By Bill Grant
Running with the bulls in Pamplona and oil wrestling in Istanbul.
I vividly remember running through the narrow and winding cobblestone streets of Pamplona that early July 7th summer morning – hearing the thundering hooves of a dozen aggressive bulls getting closer as I approached the funnel-like entrance to the bull ring. The adrenaline rush was indescribable as I joined the throngs of runners that had assembled on the compressed dirt floor of the arena to fight each of the bulls that were soon released to challenge us. Some of the more daring amateur matadors met the challenge with their tee shirts serving as makeshift capes, and others, such as myself, kept our distance, staying close enough to hop over the protective wooden perimeter walls when the bulls directed their charges our way. I would never have believed this was to be just an hors d’oeuvre on the plate of adventure that was soon to be served to me some 2,000 miles to the east.
For many, hitchhiking in the mid to late 60’s was the preferred mode of travel. Hitching was relatively safe, definitely economical, and almost always an adventure. I had made my way from Berkeley to northern Spain, then, following the festival of San Fermin (running of the bulIs,) I retraced my route and headed east…hitching back across Spain, southern France, northern Italy, Yugoslavia and eventually Bulgaria, with relative ease. Hitching from the outskirts of Sofia on an early Sunday morning was to be another story—and the beginning of a whole new adventure!
I waited six tedious hours on the outskirts of Sofia with my backpack, my crudely created “Istanbul” sign, my American flag, and my thumb pointed patiently eastward. My personal record for “long waits” was five years earlier in the ancient desert town of Jerash, Jordan where, after seven hours of frustration, the Bishop of Jerusalem miraculously pulled up in his chauffeur-driven dusty blue Mercedes and offered me a ride to Damascus.
I was definitely in no mood to break any personal records that day in Sofia, so I begrudgingly tossed my “Istanbul” sign to the gutter, refolded Old Glory, grabbed up my backpack and walked dejectedly to the Sofia train station.
Riding the rails to Istanbul gave me the opportunity to speak English for the first time in over a week. The rail cars were filled with longhaired, bearded Europeans, Aussies and a sprinkling of Americans—making their way to Istanbul and points east. As we approached the Istanbul station, I received an invitation from a group of young travelers in my rail car to join them for a party that evening at the Gilhani Hotel…I declined. They asked me why I was being so “up tight” and I told them I was coming to Istanbul to wrestle—not to party. They laughed at me, continually giving me a bad time, and told me I was crazy to miss out on the fun. Little did they know that their party was soon to become a dance with the devil!
I found a cheap student hotel for $1.50 a night near the Bazaar and made my way the next morning to the American Embassy to pick up my mail and ask permission to view the lunar landing with them that evening. The Embassy clerks were moving frenetically around their stately office as I waited patiently for my mail…figuring the anticipation of the Americans landing on the moon that July 20th evening was causing all the commotion—but I was wrong.
It seemed that the group of young westerners I had met on the train the night before had all been arrested for possession of hashish at their Gilhani Hotel party. It was feared they would all get twenty years to life sentences—which they eventually did!
Summer in Istanbul was hot, humid, and teeming with humanity. It took me a full day to eventually locate what I had come to Turkey to find—one of the best wrestling clubs in the country. Turkey was a world power in Olympic freestyle wrestling and many of their world level wrestlers came through Istanbul’s Fatih Gures Wrestling Club.
I had seen the Turks compete in the Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964 and vowed to one day visit this mecca of the sport I had continually grown a passion for. I wanted to see first hand what made the Turks so good.
As I entered the club, I was greeted by the coaches and encircled by the twenty-five or so club members who were curious about where I was from and what I was doing there. I was quickly invited to work out with the club members, and for the next two hours was thrown around the mat room by everyone in the club that was within twenty pounds of my weight. I was cannon fodder, but I knew this was my initiation rite and probably the only way I would be invited back. At the end of the week of grueling practices, I was befriended by brothers Fikret and Hadi Gul, who were students at Istanbul University. They asked me if I would like to attend the Fatih Mosque that afternoon to observe and take part in their prayer ceremony.
