Mongolian wrestling

Mongolian wrestling
Mongolian wrestling
Үндэсний бөх
Mongolian warriors.jpg
Traditional Naadam festival in Mongolia, near Ulaanbaatar
Also known as bökh, Khapsagay
Focus Wrestling
Country of origin Mongolia Mongolia
Olympic sport No

Mongolian wrestling, known as Bökh (Mongolian script: ᠪᠦᠺᠡ; Mongolian Cyrillic: Бөх or Үндэсний бөх), is the folk wrestling style of Mongols in Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and other regions. Bökh means "durability".

Wrestling is the most important of the Mongolian culture's historic "Three Manly Skills", that also include horsemanship and archery. Genghis Khan considered wrestling to be an important way to keep his army in good physical shape and combat ready. The Manchu dynasty (1646–1911) Imperial court held regular wrestling events, mainly between Manchu and Mongol wrestlers. There are several different versions, Mongolian (in the country of Mongolia and in Tuva of Russia), Buryatian (in the Buryatia of Russia) and Inner Mongolian (in northern China).



Cave paintings in the Bayankhongor Province of Mongolia dating back to Neolithic age of 7000 BC show grappling of two naked men and surrounded by crowds. The art of Bökh appears on bronze plates discovered in the ruins of the Xiongnu empire (206 BC–220 AD). Originally, Bökh was a military sport intended to provide mainly strength, stamina and skills training to troops. Genghis Khan (1206–1227)[1] and the all later Emperors of the Mongol Empire (1206–1368) and also the Emperors of later Khanates were keen to support the sport for this reason so wrestling events were included in local festivals, or Naadam. Wrestling became a key factor when deciding the candidate rankings in imperial martial exams plus outstanding wrestlers were entitled to high distinctions.[2]

The Secret History of the Mongols (written in Mongolian in 1240 AD) in Chapter 4, Paragraph 140 records a wrestling match between Buri the Wrestler and Belgutei that took place in Eastern Mongolia on the Year of the Monkey (1200 AD):

One day Genghis Khan had Buri Bokh and Belgutei wrestle each other. Buri Bokh belonged to the Jurkhin tribe. Formerly Buri Bokh was able to hold on to Belgutei by one hand, drop him to the ground by one leg and keep him immobile there on the ground. Buri Bokh was a nationally famous wrestler. However on this occasion when Buri Bokh and Belgutei were made to wrestle with each other Buri Bokh fell on the ground despite being an undefeated champion. Belgutei managed with great effort to press Buri Bokh down at the shoulder and proceeded to sit on his belt area. He then glanced at Genghis Khan from the corner of his eye. Genghis Khan bit his lower lip. Belgutei understood the meaning of this, held Buri Bokh firmly, jerked him at the chest and buttocks and broke his back. Buri Bokh said with his back broken: “I never lost a match to Belgutei. I fell purposefully to please the Khan out of fear but now I have lost my life.” Having said this he died. Belgutei broke his back, dragged him and then left his body. The eldest of the seven sons of Kabul Khan was Okhinbarkhag. The second eldest was Bartanbaatar. Yesukhei Baatar (father of Genghis Khan) was his son. The third son (of Kabul Khan) was Khutugt Monkhor. Buri Bokh was his son. Whenever Buri Bokh wrestled he far outperformed the sons of Bartanbaatar. He was close friends with the brave sons of Barkhag. This was how the national wrestling champion Buri had his back broken by Belgutei.

A. Heikel of the Finnish expedition to Mongolia wrote about a wrestling competition the expedition witnessed during their ten-day stay in Urga (now Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia) from 27 July till 7 August 1891:

