Tag Archives: Wrestling

Review: Fightworld an absorbing if flawed exposition of fight culture

“Everyone who fights has to have a reason why. I think that, in the end, most reasons are the same.”

When you strip sport of all its frills, you are left with fighting, perhaps the most original and authentic sporting phenomenon. Man’s desire to prove their superiority in physical combat is one that stretches back for millennia, and one that still holds as much significance today. Be it street fighting in Thailand, or Anthony Joshua’s sold-out bout at Wembley, combat sports boast a unique appeal that very few things can match.

Fightworld is a five-part Netflix documentary series which explores fighting cultures in five different countries: Mexico, Thailand, Myanmar, Senegal, and Israel. Actor and martial arts enthusiast Frank Grillo, best known for roles in Liam Neeson’s The Grey, and Marvel’s Captain America franchise, guides us on this journey through the underworld of combat sports.

We discover the art of boxing in Mexico, where Grillo explores the city of Tepito, described by one coach as “the rough neighbourhood of champions.”

We learn about Muay Thai in Thailand — the art of eight limbs as it’s known — and indeed the sport of Lethwei in Myanmar, the art of nine limbs whereby the head-butt completes one’s personal arsenal.

We’re thrust into the colourful and atmospheric world of Laamb wrestling in Senegal, and discover in brutal, graphic terms the reality of hand-to-hand combat in Israel. It’s a twisting and turning journey through the eye-opening actualities of fighting styles around the globe, and of the values held by their purveyors.

Grillo pad

While Fightworld offers a breathtaking exposition of a wide variety of fighting styles and subcultures, it must be said that Grillo’s presence begins to grate very quickly. You can understand the idea behind having him as the show’s navigator — the privileged American with a sharp haircut and designer stubble having his eyes opened to the stark and often grim world of these fierce sports.

However, it often feels as though Grillo is simply in the way as far as the viewer’s experience goes. His ham-fisted, clumsy attempts to communicate with the documentary’s subjects only serve to paint him as a brash, headstrong tourist. To see him buckle and whimper during his tutorial with an Israeli combat instructor in the final episode is somewhat satisfying.

While this type of programme certainly warrants the need for a central personality to link each episode together, perhaps the role would have been better served by a former boxer, someone who can truly appreciate the struggles and successes of those he meets. While Grillo’s intentions are good and genuine, the divide between him and the fighters means there is little common ground between them.

Whatever gravitas is lost through his presence, though, is made up for in the documentary’s stunning visuals. Each shot finely reflects the struggles and mood of its subject, each close-up a glimpse into the fighter’s inner thoughts. The different settings are beautifully portrayed, from the harsh streets of Tepito to the humid grasslands of Myanmar.

Life and death

Fightworld offers stunning cinematography

The real stars of Fightworld are its subjects. They offer a unique insight into the ins and outs of their varying sports. The harshness and brutality of some of these sports are laid bare, like the outdoor Muay Thai bouts or the sheer physical aptitude of the Senegalese wrestlers.

Each fighter featured paints a picture of why they believe in fighting, be it the pursuit of fame and stardom, or simply to support their impoverished families.

The most absorbing part of the series is the final episode in a besieged Israel, which is in many ways a departure from the theme of the previous four. Here, we see the kind of fighting that goes beyond mere sport, and becomes a matter of life and death.

The intensity and passion of the Israeli combat specalists are striking, not least Eitan Cohen, an armed forces instructor of Krav Maga, a unique form of hand-to-hand combat. His presence is captivating, his motives worn proudly upon his sleeve. The combat skills he possesses are as terrifying as they are mesmerising. The nine minutes for which he is on screen are unforgettable.

Scratching the surface

Perhaps the area where Fightworld most misses the mark is in its undying glorification of every aspect of these different combat sports. The various downsides for many of these fighters — and there are undoubtedly many — are swept beneath the carpet, deemed insignificant against the riches and spoils, tangible or otherwise, of fighting.

