by Jeff Meszaros
Do you like traveling? Of course you do!
There’s the food, the music, the culture, the art, and if you’re a martial artist, you can bring along your mouthguard and try the local style of fighting, whatever it may be. Depending on the place, you might also need your shorts, pants, jacket, belt or jug of oil. Because each country has its own distinct style.
Wouldn’t it be fun to travel the world to check out the grappling styles of Asia? Sure! Asia is a very big place, stretching from the Black Sea to Malaysia and there are a LOT of grappling styles on our journey, so I hope you’ve got some spare time on your hands…
Let’s say you’ve won the lottery, or robbed a bank, and now you’ve got the time and the money to go on an adventure where you stop to grapple people in each country you visit, all around the world.
I’ll go with you as we fly your private jet to all the places you’ve wanted to go, and a few you’ve never heard of. Let’s go!
Where should we start? How about in Japan? After all, their national sport is sumo wrestling and you can major in judo in university. Can you believe it? It’s true. But we’ll talk about that later. For now, let’s get you fitted for a pair of those sumo shorts.
Hey, you want to hear something crazy? Sumo wrestlers weren’t always super fat. It’s true. In fact, if you look at really old pictures of sumo wrestlers, they were just super bad-ass Japanese guys who looked like muscular basketball players sporting a kind of “Do you want some of this?” facial expression.
Originally, sumo was just what bored samurai did in their free time. The idea was to make your opponent touch the ground with anything besides his feet, but then they added the idea that you could win by pushing your opponent out of that ring and, boom, suddenly it was better to be as heavy as a garbage truck. Come to think of it, how much do you weigh? Is that all?
Fine, you’re a bit too light to be taken seriously in the world of sumo wrestling. But maybe that’s not so bad, since the world of sumo wresting has been going through a few rough spots lately. For one thing, because so many people bet on the outcome of the matches, some of the wrestlers were caught taking bribes to throw their matches. It was a big deal.
Also, because newcomers to the sport go through kind of a hazing by older wrestlers, there was one incident where a guy was beaten to death after getting whacked with a beer bottle. It was part of the tradition of making sure the new wrestlers get toughened up, kind of like the movie “A Few Good Men” where a young marine is killed after some other marines are told to give him a thorough hazing by an angry Jack Nicholson.
Anyway, my point is, if you join a sumo stable, there’s a good chance that someone will hit you and then, once you step into the ring, someone else will ask you to lose on purpose in exchange for some money. Any questions? No? Alright, have fun! See you tomorrow. I’m going to have some sushi.
Most places have only one style of grappling to speak of. Or, at least, just one style with many different versions. But Japan has two distinct styles, since sumo and judo aren’t very similar. So you’ll be trying out both. Besides, I still have a few more restaurants I want to visit.
So, where were we? Oh, right, Judo. Where did that come from? Amazingly, it can be traced back to the work of just one guy: Jigoro Kano. He was a student of traditional Japanese jiu-jitsu and, one day, he thought “This stuff is super-dangerous! So we can’t really practice it against one another without maybe crippling one another! I should make a style where we don’t do any of the super-dangerous stuff and then, that way, we’ll be able to practice it against one another at full-speed and with full resistance, just like a real fight!” and that’s what he did. The result was judo which, for a while, was called Kano jiu-jitsu.
The traditional jiu-jitsu people were, of course, not too happy with what Kano had done and they decided to call him out. “Hey!” they said “If you think you’re all that and a bag of chips, why don’t you prove it?” they asked. I’m paraphrasing here, of course. Being a man with a formidable mustache, Kano accepted and they set up some matches at the Tokyo police academy between Kano’s students and a group representing older-style jiu-jitsu. I wasn’t there, but I heard that Kano’s students won every match, hands down.
So, after that, judo spread around Japan and around the world. Now, you can practice it pretty much anywhere. It’s even in the Olympics, along with boxing, wrestling and taekwondo. Considering there are only four combat sports in the Olympics, and there are about a million different martial arts around the world that want to be in the Olympics, that’s quite a feather for Kano to have in his hat, if you know what I mean.
The idea, in case you have been living in a cave for the last hundred or so years, is to throw your opponent flat on his back. If he lands on his side, that’s a half point and if he lands on his bum, that’s a quarter point. The half-points add up, but the quarter points don’t. Also, you’re allowed to do chokes and armlocks, but they don’t give you much time on the ground because Japanese people are busy so they don’t have a lot of free time to watch you roll around on the ground.
So, put on this judo kimono and this cool belt and get out there. Okay then, I’m off to check out some cool shrines. See you back in the plane in a few hours.
Do you know what grappling art Korea is famous for? What? You’ve never heard of Korean ssireum? Well, it’s a lot like sumo wrestling since the idea is to make your opponent touch the ground with any part of his body above the foot, but you don’t win just for pushing your opponent out of the sand pit. Did I mention it happens in a sand pit? Well, it does.
