In Edirne some of the wrestlers were lean, others so heavily muscled that they resembled glazed ceramic statues. Still others seemed to have followed the George Foreman approach to training. Because of the way divisions are determined, wrestlers often faced considerably larger opponents.
With 25 matches going on at once, a spectator could glimpse something of the frenzy of ancient battle, as one-on-one struggles took place all over the field. Cheers and shouts often steered viewers' attention from a stalemate to a match in its last throes, one man lifting his arms to the crowd while the other walked off with his head bowed to avert meeting the eyes of spectators.
The eight divisions in Kirkpinar range from the lowest, ayak (foot), to bosh (head, or master class). Just as heavyweights command the biggest purses in professional boxing, the bosh garners most of the attention and money in Kirkpinar. Winners earn thousands of dollars or a camel—their choice—and are often showered with riches and honored with statues in their hometowns. A three-peat will get you a gold belt. To join the bosh a wrestler must work his way up through the lower divisions.
This year two men—Ahmet Tascha, 34, and Jengiz Elbiye, 28—were the focus of the most attention. In a controversial match last year, Elbiye upset Tascha, the four-year defending Kirkpinar champion.
As fate would have it, Elbiye and Tascha met on the second day. No more than 5'8", the 225-pound Tascha is a stump of a man, with a thick torso and short limbs. His head bears the marks of 10 years of yahli guresh—the brow above his deep-set eyes is lumpy, and his ears are mangled.
The 5'11", 205-pound Elbiye relied on quickness and finesse in the face of Tascha's bullish attack. Although Tascha found himself on top twice, he could not turn Elbiye, and the match went to a tiebreaker. Early in the period Tascha scored a takedown, and it proved enough for a 1-0 victory. Tascha had used his brute strength and fierce determination to avenge his loss of the previous year.
Tascha bears in relentlessly during a match, but he is a defensive wrestler who rarely commits himself. This year none of his half-dozen opponents could back him more than a step or two, although he was taken down several times. Caution, he claims, is the key to his success. "There are so many ways—when you think you are winning—that you can be beaten," he says. "You may slip just when you think you've won. I try to block my opponent as much as possible to keep the risk at a minimum."
Hasan Gundohdu, who placed third in Turkey's 1995 national mat-wrestling tournament and who lost to Tascha in this year's quarterfinals, doesn't think there's much mystery to the champ's success. "He's strong, and that's it," says Gundohdu. "It's not that his style is wonderful."
Tascha counters such opinion with his assessment of mat wrestling. When asked after one bout whether he had ever wrestled on the mat, he frowned grimly and said, "I've been a gladiator since I was born." Translation: No.
As this year's final was about to start, the last rays of sunlight shone reddish-gold on the oiled shoulders of Tascha and his opponent, Sezgin Yuksel. The grapplers embraced and rubbed each other's backs. Once the match began, the band, a dozen men strong, became a force of its own, as drummers kept pace with the action or sped up the beat to inspire the wrestlers.