"Now there took place an entire week of wrestling between Mongolian athletes. The location was an open public square in front of a temple in the middle of the city. Thousands of spectators had gathered all around. These were kept in order by police agents. Ladies of high rank were jostling their way through the midst of the crowd. Only one side of the square was reserved for the lamas, who were dressed in shiny robes of red and yellow and sat with their legs crossed in long rows on both sides of a baldachin, under which was enthroned on an altar the "Gegen", that is to say, the "God-Man" sent from Tibet. In front of the throne stood two attendants with ceremonial tiger-skins slung over their shoulders. The champions advanced two at a time, coming out from opposite sides of the square, accompanied by their seconds. They had their chests, legs and arms exposed and advanced doing most comic dances, certainly to ensure the elasticity of their muscles during the last minute. As soon as one of the wrestlers touched the ground, no matter how lightly, he was judged the loser of the bout. Then the victor proceeded to leap his way forward and prostrated himself before the god, offering his thanks for the victory. After that he went to the judges to have his name written down, in order to fight the next day with another opponent who had equally brought down his own opponent that same day. The prizes given to the final "invincibles" consisted of goats and sheep etc. Ten days later there was to take place a horse race in a steppe close to Urga, wherein a thousand racers would participate, but we couldn't wait until then. These kinds of national festivals, which one could call the Mongolian Olympics, take place every year, but the ones which take place every three years seem to be the most impressive."[3]

As can be seen from this text the Urga games (1778–1924) took place at the old central square which would have been located just to the north of present-day Sukhbaatar Square. The square can be seen on pre-revolutionary paintings of Urga. A 1967 Mongolian painting shows an old Urga wrestling match in detail, with the wrestlers wearing the same "Zodog" and "Shuudag" as they do in the present-day games (1924–present). The avarga (Titan) Jambyn Sharavjamts (born 1876) was a famous champion who gained recognition starting from when he was 18 years old and continued to compete with extraordinary success in state Naadams during the Qing dynasty period (until 1911), the Bogd Khan period (1911–1924) and the People's Republic of Mongolia (1924–1990). Sharavjamts was invited to take part in the state Naadam of 1945 (footage still exists) and succeeded in defeating three wrestlers at the age of nearly 70. He retired from wrestling in 1951, during the 30th anniversary of the People's Revolution with many decorations and medals including the Labor Achievement medal.

On 17 September, 2011 the Mongolian National Wrestling Match was held with the attendance of 6002 wrestlers. Thus, it has become the largest wrestling competition in the world and is recorded in the Guinness Record Book.[4]


Mongolian wrestling is the most popular national sport and a vital cultural piece for all Mongols around the world. When a male child is born in a family, Mongols wish him to become a wrestler. There are many competitions that take place each year in Mongolia, west and south-eastern Russia and northern China. The biggest one is the National Naadam festival, takes place in Mongolia between up to 1024 wrestlers.

Mongolian National Naadam

In Mongolia, the Naadam ("Game" in English) take place in July each year. The biggest competition is National Naadam competition in Ulaanbaatar that has the largest number of wrestlers and live radio and television broadcasts throughout the country. Naadam is divided into three classes based on the Mongolian administrative divisions.

Level Name Place Date Participating Wrestlers
1 1st Nation Naadam wrestling Ulaanbaatar July,11-13 524 wrestlers, 1024 in big anniversary year
2 2nd Aimag Naadam Wrestling each 21 Aimag approximately July,8-10 or middle July 128 or 256 wrestlers
3 3rd Sum Naadam Wrestling each 329 Sum early July 32 or 64 wrestlers

For the Naadam of Ulaanbaatar, the matches are held in a big stadium, while in countryside for smaller scale Naadams the matches are generally held in a small stadium or on an open grassy field; however they can also occur on a soft dirt area not littered with gravel. Since there are no weight classes in the Naadam of Mongolia, a small wrestler can compete against an opponent over twice his size. Smallest wrestlers usually weigh around 70 kg, while the biggest are over 160 kg, the median weight of a competitor at the Naadam is around 115 kg.

Traditionally the wrestlers were not randomly matched through like a drawing. The host of the Naadam had the privilege to arrange these matches and would often lend their favorites an advantage. Sometimes such arrangements would result in serious disputes between hosts and visiting wrestlers. Although the modern wrestling codes since 1980 stipulate that a lot drawing method be used, but this is usually only done at major cross-regional Naadams and championship matches. At the grassroots level the traditional system is still used.

Rank can only be attained during the Naadam festival. The number of rounds won by each wrestler determines rank. The lowest rank is the Falcon of Sum, given to the top four wrestlers at the soum level Naadam in any 329 sums of Mongolia. Highest rank is "Giant." The rank is held for life.

