In late August of 2017, a legion of gladiatorial men and women from the world’s backwaters descended on Paris to determine who, in a series of weight classes, were the best wrestlers on the planet. Not pro wrestling—turnbuckles, thrown chairs and all that—but the real deal: spandex, cauliflower ear, weight cutting, the heady whiff of groin reek and Hellenism. The occasion was the World Wrestling Championships, which took place at the AccorHotels Arena, a kind of postmodern colosseum on the Seine—directly across the river, in fact, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and a few blocks from the Opéra de la Bastille. No one involved appeared to find this funny or dissonant.
For the sport’s fanatical devotees, there was immense and almost intolerable hype surrounding the event. This was because a handsome 21-year-old prodigy with a bowl cut named Abdulrashid Sadulaev, from the mountains of Dagestan, had made it known some months before that he would be bumping up from the 86-kilogram weight class, which he’d owned for years, to the 97-kilogram one. Sadulaev is nicknamed “The Russian Tank,” to his own mild annoyance, because of his impassive and generally pitiless way of steamrolling opponents. His most recent loss came in 2013, when he was seventeen.
Now, the reason this news was considered a seismic disclosure is that the 97-kilogram weight class was presided over by another 21-year-old wunderkind, an American named Kyle Snyder from Woodbine, Maryland—a Christ-loving, Alan-Jackson-listening phenom, mighty as a Clydesdale and, like Sadulaev, an Olympic gold medalist at Rio de Janeiro. Snyder is preposterously confident: he likes quoting Corinthians, and comports himself with the ironclad self-assurance of one lit up from afar by some celestial wattage. When Sadulaev declared his intention to move up a weight class, Snyder tweeted: “It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and Sadulaev is coming up to 97 kg.”
Twitter fairly trembled. An unknown Wisconsin man aptly named Jordan Crass blurted, “Kick his Russki @$$!” To which another user replied, “No Russki!!! Dagestan!” Crass shot back, “Fuck Dagestan.”
I studied it all, entranced, from my apartment. A former wrestler, I’d quit the sport cold turkey in college, banishing it from my thoughts for over a decade. Now, for reasons I struggled to explain, I returned, this time purely as a spectator. Was it connected to the politics-induced anxiety attacks that had started afflicting me of late, for the first time in my life? The Russians had meddled with our election. But what did that even mean? Certitude itself had evaporated in a haze of partisan finger-pointing, facts had been rechristened as spin. Meanwhile the American West was on fire. In July, a trillion-ton iceberg the size of Delaware, having threatened for years to split from Antarctica, at last broke free. Across the globe, a new species of dick-swinging autocrat grabbed power with shocking agility and ease, riding—shirts off, man-boobs glinting in the sun—into the presidencies and prime ministries of the world.
I began to lose my shit. I woke routinely at 4 a.m.—no interval between first and second sleep but a clammy, hallucinatory vigil. A lurid phantasmagoria played itself out in the dark before me: I saw nuclear winter and hellish summer, swelling seas and masses of migrants; I saw a dirty bomb detonate in Times Square, the resulting smoke giving way to a vision of Trump playing tennis, swiveling into a groundstroke, his bulbous ass strangled by sheer shorts. I cried out like a frightened child, reaching for my phone and searching frantically for wrestling videos.
I could breathe again. Here, on YouTube, were all the classics: Mark Ironside rallying from behind to shock Cary Kolat in Iowa City in ’96; an upstart Darrion Caldwell spladling Brent Metcalf in ’07—the same season Metcalf went on to win Most Dominant at NCAAs. There were grainy videos from the Soviet bloc going back decades, and I squinted at these, too, combing through acres of user comments in Cyrillic and diligently pasting them into Google Translate. More recently, there were the canonical Jordan Burroughs matches—proud, pious Burroughs who by rights belonged on a Wheaties box, whose blast double flashed forth like the Holy Ghost on speed. He’d be competing in Paris too.
And of course there was Snyder, his serene and bulletproof aplomb the opposite of my little-kid fear. I went back to his Twitter. He had retweeted a line from one of the Narnia books: “‘You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you,’ said the Lion.” Who was this confident freak who benched three plates and quoted C. S. Lewis? Moved by a junkie’s fixation—and a hope that this through-the-looking-glass world might offer a fresh vantage point onto the historical moment we were entering—I booked a return ticket to Paris. I did so through WOW Air, a cheap Icelandic airline with purple planes, getting my affairs in order in case the plane should crash in the Arctic Circle, as I half expected it would.
Mercifully, I got there intact, making my way on a hot Wednesday afternoon toward Montmartre—a seedy warren of pee-laden streets built into a hillside overlooking the city. Here were sex shops and pâtisseries, buskers and bric-a-brac stands. At the top of the hill the Sacré-Cœur reared up, its trippy Byzantine cupolas white against the sky, a mute rebuke to the naughtiness below. I got to my Airbnb, a little hole in the lap of the basilica, unloaded my things and collapsed. The next morning I wended my way down the hillside, past Moulin Rouge, through the Place de la République, shuffling southward till I’d reached the Seine and the 12th Arrondissement, where the arena was. Passing through three security checkpoints, I hastened inside, found my seat and sat down to watch.
