BURGDORF, Switzerland: Battling to the last with sweat pouring from his brow, the wrestler winced as he lost his footing, the crowd roared and his rival flattened him in the sawdust.
In an Alpine nation that holds its traditions dear, it doesn’t come more Swiss than this.
“Schwingen” is an ancestral form of wrestling unique to Switzerland, where hulking athletes in sackcloth shorts fight for crowns of oak leaves.
The triennial national championships—where around 300 top-level wrestlers vie for the title of “Schwingerkoenig”, or King of the Schwingers—are the country’s largest sporting event.
The three-day 2013 edition was held in Burgdorf—tucked in the Emmental valley, home to the eponymous cheese.
Local star Matthias Sempach, 27, sobbed with joy as the crowd cheered after he capped an unbeaten eight-bout run by clinching the crown in a 12-minute final fight with Christian Stucki, 28.
Forget engraved trophies: Sempach, a farmer by trade, went home with “Fors vo dr Lueg”, a two-year-old bull worth 22,000 Swiss francs ($23,640).
“It’s like a pure extract of Swissness,” said Markus Walther, 45, his gaze locked on the seven sawdust fighting circles in the center of the 52,000-seat temporary stadium’s grass.
Little known abroad, Schwingen is iconic in Switzerland and this year’s edition drew some 300,000 people.
The Emmental’s hotels were booked solid. Demand was sky-high for tickets priced at between 165 and 225 Swiss francs for a two-day stadium pass, and 1,250 Swiss francs for a VIP slot.
Other fans watched on big screens, many soaking up the atmosphere with the help of sausages and beer, while Swiss national television broadcast the bouts live for armchair supporters.
Like football fans in their team’s replica kit, many in Burgdorf sported peasant-style shirts in the colors of their home regions.
The likes of Sempach and 2010 champion Kilian Wenger, a 23-year-old trucker, are huge names.
“These are young guys, and real idols,” said Fabio Lorenzet of the championships’ organisation team.
Star-struck youngsters dream of emulating their success.
“I’d love to be the King myself one day,” said 13-year-old Pascal, who has been wrestling since he was nine.
Other fans admire them for different reasons.
Wenger weighs 106 kilos (233 pounds), is 1.9 meters tall (6 feet 3 inches), sports designer stubble and is as fit as a firefighter.
“Of course I like it because it’s a great part of our tradition. But also because these are really manly men, not pretty boys,” said Seraina Derungs, 25, as she chuckled at suggestions that Wenger was the David Beckham of Schwingen.
Unlike star footballers, Schwingers are amateurs, do not receive cash prizes, and must give a cut of any sponsorship back to their club.
There are ways and means to get by, however, with wrestling icons often tapped by advertisers and even launching name-branded sportswear.
“You can’t live from Schwingen, but I know a handful of them don’t have to work so much in their day jobs,” said Lorenzet.
Despite the star power and smartphone apps for fans, Schwingen has its feet rooted firmly in the past.
It emerged among mountain herders and woodsmen centuries ago, and has been seen as a national sport since featuring at gatherings held in reaction to French rule during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s.
It hit the big time after nationwide rules were crafted ahead of the first national championships in 1895.
The sport’s basics include gripping the opponent’s Bermuda-length Schwingen shorts with at least one hand throughout a bout, bringing his shoulders to t he ground to win, and winning points for technical quality.
“It’s a test of physical strength plus quick thinking and composure,” said Walther, who competed at the 1995 championships and runs the Schwingen federation of Mittelland, a region near the Swiss capital Bern.
Unlike boxing, there are no weight categories.
The final bout between 142-kilo Stucki, who stands one-meter, 98 centimeters tall, and Sempach, who is 33 kilos lighter and four centimeters shorter, may have seemed a mismatch to the uninitiated.
But turning a rival’s apparent advantages against him is the key.
“It’s a complete sport, because you use not only your strength but also your technical skills to offset drawbacks,” 26-year-old competitor Vincent Heiniger told Agence France-Presse.
“The goal is to beat your opponent. But there’s also a huge amount of respect, and that’s part of the tradition too.”
Championship Schwingers may well be nicknamed “Boesen”, or bad guys, in a nod to their toughness.
But that label is belied by their behavior: the winner always helps his defeated opponent up and brushes him clean of sawdust.