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«William BAXTER SCOTLAND 2008 Belt Wrestling, the Oldest Sport? A salto from the 6th World Championships in Ufa, Bashkortostan, 2007 Belt wrestling ...»

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Belt Wrestling

William BAXTER



Belt Wrestling, the Oldest Sport?

A salto from the 6th World Championships in Ufa, Bashkortostan, 2007

Belt wrestling has achieved a new dynamic and is undergoing a renaissance in the 21st century. The

modern drive for its valorisation comes from the Russian Federation where several indigenous

variations are still practised. To accommodate the many variations of belt wrestling throughout the

world, the philosophy of the new International Belt Wrestling Association has been simple and logical;

it has adopted two sets of standard rules and a standard costume. Their reasoning is, that some styles do not permit trips and some do, but, in the new association, to compete without trips is called „classical style‟ and with trips is called „free style‟, in an analogy with the usages developed in the two Olympic styles. The standard costume is an attractive feature, which allows for all styles to be competed, so that no one can conclude that his or her national style or costume has been slighted.

The sport is developing rapidly and has become so prominent that President Putin of Russia attended the 6th World Championships in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, from the 9th till the 13th October

2007. A cloth belt is used in the world championships, which is a Turkic variety, rather than the old Russian belt/harness style, which was sometimes practised internationally at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, George Hackenschmidt declared that his familiarity with Russian belt wrestling helped him win an important challenge match against H.H. “Delhi” Neilson in Australia in 1905 in a Cornish (South West England) jacket style competition.

1 Then and Now in Bashkortostan Then and now; top Bashkortostan 1913, above a scene from the World Championships in Ufa 2007, which shows the ancient style of belt wrestling in one of the most modern indoor sport centres in the world.

2 A Historical Overview A bronze statuette of belt wrestling circa 6,000 years ago found at Kyafaje, near Baghdad Despite its modern northern stronghold, belt wrestling has been at the very heart of human civilisation for many centuries. Six thousand years ago, when the world‟s first civilisation evolved in Sumer in Mesopotamia, the earliest account of wrestling in Western literature (about a challenge match), was written in cuneiform, the oldest known form of writing, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, proved himself to his people as a leader by wrestling with the savage wild man Enkidu. The wild man had challenged him and, in the tale, mythology is used to assert the higher values of civilization. When Enkidu acknowledged the sovereignty of Gilgamesh the tablet has him say,

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In 1938 the American archaeologist Dr S.A. Speiser, from the University of Pennsylvania, found a 10cm. high bronze statuette of two belt wrestlers, (at Kyafaje near Baghdad) in the ruins of the temple of the Sumerian goddess Nintu, the statuette was created between 4,000 and 2800 BC. The other early civilization from that area, Akkadia, who were a Semitic people, founded the world‟s first empire.

Their king, Sargon, founded the city of Agade about 2,300 B.C. and eventually ruled over most of Mesopotamia; their language is the oldest Semitic dialect still preserved. A tablet, written in this language in Mari 3,700 years ago, is one of the earliest in Western history to mention wrestling. The king in rebuking his son for laziness says,

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No wrestling style is described but it seems reasonable to assume that it could have been a form of belt wrestling as the cultures of Uruk and Akkadia were closely connected.

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A kunde at the Kirkpinar, Turkey‟s greatest wrestling festival and on the right the Guicowar of Baroda‟s wrestlers in 1877 Belt wrestling, and all its many variations, is the most complex form of wrestling to clearly define; in schwingen the initial hold is taken on the belt, yağle güreş (Turkish oil wrestling), karakujak and the kushti of the Punjab in India and Pakistan permit the wrestlers to grip the trousers but are essentially hybrid styles. In kushti, wrestlers are permitted to hold an opponent‟s very tight costume, called a janghiya, these are specially made and are strengthened by thin cord sewn into the hems in a manner similar to the making of the Turkish wrestler‟s kispet. The majority of techniques used are variations of free style, as in Mongol wrestling. However the final of the 2005 Naadam wrestling festival in Mongolia, which can be seen on You Tube, commenced as a normal but somewhat passive free style bout, but after the intervention of the referees the bout became an example of classic belt wrestling.

