Back before the fall of Shevardnadze, I went to do research on a story about Chidaoba, traditional Georgian wrestling. It was mid-winter and the Federal Wrestling Association building was predictably unlit and unheated, but dozens of wrestlers steamed the hall with body vapor and broke the chill. The faded cement walls and patchy wrestling mat looked like they had sucked the balm out of every dripping pore of each man that every donned a singlet in Tbilisi for the past 50 years. I don't have to tell you what it smelled like.
Between whistle blows, Coach Otar Tatishvili, a former USSR Olympic champion, introduced me to several current World and Euro champs. Otar was an expert of Greco-Roman wrestling and couldn’t help me with Chidaoba much, but did invite me to a banquet to honor the 50th birthday of his friend the police chief and former Olympic wrestling medalist.
I met Otar outside the restaurant, where bull-necked men in dark suits greeted each other with hand shakes, kisses and smiles. It wasn't just a birthday party, it was a reunion of world champion athletes: wrestlers, boxers, and blackbelt medal winners. I was the only guy whose ears didn’t look like tenderized veal medallions.
A couple hundred people, give or take, filled the room to capacity. The tables were loaded with standard luxe Georgian fare – caviar, roast piglet, etcetera, etcetera. The cop’s parents were sitting at a long table on the stage. They were also celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
In the United States, politicians often pop out of the lawyer mold. In the Caucasus, and in Georgia at that time, the mold that forms wrestling champions, forms politicians and prosecutors and the like. I understood why parents sent their sons to Otar to learn the finer points of Greco-Roman wrestling. In America most of these guys would’ve ended up as doormen or bodyguards, here they had bodyguards.
The vibe was what you would expect a banquet hall full of aging athletes to feel like. Laid back testosterone all settled in the gut. The wives, with trounced postures, chain smoked. The Chief’s wife had twelve inches on her husband in high heels. He had about fifty pounds on her, all held up by his belt, rolled under itself. Her two sons looked just like their dad only they popped out of a donut mold, not a wrestler's. Their wives looked like mom.
With a glass full of wine in one hand and microphone in the other, the tamada made long-winded toasts accompanied by the obligatory feedback from the blaring sound system. A former wrestling world champ of 1978 stretched across the table and said in English, “Me world champion wrestling. He, world champion blah, blah, blah.”
I sat next to the Vice President of the Wrestling Federation. He leaned into me and translated each toast in a nutshell. “Gia, Euro Champ 1976… Vaho, World Champ 1980… Tatiana, the first female wrestling referee in the USSR…” It was getting rather daffy.
Everybody stood up for a toast to Konstantin Vyrupayev the first USSR gold medalist in wrestling, in 1956. He was big and bald and kept his glasses on his head with a black shoe lace.
We also stood up for a toast to the Chief's wife, although I was the only person at our table to actually drink. Even when she came up to greet us, all the men stood, put the glasses to their lips but didn’t even wet them.
I saw the Chief again in November 2003. His riot cops were guarding the chancellery as thousands of protesters were challenging them at the foot of the stairs by the Freedom Square metro. When they got the order to let us through, everybody cheered and congratulated the dumbfounded police as they passed by them. Slouched against a wall with a cigarette drooping off his lip was the Chief, as tenacious as an empty bag of potato chips.
“Gamarjoba! Rogora khar?” I said. “Remember me? I was at your birthday party!”
He returned my ironic smile with weak smirk, an expression he hadn’t worn since the last time he was pinned.
(top image lifted off www.redregimentairsoft.com; 4 year-old wrestlers Georgy Bibilauri and Dzhambulat Khotokhov. From cbs.com, ear from www.wikidoc.org)
A story by Brian Bernbaum, CBS July 2003:
"Wrestlers Georgy Bibilauri and Dzhambulat Khotokhov had both hoped for victory, but they settled for ice cream instead. The pair, two of the world's largest preschoolers, proved evenly matched Wednesday in an unusual contest in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Khotokhov, a Russian weighing 123 pounds with a height of 3 feet 11 inches, is the world's largest 4-year-old, according to the match's organizers. Tbilisi native Bibilauri, who turned 5 on Wednesday is 4 feet tall and weighs 112 pounds. After the boys tied on the mat, they went off to celebrate Bibilauri's birthday with ice cream and chocolate.Georgian wrestling champion Levan Tediashvili, who refereed the match, said he admired the boys' sportsmanship.“They are fantastic kids,” he said. “These two giants give off such positive vibes. We Russians and Georgians should follow their example.”
The match's organizer, Georgian journalist Tengiz Pachkoriya, said he came up with the idea after reading a newspaper article about Khotokhov. “They became friends after spending the day together yesterday,” he said. “I hope the friendship will last many years."