Level Title Mongolian Cyrillic Provision
1 Nation Undefeatable Giant of Nation Улсын дархан аварга Win 5 times in Nation Naadam Wrestling
2 Nation Wide Giant of Nation Улсын даян аварга Win 4 times in Nation Naadam Wrestling
3 Nation Ocean Giant of Nation Улсын далай аварга Win 3 times in Nation Naadam Wrestling
4 Nation Giant of Nation Улсын аварга Win 2 times in Nation Naadam Wrestling
5 Nation Lion of Nation Улсын арслан Win in Nation Naadam Wrestling
6 Nation Garuda of Nation Улсын гарьд Runner-Up in Nation Naadam Wrestling
7 Nation Elephant of Nation Улсын заан Semi-final in Nation Naadam Wrestling
8 Nation Hawk of Nation Улсын харцага Quarter final in Nation Naadam Wrestling
9 Nation Falcon of Nation Улсын начин 1/8 final in Nation Naadam Wrestling
10 Aimag Lion of Aimag Аймгийн арслан Win in Aimag Naadam Wrestling
11 Aimag Elephant of Aimag Аймгийн заан Runner-Up in Aimag Naadam Wrestling
12 Aimag Falcon of Aimag Аймгийн начин Semi-final in Aimag Naadam Wrestling
13 Sum Elephant of Sum Сумын заан Win in Sum Naadam Wrestling
14 Sum Falcon of Sum Сумын начин Semi-final in Sum Naadam Wrestling

If the wrestler achieves the same rank two years in a row the rank is decorated. For example a second time winner of the aimag level Naadam two years in a row would become a Hurts Arslan (Sharp Lion).

Danshig Naadam

Danshig Naadams are smaller scale tournaments than the National naadam, usually with 256 or 128 competitors, organized once in a year or so in countrysides to celebrate specific anniversaries of provinces or historic locations. It is unique Naadam and is smaller scale than most provincial tournaments. For example, West Region Danshig, Khangai Region Danshig, Gobi Region Danshig, East Region Danshig Naadams happen every two years.


Buryat Mongols also celebrate their own Naadam each year with their own wrestling style. Competitors come from different regions of Mongolia that has significant Buryat populations such as Dornod, Khentii, Selenge, Bulgan, Orkhon, also from Buryatia of Russia and from Inner Mongolia of China.

In 2010 the festival took place in late July in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Wrestlers competed in two weight divisions -75 kg and +75 kg. For the lighter weight, B.Batozhargal of Buryatia got the title out of 32 wrestlers and for the heavier division D.Tsogzoldorj of Mongolia (who has the National Nachin rank) got his third title in row for the past three years.

Pan-Mongol wrestling

Since 2008, the associations of Mongol wrestling in Mongolia, Russia and China have started Mongol Wrestling Tournament between all ethnic Mongols. Participants come from Mongolia, Tuva of Russia, Buryatia of Russia, Kalmyk of Russia, Altai of Russia, Inner Mongolia of China and Xinjiang of China to compete with each other in Khalkha Wrestling style. The first ever championship was held in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia in 2008, where Chimedregzengiin Sanjaadamba, who has not gotten yet a nation title, won the tournament. In 2009, it was held in Huhhot of Inner Mongolia and again Sanjaadamba won the championship, while still without a national title.

The 2010 competition took place in 15–17 July at Ulan-Ude of Buryatia, Russia. This time 2 weight categories have been created: -75 kg and +75 kg. In -75 kg division about 45 wrestlers have competed and at the 5th round top 4 were: Ivan Garmaev (Buryatia), Kh.Munkhbayar (Mongolia), M.Batmunkh (Mongolia), Seldys Mongush (Tuva). Eventually Seldys Mongush got the title on the 6th round through Kh.Munkhbayar. For the +75 kg division, there we're about the same number of competitors as in the lighter division. The top 2 where: Ch. Sanjaadamba (Lion of the Army) and D.Ragchaa (Elephant of the Nation). And again Sanjaadamba got the title, who lost in the 3rd round of this year's Naadam in Mongolia, where he failed to get a National level title.

Other tournaments

Bökhiin Örgöö, main arena of the Mongolian wrestling in Ulaanbaatar

Each year during the Lunar New year holiday of Mongolia, 256 wrestlers compete during the winter at the Wrestling Palace in Ulaanbaatar. No rank is given at this competition, but it is considered the second most important tournament after the Naadam of Mongolia. Winners of this New Year's tournament often are likely to win the summer Naadam.

