial arts organization, is also experiencing a flood of Mongolians who fight ferociously and impressively, attracting the world’s attention to this tiny country, sandwiched between China and Russia.

 

 

The Mongolian national sport is bokh, a form of wrestling, contested between men, wearing an open-chested shirt, briefs, and riding boots. The opponents are permitted to grab any part of their opponent’s clothing, and a win is determined by who hits the ground first. Similar wrestling styles exist in other countries across the region. China has shuai jiao wrestling, where competitors wear a judo-style kimono top, but unlike bokh, they are not permitted to grab their opponent’s trousers.

 

In Korea there is ssireum, where competitor’s may grab each other’s belts, but not their shirts, as they are shirtless. The Central Asian republics are home to a number of styles of koresh or belt wrestling, which are also similar to but not exactly the same as Mongolian bokh. One of the biggest differences between bokh and other regional styles, apart from being able to grab both the trousers and the shirt, is that Mongolian wrestlers use the riding boots to kick or sweep an opponent’s feet out from under him. Even when Mongolians transition to international freestyle wrestling, judo, or MMA, they sometimes rely on these unique Mongolian techniques to earn a surprise win.

 

A master of sport in wrestling, Damdinbazariin Ganbold said that “there are quite a lot of techniques in bokh, 30 to 40 basic techniques. And if we include the other branches, it amounts to almost 800 techniques. When we wrestle in different sports and use bokh techniques, the competitors cannot respond, since they have no idea what they’re dealing with.”

 

Choijiljav Kh, assistant wrestling coach at the Mongolian State University of Physical Education (MSUE), said that one reason why Mongolians have done so well in sumo is because “our Mongolian bokh has no weight restrictions.” With no weight classes, an 80-kilogram Mongolian may be forced to wrestle against a 140-kilogram opponent. When these Mongolians compete in international sports, it is much easier for them to face an opponent their own size. “Secondly, I believe that the traditional bokh wrestlers’ skills serve as a basis for the success in sumo. Traditional bokh holds (gripping the briefs) are similar to sumo. And both of these sports determine winners and losers by who falls on the ground.”

 

For the Japanese, sumo is more than a sport. It is a display of pageantry, ceremony, and tradition. Choijiljav Kh believes that this is another similarity to Mongolian wrestling. “Mongolian bokh has etiquette and sportsmanship. It has honor. Competitors have respect for each other.” Before wrestling, the opponents perform the eagle dance, greeting Tengri, the sky spirit, as well as paying respect to the monks, dignitaries, coaches, and others in attendance.

 

 

Mongolians also respect their ancestors and their heritage, explained Choijiljav Kh. “They are in a strange country to represent their mother nation. If they love their country, they will do their best. They also represent Mongolia’s face and reputation.”

 

Bulganhuu Chuluunjav, a bokh wrestling, judo, and sambo champion, explained, “These wrestlers know that they have to uphold Mongolian culture and traditions. This carries a lot of weight.”

 

Dandar Jamsran said that the Mongolians in sumo have invested everything they have, “which is their body and mind. Another factor to consider as well is their heritage. Maybe one of their family or grandparents wrestled. It can serve to push these children to success.”

 

As a coach, Dandar has had several students at juryo and makuu ranks, lower professional sumo ranks, which are high enough to earn a good living, while not approaching Ozeki or Yokozuna. He said that the Mongolians’ “competition ability is higher; secondly is the natural environment factors; third is the heritage and genetic factors, which have the biggest impact on their success.”

 

A master of sport in wrestling, Damdinbazariin Ganbold similarly credited the natural environment as well as genetic factors as determinants of Mongolia’s success in sumo. “Mongolians are closely acquainted with nature. Families follow their livestock, eating and drinking pure and organic natural foods. Even the animals do the same. This results in a healthy and robust body. When a herder woman and man marry, their combined robustness means the children are connected to nature.”

 

 

Specifically, Damdinbazariin Ganbold thinks that herding on the open steppes is an important reason why Mongolians are champions in sumo, judo, and sambo. He said that the herders care for their animals all day. “The animals will attack, dash, escape and headbutt you, and you have to be ready to deal with that. Take milking a mare, for example -- they may lash out and run away. So, you have to be able to wrestle them. Mongolians are natural bokh wrestlers if raised in this way.”

 

Beyond the cultural connection is a real connection between bokh and sumo in terms of techniques. According to Dandar Jamsran, “With Mongolian bokh as a base, we can participate in any other type of wrestling styles. Sumo, freestyle wrestling, judo, sambo, or whatever else. Our nation’s culture, tradition, and lifestyle are affected by bokh.”

 

Narantsogt Davaanyam, a 25-year-old Mongolian sumo wrestler in the lower division whose Japanese name is Sadanohikari Shinta, explained that newly promoted Mongolian Yokozuna Teranofuji is a hero and an inspiration for him. They both began with Mongolian wrestling, at a young age, under the same teacher, Coach Shiirev, a provincial champion.

 

“Leg techniques, attacking to get under the legs and such techniques were popularized by Mongolian wrestlers,” Narantsogt Davaanyam explained. “These techniques had existed in sumo before, but due to the excess weight, attempting them was extremely risky. And there’s the added rule of losing the match by ring out.”

 

If a sumo wrestler is thrown out of the ring, he loses the match. As Mongolian wrestling has no such rule, this presents an unfamiliar challenge for the Mongolians. Sumo wrestlers are also bigger than bokh wrestlers – they can weigh as much as 300 kilograms, whereas top Naadam winners in Mongolia are generally between 120 and 140 kilograms. When the Mongolians go to Japan, they are high school students, much smaller than the average sumo.

 

 

Narantsogt Davaanyam said that he only weighed about 85 kilograms when he went to Japan. Apart from learning sumo techniques, the trainees are encouraged to gain weight. After becoming heavier, they may find it difficult to do some of the previously used techniques.

 

“Those who weigh 200 or 300 kilograms can only attack forward. Those who make use of techniques mostly are lighter wrestlers. Mongolians developed/popularized the utilization of techniques in that way,” Narantsogt Davaanyam said.

 

The training in Japan is an important component to the success of the Mongolians, according to Choijiljav Kh. “Professional training, from the Japanese coaches, is there. Since sumo is such a traditional and historically relevant sport, it is taught and practiced at an extremely high and detailed level. There’s this proper training waiting for the Mongolians when they get to Japan. The wrestler children already have a great base, including a strong body. Because of their interest in wrestling and a desire to win, our children have a very high chance of success.”

 

It has been said that success occurs when preparation meets opportunity. All of the more than 600 sumo wrestlers in Japan are given the same opportunity for success, but the 20 or so Mongolians have disproportionately produced champions. Living and training in a Japanese sumo stable, learning the ancient techniques, as they have been taught for centuries, is the opportunity. Being born on the herding and wrestling steppes of Mongolia is the preparation. Forged in the crucible of Mongolia, bokh wrestlers have conquered sumo and are becoming a force in judo and MMA.

 

Author Bio:

Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent over 20 years in Asia studying, fighting, and researching martial arts. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. He works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books include: The Wrestler’s Dissertation,, Warrior Odyssey, Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion, and A Short Course on the Chinese Economy.

 

All images copyright © Antonio Graceffo.

 

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