Just outside the entrance to the ancient mosque I removed my shoes and placed them beside literally hundreds of other shoes, sandals and work boots. I then went through what appeared to be a repetitive ritual of purification; washing my hands, arms, face, and feet. We then entered a grandiose room covered with ornate rugs and elaborate domes. As I looked around I also noticed that I was the only western face among the 300-400 parishioners. As we knelt down and faced East, I felt honored to have been accepted by my newfound friends and to experience their culture in such a unique and special way.
As we left the mosque, I was invited to have a traditional Turkish dinner with the family of my new friends. Following the meal, I was asked to join them to attend a Kirkpinar competition (oil wrestling tournament) that weekend in the countryside. I had read about oil wrestling in Amateur Wrestling News aka “The American Bible of Wrestling” and had dreamed about one day being able to see this traditional Turkish folk-style event in person. My friends told me that many of the World and Olympic level Turkish wrestlers participated in the oil wrestling tournaments to make some extra money. I was told Hadi had won a silver medal in the inaugural World University Games hosted the previous year in Istanbul. His parents were obviously extremely proud of him, and his brother and I were anxious to see him compete on Sunday.
We met at daybreak Sunday morning at the wrestling club and took a half hour bus ride across Istanbul as I watched this bustling city wake up. A quick walk across the Galata Bridge and a ferry ride around the Golden Horn, down the Bosporus to another 30-45 minute bus ride, and we were at the site of the competition.
As we disembarked from the bus and approached the arena, I could see 500-600 people gathering in front of the arena entrance. There was a faded beige eight foot canvas structure that walled in the outdoor arena as we entered. I immediately noticed there were no women amongst the crowd, as it seemed to be one of those events a father would bring his son to on a Sunday afternoon…almost a rite of passage.
I’m not sure why, possibly a premonition, but I knew something unique was about to happen. In my heart, I was hoping to participate in this “once in a lifetime” experience. What I didn’t realize then was that I was suddenly being approached by my new friends Hadi and Fikret and several other wrestlers who would soon be encouraging me to participate in the competition. It was one of those invitations you couldn’t really turn down! Before I had a chance to refuse, another group of Turkish wrestlers were holding up a barrier of blankets as a temporary changing area. Behind these tattered old blankets, they provided me with thickly embroidered traditional black leather pants that had ties at the waist and just above the knees. I was nervous, anxious and about to embark on a venture that could possibly be the most unique and most exciting of my life.
I was quickly whisked off to the “staging area” and led to a little old bespectacled man with a couple of nasty looking cauliflower ears. He took a ladle and proceeded to dip it into a freestanding old metal barrel full of olive oil. Then, not so meticulously, he poured the oil over all the contestants’ heads, backs and chests. I remember the warm oil rolling slowly into my ears and eyes and wondering how I was going to be able to wrestle with this irritating distraction.
Then the formal ceremonies began! We were led into the arena, gladiator-style, for a presentation and introduction to the audience and judges. As the master of ceremonies held his hand over each contestant’s head, he said something about each contestant’s accomplishments in the wrestling world. When he raised his hand over my head, the only word I understood was “California.” There was an immediate round of applause, although I didn’t know if this was a warm welcome or it meant they couldn’t wait for me to enter the arena for what could possibly be a very long and physical afternoon!
A group of musicians started to play drums, small cymbals and a flute-like instrument as all of the wrestlers started picking up dirt from the earthen floor. We were to wrestle on the roughest mat I had ever seen: dirt, occasional small stones and a sprinkling of weeds. The wrestlers then began a ceremonial dance, continuing to pick up dirt and slap their sides, seemingly paying homage to the earth and the wrestling gods that were allowing us to compete there. l didn’t know what to do, but out of respect for the ceremony and of this unique sport, I too picked up dirt, trying not to look too foolish while joining in the dance. I felt, for a brief moment, that I was caught in a time warp from a wrestling competition of centuries past. Although I saw people in the crowd smiling and pointing at me, I hoped they somehow knew I was trying my best to show respect for their tradition.
