Sunday, August 23, 2009

everything is linked

Can't recall where, but I found a reference to an interesting sounding book. So interesting, I bought it. It's called "The Last Wrestlers: A Far Flung Journey In Search of a Manly Art" by Marcus Trower.

The first chapter is about India. The second which I'm reading now is about Mongolia. As the author visits the different countries (there are further ones in the book), he asks questions about the history of wresting, the customs, if there is a spiritual connection and how the wrestlers live, train, eat and conduct themselves.

What struck me this evening were the explanations of of some of the Mongolian wrestlers and how they train and what makes them strong. Mongolia is a country of herdsmen who live from and with herds of cattle, yak, sheep, goats and of course horses. Through my other great passion - horses and horsemanship - I have read a little about Mongolian people and their horses. Over the years of my involvement with horses, I have seen and experienced horses in numbers and on a professional basis, much more so than the average recreational horse owners. Ok, so where's the connection you ask?

Well, as the author travels to the country outside Ulan Bataar to visit the places where great wrestlers come from, he stays with herdsmen and talks to many wrestlers. When asked how they train and learn and how they become strong, part of the answer is that they learn from a young age to handle livestock. They literally wrestle foals and grapple cows! I have to explain this a little more in detail. Unlike here (Australia) and where I come from (Europe), in Mongolia, it's a daily chore to tie up the foals and milk the mares. The milk is used in milk tea, straight or fermented as an alcoholic drink. It's a staple of the Mongolian diet. Apparently, they tie up the foals so they can't suckle. When the mares' udders are full, they lead each foal to it's dam, let it have a sip and then take it away to milk the mare and collect the milk for the humans. Some foals aren't keen on leaving and wrestling matches are common.

While I can't say I'm used to drinking mares' milk (especially not the fermented variety!), I certainly have milked mares on several occasions (it's more difficult than milking a cow). And having been in the stud and breeding business, I have certainly wrestled foals :-). Not so much to take them from their mothers, but sometimes to catch them or teach them to lead or to administer medications or trim their hooves. And yes, in one of my previous lives as jillaroo/stationhand, I've also grappled calves, even sheep. So I can kind of relate to the what the author is talking about. It certainly tickled my funny bone thinking how ironic it is that I have wrestled with people and with farm animals.

It is also funny that my relatively new interest in wrestling has such a strong connection - at least in Mongolia - to horses. Everything is linked. :-)


  1. As I'm guessing you've probably finished the book by now, did you get the same sexist undertones I did?

    While I enjoyed the majority of the book (well-written, interesting locations, cool stuff on grappling, particularly Brazil), the parts where he babbled on about his "human rutting theory" got on my nerves. I finished with the impression that he has never even considered women might be just as interested in combat sports, specifically grappling, as men. Judging from the book, they are there to be won as trophies, not participate as fellow athletes.

    Of course, I tend to be hyper-sensitive to that kind of thing, as its a major pet hate of mine. Hence why it would be interesting to hear a woman's take on that aspect of the book.

  2. Oh yes, I finished the book :-)

    I agree with you about it. Most of it is interesting, some of it funny. And thought it was interesting that it should end in Brazil. All in all I enjoyed the book.

    And same as you, the rutting theory stuff wore a bit thin after a while. When he first started on about it I though oh well, the countries he's visiting are traditional in their view of the role of women. But then he sort of stayed with that. I had an expectation (hope?!) that somewhere along the line he would express a personal view that women ARE fellow athletes in grappling or other combat sports. But when that never happened, I was somewhat disappointed, I will admit. I guess I should not have been surprised, after all the book title included "manly art" ;-)

    I'm not too touchy on the subject of females in grappling. I suppose I have not yet met any males that have an issue in grappling with me, so I've never personally come up against the attitude that women should be prizes rather than training partners or competitors. But I know that attitude exists out there. So it's a bit of a pity that a book like that doesn't at least make a small effort in recognizing that women do contribute to grappling. It would have made it so much better.

    My two cents: for every male with a "woman = trophy" attitude, there is nowadays at least one male with a "woman = fellow athlete" attitude like yourself.

    With guys like yourself being vocal on the subject and more women starting in grappling, the trophy attitude will become less and less common. Of course, every human endeavor has dinosaurs who can't let go. In terms of grappling, one wishes upon every such dinosaur a good choking by a woman ;-)

    Many thanks for your comments. BTW, I enjoy your blog!

  3. Cool, thanks for the well thought-out response.

    Yeah, there are people like Penny Thomas out there who certainly won't put up with that attitude, and are fortunately in a position to do something about it. Good interview with her partially on that topic here, if you haven't heard it yet.

    Glad you enjoy the blog! :D

  4. Marcus Trower here: I just wanted to respond to your comments about my book. The aim was to get at why it is that men, such as myself, back in my twenties, are so into fighting and wrestling, so the subject is men. The book doesn't actually express any opinion whatsoever about women grappling - it's not the book's subject. For what it's worth, the idea of women grappling has never been an issue for me: I've occasionally trained with women over the years and seen them as just as worthy an opponent as any other.

    There are plenty of books that have men as their topic, and plenty that cover only the subject of women. This book is a book concerned about men. The maleness of wrestling in traditional cultures is an undeniable fact: all over the world, there are wrestling festivals, which I talk about in the book, where the men wrestle, and women watch, dance or sing. You might regard this as sexist, but it's an indisputable fact. I wanted to understand why this pattern recurs - and I hope readers can differentiate between what might appear to them to be a sexist cultural tradition and my own position on the subject.

    I'm aware that there are plenty of grappling women out there: it's great to see women's wrestling in the Olympics; I've watched some brilliant female JJists at Gracie Barra in Rio and other Brazilian clubs. On the traditional side of things, I know that Mongolian women wrestle, and there are some traditions of women wrestling in African cultures. I was interested in all this, but it fell outside the subject area of my book.

