Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Day at Turkey's 653-Year-Old Oil-Wrestling Tournament

 

Lube Up! The Strange Art of 

Turkish Oil Wrestling 

When the developers of Street Fighter IV announced that they had been working on a character from a martial art no one had seen in a fighting game before, speculation ran wild. When the big reveal came the gaming community could not argue with the original statement.

 

  Hakan's listed style was unique in the history of fighting games, and unlike 'electricity', 'soul power' or 'yoga' it was an entirely legitimate martial art. Hakan was a Turkish wrestler or an 'oil wrestler', competing in the sport of Yagli Gures, a traditional wrestling method whose annual championship can be traced back six hundred and forty years. If you haven't seen it before and decide to look it up on YouTube, you're in for a surprise.

 
The tradition of Yagli Gures apparently dates back to the Janissaries, the elite soldier class of the Ottoman Empire. Janissaries were originally prisoners of war but soon the tradition advanced to enslaving children from Christian families and keeping them to a Spartan regime of training and education. 
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They are peculiar because despite essentially being enslaved, Janissaries were given salaries and pensions, were well respected, and were considered among the elite of Ottoman society. 
 
The Janissaries trained extensively for combat and wrestling was a part of this. Tradition has it that the Janissaries used olive oil to either keep their bodies cool, or mixed with herbs to ward off mosquitoes through hours of training. At some point the oil became inseparable from the wrestling itself and its effects on the matches themselves far outweigh anything it can do for sun or mosquito protection in the modern era.
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Now if you have not grappled much without a gi, the difference a bit of sweat can make on grips and control is remarkable. A little unnatural grease goes a long way to making a grappler near impossible to grab a hold of, let alone submit or pin. The search for a way to achieve this without detection in most grappling sports has been on for years. 
 
 Yoshihiro Akiyama, in a move which should have seen him blacklisted from MMA for life, famously had his cornermen empty two bottles of Olay over him when he fought Kazushi Sakuraba. 
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 Akiyama getting caught doing this basically undermined his judo career too because he had repeatedly been accused of greasing his gi pretty consistently—retorting that he was just a sweaty guy.
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 Georges St. Pierre got in trouble over vaseline applied to his shoulders by a second against B.J. Penn, Anderson Silva globbed on some extra in his second fight against Chael Sonnen (and proceeded to grab a fist full of Sonnen's shorts whenever he needed to).
 
 The classic method for grapplers who are desperate for even the slightest edge is to take a hot shower shortly before competing, shovel on moisturiser with an ice cream scoop while the pores are open and then towel off the excess. When the wrestler begins sweating in the match he sweats out the moisturiser as well.
The dynamic of Yagli Gures is far removed from most styles of wrestling because of the wrestlers' oiled bodies and the lengthy periods bouts can run on for (up to forty minutes before extra periods).
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  Consequently much time is spent with the wrestlers leaning on each other in collar ties, slipping free any time the other man attempts something clever. The most important tournament, Kırkpınar, dates back to 1346 and takes place on turf in Edirne, the former Ottoman capital.  Often the grass is as slick as the wrestlers. This results in tie ups in which the feet of both men start sliding around like they've stood on vomit in front of the urinal at a wedding. 
 
 But Yagli Gures has other stipulations which remove it from most other traditional forms of wrestling. Firstly the objective is not to pin the opponent's shoulders to the mat, it is to 'show his navel to the heavens'. If you go belly up, you lose. 
 
This means that sit outs are not a feature you will see—further explaining the enormous reliance on collar ties and snap downs. Check out this match which is called as one man scrambles and allows his belly to turn upwards in what would be a fairly normal turn to attempt a switch in the wrestling most are familiar with.
 
So in Yagli Gures combatants wear traditional leather trousers known as a kispet. These too are covered in oil and can reportedly weigh up to ten kilograms when saturated. However, the wrestlers can grab a hold of the material and make use of the waistband to turn their man. 
 
But that's not all, wrestlers may insert their arm into the kispet and use this as a handle to turn their opponent.It seems strange, but consider how often the Miyao brothers 'pants' opponents in competition. Getting a grip inside of the waistband often provides the best control and it is exceptionally hard to strip grips from inside your own trousers. Plus there's always the chance that if you threaten to pull the guy's pants to his knees, he'll turn to his back just to retain some dignity.
 
And before we get outraged over the inserting of hands into the kaspit, let's remember that sportsmanship is a huge deal in Yagli Gures. Junk grabbing is illegal and doesn't occur as often as you would think. Meanwhile the butt drag remains an accepted part of many forms of amateur wrestling, complete with optional Andre the Giant style, Finger of Fudge!
 
 Yagli Gures might not be an internationally popular sport but it is an important part of Turkey's combat sports history and the yearly championship is the longest running competition in the world. Fifth on the medal table in wrestling at the summer Olympics, Turkey's wrestling pedigree cannot be disputed.
 
 In fact the turk—the catching of one of the opponent's legs between your own from the top position in order to prevent them from returning to their knees—was so named because when Turkey rocked up to the 1948 London Olympics they picked up twelve medals in just their second Olympics and the team made extensive use of the turk throughout. 
 
You will also notice, if you Youtube some oil wrestling, that leg entanglements take on great importance there due to the slipperiness of the upper body. As Billy Robinson pointed out, the Turk wasn't a new technique by any means in the forties but the Turks drew attention to it in a big way.
 In one of his many books, The Way to Live, the great George Hackenschmidt included an exercise which he learned from the Turkish wrestlers he had met. This consisted of placing one hand against the wall, leaning heavily onto it, before removing the hand, falling towards the wall, whirling the body 180 degrees and slamming the other hand into the wall, repeated rapidly for an extended period. 
 
Strangely enough this wall slapping sounds eerily similar to the infamous Ottoman Slap which I receive emails about once in a blue moon. Another one which started with Ottoman soldiers, the Ottoman Slap is a wide, near straight armed swing which connects with the meat of the hand.
 
 It was trained by the slapping of wet marble and its reason for existing was apparently for the battlefield rather than for a fist fight with a trained boxer. The idea was that you can't punch armour, but a full swing to a helmet with a palm which had been smashed against marble for years might do enough to jar the opponent. That being said there is so little material on the Ottoman Slap it might well not have existed.
 
At any rate, Turkey's contribution to combat sports over the years has been enormous and its history in the fields of combative sport and military methods—both mythical and documented—make for fascinating reading. 
 
If you find yourself at a loss while cooking the dinner this Friday evening, throw some olive oil on the worktop and start training your Ottoman slap. If your partner comes in inquiring about the racket, up-end the bottle over yourself and settle it over some Yagli Gures. Hakan would be proud.
 

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