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Ismail Egilmez shows off his prize camel, Cilgin Hasan, the day before his championship bout. In the winter, Ismail spends over six hours a day with Cilgin. "My camel is like my son," he said. (NPR)

Like Sumo Wrestling, With Lots Of Spit: Camels Tussle In Turkey

by Nathan Rott
Jan 27, 2013 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Two camels wrestle at the annual Camel Wrestling Championship near the village of Selcuk, Turkey. There are over a dozen camel wrestling tournaments on Turkey's Aegean Coast in the winter months and Selcuk's is the biggest. More than 120 bull (male) camels paired off. Two camels wrestle in front of a raucous crowd of nearly 10,000 spectators at Selcuk's Camel Wrestling Championship on January 20, 2013. Officials scramble to break up two camels after a match is whistled dead. Camel owners and officials are quick to break up combating camels when a match is called to prevent injury to the animals. Two camels fight during the Camel Wrestling Championship in the town of Selcuk, near the western coastal city of Ismir, Turkey, on Jan. 15, 2012. It's the biggest event of the camel-wrestling season in Turkey. People watch wrestling camels as they enjoy a meal and the Turkish national drink raki during the Camel Wrestling Championship in Selcuk, on Jan. 15, 2012.

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"Obama vs. Rambo" may sound like an Onion headline for the gun control debate. But it's actually a must-see matchup for spectators on Turkey's Aegean Coast. The competitors? Two male, or bull, camels.

The biggest event of Turkey's camel wrestling season takes place each year in the town of Selcuk, near the ancient ruins of Ephesus.

Among the competitors at the Camel Wrestling Championship this year is Cilgin — or "Crazy" — Hasan, as he's known in the arena. He is a one-ton behemoth: a Tulu camel dressed in bright embroidered cloths, neon-green pompoms and a traditional wooden saddle with the nontraditional word "Bulldozer" printed on the harness.

Owner Ismail Egilmez is giving Cilgin some last-minute pointers. The language doesn't sound like Turkish, and I ask my translator, Emre Danisan, what he's saying.

Danisan is equally flummoxed: "I don't know. He's speaking Cameleon. Camelish. I don't know. Really, I don't understand."

Whatever it is, it seems to work: Cilgin is frothing at the mouth — literally.

We enter a caravan of camels walking down the highway toward the Aegean Sea. We're in the midst of more than a hundred bell-wearing camels, all bound for the same place: a natural amphitheater, tucked away a few short miles from Selcuk.

It's a place rife with history; camel wrestling is no different, but it's a sport in decline.

Every year there are fewer camel competitors. And the sport doesn't have the audience it used to. For modern Turks, the idea of watching two humped ungulates tangle just doesn't hold the same appeal as, say, YouTube.

But you wouldn't know that at first glance during the recent competition.

Vendors hawk commemorative shawls and Efes beer as crowds file in. The air is thick with the smoke of sizzling camel sausage.

After a few hours of waiting in the crowd, Ismail leads Cilgin into the ring. His opponent is wearing bright pink.

It used to be that a female camel would be in the ring with them — nature's way of instigating a fight. Today, though, the owners just pull the camels into each other.

It works. Cilgin leans in from the right. His opponent nips at his legs. They get in an awkward side-by-side headlock, and the announcer gives a play-by-play.

To win, one camel must knock the other down or send it running in a 10-minute time limit. But that seldom happens.

People compare the sport to bullfighting, but really, it's more like sumo wrestling — with lots and lots of spit.

And, truth be told, the actual wrestling is kind of boring

After 10 minutes, a whistle sounds. The match ends in a draw. No surprise — most do.

The camels are led out of the arena, and two more take their place.

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