In terms of your grappling garment, you’ll be wearing shorts and a special belt that goes around your waist and one of your legs. This allows you to get really good grips on your opponent and send them flying through the air into the sand.
So, you’ll begin kneeling in the sand with a firm grip on your opponents’ belt and then you’ll rise to your feet and begin trying to launch one another. Have fun! Try not to track any sand into the plane. I’ll meet you there in a few hours. I’m going to go check out a local kimchi restaurant.
Chinese Shuai Jiao
So, you’ve hopped over the mountains from India into China to see how they throw one another to the ground. The most well-known and widely-practiced is shuai jiao, which literally means “throwing to the ground by wrestling with the legs”. Incredibly, it evolved from another long-extinct martial art that involved wearing a horned helmet and head-butting your opponent who had similar headwear and the same intent.
Somehow, from that, came an art that looks like a half-way point between Japanese judo and Russian sambo, which we’ll get to later. For now, you’ve got some throws, trips and standing joint-locks to look forward to. Unlike other countries, it’s done on a raised platform and you wear a short-sleeved jacket, pants and shoes.
It’s certainly come a long way from the days of head-butting people with a horned helmet. Come to think of it, that’s an amazing leap to take in terms of technical evolution of a sport. I guess that’s good news for you, since you’re here to try this stuff out. So, once again, good luck to you! I’m going to try some of the local restaurants and see if the Chinese food here is anything at all like we get in North America.
What do you think of when I say “Mongolia”? I think of men riding tiny horses who have huge eagles perched on their arms that they use to hunt wolves. But I also think of Mongolian wrestling, which is why you’re here right? You bet.
The matches happen outside on grassy fields. The wrestlers wear boots, tiny shorts and sleeves that are tied together. You heard me right. Sleeves only. No actual jacket. Also, you wear a tiny hat before your match. And you do a cool dance kind of like a hopping bird. Fun, eh? Then it’s time to wrestle.
As for the rules, it’s kind of like sumo wrestling, except for the part where you push them out of the circle. There’s no circle. Instead, you have to make your opponent touch the ground with something besides their feet. The first person to do so loses.
Clear enough? Fantastic. If you win remember to help your opponent up to his feet again before you dance off the field. Mongolia might be the birthplace of Genghis Khan but they still practice good manners.
We almost forgot to stop in Kyrgyzstan. And we can’t do that now, can we? No sir. You wouldn’t want to miss out on trying their traditional grappling style they call alysh, would you? Of course not. It’s actually a lot like Chinese shuai jiao in that the competitors are wearing jackets and pants but no shoes.
The real difference is that they are all about holding onto belts. Almost exclusively so, although the belts don’t really signify any rank, unlike other martial arts where people get their panties in a knot over what color their belt is. That isn’t the case here, where things can be different. Although alysh happens on a matted surface. That’s the same.
Anyway, have fun! Don’t let them grab your belt and toss you with a massive suplex! In fact, try to do exactly that to them. I’m going to go take in the nightlife. Good Lord! Look at all these mountains.
Alright, before we go any further west, let’s stop in Uzbekistan to try out their traditional grappling art. They call it kurash and the idea is to throw your opponent flat on his back.
Wait a second … this looks a lot like Japanese judo…
Ok, fine, one guy is wearing a green jacket but besides that it looks the same. What? Those belts they’re wearing around their waists are actually towels? And there are no submissions? Ok, fine, but it still seems quite fishy. They’re bowing and everything. I’m going to go wait in the plane.
Indian Kushti Wrestling
Wrestling began here thousands of years ago and became popular in a big way, thanks largely, in all likelihood, to the fact that the area feature terrain made up of sand and loose dirt which are perfect for cushioning falls. Also, wrestling is one of a few sports where you don’t need any equipment so, in a place where many people have nothing, it’s a natural fit.
Kushti wrestling, also known as pehlwani, came from an older style called malla-yudda which included punching, biting, choking and joint-locks but it lost popularity as people decided they didn’t like to get their ears bitten off, among other awful things.
Like some of the styles in neighboring countries, wrestling in India is held on a surface of loose dust and dirt. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression “fighting dirty” if you’ll excuse the pun. The dirt is treated with milk and oil to give it the right consistency. You don’t want to be covered in the wrong kind of dirt, after all. Wrestlers will even wipe each other with dirt. Why? It’s a form of blessing, so if I toss a handful of dirt on you the next time we meet, I’ll expect you to do the same to me, and then we’ll politely thank one another and go on with our days.
So, here’s your chance but before you step onto the soiled area for grappling, you may want to do a bit of training using their special equipment. One is a giant stone ring that is worn around the neck to build neck strength, I suppose. It’s certainly not for any fashion reasons. Another is a massive stone mace you swing around to build forearm and shoulder strength. Then you can do some rope-climbing because it’s fun.