Best wrestlers from each 21 aimag of Mongolia hold an annual team wrestling competition. Often teams from Khangai region and north western region (Arkhangai, Uwurkhangai and Uws) win the title, but for the 2010 competition the team from Govi-Altai aimag took the title.

There are also smaller scale tournaments throughout the year that take place at the Wrestling Palace in Ulaanbaatar, usually in October, November, May and June with 64 or 128 wrestlers.

Government organizations or sometimes even big companies also host smaller scale competitions between 32 to 64 wrestlers to celebrate like anniversaries or special occasions. This really shows how important wrestling is to Mongolian lifestyle.

Match rules

A common Mongolian wrestling match with "zasuul" of each wrestler looking on

The goal of a match is to get your opponent to touch his upper body, knee or elbow to the ground. In the Inner Mongolian version, any body part other than the feet touching the ground signals defeat.[5] There are no weight classes or time limits in a match. Especially in the Mongolian Naadam, although there are no time limits for a bout, it is generally understood that a match shouldn't take a very long time especially in the lower rounds. For example it used to take more than an hour or two for a bout to finish especially in the higher rounds with each wrestler trying to get feel of the other. This lately resulted in a policy that allows the zasuuls of the wrestlers to set up a fair grip positions between the wrestlers to finish the bout faster if the match is seemed to be going slow. Each wrestler wrestles once per round and the winner moves on to the next round the loser is eliminated from the competition.

The technical rules between the Mongolian version and what is found in Inner Mongolia have some divergence. In both versions a variety of throws, trips and lifts are employed to topple the opponent. The Inner Mongolians may not touch their opponent's legs with their hands, whereas, in Mongolia, grabbing your opponent's legs is legal. In addition, striking, strangling or locking is illegal in both varieties.


"Zasuul," literally meaning a "fixer" of the wrestler is basically an on field guide and coach of the wrestler. In lower round competitions when there are many wrestlers, most wrestlers don't have their own zasuuls. Successful wrestlers and those that get to the higher rounds get their own zasuuls. Zasuuls' role is to hold the hat of his wrestler while he wrestles and give him basically an encouragement on the field. If the match is going slowly, zasuuls for instance will slap the buttocks of his wrestler to encourage him to engage his opponent faster. Zasuuls are not technically coach in the literal sense. They are usually an elder and a friend of the wrestler who is there on the field to serve as a guide and help set up a fair competition. They don't have to be a wrestler too. When the match starts, the wrestlers are divided about evenly into left and right sides, and sometimes a zasuul will sing a praise of his wrestler to open a challenge from that side in the higher rounds, and the other side's zasuul will also respond with his own praise of his wrestler. The poetic praise of a wrestler by his zasuul comes from the wrestler with the highest rank on that side.

Starting the match

Ordos, Alagshaa/Shalbur and Oirad wrestlers begin a match locked together, while the Ujumchin, Halh and Hulunbuir styles start a bout without physical contact.

Leg contact

The Ujumchin and Hulunbuir styles permit no moves between the legs and hands, whereas the Halh variant not only allows but requires grabbing the opponent's legs.


A Hulunbuir wrestler may kick his opponent directly in the legs but that technique is not sanctioned by the other styles and banned in the official code.


Definitions of a "fall" varies between regions:

The Oirad in Xinjiang defines a fall as being when the shoulder blades touch the ground, which is similarly to the Turkish and International freestyle wrestling rules. The Inner Mongol style, shared by Hulunbuir, Ordos and Alagshaa/Shalbur styles, considers a fall to have occurred as soon as any part of the body above the knee (or ankle) touches the ground. The Halh variant, however, allows a hand to touch the ground without losing a bout.

Match courtesy

Mongolian wrestling also has certain codes of conduct that concern more with good sportsmanship. For example, when a wrestler's clothes get loose or entangled, his opponent is expected to stop attacking and help the former to re-arrange them—even though it might mean giving up a good winning opportunity. Also, when one contestant throws the other to the ground, he is supposed to help the latter get back on his feet, before he dances his way out of the field. Whether winning or losing, good manners dictate that the two opponents shake hands and salute each other and the audience, both prior to and after a bout.


