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Shaking Hands: Mark Wrestles Tigel in Ethiopia

3 January 2012 16 Comments


Shaking hands at the start of Mark and Anbessa’s match (Photo by Cullen Hughes)

Mark Lovejoy recently entered a traditional Ethiopian wrestling tournament in Addis Ababa. The following recounts his adventure and thoughts on the style and what it means to the culture. Mark is the associate director of the Wrestling Roots Foundation.

Enjoy! -- Tim

In the West, when you greet someone, you shake hands.  In the Far East, the custom is to give a bow when greeting.  Living at the in-between point of the East and the West, Ethiopia, the greeting is sort of a hybrid of the two:  You reach to shake hands, but both people then lean forward to touch their shoulders together. A handshake is not complete until the shoulders sort of embrace each other.  I have wondered where that tradition had started. This past weekend I found out.

After spending some time for the past few months trying to learn the local traditional form of wrestling, Tigel, I received an email from the sports director of a local horse riding club here in Addis Ababa. He stated in the email that there would be a weeklong competition of a collection of traditional Ethiopian sports. These sports ranged from a form of field hockey, called Genna, where the constants create their own sticks from scratch; a horse race that combines riding a horse while trying to hit a target with a javelin; and the traditional form of wrestling in this part of Africa – Tigel.
Day 1
During the first day of the traditional sports festival, I watched the first match of the week.  Two men roughly the same size shook hands not unlike thousands of wrestlers do before each and every match back home in the US.  However, when the referee blew his whistle to start the match, both men touched each other with their right shoulder and kept it there.  Each man fought for control by changing levels and trying to grab their opponent above their waist.  However, at no point could they not have their right shoulders touching.  As you can see from the pictures, it does not look that unlike Greco-Roman wrestling.  In fact, one of my friends here have stated that what we now know as Greco-Roman wrestling started in this part of the world, migrated up the Nile to ancient Egypt, and then spread across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

The Tegil Tie-Up

The exhibition match was quite one sided. One opponent would jostle his hips until he could get his hips lower than his opponent and with his hands clasped around the waist, he launched his opponent up off the ground and tossed him to the ground.  He did this three times in a row until the referee blew his whistle.  After that third toss, the round ended.

