A Day at Camel Fight Club

Jan 23, 2014 at 12:01 PM ET

SELCUK, TURKEY—The highlight of this year’s Turkish camel wrestling festival was the battle between two hulking beasts: Samanyolu (Milky Way) and Tuncer.

It started with the handlers leading the muzzled and ornately decorated animals—meant to resemble bridegrooms—into the fighting arena. The bold competitors were introduced, and then the tussling began, camel versus camel, two humped mammals trying to pin each other’s head to the ground.

First Tuncer tried nipping at Samanyolu’s legs. Samanyolu retaliated by using his whole weight to push back his foe, who lay motionless on the ground. But suddenly, regaining his strength, Tuncer stood up. The two giants faced each other, as if locking eyes would prove them equally strong. Then the time ran out and the match ended as most do—in a draw.

Teams of handlers entered the ring, separating the fighters and pulling them away with ropes.

Inside a natural amphitheater on Turkey’s Aegean Coast, 20,000 people gathered at the 32nd annual camel wrestling festival in Selcuk. The event may have origins dating back thousands of years and replicates the competitions between horny, salivating males battling in the wild.

Camel wrestling is an old, nomadic tradition, according to Vedat Caliskan, assistant professor of geography at Cannakale University and the author of a definitive study on camel wrestling. “Two thousand years ago, they made drawings [of camels wrestling] on stone,” Caliskan says.

The Selcuk festival is the highlight of the camel wrestling circuit, which lasts for three months. It features the crème de la crème of Turkish camels. “If they can compete here, it’s a big honor for them,” says Kamil Tuncer, who owns eight camels.

He says good camel costs $100,000. “But if they offered me $150,000, I would not take it,” Tuncer adds, his barrel-size chest bursting with pride for his namesake beast.

What are the makings of a camel owner? “You have to be very rich and a little crazy,” says Cem Ozkan, a Selcuk hotelier and tour guide.

This year’s event showcased 130 mammoth Tulu camels taking part in 65 bouts. Tulu are a hybrid between one-humped and two-humped camels, bred specifically for the game. The biggest ones weigh in at more than 2,000 pounds.

Camel sujuk sausage is a featured food at the tournament. Specialty butchers hang photos of dead camels in their shops to prove the meat’s authenticity.

The spicy, testicle-shaped delicacies come grilled and served in sandwiches.

Despite standing twice the height of an average Turkish man, the camels are cuddly and cute, with long eyelashes and plush fur.

Camel owner Mustafa Eyvas says camels are really sensitive and “more intelligent than humans.” But when they get ornery, they can be dangerous.

Festival co-president Mehmet Falakali tells how one camel grabbed it’s owner by the leg and shook him, leading to an injury that required a $30,000 operation. “He got sold to another guy one year later,” Falakali says. “That guy got sat on and died.”

The camel was brought to the butcher and made into soujuk.

Some say the camel wrestling festival is actually a drinking festival. Thousands of men come toting raki (Turkish hard alcohol), barbecues, tables, chairs and picnic food.

By early afternoon, many of them are tipsy or flat out drunk.

Gypsy musicians work the crowd, banging on drums and playing a screeching zorna inciting people to dance. Some just pay them to go away.

“It’s like a big tailgating party,” explains Eric Wyrowski, a Kansas City native and expat, while enjoying his fourth visit to the festival.

Wyrowski knows the rules and can recite many important details. For example, the saliva that the camels produce has a special consistency. “It’s looks like a mixture of marshmallow fluff and whipped cream.”

His friend Patrick Morse, an expat from Boston, has a different description, declaring it a combination between “pond scum and shaving cream.”

Either way, it’s pretty impressive in quantity. When the animals shake their giant heads, saliva comes flying in streams, covering the handlers and nearby spectators.

Winning a match can happen in three different ways: One camel must get the other to scream, run away or fall.

But after the allotted 10 minutes run out, most matches end in a tie. Sometimes the camels don’t even actually fight.

The highlight of the festival? “Two camels ran gunshot out of the ring,” Morse says. “People were jumping and diving to get out of the way.”