The Kırkpınar oil wrestling tournament traces its roots to more than six centuries ago, but few people from the Thrace (Trakya) region won the top title in the traditional event, let alone Edirne, the northwestern province where it is held every year. This year’s tournament, likewise, will have wrestlers hailing from other provinces to compete for the golden belt.
Antalya, historically home to generations of skilled oil wrestlers, prominently stands out again as the province of top contenders. Ali Gürbüz, who won the last two editions of the tournament, seeks to take the belt home permanently. Wrestlers winning three consecutive annual tournaments are granted a golden belt, while others have to hand it over to the new winner if they fail in their first or second attempt.
Orhan Okulu, another wrestler from Antalya, in the meantime, aspires to reclaim the top title he last won in 2018, for a second time after a 2015 victory.
After a rare pause in the historic event due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and a low-key event last year, Kırkpınar will return with a juniors’ tournament on July 1, before top names will take to the grass arena on July 2 -3 for the adults’ tournament. Along with temporary ownership of the golden belt, the başpehlivan or “head wrestler” will be given a prize of $4,569 (TL 75,000) and a trophy.
Ali Gürbüz follows in the footsteps of his late father Recep, Kırkpınar champion of 1988, 10 years before his son made his first appearance at the tournament. Representing the third generation of his family of wrestlers, Gürbüz feels proud to continue the family tradition after his father and grandfather Mehmet Gürbüz.
His first true accomplishment in Kırkpınar came in 2009 when he won the bronze medal. One year later, it was silver and in the 650th edition of the competition, Ali Gürbüz finally grabbed the golden belt, launching a successful streak, only to lose the belt again in 2013 after doping allegations. He made a comeback in 2019 by beating Orhan Okulu for the top title and securing the belt again in 2021 with the defeat of Ismail Koç.
Gürbüz feels prepared for Kırkpınar, polishing his skills in local tournaments across Turkey. “I worked hard in winter,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA) recently. “Kırkpınar means a lot to me. I want to win the golden belt for Antalya, for my late father.”
Orhan Okulu hopes to resume his race to the top, with the ultimate aim of a hat trick this year. Though defeated by Gürbüz, he is still a formidable opponent for wrestlers with his notorious “drive” in the arena. Unlike fellow wrestlers, Okulu won a reputation for not stepping back against a charging opponent, no matter how much their size or weight is, skipping the tactical part of the game.
Along with regular training, Okulu has been touring the wrestling circuit this year, checking on his potential rivals in Kırkpınar. “I lost three finals but I hope 2022 will be my year,” he told AA. “I trained six days every week in winter and hope it will pay off. Kırkpınar is like Olympics for us. I was simply looking forward to winning a golden belt once when I first went there but now I revised my goals. I want it to be kept by Antalya forever,” he said.