‘In the end, perhaps the main reason we fight is simply because we like it’

The potential for injury, or for lasting damage mentally and physically to those who practice these sports with little protection, are largely ignored. One of the lasting images of the documentary is of a young Burmese fighter, no more than a young teenager, staring down the lens of the camera. His face is bloodied and bruised, a look of sad defiance just discernible beneath the puffs and scrapes.

It’s a shocking image, but one that represents the juxtaposition between the pride of physical combat, and its devastating affects. Perhaps a more thorough exploration into such themes would have made Fightworld a more rounded project. After finishing the series, there is a sense that the documentary, while rich and enjoyable, has only scratched the surface.

The overarching question throughout Fightworld is why do we fight? The words of Artur Saladiak, a Lethwei boxer originally from Poland, are stark: “people like violence.”

While it’s a crude and simplistic reduction of the myriad reasons for which people fight, in many ways Saladiak touches on a key truth, and one that perhaps transcends the motivations the documentary seeks to promote — those of survival, of bettering oneself, of pride in one’s family and heritage.

In the end, perhaps the main reason we fight is simply because we like it.

Rating: 7/10

Ritu Phogat (second from left)

Female Indian wrestler fighting stereotypes as well as opponents

“Every girl should confess her passion to her family and show what really matters to them.”

Ritu Phogat (above, second left) speaks eloquently about the challenges she and her three sisters faced in India as they pursued their dream to become elite wrestlers.

Despite their father being former wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, the siblings met with rejection, derision and misogyny in a society where sportswomen battle to gain acceptance and support.

Such are the daunting barriers they face that Phogat’s father had all but given up hope that the family name would continue in wrestling.

But three of them – Geeta, Babita and Ritu  – have done him proud on the international stage, as have his nieces Vinesh and Priynka, who he also trains.

Medal success

Geeta was India’s first female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics and won Commonwealth gold in the 55kg freestyle category.

Babita, Ritu and Vinesh are also all Commonwealth champions and looking forward to more medal success at next year’s Games in Australia.

Perhaps more importantly, they are all trailblazers for Indian women discouraged by their society’s traditional gender stereotypes from achieving their sporting potential.

Ritu, 23, told me: “As an international player, I love supporting female sportswomen, I always encourage them to work hard and prove everyone wrong.

“We Indians are more emotional and connected to our culture, so we care too much about what society thinks of us.”

Changes

Such is the inspirational nature of the Phogats’ story that last year it received the Bollywood treatment in the feature film Dangal, directed by Nitesh Tiwari.

In the film, Mahavir (played by Aamir Khan) makes Ritu’s elder two sisters take up wrestling, much to their initial embarrassment.

But they soon realise how much it means to their father to see them competing and growing in confidence, and they – and their younger sister – embrace the sport with great success.

“The movie shows how my life exactly was, we faced many problems but we overcame them together,” said Ritu, who this month competes at the U23 World Championships in Poland.

Ritu has since gone on to become the most expensive female wrestler in India’s Pro Wrestling League auction, joining the Jaipur Ninjas for 360,000 rupees.

It’s a far cry from her younger years, when the family were mocked by their fellow villagers, disowned by their own extended family and the sisters laughed at by schoolmates.

More competitive

However, Ritu claimed Indian women aiming for careers in sport still face hostility because “Society matters, [the opinions of] others matter”.

She added:  “It won’t get better for the new generation, in fact it will be harder and much more competitive.”

But the fact that she is one of eight Indian woman heading to Poland for the U23 Worlds tells its own story.

Things are changing in Indian society, albeit very slowly in some respects. But each time another young girl chooses to pursue her ambitions in sport, pioneers such as Geeta, Sabita Ritu and their cousins have won a wider victory.

Photo courtesy of Ritu Phogat; you can follow Ritu on Twitter @PhogatRitu

Hatsune Igaki – sumo fan

It’s still morning in England but on the other side of the globe, the evening drags its dark cloak over the Japanese sky.

