The Birth of Slick
[ESPN The Magazine, 30 June 2008]
BONUS: PDF of the photo essay
DOUBLE BONUS: Video shot by yours truly
TRIPLE BONUS: Extra pictures
By RICHARD MORGAN
Every year since 1362, warriors in the world’s oldest continual annual sporting event – the Kırkpınar tournament in Turkey – have met and fought, sometimes to the death, to learn who among them is king. There are men driving blinged-out Escalades around Hollywood and Vegas who call themselves “ultimate fighters”; they have websites and endorsement deals and cameos on HBO’s “Entourage.” But if Chuck Liddell and Rampage Jackson ever want a challenge, they’re free to show up from June 31 to July 6 to the Turkish town of Edirne’s Field of Heroes, a plain patch of grass amid the epic palaces and mosques the Ottoman Sultans built when the town was the capital of their vast empire.
When I got there last summer, it hit 105°F; the heat curled the plastic of my passport. I went straight for the defending champion, 26-year-old Osman Anyur – 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds of muscle – who had been fighting since he was 12. He had finished a fight and was washing blood from his knuckles at one of the field’s cisterns. “It’s very painful,” he told me. “Lucky for me, I take pleasure from pain.”
“So you do it for pleasure?” I asked. He laughed and put a giant, bloody hand on my shoulder. “I do it for ego,” he said, then leaned close: “Do you know what ego is?”
How could I not? I was looking right at it. But by nightfall, Kirkpinar would destroy even Osman, who would be crying, hiding in a grove of nearby poplar trees, his mother by his side wailing into a scarf. He steps out of his pants, which retain his shape like armor. “There is no happiness here,” his brother tells me. “Go there.” He points to a tree where Recep is recuperating. The man who had defeated him – 30-year-old Recep Kara, who eventually won the whole tournament – was nearby, semi-conscious with friends force-feeding him bananas and water. He looked dead. Men do not win this tournament; they survive it.
The sport is called yağli güreş (olive oil wrestling) and has been held in the area for nearly 650 years, and since 1924 on the same field used today. I went last year to offer this preview for this year, in case you’re interested in checking it out. Too short notice? No worries. After eight centuries, odds are there’s always next year.
back to home page