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Who’s the greatest wrestler in history? Hulk Hogan? Ric Flair? The Iron Sheik? You’d think that it’d be a difficult question to answer, what with accounting for style preferences and attitudes and all, but as it turns out, it’s actually very east to figure it out: it’s Khutulun. And it’s not particularly close.
Well, I’ll tell you why.
Born: c. 1260
Died: c. 1306
Occupation: Warrior, wrestler, princess
Everybody knows about Genghis Khan… the guy fought and fucked his way through China, central Asia, the Caucasus, and eastern Europe, and was an unstoppable freight train in establishing the Mongol Empire as the largest and most powerful in history.
In creating an empire, it’s thus natural to have a pecking order in the line of succession… and those who are disgruntled about it. Genghis Khan’s death created some family tension, and it lingered on for several generations; by the time that Kublai Khan, Genghis’ grandson, was in power, the empire was on the brink of civil war, with the great Khan trying to resolve most of his matters diplomatically through strong governance and political skill. Standing against Kublai was his brother Kaidu, who wanted to preserve old Mongol traditions, of riding, shooting, hunting and warfare. Fortunately for Kaidu, he had fifteen children, all of them very loyal, to help wage war… but he trusted his daughter Khutulun more than any of his fourteen sons.
Khutulun was revered even in her own time; she was extremely skilled at horseback riding and archery, and accompanied her father into numerous battles. When Marco Polo travelled the Silk Road, he even had the chance to spend time with her father’s army, watching her in battle. In his writings, he described her remarkable ability:
“Sometimes she would quit her father’s side, and make a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father; and this she did many a time.”
It was not her strength in war, however prodigious, that won her fame and notoriety throughout the entire empire, though; it was her wrestling ability.
The ancient Mongols highly valued physical strength and athletic ability; in addition to a culture that prided themselves on horse-riding and archery, wrestling was one of the most important skills that a warrior practise and be good at in order to find respect and social status.
So how good was Khutulun? Well, she never lost a match. Ever.
Also, to put this in perspective: Mongolian wrestling is not really wrestling. There are essentially no rules: it’s just hand-to-hand combat, with punching, kicking, and no padding whatsoever – the match only ends when someone hits the ground. It also doesn’t differentiate between genders or weight classes – anyone can fight anyone, and it’s considered even. So in hundreds and hundreds of matches, Khutulun defeated men of all varieties, including many who were twice her size or more.
In ancient Mongol culture, betting was also extremely common, and wagers were exchanged over wrestling matches all the time. In order to wrestle Khutulun, the going rate was a hundred horses; if you won, you got to marry her; if not, she kept your horses. And all suitors for Khutulun’s hand in marriage absolutely had to wrestle her, as per Papa Kaidu’s decree.
Khutulun’s wrestling ability was so prodigious, she became the owner of ten thousand horses. Is that a lot? Oh hell yeah. But it gets better. In this era of history, ten thousand is short form for “so many that I literally can’t even count that high” – it was almost certainly many, many times higher than that.
With 10,000 horses and no man, there was some pressure on her to find someone suitable… and ended up marrying a man who was sent as a spy to assassinate her father (he did not end up doing this, I should note. That would probably be a damper on the marriage.). Notably, though, is that her husband still never defeated her in a wrestling match.
Her father chose her as his successor to be the new Khan of his empire, but with fourteen older brothers, she realized this would create a ton of tension, and thus decided not to pursue it, backing one of them to become Khan in exchange for getting command of the army. She died at age 46 – sources are unclear whether she was killed in combat or whether she was assassinated, but it’s clear that either way is a pretty violent way to go.
Khutulun was re-discovered in 1710 by a French biographer, Francois Petis de La Croix, who changed around the facts of her life significantly to create the story of Turandot (a name based on ancient Persian Turan Dokht – “Central Asian Daughter”), where a fierce woman does battle with her competitors not through wrestling, but with riddles they had to solve, lest they be killed. Turandot was later turned into an opera in 1926 by renowned Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, which remains very popular today.
While it’s pretty cool that Khutulun’s name has been passed down through history as part of her incredibly fierce nature, the coolest impact that she’s had is in how Mongolian wrestling happens today. It’s now standard fare that all male competitors wear a crazy-looking chestless shirt when they compete in wrestling, in order for them to prove that they are not a woman – because there’s not a chance in hell they could ever come close to matching the prowess of Khutulun.
So all in all, you’ve got a smart, beautiful, strong, courageous, and ridiculously fierce woman who can fuck you up in any number of ways and was essential to maintaining Mongolian strength throughout the empire. If that’s not badass, then I have no idea.