Sirum Blues - A Brooklyn Monk Learns Korean Traditional Wrestling - By Antonio Graceffo

Bob Hubbard

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Aug 4, 2001
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Land of the Free
Sirum Blues
A Brooklyn Monk Learns Korean Traditional Wrestling
By Antonio Graceffo

The players meet in a small circular ring, with a sand covered floor. They wear brief bicycle shorts, with a satba, a thick strong belt wrapped around their waist and right thigh. The players start kneeling on the floor, facing one another. The right hand is gripping the satba tightly at the opponentfs waist, the left hand is wrapped in the satba under the opponentfs right thigh. When the referee gives the signal they stand up, left knee first, then the right. They must stand at exactly the same time and without the position changing or a restart is called and they have to go back down on their knees and do it again.

The goal is to throw the opponent. Which ever opponent hits the ground first loses. Throwing an opponent out of the ring only results in a restart. Some matches last only seconds, while others can last several minutes. Typical winning techniques include lifts, hip throws, and trips. Some more spectacular maneuvers, such as a suplex, taking the opponent over your head and tossing him behind you, can also be employed. One of the most impressive techniques is a kind of cartwheel, where one opponent hooks the other manfs leg, and then raises his own leg and the opponentfs high in the air, until the opponent goes of off balance, sideways.

Sirum is considered to be the oldest Korean sport. According to the Korean Sirum research Institute, the oldest record of Sirum was found in a tomb in Manchuria in the 4th Century AD. Other sources claim that Sirum was depicted in artwork dating back to 37 BC. Regardless of the date, it is clear that Sirum is a very old and important cultural asset of Korea. As a result, the sport is governed by a strict set of rules. For example, you canft grab the opponents arm. You can grab a leg but only to throw. You can pull or push the back of the neck or head, but judges donft want to see you grabbing the back of the neck or head. Only a quick push is allowed. The left hand must remain wrapped in the satba, under the back of the opponentfs thigh. The right hand, however, is free to release the satba. The right hand is often used to grab a leg and trip the opponent. You canft press your head or chin into an opponentfs chest. The head is normally expected to rest on the opponentfs right shoulder.

K-1 fans would be interested to know that Choi Hong Man, the 2.18 meter tall 163 Kg giant who is knocking people out on Japanese TV, was a former Sirum champion, from Dong-A, in Busan. It was a financial decision that made champion Choi Hong Man switch to K-1. Unlike Sumo wrestlers in Japan, Korean Sirum wrestlers earn almost nothing.

Before actually trying the sport, it looked to me like a close cousin of Japanese Sumo. But, once I spent a day training with the Dong-A team, I felt the sport was more reminiscent of Greco-Roman wrestling, as so much of the outcome was dependent on upper body strength, lifting technique, and balance.

I had a few Sirum lessons at the university, before meeting the team. My teacher, Su Lee kept warning me that I was lifting too high. Being American, I wanted to put some air between my opponent and the ground, and then go for the big body slam. But Sirum is all about the imperceptible lift, barely taking the manfs feet off the ground and then either tripping him, or twisting and causing him to fall.

When I walked into to practice room, seeing the team for the first time, only one filled my mind. Sirum wrestlers are huge! The smallest guy on the Dong-A team was 80 KGs, most were over 90Kgs, and one was 126 KGs. The players ranged in age from 16-18. You can imagine how much bigger they will be when they are in their twenties. It was the first time I was fighting in Asia, that not only was I not the biggest guy on the team, but my weight was average. And, just like fighting in the west, they were all taller than me.

I never get a break.

If you are picturing a smaller version of Sumo wrestlers, this is not accurate. The Sirum guys were built more like American football players or pro-wrestlers. They were heavily muscled through the shoulders, back, and biceps, with tree-trunk sized thighs. Many of the bigger guys were carrying extra fat around the belly, in order to maintain mass. But some of them were just as lean as the typical Korean martial artists, with almost no body fat, just bigger muscles.

