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Oklahoma guardsmen in Afghanistan get a grip on Mongolian-style wrestling

Pfc. Aaron Johnson, Indiana Army National Guard, won the 2012 National Guard Combatives Tournament lightweight (140 pounds) class against Spc. Thomas Pfeiffer, Washington Army National Guard. Johnson has competed in nearly every type of fighting tournament to include wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, Jui-Jitsu, and mixed martial arts leagues. “It’s pretty crazy putting grappling, pancrase, and then the final fight the last day,” said Johnson. “It is definitely wear and tear on your body.” Since Johnson did not have a ring-side coach for the finals, he enlisted the help of Guam National Guard coaches Master Sgt. Allen Blend and Spc. Kenji Okiyama. (Army National Guard)

Learning to wrestle Mongolian-style proved “a trip” for soldiers from the Oklahoma National Guard, who tried to flip, throw and grapple their opponents in a traditional Mongolian festival while deployed in Afghanistan.

One of these soldiers, Army Spc. Michael Pereyra of the 1st Squadron, 180th Cavalry Regiment, said he was drawn to the sport after trying it six months ago. He saw Mongolian soldiers wrestling and when they asked for anyone who wanted to join in, Pereyra volunteered.

Pereyra wrestled throughout junior high and high school, but wrestling Mongolian-style was different, he said, so different he had to start over from scratch.

“I pretty much had to throw everything away and learn how to wrestle again,” he said.

Mongolian soldiers are deployed to Kabul and have been part of the NATO mission since 2009, a unit spokeswoman for 1st Squadron, 180th Cavalry Regiment said. The mission is a return of sorts to Afghanistan for Mongolia, which conquered and subjugated the region under Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

Pereyra and other soldiers with the 1st Squadron, 180th Cavalry Regiment, work with Mongolian soldiers to guard the New Kabul Compound, a military base close to the U.S. embassy. This means reacting to any threats and managing base access.

Back home, the regiment is headquartered in McAlester, Okla., as part of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oklahoma Army National Guard. The unit has a long history of service in both world wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The festival of Naadam, also known as the “three games of men” in Mongolian, is held annually on July 12. It includes wrestling, horse racing and archery. Naadam celebrates the Mongolian revolution of 1921, which freed the country from rule by the Chinese, who barred Mongolian monks from practicing traditional sports and limited mass events.

Genghis Khan held wrestling tournaments while conquering much of the known world 800 years ago, and the origins of Mongolian-style wrestling may date back even further, with scholars citing ancient rock carvings portraying wrestling from the Bronze Age.

The goal of Mongolian-style wrestling is to force one’s opponent to touch his back, knee or elbow to the ground. Throws, trips and lifts are allowed, but strikes are not.

Pereyra said he trained in one-on-one duels on the mat as his trainers taught him different throws and trips. Mongolian wrestlers wear tight-fitting briefs and a short-sleeved shirt exposing their chest, and Pereyra said he learned how to grab and hold the clothing while grappling.

“They were showing me how to use leverage. It’s more about technique than brute strength,” Pereyra said.

So far, he has participated in three wrestling tournaments over his seven months deployed and won a match on his second try.

On Naadam, Pereyra danced the “devekh,” or “Eagle Dance.” Performed before and after a match, it imitates a bird taking off and symbolizes power, grace and bravery. The first time Pereyra did the dance, he said, he felt like an outsider as he flapped his arms in a ritual he didn’t understand.

“I felt really awkward, almost as if I shouldn’t have done it; it didn’t feel as if I was worthy of doing it because I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know what it meant,” he said.

This changed as he learned more about his co-workers, their culture and their wrestling. Before his match, Pereyra danced the devekh with less inhibition.

“I learned what it meant, I felt more comfortable about it,” he said. “I became less nervous and gained a greater appreciation of it.”


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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