Hatsune Igaki, a big fan of sumo wrestling, is at home, ready to share her knowledge of the traditional sport with me via Skype – well, if it actually is a sport.

“It is very hard to say whether it’s a sport or not, the English language does not have a proper word for it,” she says.

“Sumo is not so popular anymore – the young go for football or baseball, they are more interested in those kind of things”

“Sumo is very a traditional thing in Japan and it is tightly tied to its history. It started over 1,000 years ago and over the centuries very little has changed.

“The wrestlers still wear kimonos and their hair is done in a traditional way. You could say that sumo events are show-like, but the old style is kept everywhere in Japan. This is why I’m so into sumo, I like traditional things,” she explains.

Sumo might be equal parts sport and tradition, but in modern day Japan, Igaki laments, its cultural importance is declining.

Beauty

“Sumo is not so popular in Japan anymore,” she says. “There are so many other sports that children can choose from. The young go for football or baseball, they are more interested in those kind of things.”

But, luckily and rather unexpectedly, the emergence of a group of particularly good-looking wrestlers has created a whole new fanbase, women who initially go along to watch them, and then end up becoming genuine fans of sumo.

”Since last year, many young women have started to go and watch it,” she said. “So, nowadays is quite hard to get a ticket because of these girls.”

Another thing that draws people to sumo is how fan-friendly it is. People can go and watch morning practice – something Igaki has done so for many years.

Delicacies

“Normally, they wake up around 5am or 6am, practice for maybe a couple of hours and after, they eat breakfast and go to sleep,” she explained. “Seriously, they must sleep. That is a part of the practice. They must sleep to get the weight.

“They only eat twice a day, but they consume huge portions. A wrestler once told me that if he ate more times a day he would lose the precious weight.”

“A fight can be over very quickly. When one wrestler pushes his opponent out of the ring or the other is thrown to the ground, it is all over”

A popular dish among the Sumo wrestlers is chankonabe. It is a stew containing mushrooms, onions, leafy greens and meat. Of course, the meal is accompanied by bowls of rice and other delicacies.

The Japanese word for a sumo bout is torukumi. Two men meet in a ring – the dohyō  and greet each other sitting crouched on the mat.

They must then rub their hands and finish the ritual by clapping one time and moving their arms to show that they are unarmed. Then, each wrestler places his hands on his knees.

After the command to start – torukumi – is yelled, the wrestlers rush to immediately try to get the upper hand. A fight can be over very quickly, with the most common forms of victory being when one pushes his opponent out of the ring or throws him to the ground. 

“There are other ways of winning and losing as well,” Igaki explains. “Fall on your hands and knees and you have lost the torikumi.

Bashos

A tournament – basho – lasts for 15 days and every wrestler has only one torukumi a day. So, in total 15 fights.

“Every basho is important,” says Igaki. “Events are held in Tokyo, then in March in Osaka. Actually, Osaka basho started today [13th of March]”, she says, asking if it is possible to follow results from the UK.

“In May the wrestlers come back to Tokyo. Then to Nagoya. In September, they return to Tokyo, again. Then, it all ends at Fukuoka in November.

“After every basho a ranking is made. It indicates the results for every wrestler. By using the ranking, the basho organisers will make the match list,” Igaki explains.

Sumo is divided in to six ranked divisions, involving promotion and relegation, based on results. Wrestlers from the lowest cannot meet those more highly-ranked.

“A wrestler can make his way to a higher rank by winning torikumis. They can also fall to the bottom as well. If he loses, for example, more than 10 times and only wins five, then he’ll be fighting at a lower rank during the next basho.”

Centuries-old

Igaki’s favorite wrestler is Hakuhō Shō, a 6ft 4in tall mashing machine. A Mongolian by birth, Shō holds the record of the most undefeated championships.

She remembers his early days in sumo: “I have supported him for more than 10 years now. When he started a decade ago, no-one knew his name. But he was a good wrestler and he is at the very top now. It is very exciting.”