Wrestling is both the oldest and most elemental of sports. It requires virtually no equipment: if you are an American high school or college wrestler, you will likely be required to wear a headgear to prevent cauliflower ear, as well as a special pair of thin-soled indoor shoes that are sort of like slippers. Most wrestlers wear a singlet, a tight-fitting, sleeveless uniform that extends from shoulders to thighs. There is no racquet, no set of clubs, no ball; the body is the lone instrument wrestlers wield. The Greeks took this minimalism to an extreme: they wrestled naked.
All cultures everywhere have wrestled. For as long as there are humans there will exist the impulse to throw someone or haul them to the ground, matching limb with limb in a bid to determine who’s dominant. Go to the Scottish Highlands and watch belt wrestling, where two competitors take hold of each other’s belt and use this to gain leverage and hurl each other. Venture to Mongolia and see vast outdoor festivals where dozens of wrestling matches play out simultaneously in a field—men built like sycamores and dressed in powder-blue briefs, boots and traditional mini-coats, striving to drag each other to the earth to the delight of thousands. Or travel to Turkey and see their national sport, grease wrestling. There you’ll find competitors, slicked up and wearing just pants, grappling each other and, without hesitation, reaching down each other’s pants—from front and back—for some queasy tactical advantage, while old men in flat caps look on approvingly.
To a degree scarcely fathomable to most Americans, wrestling is interwoven in the daily lives and customs of many of the world’s peoples. In the Bosnian countryside one finds wedding receptions where amateur wrestlers are hired to compete, for the guests’ entertainment, on mats near the dance floor. So revered are the best wrestlers in Iran, they get called into the homes of ordinary people to resolve domestic disputes. The public gives them adoring nicknames (one guy is known as “The Leopard of Juybar”), and when they walk into restaurants the clientele rise to their feet and applaud.
Away from the adoring crowds, though, wrestling is an ascetic discipline that makes extreme demands of body and mind. At the heart of this asceticism is the mysterious practice of weight cutting. Since wrestlers compete in discrete weight classes to ensure they face opponents their own size, they’re required before every competition to “make weight”—that is, step on a scale and prove they’re at or below the limit for their weight class. This gives rise to a macabre ritual whereby wrestlers starve, parch and otherwise deprive themselves in an effort to drop to a lower weight class where, in theory, they can “wrestle bigger”—that is, compete against smaller opponents and enjoy a size advantage. To get there they’ll do most anything: spit half a pint; fry in a sauna; run miles in down jackets; even stand on their heads prior to stepping on the scale, since (the logic goes) this will cause their center of gravity to shift slightly away from the earth. A friend of mine tells of a wrestler who attended the NCAA tournament in the Eighties and discovered, to his horror, that he was a smidgen overweight on arrival. He tried all the techniques, only to find on ascending the scale at the deadline that he was still 0.1 pounds over. Calmly, as if resigned to some fate, he reached up and cracked his own septum, bleeding out the remaining weight.
Mostly, it’s a discipline that occurs in wrestling rooms, those spare spaces—contiguous mats, climbing rope—where wrestlers spend the bulk of their time. Here extreme exertion takes place as sadistic coaches turn up the heat to 80-plus degrees. The heat incubates visions, fosters highfalutin thoughts. Who wouldn’t see stuff? It’s been this way since the Greeks. Plato was an outstanding wrestler (Plato was a nickname conferred on him by his wrestling coach; it means “broad-shouldered”), and at least three of the Socratic dialogues—Theaetetus, Charmides, Lysis—take place in wrestling rooms (palaestrae). At the outset of the Theaetetus, the title character, a brilliant young man who serves as Socrates’s interlocutor, gets naked and lubes himself up with olive oil before entering a wrestling room to meet Socrates. Try to process this in all its strangeness, this broey culture in which geniuses got oiled up and rolled around with one another, then discoursed on truth, on friendship, on the composition and destiny of the soul.
The point is that for the Greeks the transcendent was bound to the quotidian, the spiritual to the sweaty, by a million durable spindles. The logic persists among wrestlers today. Most of the greatest international wrestlers are men and women of extraordinary faith who see themselves as part of a divine drama unfolding on the mat. In Senegal, wrestlers have personal shamans who accompany them to the ringside and cast enchantments during their matches (one such shaman is depicted below). When Jordan Burroughs, among the two or three best American wrestlers of all time, suffered a stunning quarterfinal loss at the 2016 Olympics, he tearfully explained to the media afterward that, leading up to Rio, he’d felt he was “capable of being the greatest wrestler ever.” Then he added, with the devastating brevity of a George Herbert couplet: “God said prove it. And I couldn’t.”