You’re going to love Turkish oil wrestling, seriously

You’re going to love Turkish oil wrestling, seriously

In North America, we would consider a sport where the goal is to get your hand down your opponent’s pants something on the fringe of society. In Turkey, it is known as its national sport! Turkish oil wrestling is more complicated than it sounds and every year 1,000 of the top competitors gather to determine the “baspehlivan” or chief wrestler of Turkey.


Oil wrestling has its roots as far back as ancient Sumer and Babylon. After the 10th century, Turkish wrestlers began covering themselves from navel to knees in accordance with Islamic law. After the conquest by the Turks, a more traditional freestyle wrestling evolved. Special leather pants were designed and all wrestlers had to pour oil over their bodies in order to increase the difficulty. This style continues today and is known as Yağli Güreş or Turkish oil wrestling.

During the Ottoman Empire wrestlers would learn the art in schools. These special programs were both athletically and spiritually focused and aimed to both train the athlete and man.  In a tradition carried on today, competitors oil one another as a sign of mutual respect. Also, if a man defeats an opponent older than he is, he must kiss his hand, another sign of respect.

The competition

Oil wrestling matches are held all across Turkey during the year. In the early summer, the top competitors come together for a three-day tournament called the Kırkpınar. The winner of this tournament is named the chief wrestler or “baspehlivan” of Turkey.

Historians believe the Kırkpınar games have been held annually since 1362. This makes Turkish oil wrestling the world record holder for the longest continually run sports competition.

So wait, how do you win?

Turkish oil wrestling matches are far removed from the wrestling or grappling norm. The oil makes it extremely difficult to pin your opponent down, and the goal of the match is to “show his navel to the heavens.” Matches can run for up to 40 minutes before extra periods and most of the time is spent slipping around trying to get a good hold.

Due to the difficulty of grabbing and holding onto your opponent, both competitors wear leather pants called a kispet. The wrestlers can grab onto the material and use the waistband to turn the opponent onto his back. Wrestlers are also allowed to insert their arms into the kispet to get a better grip. It does sound outrageous but sportsmanship is a huge deal. Any contact with an opponent’s genitals or backside is strictly prohibited. The dominance of Turkey in combat sports shows how oil wrestling can improve technique and stamina of the fighters. It’s Turkey’s wrestling world; we’re just living in it.

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