Oil Wars – The Misunderstood World of Turkish Oil Wrestling

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Turkish oil wrestlers are supposed to have triangular backs, somewhat-fleshy midsections, and bulging biceps. Ali Gurbuz has 10 percent body fat, stands 6-feet-5-inches tall, and has comparatively thin arms. In terms of tradition, the two-time Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Champion should have the physique of Dan Henderson. Instead, he looks more like an olive-skinned Alexander Gustafsson.

Gurbuz is in the middle of the oil-soaked green grass of Kirkpinar’s competition field in eastern Turkey wearing a pair of black, leather lederhosen (called “kispets”) and a confident smile. In the stands, 15,000 fans wait for the wrestling to start, many hoping for Gurbuz’s third consecutive winning of the 14-karat Gold Championship Belt worth more than $250,000. Gurbuz is the biggest star in a sport more popular internationally for it’s unique rules, oily traditions, and BuzzFeed-worthy photos than champion athletes on a quest for historical significance.

Turkish oil wrestling, called “Yagli Gures” (yaw-luh gresh), is rich in historical value. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognized Kirkpinar as a World Heritage Site, and the Turkish government is working on approval to have the tournament recognized as the world’s longest continuous athletic event, dating back to 1640. In addition to the claims of continuity, the Turks also assert that the 2013 contest is the 652nd running of the event, which would make it the most prolific annual athletic event in world history.

The objective of the sport is simple: wrestlers attempt holds largely by grasping the kispet and forcing their opponents to place their “umbilicus to God.” Anytime a wrestler’s belly button is exposed completely to the sky, he loses. Although no firm history exists on why olive oil is used, the utility of preventing grass burns and further irritation from hours spent shirtless in the grass makes it both useful and perfectly sensible to the participants.

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Wrestlers are divided into 15 classes, with weight, experience, and talent factored together to compile each class. The wrestlers enter the field in waves, with officials pouring buckets of olive oil all over the athletes. Wrestlers assist each other to ensure they are completely covered. Whereas sweat is wiped from the body of an Olympic wrestler to promote better holds, oil wrestlers are encouraged to add more oil throughout the match. They will also cool down with water and wipe the excess, irritable oil from their eyes. A lack of sportsmanship is akin to a lack of honor, so many Turkish wrestlers will wipe the oil from their opponent’s eyes and help evenly disperse any excess oil.

Gurbuz has plenty of admirers, and an equal number of competitors who would have welcomed the chance to end the stringy wrestlers three-peat pursuit of the Golden Title. By the end of the two-day tournament, only one wrestler—teammate and close friend Ismail Balaban—remained with a chance to knock Gurbuz from a history that extends beyond the days of the Ottoman Empire.

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Evren Oz offers his guests a rack of lamb and a bowl of fresh yogurt. The 22-year-old engineer and former Turkish freestyle wrestler is sitting beneath a tent in the rear of the Kirkpinar wrestling grounds. Although Istanbul and other Turkish coastal cities enjoy warm days with cool breezes, in Edirne, an inland city not far from the Bulgarian border, summer days can reach as high as 100 degrees.

Beneath the red and yellow big top, Oz remains playful as he sweats with each nibble of lamb, having just finished a short training session with Steve Maxwell, a 60-year-old fitness coach, Relson Gracie black belt, and former Division I wrestler. Maxwell, who lives on the road full-time, is in Edirne on a pilgrimage to watch Turkish oil wrestling and learn new strength and conditioning techniques to implement into his training course.

After noticing Maxwell’s cauliflower ears and striking up a conversation in English the day before, Oz offered to be Maxwell’s wrestling partner. Oz had met Maxwell early this morning and given us a tutorial in the hidden aspects of the well-publicized wrestling event.

“This is the most important sports event in Turkey,” says Oz. “The money is not the biggest prize. For many wrestlers, they want to be part of history.”

Chokes are common among the more fiery contestants, and on their feet, a looping open-handed slap to the back of the neck is frequent, violent, and meant to disorient. Wrestlers reach down each other’s trousers to gain leverage and impinge breathing. In addition, the Turks often push an opponent’s nose in the grass as a way to limit oxygen and add extra pressure to their kispet holds.

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“You’ve never felt pressure like this,” says Maxwell, recounting his training session. “ The arm down your pants is leveraging the back of your rib cage and pulling your trousers around your diaphragm. It’s the most brutal thing I’ve ever felt.”

The brutality of the sport is what attracts new competitors every year. Although Turkey’s tournament is limited to Turkish passport holders, oil wrestling is booming in popularity in both the Netherlands and Japan. Like a modern day Spartan Run, the oil wrestling tradition is based on the simple masculine idea of triumphing over pain, and there are plenty of former Olympic–style wrestlers looking for that type of new challenge.

“Most people don’t understand that these men have been training for many years,” says Oz, as he slugs back a shot of Ouzo. “These men will wrestle for three or four hours in the heat and never quit.”

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*****

As a sign of respect, Gurbuz and opponent Ismail Balaban clasp each other’s hands and wait for the call of the judges to start the competition. It’s a sign of respect between competitors who’ve managed to wrestle their way past a half-dozen competitors to meet in the finals.

