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Story: This article appears in Volume 26: The Nostalgia Issue

How does a landlocked country with a population of three million manage to hold its own against gargantuan neighbours like Russia, China and Japan? This is the question that the photographer Catherine Hyland sets out to explore in her project on Mongolian sumo wrestlers, a sport that has been an astonishing success story for the country. Between 2003 and 2014 Mongolia has produced successive sumo champions (or yokozuna in Japanese) and in the process made sumo wrestling into a path to fame, riches and glory for many young boys in Mongolia, a tough yet climatically fragile land.

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The roots of Mongolia’s relationship with sumo wrestling lie in its history. The traditional practice of bökh wrestling is viewed as the most important of Mongolia’s “Three Manly Skills”, ahead of horse riding and archery, and can be seen in cave paintings dating back to the Neolithic era – Genghis Khan also used the practice to keep his armies ready for battle. Mongolian wrestling remains the most popular national sport in the country.

When it comes to sumo Davaagiin Batbayar, a sumo champion who has returned to Mongolia to pursue a career in business and politics, believes that traditional Mongolian nomadic lifestyles have contributed to the success of the country’s wrestlers. “While Japanese kids can just go and open the fridge to get what they want,” he explains, “Mongolian kids have to go and get ice from the river, boil it into water, chop firewood and coal and ride their horse to herd their livestock. Because kids wrestle naked in Mongolia they are usually adapted to wrestling in cold and hot weather, which also gives them an advantage.”

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