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Simplicity, intensity of mas wrestling attracting competitors

One of the most pure primal, one-on-one battles of strength and determination on display at the Arnold Sports Festival this weekend is a sport that many people probably haven’t heard about.

Two competitors, one stick. The beauty is in its simplicity, and although mas wrestling dates back centuries to the Vikings and is played regularly in many parts of Russia, it only recently caught on in the United States.

“It’s so intense,” said Mollie Hoss, of Champaign, Illinois, the top-finishing American woman in her division at the festival, where she placed third.

“This is a non-contact combat sport. So you’re sitting across the board holding the stick and looking your opponent in the eye, waiting for the referee to say ‘go.’ Then it’s all-out rip your opponent’s arms out, pull them over the board, get the stick.”

Hoss said she first tried mas wrestling during a demo match at the festival last year. She has since won the North American Championships in Chicago in May and has competed in Hungary and Moscow.

Norwegian-born Odd Haugen, founder and president of Mas Wrestling USA and a veteran strongman athlete, said he learned about the sport in 2012 and incorporated it into his Strength Classic the next year.

“I was always interested in man-to-man type events, combat you could do safely with the strongmen,” Haugen said.

He was contacted by the international federation about starting a team in the United States. “I said, ‘Well, sounds like we’ve got a new sport here — an old sport that can be a new sport.’”

Haugen’s organization is recruiting members for a U.S. team to send to Russia in November for the world championships.

“If anyone wants to become an international-level athlete, this is so ground-floor still that it’s time to get involved,” said Jon Eccles, who is in his third year of competing in mas wrestling.

Competitors sit facing each other on opposite sides of a board, against which they brace their feet. Each competitor grips a 1.25-inch-diameter stick, and when the match begins, each tries to take the stick away or pull the opponent over the board. Best two of three wins the match.

The sport is a natural match for weightlifting competitors, particularly those who can deadlift a house.

“Obviously you need strength, but it’s functional strength,” Haugen said. “That means agility and flexibility are really important, and speed-power output.”

Zach Durr, 22, of Lancaster, said he got into weightlifting in high school, and about a year ago, a friend introduced him to mas wrestling. He has been in several competitions.

“It’s more technical than what it looks,” Durr said. He can squat 705 pounds, but he talked about speed and the ability to find an opponent’s weaknesses.

Haugen offered a wristwatch to anyone in the festival audience Saturday who could defeat 198-pound Azat Tashtanbekov of Kyrgyzstan, a World Cup silver medalist in mas. About a half-dozen young men gave it a shot, including 285-pound Ryan Korner, 26, who lives near Indianapolis.

Korner didn’t last long in round one, being pulled off the side of the board. He appeared to have Tashtanbekov in trouble for a moment as round two began, but after a lengthy struggle, Korner eventually got off balance and lost.

“I didn’t almost have him. He wasn’t trying on the second one,” said Korner, who has experience with mas and is dating a member of the USA women’s team. “He just makes himself really heavy. He knows the leverages. It’s a very simple sport on the outside, but when you get into it, there is quite a bit of technique.”

No one won the watch. However, Tashtanbekov jumped off the stage at the end of the demonstration, ran over to a random lucky youngster and put the watch on his wrist.

He did it to “try to make the sport more popular,” Tashtanbekov said through a translator.

Author: Jim Siegel
Photo: Joshua A. Bickel
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Country:  United States of America
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