At the far end of Ulaanbaatar’s Peace Avenue, a 10-minute walk east from Sukhbaatar Square, stands a site of major national importance to Mongolia: the rotunda of Bokhiin Orgoo, the “Wrestling Palace”. On the carpeted wooden floor of its main hall, thousands of Mongolian wrestlers have fought for the coveted supreme title of “undefeated giant”.

In doing so, they form part of an unbroken tradition of Mongolian wrestling that cave paintings suggest stretches back as far as the Neolithic Age. The sport was certainly a favourite of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and the Golden Horde too, in an era when losing a match could prove to be fatal. Today the sport, known as bokh, is less literally a matter of life and death, though no less keenly fought. It also seems more popular than ever, as evidenced by one September 2011 tournament in which more than 6000 wrestlers took part – enough to win the event a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

KEY TOURNAMENTS: The most important wrestling tournaments are those that take place at the two main national holidays – the annual Naadam, which usually occurs in July, and the Lunar New Year, known as Tsagaan Sar, or the “White Moon”. As it follows the lunar calendar, the dates for the Tasagaan Sar change each year, but the event usually takes place in February or late January. A total of 256 wrestlers are generally involved. The annual Naadam festival is held on July 11-13 and usually involves 524 wrestlers, or 1024 in an important anniversary year.

However, with the sport organised at the soum, (district) level, the provincial (aimag) level and the national level, there are wrestling tournaments throughout the year. The winners of these events then move closer to the July Naadam – the only tournament at which rank can finally be bestowed.

TITLES: The winner of a soum wrestling festival is declared the “elephant” of the soum, while the runner-up is a “falcon”. The champion at the aimag level is called a “lion”, while national titles include the “garuda” – the name of a mythical bird. The highest four national ranks are “giant”, “ocean giant”, “wide giant” and at the top of the list, “undefeated giant”, a title only bestowed on those that have won the Naadam more than five times.

Since the birth of modern Mongolia in 1921, only 19 wrestlers have achieved the highest rank of undefeated giant. The most successful wrestler of all time, known as Namkhai, made his name in the sport’s history a century ago. He won the Naadam tournament 19 times, starting in 1895.

While the sport can be very unforgiving, it is also characterised by a high level of sportsmanship and tradition. Wrestling has been known to Mongolians for many centuries as one of the “three manly skills” – the other two being horsemanship and archery – and is thought to have been practised during the time of Chinggis Khan as a way of keeping soldiers in shape, in much the same way as Turkish oil wrestling.

CEREMONY: Wearing a brightly coloured jodag, or short-sleeved jacket, leather boots and briefs known as shuudag, male wrestlers enter the field and exit it by performing a dance. With its roots in shamanism, this dance is an attempt to attract the spirits of certain animals. Before a bout, the wrestler’s zasuul, a friend and mentor who helps manage the fight, may sing a song praising the wrestler’s skills.

The wrestling itself may then go on for some time, if the wrestlers are evenly matched. Often, dozens of bouts are held simultaneously in the same arena. The wrestler who forces any part of his or her opponent’s upper torso, knee or elbow to the ground is declared the winner. Grabbing legs is allowed, but grabbing the throat, striking or locking are strictly forbidden. Then, with one defeated wrestler on the ground, the other will offer a hand to pull him back up, an act which is followed by much further handshaking. In Mongolian wrestling, while strength and resilience are key factors in determining the winner, a true giant must also display real sportsmanship.