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Mongolia's "manly" wrestlers ready for a fight

Written by: Staff
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SUUJ, Mongolia, July 7 (Reuters) Grand Champion Bat-Erdene wipes his brow and surveys the scene before him.

It's hot on the Mongolian steppe, but it would take more than the beating sun to stop the pairs of wrestlers grunting and sweating in head-to-head combat as they prepare to compete at the Naadam Festival.

The annual pageant of horsemanship, wrestling and archery -- considered Mongolia's three manly sports -- opens next week, and the wrestlers at the training camp in the grasslands have only a few more days to prepare.

For centuries, wrestlers have been the people you looked up to and respected, says Bat-Erdene. When a boy is born in a family, the hope is one day he will become a wrestler, not an official or a rich man.

Bat-Erdene is a combination of both. As well as winning 12 years in a row at the national Naadam in the capital Ulan Bator, he is a member of parliament.

The 42-year-old hails from the north of the vast country of less than 3 million, the birthplace of Genghis Khan, who is being honoured with a year-long series of festivities to mark the 800 years since he united several warring tribes to form the state of Mongolia.

More than 1,000 wrestlers will compete at the Naadam Festival this year, double the usual number, in honour of the anniversary.

All of the heroes from a very ancient time, starting from Genghis Khan, were westlers, says Narmandakh Terbish, the coach at the training camp high in a valley filled with traditional round ger tents and herds of cattle and yak.

On the grasslands training field, pairs of men fight, the loser retreating to the sidelines until eventually there are only two wrestlers left. The final couple are locked together, demonstrating the patience that champions say is necessary to succeed.

BOOTS 'N' BRIEFS They are all in traditional dress -- fur boots, bright blue briefs, and a red embroidered top that covers the arms and back but leaves the chest bare.

The costume shows off the beauty of the body, Bat-Erdene says.

Legend has it that in ancient times a group of men were beaten by women wrestlers. Humiliated by their defeat at the hands of women, they decreed fighting must be done bare-chested to be sure they were competing against other men.

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