Turkish Oil wrestling

One of the national sports of Turkey, Turkish Oil wrestling, is first and foremost a great show for crowds just like the NASCAR in the US and the Melbourne Cup in Australia.

Although it has roots in the close combat training of the ancient Turkish armies, it is not a violent sport. The wrestlers drain themselves in olive oil and try to pin each others backs on the floor while their bodies are sublimated in manly ballets which amazes especially the foreign spectators.

Wrestlers (called “Pehlivan” in Turkish) are in a way, actors in a theatre play showcasing their skills of legendary tragedy, ancestral passionate and sheer human force.


To spice up the duel, the fighters are regularly washed up with olive oil by the oiler (Yagci) during their wrestle, which makes the game even more challenging.

Precision, efficient use of power and body balance is more crucial than use of force in this game.

The oil wrestling Master of Ceremonies( the “Cazgir”) who also acts as the referee would also recite the opener at the beginning of the game which  would turn the game into an even more enjoyable show. He then would go on to motivate and encourage both wrestlers to dominate each other in the most poetic way.

Following the opener by the MC, the wrestlers, totally washed/dipped/sprayed with olive oil, shirtless but in their leather shorts, embark on an ancient dance called “Peshrev” which is an ode to the brotherhood.  Some might say the “Peshrev” is similar to the “haka” dance of the Māori culture.

Here are the rules of the Turkish oil wrestling.

  • Turkish oil wrestling is performed on grass
  • the wrestlers are dressed in buffalo leather pants (each pant weighing around 13kgs)
  • The body of the wrestlers is coated with a mixture of olive oil and water
  • The match can last up to 45 minutes. If there is no winner it would be extended for another 10 minutes.
  • The winner is the one who manages to pin his opponents back on the ground.
Ahmet Tasci dominated Turkish Oil Wrestling for a long time

Ahmet Tasci dominated Turkish Oil Wrestling for a long time

The Wrestler (Pehlivan)

Pehlivan, a persian loanword,  is used for describing a person with courage and bravery, but at the same time, this term is used for someone who has a solid and honest word.

The warriors who performed heroic missions and sports such as wrestlers, shooters, etc. were called “Pehlivan” in the Seljuk era which was then passed onto the Ottomans.

Turkish people love the sport of oil wrestling and the wrestlers would receive a lot of respect. This respect probably has its roots in the heroic sentiments of the Turkish people. It is important to note that the wrestlers also receive respect not only for their physical force, developed muscles and apparent healthy but also their good behavior, attitude, generous character and reliability.

At the time of the Ottomans, the matches would be held right outside the palace particularly during fairs, festivals and the royal weddings in the interest of charitable institutions, or in the halls of professional organizers. In some rural areas in Turkey, Turkish oil wrestling competitions are still held before weddings, during religious or traditional festivals.

Adali Halil and Kurtdereli Mehmed were legendary pehlivans

Adali Halil and Kurtdereli Mehmed were legendary pehlivans

In popular culture

Hakan is a huge Turkish oil wrestler with deep red skin and a strong accent in the poular video game Street Fighter. He has strange turquoise hair worn in circular curls aligned rather symmetrically on his head and a large mustache. He wears a large belt that not only bears a golden lion’s head as its buckle, but also cradles an enormous golden chain that links from belt to shoulderpad like a bandolier. He wears tight blue pants moderately similar to traditional Yağlı güreş, but they are adorned with golden ringlets and leather bands. He also wears wristbands and anklebands.

Though not used or visible during combat, he can also be seen toting around a massive barrel, with a golden lion’s head similar to the one on his belt emblazoned upon one end. The barrel contains a large quantity of oil, as can be deduced when he hoists it above his head and drenches himself with it at the beginning of each match.

Street fighter character Hakan

Street Fighter character Hakan

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