Ssireum – Korea’s Grappling Art

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One of the most interesting styles of grappling is the Korean wrestling style known as Ssireum. This style has a very interesting aspect in the fact that wrestlers wear a 3 meter long cotton belt known as a Satba. 

Ssireum Wrestler going for a throw
Ssireum Wrestler going for a throw

Ssireum represents the Korean outlook in regards to balance and equalness and this can be seen in the way matches are started, with Ssireum wrestlers being forced to start in an absolutely equal gripping position, the Satba grip done by Ssireum wrestlers represents a Yin and Yang, an evenness and a balance in which forces are equal. There have even been famous MMA and K-1 fighters who have been Ssireum nation champions such as Hong Man Choi.

There are wrestling styles from countries in the area such as Russia Sambo, Japanese Sumo, Chinese Shuai Jiao and Mongolian Bokh that do have some small similarities to Ssireum but the styles of wrestling that most closely resemble Ssireum are Spanish Lucha Canaria and Swiss Schwingen Wrestling – both of which use a similar type of belt and gripping.

What Uniform is Used in Ssireum

Ssireum is a very old wrestling style and it has gone through many changes over the years. Originally wrestlers grabbed a rolled up section of the opponent’s shorts but eventually the satba was introduced instead of the opponents rolled up shorts and a much more standard Ssireum uniform was introduced during the 20th century. Female Ssireum wrestlers must wear a top to cover their chest.

Ssireum Satba
Ssireum Satba

Professional Ssireum wrestlers always wrestle barefoot and topless but wear tight shorts that are either blue and red at the professional level, blue, red or black at the semi-pro level and it is common to see shorts of other variations being worn at the amateur level.

Wrestler’s names, team and organization that they belong to are commonly printed on their shorts, sometimes on a white stripe running down the leg and on the back of the short itself.

All Ssireum wrestlers must wear an Satba that is the colour of the team, either red or blue – this is truly what makes Ssireum different from other grappling styles. Although historically wrestlers could wear Satba’s on either their right or left leg as long as the opponent wore their satba on the same side, modern Ssireum forces competitors to wear their satba on their right leg thus forcing the left arm to reach into the leg portion of the satba to attain a grip.

What Does a Ssireum Match Look Like

Sserium matches are quick and when wrestlers go for takedowns, they are powerful and action packed. 

Ssireum matches are held in a raised sandpit called a “Syrym Jang ” that is approximately 7 meters in diameter with the depth of the sand being between ten to 20 cm deep.

Ssireum Satba Grip
Ssireum Satba Grip

The grappling matches always start with the two wrestlers entering the sandpit, they bow and kneel towards each other. The wrestlers will grab one another’s satba while kneeling, all under the referee’s observation with the referee correcting the grips on the satba until they are 100% equal. Once an equal grip is attained, the wrestlers will stand up (all while holding the same grip on the satba) and start to wrestle. It should be noted that although every match starts with a grip on the satba, it is not uncommon to see wrestlers let go of the grip on the satba in order to go for a throw or takedown or defend against an attack.

An interesting fact about Ssireum is that most Ssireum wrestling competitions are traditionally held around agricultural holiday dates such as Korean lunar new year and Korean fall harvest. This type of Korean folkstyle wrestling is truly intertwined within Korean culture and history.

Rules of Ssireum 

Ssireum wrestling rules are very direct and easy to understand as In order to win, a wrestler must make the opponent touch the sand with any part of their body from the knee and above, once a wrestler touches the sand with their knee or any part above the knee, they automatically lose the match.

Strikes, pain compliance techniques and joint locks are not allowed and should a wrestler push the opponent outside the ring, the bout is restarted from the center position.

Sserium matches are quite quick and explosive with rounds lasting 3 minutes with matches being decided in a 2 out of 3 system where wrestlers need to win 2 out of 3 total rounds in order to claim victory in a match. Should there be some type of tie the wrestlers will be weighed with the lightest out of the 2 being declared the winner. In a professional championship match a wrestler must win 3 out of 5 rounds in order to be crowned champion.

There are female Ssireum matches at the amateur level with the main difference being that women must wear a top to cover their breasts.

Professional Ssireum matches have 4 officials for every match – 1 main referee who is within the sandpit itself and then 3 other referee’s outside the sand pit at different sides of the sand pit. The reason for 3 extra referee’s is that in the case a judgment cannot be made, they can have input in order to make the best possible judging decision.

Professional Ssireum matches are generally split into weight categories with 4 weight categories. The names of the categories are named after four very recognized mountains of Korea. The 4 weight classes are: “Taebaek” which is the 75kg flyweight division, “Geumgang” which is the 90kg lightweight division, “Halla” which is the 105kg middleweight division and the last SSireum weight division being “Baekdu” which is the 160kg heavyweight division.

Ssireum Training

Ssireum training is taken quite seriously with children starting when they are young. Wrestling training generally goes on for many hours daily and it takes many years to develop proper technique, conditioning and tactical knowledge of Ssireum.

Ssireum competition match
Ssireum competition match

There are many different types of Ssireum techniques and strategies with a lot of focus being placed on development of wrestling attributes such as using leverage, footwork, building strength and speed as well as different types of techniques such as defensive techniques, offensive techniques, throwing and lifting attacks, shifting the opponent’s weight, leg attacks, feints and counter attacks.

Ssireum techniques can be split into 4 different categories – hand techniques, leg techniques, trunk techniques and mixed techniques. Knee taps are very common to see in Ssireum due to the use of the satba belt and many techniques are done to counter Ssireum wrestlers stance due to the fact that it is common to see wrestlers standing at a 45 degree angle. 

Final Thoughts

A wrestling style so important to its people, Ssireum is on UNESCO’s list as an intangible cultural heritage. Ssireum is an awesome style of wrestling that is truly unique. It is said that Ssireum is more than a wrestling style of Korea, it is a philosophical outlook of the Korean race that is performed through sport. Ssireum is a Korean grappling martial art like no other.


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