After a one-minute break, the two wrestlers met in the center of the mat again.  They still stood shoulder to shoulder (literally). However, this time the more experienced Tigel “player” decided to attack his opponents legs by tripping him from the outside.  After doing this twice, the less experienced player’s coaches tossed in the towel to signify the match was over.  After five takedowns to zero, the coaches had seen enough.
After the match was completed, the winning wrestler approached me (I sort of stick out in a crowd here) and he asked the two things I have always been asked when I am a spectator of a wrestling match while overseas: Where are you from? & What do you weigh?  “America & 62 kilograms” was my answer.  After the important information was exchanged (my nationality and how heavy I am), he told me that his name is Anbessa Kahsay Weres, is 22 years old, and he has been wrestling for many years at a local defense-training center.  The same place that the soldiers train at.
After a cup of coffee (a staple here in Ethiopia, the country where the coffee bean was discovered centuries ago) and a talk about wrestling, he asked me to come and watch him compete the next morning. We exchanged cell phone numbers and I said I would see him the next morning.
Day 2
Unfortunately, either I got the time wrong (telling time here takes some math. Unlike in the US, the day does not start at midnight; rather, the start of the clock is at sunset. Therefore, 0:01 is the crack of dawn, not a minute after 12:00) or Anbessa simply won all of his matches by the time I arrived at four hours after sunrise….10:30 my time.
However, Anbessa took this time to teach me the basic rules of the sport.
First, just like yesterday’s match, he shook my hand and we touched our right shoulders together.  Then we gripped around each other’s waist with one arm over our opponent’s arm and the other arm under the opposite arm.  Being outweighed by 22 pounds, I didn’t think I was going to win a battle of the bear hugs, so I stood back to reset.  Anbessa stated, “Can’t do that.”  We had to reset again. However, this time a crowd started to form around us (did I mention I sort of stick out of a crowd here?).  This time, I got my hips lower than his. I was not going to be tossed in front of the crowd, so I pulled him back to me and reached in for a single leg.  The reply again from Anbessa was “Can’t do that.”  We set-up for a third time, going chest to chest in the center of the growing crowd.  However, this time I wanted to try to keep shoulder-to-shoulder, but I switched shoulders by pummeling with Anbessa.  Again, a reply with “Can’t do that.” This time he tossed me.
My reply was to reassess my situation….and call for a water break.
Anbessa and I worked takedowns for the next ten minutes. Or should I say, he tossed me for ten minutes (including my next three water breaks) until I got the hands of the rules.
The anatomy of a takedown:
-       You must stand with shoulders touching at all times.
-       You must only use your arms to attack your opponent’s upper body.
-       You can use your legs to trip your opponent.
-       The majority of takedowns come from a trip while both wrestlers are embracing in a bear hug.
-       If you take your opponent down and they land on their butt or their side, you score one point.
-       If you take your opponent down and bring them directly to their back, you score two points.
-       There are no pins. All matches go nine minutes long unless a coach tosses in the towel signaling defeat.
The anatomy of a Tigel Match:
-       There are three rounds
-       Each round is three minutes long
-       After each round is a one minute break
-       If there is a tie after three periods, there is a fourth period also consisting of three minutes.  If there is still a tie, the officials put the names of both wrestlers in a hat. Whichever name is pulled wins. (However, Anbessa stated that he had hoped the rules would state that if a tie, the wrestler with the least amount of fouls will be considered the winner.
Fouls are quite common. There are many ways to “earn” a foul:
o   Grapping your opponent’s shirt
o   Grabbing your opponent’s leg
o   Digging your fingers into your opponent’s back while in a bear hug.
o   “Sleeping”. I assume that this is a loose translation of stalling.  In other words, you can’t just get your hands locked around your opponent’s waist and hold on and wait for the clock to run down.
o   If you earn five fouls, you are disqualified.
After our ten-minute tutorial and my three water breaks, Anbessa stated to me that he was surprised at how out of shape I am (being tossed around in a sport being held at 8,000 feet altitude really took a toll on my cardio). However, he also told me that he expects me at the festival at 7:00am tomorrow morning because he wants me to enter the 62 kilo tournament.  However, he told me he wants me to do “gymnastics” before I arrive tomorrow morning to get me loosened up.  After all, he stated to me: “Your opponent is very good”.
I hope my ten-minute crash course in Tigel pays off tomorrow morning….
Day 3