Now, enough of my chattering. Get in there and wrestle. You can win by pin, knockout, or if your opponent gives up. Good luck. I’ll wait for you on the plane. Please take a dip in the Ganges river to get that dirt off you when you’re done.
Wrestling is the national sport of Iran and, throughout the country, there are many, many different styles.
Some styles of ‘koshti’ involve lifting your opponent and throwing them onto the ground, while others are more focused on tripping them and making them fall. I suppose that’s just splitting hairs though since all of them are about making the other person collide with the Earth so they all fall in the category of wrestling, although here it’s called koshti.
Maybe all these different ways of making people collide with the earth help explain why Iran is also such a powerhouse in international freestyle wrestling…
Do you know what is next to Armenia? Neither do I. Let’s check a map. Ah ha! It’s a country called Azerbijan. And, good news, they have their own style of grappling as well. It’s called gulesh and it looks a lot like wrestling, although it has a lot of cultural flair to it, with special dances and greetings that involve people slapping one another. Have fun!
Have you ever heard of Gokor Chivichyan? Of course you have. He’s an Armenian-American trainer who has really figured out how to make judo work in mixed martial arts. He’s been the coach of Karo Parisyan, Manny Gamburyan and another person you may have heard of, Ronda Rousey. What do these people have in common? Using judo to win in the UFC, where nobody is wearing a judo kimono.
You know what else comes from Armenia? A style of grappling called kokh. It looks a lot like judo. But here, there are a few kinds.
One is the style with people wearing a jacket and belt like in judo.
But in another, they don’t wear the jacket, so they have to learn how to do those throws against someone who is bare-chested. I suppose you could call that wrestling but, whatever you want to call it, it certainly seems to work in real fights.
Now, which one would you like to try? Both? Fantastic. See you in a few hours. I’m going to go try the local whisky. I hear it’s pretty strong.
Georgia is another country that has done really well in judo and wrestling because of their traditional style of grappling. It’s called chidaoba.
In chidaoba you wear a tiny, sleeveless vest and then trade huge throws while standing on loose dirt in a barn crowded full of people with fiddles and accordions who, from the sound of things, are all trying to drown each other out, and failing. Doesn’t that sound like fun? You could get a prize sheep for winning!
Since it has been around for as long as anyone can remember, the style has developed its own techniques, and when Georgians first unleashed them in judo, it took everyone by storm. People got slammed in many odd, scary ways so judo changed their rules. It didn’t completely shut out the Georgians though, who keep doing the big throws they learned back home, grappling in old barns with dirt floors to the tune of wild fiddle and accordion music.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go ask where they buried Ray Charles. What? That’s a different Georgia? Well, I’ll be damned.
Turkish Oil Wrestling
Welcome to Turkey, where the traditional grappling style is Turkish oil wrestling. Feel like having a giant man’s fist jammed into your pants? You’ve come to the right place.
Unlike judo, sambo or jiu-jitsu, which we’ll get to in a bit, competitors in Turkish oil wrestling do not wear a jacket or a belt. Instead they wear thick leather pants that are, themselves, full of oil. Did I mention these men are all slathered with oil? No? Well, they are. And their pants are tied up around the calves so they work like a pot of oil that only spills out when they’re turned upside down. Because spilling oil everywhere would make a mess on your fine living room floor, the matches are outside in grassy fields.
And how do you lift up a man who is coated with oil and offers nothing to grip? You shove your fist into his pants and lift him that way. It would be called a power wedgie if the man was wearing underwear but he isn’t. Neither are you.
Aside from your leather shorts, you’re more or less nude. And you’re outside in a field. Have at it. Yes? Ok then. Let’s take a quick two-hour shower to get all this oil off you and then hop back on the jet. Oh, I should mention there’s also a non-oiled style called karakucak. Sorry I didn’t mention that earlier.
Are We All Done With Asian Grappling Styles?
Alright, fine. So, we’ve swept across Asia from east to west.
Did we miss any countries with grappling styles you wanted to check out? What? We did? Well, we can do those next time, after we go through Europe, down through Africa and into South America.
For now, it’s time to take a break. You’re probably a bit beat up from all the grappling you’ve been doing and I’m stuffed after visiting all the restaurants I’ve been charging to your credit card as we’ve travelled through Asia together. Call it a consulting fee.
Other Articles in This Series
This is the first in a series of 5l article in our Grappling Around the World Series. Here are the other articles in the series that you may want to check out…
- Grappling Styles of Europe
- Grappling Styles of the United Kingdom
- Grappling Styles of Africa, and North and South America
- Grappling Styles of the Pacific
About the Author: Jeff Meszaros is a blackbelt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and also has black belts in taekwondo and hapkido as well as a brown belt in judo. He is also a frequent contributor to Grapplearts.com
Easiest Way to Learn BJJ: Grapplearts has developed a free instructional app for Apple and Android phones and tablets. This app will give you a simple way to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as fast as you can. Click here for more information about the Roadmap for BJJ instructional app.