From the champion, the conversation turns back to traditions and the centuries-old sumo diet.

“During a basho, they do not eat beef or pork, because these are four-legged animals. However, chicken and fish are seen as okay to consume.

“Do you know Japanese Kirin beer? Kirin means giraffe and because it has four legs the wrestlers avoid that beer,” Igaki laughs.

Photo courtesy of Better Than Bacon, via Flickr Creative Commons

Iftakhar sets his sights on Rio 2016

Wrestling is arguably the lowest-profile Olympic sport in Britain, but Adil Iftakhar is hoping to put it in the spotlight at the 2016 Games in Rio.

The 21-year-old became a Team GB competitor in 2011, narrowly missing out on the London Games in 2012 due to his inexperience.

In order to compete in Olympic wrestling you must be the best in your weight category in your national team, which he wasn’t at the time.  However,he now feels he has got what it takes to make it to Brazil.

“I’m definitely looking at it, you’ve got to dream and make it a reality,” he said. “There’s certain events that I have to participate in. I’ve got to go to these tournaments, get a good placing – if possible a medal – and then from there the doors open for Rio,” he said.

On the GB wrestling team there are seven weigh-class categories with three people in each.  Iftakhar will battle against the other two in his category to reach Rio next summer.

“The two people in my category tend to be my main competitors,” he said. “I have to be better than them. Only one out of the three of us can get to Rio, but I still need to qualify by excelling in the tournaments as well.”

Self-belief

Iftakhar, who competes at 86kg, trains three days a week but just once a month with the rest of the GB Academy in Salford.

He stressed just how important training and dedication are, allied with confidence and self-belief, to achieving success in the sport.

“The training that makes you is club level,” he said. “I train in Slough once a week, and on top of that I train in London twice a week,” he said.

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Iftakhar in action

“I do my own conditioning separately with weight sessions on top. I’ve also now started to do altitude training with masks, and this has improved my performance greatly.”

Having recently turned 21, Iftakhar is now a senior and admits there are no more excuses if he doesn’t qualify.

“I’m a senior now and can’t say ‘Oh I wasn’t old enough,’ because now I am. I’m confident that I can be [good enough], 100 percent.

“You’ve got to be confident – it’s an individual sport, one versus one. You’ve got to be confident in your skills and ability because if you’re not you’ve lost half the battle. Wrestling is very mentally-oriented.”

Iftakhar is currently studying law at City University in London. Finding the right balance between training and study is tough but something he says he deals with.

It is very difficult with the work and training,” he admitted. “My frame of mind changes when I’m working, I’m calm and very relaxed, but when I’m training it’I become stressed out because I am so determined.

“The sessions are intense and repetitive, and if I don’t get it done I feel as if I’ve let myself down.

Right now I’m putting more effort into my work as wrestling won’t support me for the rest of my life compared to a sport like football,” he said.

“I still get in enough wrestling sessions and I would like to do way more, but it’s not realistic for the long term.”

Minority sport

The last GB Olympic wrestling medal winner was Noel Loban in 1984 at the Los Angeles Games. Iftakhar believes from what he has seen it will be very difficult for his country to end the 32-year drought in Rio.

“People need to understand that it is a minority sport in this country,” he said. “It hasn’t got a lot of funding and it is not supported well by the government, and therefore our chances are slim.

“If anyone does win it will be down to individual effort. If I’d gone and trained in Russia for a year that would have been done with my own resources and money.”

Iftakhar holds an outstanding record, winning 90% of his 50 tournament-based matches so far. He would like nothing more than to win a medal in Rio but knows it’s a challenge.

“My aim is to win one, obviously. I’d aim for the highest one but that’s not to say I wouldn’t be happy with a bronze,” he admitted.

“For a sport that is probably one of the most difficult in this country, and is not supported as much as others, it would be a great achievement.”

Adil Iftakhar is on Twitter @Adil Still; for more information about the sport, visit the British Wrestling website.