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

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. (EPA /Landov)

"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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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Obama versus Rambo may sound like a satiric Onion headline for the gun control debate, but it's actually a must-see matchup on Turkey's Aegean Coast. The competitors? Two male camels. Yep, it's camel wrestling season in Turkey. And reporter Nathan Rott sent us this postcard from the season's biggest event.

ISMAIL EGILMEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

(SOUNDBITE OF KISSING SOUND)

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Cilgin - or Crazy - Hasan, as he's known in the arena, is a one-ton behemoth; a Tulu camel dressed in bright embroidered cloths, neon-green pompoms and a traditional wooden saddle with the untraditional word Bulldozer printed on the harness. Ismail Egilmez is his owner and right now, he's giving him some last minute pointers.

(SOUNDBITE OF HISSING)

ROTT: That doesn't sound like Turkish though, so I ask my translator, Emre Danisan, what he's saying.

EMRE DANISAN: I don't know. He's speaking cameleon. Camelish. I don't know. Really, I don't understand.

ROTT: Well, whatever it is, it seems to work. Cilgin is literally frothing at the mouth.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

ROTT: There are over a hundred bell-wearing camels here today and they're all bound for the same place: a natural amphitheater, tucked a few short miles away from the town of Selcuk and the ancient ruins of Ephesus. This is a place riddled with history, and camel wrestling is no different. But it's a sport in decline. 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 here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ROTT: Vendors hawk commemorative shawls and a Turkish liquor called Rocky. The air is thick with the smoke of sizzling camel sausage. And after a few hours of waiting in the crowd, we get our cue.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ROTT: Ismail gives a confident nod as he leads Cilgin into the ring. His opponent is similarly sized and wearing bright pink. It used to be 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

ROTT: 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 this to bullfighting, but it's more like sumo wrestling with lots and lots and lots of spit. And truth be told, the actual wrestling is, well, kind of boring.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

ROTT: The match ends in a draw. No surprise - most do - but it is a little disappointing. But the crowd doesn't miss a beat. Between the beer, the music and the seared camel, they're busy. For NPR News, I'm Nathan Rott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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