Both wrestlers took hold of the shorts and waist band of their opponent and the fall was eventually won by a throw combining hold of the shorts and waist band of the defeated wrestler.

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Hosenlumpf, a trouser/belthold style, has now entirely disappeared from Austria Switzerland and Bavaria (Germany), officials of the Salzburger Rangglen Verband, when questioned by the author, stated that they had never seen it practised. The sport possibly died out due to the turbulence after the Second World War as did several other indigenous styles.

5 Rangglen The sport of rangglen is the dominant wrestling style in the Austrian Tyrol and has a very long provenance; it was first illustrated in a book printed by Hans Wurm in 1505. Its most famous annual competition, the Hagmoar vom Hundstein, was almost banned by the Archbishop of Salzburg in 1518 due to its pagan connotations and origins, but fortunately the sport and the competition have survived.

Rangglen is not a pure belt wrestling style but is a loose hold style in which it is permitted to grasp the belt. Groundwork is permitted and to win the opponent must be forced onto his back; to bridge is considered as a fall and when there is a drawn bout both wrestlers are eliminated.

Left the annual Hagmoar vom Hundstein competition in 2003; possibly the oldest annual competition in the world, to be held in the same place, and at the same time every year. Right an illustration from Das Ringerbuch, of which only one copy survives and which was probably printed by Hans Wurm of Bavaria, circa 1505

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Jörg Abderhalden, the Schwinger Konig (wrestling king) or champion of Switzerland receiving his sixth first prize in the Cazis tournament since 1998, a magnificent bull worth $8,000. His great rival Arnold Forrer received a slightly less valuable heifer, the third and fourth place winners each received a heifer and the fifth place winner received a beautiful horse. The other prize winners down to the 15th place received the prize of their choice, in descending order, from the magnificent display in the „gabentempel‟ or gift house. The programme, which went to the printers on 14th May 2007, listed 208 gabenspenders or sponsors and the total prize value was approximately $80,000

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The mediaeval wrestling styles of England were mostly belt and/or trouser hold styles; although at one period in the 12th/13th century in some areas of Southern England the hold was taken on a kind of scarf or sash as illustrated above. This sash or scarf probably developed into one of the belt hold or jacket styles once so prevalent all over England.

` Two belt wrestlers from a 13th century Misericord in Nantwich Parish Church in North West England. A Misericord is a ledge projecting from underneath the hinged seat of a choir stall in a church, on which the occupant can support himself while standing during long services. (Jaouen photo)

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Villard de Honnecourt, an architect of genius, who worked for the Cistercians monks (circa 1200/1240) and designed many of the greatest cathedrals in France including Chartres and Reims has a wrestling sketch on his plan for the chancel of l‟eglise de Cambrai (church of Cambrai). It depicts two men, naked from the waist up, each holding the waistband of the opponent‟s trousers and each with the right arm underneath the opponent‟s left arm. The manuscript is in the possession of the Bibliothèque national de France and is stored in the Département des manuscripts under, Français 19093.

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The Church of Kilteel (8th /9th century) (Jaouen photo) The Cross of Kells (8th/9th century) (Jaouen photo) On the left Rustim and Puladvand and on the right Rustim, distraught, as he recognises his dying son Suhrab by his bracelet, the illustrations are from the from the Shahnama and were printed in March 1438 (Hijiri date, 841 Ramadan 11) The Ossianic Iron Age mythology of Ireland and Scotland recounts stories about events, which are claimed to have taken place at anytime during the heroic age, from circa 800 BC to circa 500 AD. The mythological hero Cù Chulainn or Sètanta is described in the Irish national epic Táin Bó Cuailgne (Cattle raid of Cooley) as putting on his belt to wrestle on the beach of Trach Easi. This, the earliest reference to wrestling in Irish literature, refers to a challenge match in one of the Fingalian epics, first 11 written down by Christian monks in the 12th century. The story tells how the hero Setanta or Cu Chullainn saw an invading fleet arriving from Scotland and hurried to the beach of Traich Easi to meet it. Setanta was challenged by the one of the invaders to a wrestling match so he laid down his weapons and put on his belt to wrestle; his opponent died from his injuries, but his last words were that that his father would avenge him. The victim was his own son Conla and the tale shows the cultural continuity of many vastly different human cultures. In the Indian sub continent Iran and Afghanistan the same tragic tale occurs, but in this case it is the hero Rustim and his son Suhrab.