The outfit of the wrestler has been developed over the ages to reflect simplicity and mobility. The standard gear of a wrestler includes:


A tight, collarless, heavy-duty short-sleeved jacket of red or blue color. Traditionally made of wool, modern wrestlers have changed to looser materials such as cotton and silk. The front is open, but tied at the back with a simple string knot, thus exposing the wrestler's chest. According to legend, on one occasion a wrestler defeated all other combatants and ripped open the jodag to reveal her breasts, showing to all she was a woman. From that day, the jodag had to reveal the wrestler's chest.


Small, tight-fitting briefs made of red or blue colored cotton cloth. These make the wrestler more mobile. Also, they prevent one's rival from easily taking advantage of long pants or to avoid material to trip upon.


Leather boots, either in traditional style (with slightly upturned toes), or commercial, Western style. The traditional style gutal are often reinforced around the sides with leather strings for the purpose of wrestling.

Inner Mongolian wrestlers may also wear a jangga, a necklace decorated with strands of colorful silk ribbons. It is awarded to those who have gained considerable renown through contests.


One of the defining features of bökh is a dance wrestlers perform as they enter the contest field and exiting at the end.

Different locales have different dancing styles. In Mongolia the wrestler imitates falcons or phoenix taking off (devee). In Inner Mongolia, the dance is supposed to be a mimicking of lions or tigers prancing (magshikh)--as represented by the Üjümchin version.

Another major variation, popular among Mongols of Inner Mongolia's northeastern Khülünbüir region, resembles deer bounding (kharailtaa). All considered, the Üjümchin "magshikh" dance seems more strikingly robust-looking, partly due to the wrestler's dazzling apparel and partly the style of the dance itself. In contrast, the phoenix style of Mongolia appears to exhibit a greater degree of elegance.

Mongol wrestling dance has its original forms in shamanistic rituals where people imitated movements of various animals. Today, apart from its aesthetic value, the dance is also regarded as a warm-up and cool-down procedure before and after an intense fight. Good wrestlers treat the dance with great earnest and are often better dancers.

Thanks to wrestling activists' tireless and ingenious efforts, this unique dance has become one of the integral and indispensable aspect of the wrestling tradition as a whole. In Inner Mongolia it has been, together with uriya, the costume, and the various rules, codified in the first wrestling Competitions Rules finalized in the late 1980s.

Successful wrestlers

Historically the most successful wrestler is recorded as Namkhai who won the Naadam 19 times and 7 times finished second. He got his first Naadam win in 1895.

Only 19 wrestlers reached Giant rank in modern era (since 1921). Badmaanyambuugiin Bat-Erdene is considered to be the most successful wrestler in the modern era with 11 championship wins. He also won Naadam for the 750th anniversary of the Secret History of the Mongols in 1990.

Most successful wrestlers are:

Name Top rank Wins Runner-up Winning years
1 Badmaanyambuugiin Bat-Erdene Undefeatable Giant 11 1 1988–1990, 1992–1999
2 Khorloogiin Bayanmönkh Undefeatable Giant 10 2 1968, 1971–1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981–1982, 1987
3 Badamdorigiin Tüvdendorj Undefeatable Giant 7 2 1939, 1941, 1945–1946, 1952–1954
4 Jigjidiin Mönkhbat Undefeatable Giant 6 4 1963–1968, 1974
5 Dariin Damdin Undefeatable Giant 5 5 1956–1960
6 Dashdorjiin Tserentogtokh Undefeatable Giant 4 5 1978, 1980, 1983–1984
7 Sharaviin Batsuuri Undefeatable Giant 2 2 1947–1948
8 Gelegjamtsiin Ösökhbayar Wide Giant 4 1 2002–2003, 2005, 2009
9 Agvaansamdangiin Sükhbat Wide Giant 3 - 2000–2001, 2004
10 Natsagiin Jamyan Wide Giant 2 1 1926–1927

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Inscriptions de l'Orkhon recueillis par l'expedition Finnoise 1890 et publiees par la Societe Finno-Ourgienne. 1892, Helsinki, p. 4
  4. ^
  5. ^ "The Maulers of Mongolia", Black Belt magazine, July 1969

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