    It would be great if a woman wrote a book about women grappling. If she chose only to focus on writing about women for a good reason, I for one wouldn't weigh in that she is somehow being sexist by ignoring men.

  5. Hi Marcus,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I picked up and read your book because it's about wrestling. I think it's fantastic that you are so passionate about it and it comes through in the book. I really enjoyed the read.

    I don't think you are far off the mark with your rutting theory. I've seen plenty of rutting behaviour in animals, having years of hands on experience in livestock breeding. Hey, I've seen what can only be described as rutting behaviour in young males ;-). My horrible sense of humour often draws behaviour parallels between young guys posturing (especially in front of available females) and male animals squaring up. I really don't have a problem with that. It's nature. Only I wanted to read more about wrestling and less about mating behaviour.

    I can also see that many cultures on earth have strong and well established gender roles. Your research of wrestling in that context is a main part of your book. I don't think it's sexist at all to state the facts about men wrestling in traditional cultures.

    I wasn't even referring to you as a dinosaur :-). I reserve that term for people who can't let go of outdated traditions.

    I had one main beef, really. I personally would have loved to see a teeny weeny comment about traditions changing in our modern world. And how that has brought about possibilities for women who are passionate about grappling. Let's face it, not so many years ago the gender roles in our western society would have prohibited me from enjoying grappling.

    I'm not a raving feminist, I just don't like being told "you can't do this" merely because I'm not a man. And in a my early school years, and later in a professional capacity, that did happen. So I welcome changes to traditions that allow women to participate in all areas of human life which they are capable of. And as you wrote much about the changes in wrestling traditions, I guess I was hoping that you would mention women entering this once male-only world of wrestling. At least in some parts of the world.

    But look, I understand you wrote the book from your perspective. It is honest. I sure respect that. And you can't please everyone :-)

    It seems that the journey you undertook made you a happier person. And I was elated to read about resolving the issues which prevented you from grappling.

    I, too, would love to see a woman writing a book about wrestling. But it would have to be a good read first and foremost. I wouldn't race off and buy it just because a woman wrote it.

    So there you have it :-)

    BTW, had a look at your website ( I hope you'll succeed in making a TV series about The Last Wrestlers. I'll be watching!

  6. Cy has eloquently covered it, but I'd just add that my main problem was that there was no mention at all of women in a positive light. Also like cy, I would emphasise that I did enjoy the book, which I thought was well-written and engaging.

    I understand women weren't the subject (after all, the subtitle is 'A Manly Journey'), but I was just looking for some small acknowledgement that women grapple too, they aren't purely trophies.

    You've done that just now: if there had been a similar comment in the book, I wouldn't have had a problem.

    Of course, I am a raving feminist, so like I said, I tend to be hypersensitive to these things.

    Also, I've never written a book or been a journalist, so I don't have an insight into the pressures of editing and the hard decisions on what to leave out.

    By the way, if you happen to be subscribed to these comments (not sure if that's possible when you post as anonymous or not), have you succeeded with your plans on working in the favela in Brazil?

  7. Marcus Trower again: hi, CY. I take your point about the frustrations of being a woman in the male-dominated mat world. I'd imagine, though, that your frustrations, and a bit of the 'I'll show them' attitude, have helped turbo-charge your training. For myself, I found frustration to be a great energy source both in training in England - when I started, there was hardly anywhere to go, so I had to do it myself - and in writing the book, so it has its good side.

    Both you and Slidey Foot are saying the same thing really, that you'd like to have seen women grappling mentioned, but I return to the point that this book in no way was an attempt to report objectively on the grappling scene, but rather a highly personal, idiosyncratic and subjective story about my trying to understand my own obsession with wrestling, as a man, and the need of men to fight in general. Really, it's a book about men that talks about men through the subject of wrestling, rather than a book about wrestling per se. The title and cover may imply otherwise, but then neither were actually my choice (the realities of publishing are such that my publishers had final say - this is the shop window, and too important to them for a stupid writer to screw up).

    I think if there were a lot more books about grappling, you wouldn't be putting me under 'pressure' to write about something I considered off-subject. Perhaps others will be written, and we'll hear more voices and learn to see the subject from different perspectives in the near future.

    I did interest myself in women's wrestling while doing my research, and could put together a list of places where it's happening (I mean in trad cultures)if you're interested. For example, there's a well-known instructor in Delhi whose daughter has become a well-known wrestler in India and who has done a lot to gain recognition for women in the very male-dominated world of kushti there.

    To Slidey Foot I'd say: have a look again at the section on the Dukawa wrestling in Nigeria. What I described was a lot more subtle than women being trophies, and if you read the section again you'll see that I make the point that it appeared that the women/girls were in control of the wrestling occasion: egging the men on to wrestle well, and goading them if they wrestled badly with put-down songs. They were not standing by passively, dreading being carried off by the victor.

    On the documentary front, hasn't happened: the people who made Tribe with Bruce Parry talked to me about a series, but they didn't understand the subject properly, which was off-putting, and wanted to cover too many martial arts that I would have found dull and which have been covered before. I wanted to look at MMA and grappling and trad wrestling exclusively, but they didn't like that idea.

    SF: No, didn't open a school in Rio. I'm back in London now and would still like to teach kids, so we'll see.

    All the best to you both.

  8. In that case, I'd strongly recommend you get in touch with Felipe Souza.

    He is easily the best kids BJJ instructor in the country, and is also involved in a charity which aims to help underprivileged children through BJJ (much like the scheme you saw in Brazil, I believe). Its called Future Champions: more info about it here.

    So, could be something up your street: his website is here.