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Norway is in the same cultural area as the British Isles and Iceland, and in De Sandvigske Samlinger, Maihaugen (museum), in Lillehammer Norway there is an interesting statuette from Lom in Gudbrandsdal dating from the 12th century. The statuette depicts two belt or trouser hold style wrestlers and though undoubtedly Norwegian it could also depict wrestling in Iceland, Scotland, Ireland or England at that period.

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Glíma is of great cultural importance on Iceland and is officially recognised as the national sport, the term glíma is first recorded in Egil‟s Saga, which was written down early in the 13th century. The word glíma is from the same root as the modern English word glimpse and means something quick. Among the types of wrestling mentioned in the sagas there are descriptions of a style in which the contestants took hold on the opponent‟s belt with one hand and the outer side of the opposite trouser leg with the other. It is undisputable therefore that brókartök (trouser holds) or glíma has been practised in a similar form on the island for eleven hundred years.

13 North Germany and the Slavonic Countries

Above left, a magazine photograph of Georg Hackenschmidt of Estonia taken just before a challenge match in the Casino de Paris in January 1902 against Constant le Boucher of Belgium. Le Boucher had placed second to Hackenschmidt at the World Greco-Roman Championships in the same venue a week previously. Right, a contemporary illustration of his victory in a world Graeco-Roman Championship match, in London over the Turk, Ahmed Madarali.

George Hackenschmidt, the most famous wrestler in the world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, declared that his experience of Russian belt wrestling helped him to defeat a champion Cornish style wrestler (South West English jacket style) in Australia, but what was North German and Russian belt wrestling? The Saxon brothers, a professional strongman act whose career was pursued in circus and music hall venues, had an article and a series of photographs of belt wrestling published in the Health & Strength physical culture magazine in London in 1906 which showed some of the major techniques of the professional sport. The belt used was the harness type with two handles as illustrated below and in which tripping was forbidden. Arthur Saxon (1878/1921), the leader of the act, (his real name was Arthur Henning), was born in Leipzig. Having fought in the First World War he had suffered from malnutrition and exposure and when he tried to revive his stage career was unable to regain his former great strength and so turned to professional wrestling. Due to the poor conditions in the theatres of the time, no showers, draughty changing rooms, cold water, he soon caught pneumonia and died very quickly.

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On the left the Circus Cinisseli and on the right, six times world Greco-Roman champion, Ivan Padoubney Dr. Von Krajevsky‟s Cercle d‟amateurs de sport athlétique,perhaps the most famous wrestling club in the world, was founded on August 10th 1885, his pupils at first specialised in, “Russo-Suisse wrestling.” This comment almost certainly means belt wrestling. Michail Lukashev wrote, that calling Russian belt wrestling, “Swiss or Russian-Swiss wrestling – from the old circus championships- was a way of giving it added prestige by the use of an exotic foreign name.” The belt wrestler and strongman Pavel Stupin was an early member of Von Krayevski‟s club. Krayevski had made a practice of seeking out famous professional strongmen and wrestlers and inviting them to train in his club where they mingled with the, “Men of fashion” who were his more regular members. “One of his leading members in these early years was Ivan Lebenev, an exceptionally well built weightlifter and accepted expert and referee of French style wrestling.” (French style is of course Greco-Roman style)

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The Berlin physical culture club, Germania in 1902, note the belt wrestlers on the left.

The type of belt wrestling practised among Russian peasants for fun and prestige was quite different from the style practised by professional wrestlers in circus challenge matches.

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Free style wrestling (?) illustrated on the 13th century Ratusz (Town Hall) of Wroclaw formerly Breslau in Silesia.

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