As I am a striker, with limited grappling experience, almost everything about Sirum was new to me. I tried to draw from limited experiences with judo and Jiu Jitsu, but Sirum was its own unique animal. When it came my turn to fight, one of the difficult things I discovered about Sirum is that you are on the whole time. You must constantly be engaged with your opponent, gripping his belt. In other forms of fighting, wrestling or boxing, you can back off and circle to get a breather, but in Sirum there is no rest.
The constant gripping of the satba becomes extremely painful. Once again, fighters have no experience with this type of stress. Wrestlers and BJJ practitioners have a phenomenal grip, but arenft trained to grip a belt, which cuts into their flesh. In this aspect, a guy working on a loading dock would have had an advantage.

A fish out of water, I have spent years training in the brutal heat of South East Asia. Now, in North East Asia, I have had to learn to deal with the winter cold. In Sirum, you are nearly naked, and of course, the room is not heated. When I got out of breath, huffing and puffing, I felt that frigged air biting my lungs.

The sand floor was also a problem. When we did our run, the cold sand was tough on our bare feet. When we were fighting, our feet wouldnft glide, as they do in a boxing ring. A boxing ring has a nice clean floor. The sand created drag and my feet didn't always move where I wanted them to, occasionally tripping me up.

As I lost nearly all of my bouts I must say, in the sandfs defense, however, that if you are going to get body slammed by some huge monster of a wrestler seventy five times on a cold winterfs day, sand is not a bad place to land. The problem came, however, when you went into your next bout, with sand in your drawers.

The Sirum team members didnft seem to worry about sand in the drawers or any of the other frustration I faced in trying to learn their art.
The coach told me that, four months out of the year, during the semester holidays, they lived at the school and trained eight hours a day. Although they spent much of their time running, to build cardio, they didnft lift weights. So, their strength was built naturally, through wrestling. Being kids, the coach assured me they did a lot of their cross training by playing soccer, baseball, and American Football.

Even in Korea, the sirum world is getting smaller. But the team still maintains a hefty competition schedule. During the sirum season, from May to October, they compete once a month. There are seven competitions, leading to the national championships. Outside of Korea there is almost no sirum, but the team is often invited abroad to do exhibitions at large-scale traditional wrestling events. Some of the countries where they have shown off their art were USA, Japan, and Spain. Spain, of all countries, has a form of traditional wrestling which, according to the coach, is similar enough that they can compete with the Korean team.

Until last year there was actually professional sirum in Korea. Now, the highest level of sirum is considered semi-pro. But corporations in Korea, such as Samsung and Samyong, are monster conglomerates which own their own sports teams. Professional football and baseball teams are owned by corporations. Good sirum players can hope to get on a corporate team and basically get paid to play the sport they love.

Aside from just loving martial arts and wanting to see and experience all that Asia has to offer, I am always on the look out for some formerly overlooked martial art which could be used in MMA competition. Right off the bat, the fact that the Sirum players could lift and control the upper-body was a good sign that at least some of their skills would transfer over to reality fighting. Of course they were huge and unbelievably powerful, which were two other pluses. And, they were interested. As soon as I mentioned fighting in Cambodia and Thailand, they all crowded around me, wanting to learn knee kicks and elbow strikes. We went several rounds of free wrestling, and although I did much better, I still continued my mostly-losing streak.

The Sirum players all had unbelievable balance. One of their typical exercises is lifting their partner in the air and then bending 60-70 degrees to either side, with one leg in the air. One of the guys lifted me in this fashion and leaned to the side until my head was almost touching the ground, and still maintained his balance.

Sirum is an incredible sport to practice or just to watch. And of all of the traditional martial arts in Korea, the Sirum was somehow the most honest. They didnft claim to be the kung Fu supermen so many other arts claim to be. Sirum is a sport, not an infallible super martial art. And the Koreans play it better than anyone.

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts writer living in Asia. His articles appear in magazines all over the world. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books, available on Contact him See his website
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Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa



Senior Master
Aug 21, 2006
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Great find!

Much thanks for posting.


Sr. Grandmaster
MTS Alumni
Jan 3, 2006
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Denver, CO
Great article, Bob - thanks for posting that one!


Yellow Belt
Jul 15, 2007
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I always enjoy reading Antonio Graceffo's work! This was another great gem by him!! Thanx for the post