In the previous round, Balaban was only supposed to tire out his massive opponent, Recep Kara, a two-time champion, whose streak for the belt was snapped by Gurbuz two years earlier. Balaban, a blonde Turk standing 5-foot-11-inches and weighing 200 pounds, was outweighed and outclassed, but after 50 minutes of wrestling, he earned a takedown and upset the storyline being written in the newspaper. Gurbuz had ripped the belt from Kara’s hands two years earlier, a surprise victory for everyone who followed the sport. Many thought it was a fluke, but Gurbuz repeated, and now stands in the grass, less than an hour from meeting his fate.

“Now, I think Balaban will let Gurbuz win,” says Oz, who has moved from the tent to the grassy field. “They are from the same town and train together. They will make it fun to watch, but Gurbuz will win.”

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With the fix in, the expectations for dramatics were tampered, but the crowd, shaded from the 100-degree heat, rallied on in support of a miracle. Half seemed to wish for the upset, half for history.

The pair is summoned to begin the pre-match rituals of crowd recognition and a choreographed series of warm-ups once meant to get the competitors ready for action, but now only used out of respect for tradition. Gurbuz and Balaban acknowledge all four sides of the field, with the largest applauses coming from their home side of Antalya. There are three main cities for Turkish oil wrestling (Antalya, Karamursel, and Ankara), and fans with strong allegiances are segregated to reduce any threats of violence in the crowd. There are also more than 100 police officers on the field, and another several hundred monitoring the surrounding fairgrounds where thousands of Turks celebrate the event with carnival rides and an abundance of air-rifle games.

image descGurbuz and Balaban finish their acknowledgements, and beneath a massive banner of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—the founder of modern Turkey—and the Turkish flag, the duo begin the feeling-out period. Their gentle patting of heads is common across combat sports and even more noticeable between familiar competitors. After a few moments of silence, Balaban crouches down and looks for a leg attack. He’s trying to grab the leg of the kispet, elevate it, and drive Gurbuz to the ground, but the effort is instantly repelled by the long arms and superior leverage of the champion.

“Oh! He is fucking Spartacus!” says Oz. “My God. How do you ever beat him?”

After a series of clubs to the back of Gurbuz’s head and another deep shot by Balaban, it’s obvious that there is no fix in. Balaban in on the field to make history, not be its footnote.

Gurbuz and Balaban enter their tenth minute, panting with exhaustion. The sun is beating down on their bodies, but Balaban is pressing forward, reaching up to slap the giant’s head before feinting a shot and grabbing for the kispet. For his offense, Gurbuz uses his long arms to snatch the front of Balaban’s kispet. The champs arms are so long that—even when leveraging up—Balaban can’t reach his kispet.

After another shot attempt, Gurbuz slips, allowing Balaban to pull a front headlock and spin behind for a takedown. The crowd buzzes. “Will Gurbuz lose?”

The champ waits out the pain. The sun is shining off his back. Balaban shoves his face into the ground and points his elbow into the champ’s ribs. Gurbuz remains motionless. Suddenly, after several long moments, Gurbuz blasts from bottom like Superman escaping from beneath a pile of rubble. The champ gets to his feet and sends Balaban flailing to the side. He covers, and within a minute, he has a hold of Balaban’s kispet at the right knee and through the waistband. In a deep squat, he roars to his feet, pulls the kispet, and drives Balaban to his back. Gurbuz has won his third Kirkpinar, the Golden Belt, and a place in history. Fans rush the field and hoist the champion onto their shoulders.

Gurbuz thanks the crowd as he walks toward the Antalya side, and Balaban give him a quick hug and respectful forehead-to-forehead tap. Gurbuz nods and continues his aim for something unseen between the merging crowds.

From the Antalya side, a small, elderly woman emerges in a headscarf. It’s Gurbuz’s mother. The champion reaches down, grabs her by the face, and kisses her on the head several times. She’s weeping, but wraps her arms around the waist of her champion, oil and all.

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GOLDEN POINTS

With the oil and general size of the participants, match-ending moves didn’t always happen in a spectator-friendly timeframe. To compensate, points were introduced in 2010 and have helped limit the length of the longest matches to around one hour (an improvement from the two-day matches of the 20th century). Wrestlers have 40 minutes to secure a win by traditional means, then a 10-minute overtime. If no points have been scored, it goes to Golden Point—the next point scored wins.

THE WRESTLING SPIRIT

According to Eugene Kincaid’s book In Every War But One, oil wrestling has a direct effect on the way the United States Army trains their soldiers to respond in times of group captivity. During the Korean War, the North Koreans imprisoned thousands of soldiers from around the world. Most were Americans, but there were also plenty of Brits and Turks. At one camp, more than one-third of all American soldiers died, while not a single Turk perished. Why?

There was no single cause of death, but after extensive research, it was found that the Americans tended to individualize the experience, while the Turks did everything as a unit. The Turkish men would wrestle every day in the yard to show the North Koreans they couldn’t be broken, and, in part, to keep up their spirits and pass the time in the dreadful conditions.

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