Following the ceremonies we were called back again to the center of the arena. I hurriedly asked Hadi what the rules were. He told me “Just wrestle international freestyle.” I squared off with my opponent, shook hands, and the next thing I knew, I was being leg tackled and was soon face down on the terra firma. The oil had soon made the dirt and my face one. I was quickly feeling embarrassed in front of this group of nearly 600 verbal and chanting fans.
My ego soon took over and I suddenly started caring as much about winning as being a participant in this unique event. I refocused and initiated some offensive moves of my own. More oil dripping into my ears and eyes and the vocal fans helped me to find a newfound burst of energy that propelled me to my feet. I found myself shooting a pretty decent double leg attack, promptly landing my opponent on the earthen mat. I worked feverishly to turn my opponent to his back. He extended his arms and legs like branches from a fallen tree and refused to be turned. At this point in time, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find that I was surrounded by three or four young aspiring oil wrestlers with pieces of torn newspaper in their hands.
I let my opponent up and we both cleared the oil out of our eyes, ears and noses. During this brief time out, I noticed my shins and tops of my feet were bleeding from the unforgiving mat, but by this time, I could have cared less.
I also noticed that my opponent and I were the only two wrestlers of the original sixteen that were left in the arena. We resumed wrestling as another ten or so minutes passed, with neither of us able to score a takedown. I was worried about my conditioning, the heat and the humidity. I was exhausted and was ready for this mini-marathon to be over…though I still did not want to lose! I felt someone tap me again and I thought the match was over. The referee brought us past the crowd to an elderly man who appeared to be the head judge and jury.
As we stood in front of the Elder, I felt like one of the ancient gladiators in The Colosseum, waiting for the thumbs up or down sign from the Emperor. The judge said something in Turkish, raised one hand and made a circular motion. Again, I asked my friend Hadi for help, “He said you are to wrestle overtime.” After about fifteen minutes of wrestling in 90 degree heat and humidity, covered with olive oil, dirt, blood and sweat, I wasn’t sure I was up to this Herculean task!
But once again my ego kicked in and I tried desperately to take my opponent down and pin him. I got a lucky duck under and literally slipped behind him, immediately trying to turn him to his back with a cross body “grapevine” ride. He quickly did a short sit out and created a scramble situation to counter my leg attack. I kept the scramble alive, following him like a leach and ending up on top with a power half nelson. Again the referee tapped both of us and said something in Turkish. As he raised my opponent’s hand, I didn’t need a translation. Unknowingly, during our scramble, I had exposed my chest to the sun and apparently had just lost the match.
I couldn’t quite figure out why I had lost, but accepted my fate and tried to remind myself why I had travelled to the competition that morning. I felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction knowing I had given my all and had experienced something few westerners ever had. I shook hands with my opponent and tried to sit down, but once again was tapped on my shoulder and directed by the referee to walk around the perimeter of the crowd and slap my thigh as a sign of appreciation to the spectators. As my opponent and I walked slowly in front of the applauding crowd, hundreds of coins in outreached hands found their way to ours.
We took our fists full of money, purchased some food, and joined the throngs of oil wrestling aficionados to watch the heavier weights compete. It felt good to know that I was accepted, at least for a brief moment, in this time-honored tradition of oil wrestling.
I don’t think anyone in the arena that afternoon ever knew what a unique experience it was for me to have that day in the sun.
Bill Grant was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame with a Lifetime Service Award in 2015. A longtime high school wrestling coach beginning in Oakland, California in 1973 and continuing in Monterey and Pacific Grove, he is also the founder and editor of The California Wrestler and TheCaliforniaWrestler.com as well as a writer for many publications that cover wrestling.