How Wrestling Took Over Switzerland

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Patrick Frauchiger / Getty Images

The Swiss may have an international reputation for running away from a fight, but burly farmers in the alpine valleys from Appenzell to Aargau have been settling scores the old-fashioned way for centuries. And there are more brawls now than ever before. The traditional discipline of “Schwingen” – Swiss folk wrestling – has never been more popular.

Although sketchy records of the little-known sport date back as far as the 13th century, it was during the French occupation of Switzerland in the 19th century that Schwingen really found its footing. As a rebellious display of Swiss nationalism, the first official festival was held in Interlaken in 1805. Herders tussled before a giant crowd and the winner walked away with a new sheep and the admiration of all the pretty Mädchen.

But the sport didn’t retain its popularity with the common volk. Schwingen faded into obscurity – taking on an air of Helvetic kitsch – before locals became infatuated again over the last decade, a trend that (probably not coincidentally) paralleled the rise of MMA. Today, Schwingen is Switzerland’s national sport with a serious following. It’s not watchmaking, but it’s big business.

Open-air arena festivals (think: varsity wrestling meets the Sound of Music) now attract over 50,000 fervent fans, who ring cow bells and swill beer while live-tracking proceedings with the latest Schwinging apps. The key to watching the sport is to understand the rules, which are enforced by the Federation of Swiss Wrestling and, this being Switzerland, myriad. Bouts take place in a 36-foot ring and grapplers use fixed-grip holds on their opponent’s traditional breeches, which look like underwear worn on the outer, to muscle them over. The first man to knock his opponent’s shoulders to the sawdust-covered ground wins. The last man standing after the tournament’s knock-out heats is deemed the victor or “Meister.”

In spite of its local roots, many of the sport’s 100-plus trips and throws will be familiar to other martial artists – particularly judokos. The “Hüfter” move mirrors “Koshi Guruma” while the “Brienzer” throw is known as Swiss-style “Uchi mata.” The one move you definitely won’t see in your local MMA gym comes after the match when the victor gently brushes the sawdust off his opponent’s back.

There are no weight divisions in Schwingen. Wrestlers however typically tip the scales at over 200 lbs and tend to work as farmers, lumberjacks, or cheesemakers. Careers can last up to 25 years and those at the peak of their game are reverently referred to as “‘Die Böse,” or the wicked ones. Currently, the most Böse of them all is the reigning Schwingerkönig (or Swinging King), Matthias Sempach; a 242 lb, 6’4”, butcher-slash-farmer from Berne, who took the crown at the triennial Eidgenössischen Alpine games held last September. Though the retiring farmboy, whose hobby is animal husbandry, enjoys celebrity status in Switzerland and has a string of corporate sponsors under his breeches, Sempach’s grand prize for reaching the pinnacle of his sport was nothing more than an oak-leaf wreath and a Fleckvieh bull named Fors.

The bull lives on Sempach’s farm. The Schwingen tradition lives on.

More information: Schwingen season has just kicked off in Switzerland with festivals taking place right up until the fall. The German-speaking region is the main wrestling country so an hour train ride from Zurich should grab you some grappling action. For a full calendar of events, you can check the federation’s official website. There are also expat meets in Cali and Oregon.

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