The next morning, I arrived with a friend of mine (I needed a witness) right at 07:00 (or 01:00 Ethiopian time) and met with Anbessa.  I was hoping for another tutorial before the tournament began. However, he commented again about how out of shape I am and decided that I needed some conditioning before my match. So, we ran.  I am not a fan of running. I never have and never will. I am especially not a fan of running just before I am supposed to compete in a wrestling tournament.
A few kilometers later, we completed some basic calisthenics like jumping, passing a rock to a partner, stretching, etc…I must be honest, I was not a fan of getting tired, but it kept me thinking about something else besides my future opponent.
As we were working out, the officials arrived to the sports complex. They approached us and gave another tutorial of the sport.  They taught me five basic takedowns.  All involved some sort of tripping of your opponent.  All five involved me being tossed by Anbessa to the ground.
After the tutorial was complete, we approached the wrestling mats.  Unfortunately, Anbessa was told that I would not be able to enter the 62-kilogram competition. After all, all of the matches were paired off ahead of time.  Plus, by me showing up, it was sort of like a high school kid from Maine randomly walking into the state championships of Oregon and asking to be placed in the brackets.
However, the officials decided that they still wanted me to be a part of the competition.  They asked me to have a match with the champion of the 72-kilogram weight class from the tournament from the day before.  That person just happened to be Anbessa.  Oh, well….I agreed.
It was still early in the morning, but the mats were set up.  The officials were briefed on how the day would be organized and a small crowd was forming.  I was shown to my corner (a wooden chair) and Anbessa took his.  Two young wrestlers approached his corner as his coach.  I called out to the crowd if I could have a coach in my corner. A teenage girl and teenage boy came forward and told me, “I will coach you”.
The referee motioned for Anbessa and I to come to the center of the mat.  He was introduced first and the crowd was told he was representing Ethiopia.  I was introduced as “Mark, who is representing America”.  The crowd cheered.  I followed up by saying “Ferengi”, which got the crowd laughing.  Ferengi is a loose translation for “outsider”  It is neither a put down or complement, just a statement that I am not Ethiopian.  However, I don’t think anyone had any confusion that I am not Ethiopian (did I mention I sort of stick out here?).
The ref blew his whistle and we locked arms together with both our right shoulders touching.  I immediately lowered my level to get my hips lower than his.  I guessed the only way I would not be tossed in the most embarrassing way would be to get a lower center of gravity.
I then locked my arms around his waist in the tightest bear hug I could.  I know I could be called for “sleeping”, but in front of this crowd, I’d take a foul over a toss.  Anbessa stepped forward, lifted me off the ground and put me right on my back. 2-0 home team.
We re-set again with our shoulders touching.  My strategy was to do the same…get low and stay there.  This time, Anbessa pushed forward until we were chest to chest.  My reply this time was to change level, go under his arm, and try a duck-under.  I moved under his arm, got behind my opponent and tripped him forward.  I secured the takedown.  However, since I removed my shoulder from his, it shouldn’t have counted.  The referee scored it anyway because “I am a guest”.  2-1 home team.
We set up for a third time.  This time I engaged in the tie-up a bit more. But, that didn’t help.  He simply locked up a tighter bear hug, lifted me off the ground and put me on my back.  4-1 Anbessa.
After that takedown, the referee stopped the match.  It seemed that the novelty was over and he wanted to start the competition.  However, Anbessa asked if we could continue a bit longer and asked for a period of “American style wrestling”.
I obliged.
The referee started us off again.  Anbessa tied up with me Tigel style. I stepped back and turned to a collar and tie tie-up.  He pushed forward into me.  I draped my right arm over his head and grabbed his arm with my draped arm.   He kept moving forward so I sprawled.  I brought the match to the mat, put my head in his ribs and grabbed his leg.  I rolled forward into an inside cradle.  I thought attempting a cradle within the “cradle of humanity” would be fitting – after all, Ethiopia is the land of Lucy.  I put Anbessa on his back, but he broke my grip quite easily.  After a short scramble, a whistle was blown. I think the referee was really ready to begin the rest of the competitions.
Anbessa’s hand was raised by both the referee and by me.  We stepped into the crowd and I watched the rest of the tournament.   I am happy I learned a bit about this cousin a our sport of folk-style wrestling, that I was introduced to as a high school sophomore. I came home unscathed, and finally got to know why the Ethiopian handshake is so unique.  It has its roots in their wrestling tradition.


