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Photo: Bulgarian Wrestling Is a Pain in the Neck

Nikolay Doychinov

Unlike yachting or tennis—inconceivable without fairly expensive equipment—wrestling is a primal or elemental sport. In the sense that people were trying to throttle each other when we lived in caves, it is not a sport at all; though over the centuries, it has regulated and formalized itself in various ways in different parts of the world. I am not familiar with the precise codes governing wrestling in Bulgaria, but a certain amount can be deduced from this picture. 

Location: Draginovo, Bulgaria Date: May 4, 2014 Photographer: Nikolay Doychinov

First, that it is extremely popular and, unlike dancing to electronic music, its popularity is not age-specific. It really is a fun day out for all the family. Some of the smiling old men still retain fond memories—even if only in the form of permanently mangled vertebrae—of their own days in the ring. The second thing, of course, is that there is no ring. (It’s quite possible that cows or sheep are grazing just out of shot.) In boxing, the ring decrees that what goes on within it has been granted a specially sanctioned exemption from the normal rules of polite society. Here only a wobbly wire fence separates participants from spectators (one of whom, just above the black track pants of the wrestler on the right, looks like he is about to clamber—more accurately to slither—tag-team-style into the non-ring). Sticking with the pants, note the way that, although the wrestlers are wearing less than the audience, they are sporting the same kind of bottom-of-the-range clothes and sneakers. Nike is not a major sponsor of this event. In keeping with this, while the sculpted, waxed, and tattooed bodies of modern athletes seem designed as much for display (see “sponsorship” above) as action, these two have physiques that you suspect are the product of years of hard labor, in fields or on construction sites, rather than of carefully monitored hours in a gym. They don’t need to train in this way because wrestling is in their blood, part of the DNA of the region. So perhaps it’s not quite accidental that they have grappled themselves into a shape that resembles that greatest of all fight sponsors: the human chromosome.

All of which confirms what was suggested at the outset—that this is more than just a sporting occasion. Change some of the details and this could be a scene from an African country where wrestling often accompanies a larger ritual celebrating the transition to manhood. Same here, it turns out: The bout is part of a holiday marking the circumcision of young boys. While the two wrestlers are obviously too old to be trying to circumcise each other (with their teeth?), it is possible to imagine that, rather than being in what looks to be a losing position, the guy in the red shorts is actually winning: that the face we can see belongs cartoonishly to the guy on the right in the black pants. Compared with the way his neck’s going to feel in the morning, circumcision might seem preferable.