  • Mark said:

    One thing I did not mention is that the Ethiopian Sports Federation is very keen on promoting new sports activities for girls and women here in the country. During the festival this week, there will be a women’s Tigel competition as well. I will be in the office for the rest of the week, but will return to the festival this coming weekend. If the women’s tournament is still going on, I will have pictures.

  • Gavin said:

    I have been waiting for ages to get this report & I am not disappointed, that was an excellent summary of the mysterious art of Tigel. Please keep up the good work & I look forward to hearing more about Ethiopia.

  • Mark said:

    Thanks Gavin. I have not been able to find any written rules regarding the sport. I know my writing here is rather long-winded, but I hope the details of the rules of the sport, takedowns, and fouls can be seen as the first step for a written record of the rules of Tigel in a public setting.

    If anyone has an actual copy of the rules of Tigel in writing, please feel free to submit them here.

  • Thomas said:

    Tigel sounds fantastic, I will definitely have to check it out if I’m ever in that part of the world.

  • T.R. Foley said:

    Great job!

  • John Geyer said:

    Hi Mark!
    So stoked on what your doing! I’ll forward this on to some wrestling mates. Also year ago I competed in Lucha Canaria in the town square on Tenarif. Good fun, bazaar style; if you win you take on the next biggest guy, whew! what a work out.
    Great to hear from you,
    John Geyer

    • Mark said:

      Awesome John! You got pics from you time in Tenarif? I remember you talking about you wrestling in Tenarif years ago in the town square during the middle of the day. Now that is wrestling!

      Had the rules or atmosphere of the sport changed during the times you were there?

  • Sara said:

    This is great! I love your wrestling adventures.

  • robert wise said:

    I may have contacted you last year. We are moving to Ethiopia and I have three boys that I would like to get involved in wrestling. I wrestled in college and could possibly help. Please put me on your mailing list. Thanks.

  • Mark said:


    Anbessa recently won the gold medal in the Ethiopian track & field championships for discus.

  • Katrin Bromber said:

    Dear Mark,
    As I have told you before. There have been written rules of the sport since 2008 (translated from the Amharic original as “Revised Manual for Techniques and Rules of Traditional Sport Games”) and they are available in the Cultural Sports Federation.
    In November 2011 I visited a place near Mekelle in the North East Ethiopia, where they practice a form of wrestling (dibdib) with a very rigid system of rules. By insisting that a break of these rules by one wrestler leads to the disqualifiytion of the whole team, this sporting practice becomes a very interesting social practice.
    Best wishes

    • Mark said:

      Thanks Katrin,

      Thanks! I have heard of Dibdib, but not witnessed any competitions yet. I will have to check out that region later in the year.

      I have always considered wrestling a team sport (you are never going to reach your potential without being pushed by your training partners). It sounds like dibdib takes the team aspect of wrestling very seriously.

      Warmest regards,

  • Katrin Bromber said:

    Dear Mark,
    I will return to Mekelle next week to work at the Department of history and cultural studies. Hopefully, wrestling will be included into a students’ project on anthropology and history.
    Just to let you know: We will have a workshop on “Wrestling with Multiple Modernities – Traditional Athletic Styles between Nationalization, Regionalization and Internationalization” at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin (7/8. September 2012).
    I am really looking foward to it.
    One question: Do you know of any organized girls’ wrestling? What do their mail training partners think of them? In how far is wrestling included into other forms of heavy athletics and, last but not least, into the “cult of the body” – bodybuilding, which has a tradition in Ethiopia since the mid-1950s?
    Best wishes

    • Mark said:

      Hi Katrin,

      I will be back in Addis Ababa early next week. Any chance you will be there after your travels to Mekelle?

      Could you send Tim & I more information about the seminar in Belin this fall?

      There was a tournament for women during the tigel festival back in January, however, I have not witnessed any training sessions other than what I am trying to learn in my back yard. There are many women and girls competing in track & field events in Ethiopia, but I have not witnessed women competing or practicing in other sports.

      There seems to be new interest in martial arts (especially in Addis Ababa), I will find out how many women participate in these new martial arts gyms. I will also ask Anbessa and the Samuels about womens contact/combat sports.

      I noted earlier that Anbessa has been using his wrestling training to encorperate into his track & field training. A few weeks ago he came in first place in the Ethiopian discus championships.

      Warmest regards,

  • ARSHAD said:

    Hello Mark,
    I have been to Ethiopia several times in an attempt to start a martial arts school there. Unfirtunately, I didn’thave the connections to get it off the ground. Do you kno wif there are any opportunities for work there for an American. I think that if I can stay there for a year,, that will be enough time to make the connections I need. Any suggestions?

  • Mark said:

    Clips of Tigel I took at the beginning of 2013:

    For the past year we have been researching more about the sport. However, we have been unable to find any video or film footage of Tigel. Therefore, this may be the first video clip of Ethiopian Tigel Wrestling:


    Anbessa in his 72 kilo finals:


    Me in a to-the-first-takedown exhibition:


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