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The Slippery Story of How Jell-O Wrestling Became America’s Sloppiest Pastime

Covering your opponent in oil before violently hugging them for hours is one of Turkey’s oldest and most treasured sports. How did it mutate into the sticky, bikini-clad pastime of Jell-O wrestling we hoot and holler at today?

Thirty-three-year-old Becky Morganna has been brawling in gelatinous dessert for over four years now. “We pick up the Jell-O, and we dump it on each other,” she tells me, fondly. The Jell-O appeal, she says, is irresistible. “Most of us are wrestling in it because we want to be out there; we want people to see us,” explains Morganna, who is better known on the Seattle wrestling scene by her formidable pseudonym, Wreckmyshit. “Everyone puts on a persona; everyone suits up — it feels like pageantry.”

It is also part of a long tradition, as Jell-O wrestling was born from its marginally more sophisticated ancestor, oil wrestling, an almost exclusively cis male pastime that harkens all the way back to Ancient Greece. A few hundred years after its inception, people started taking it more seriously, and in the 14th century, it became the national sport of Turkey. In fact, Turkish oil wrestling, also known as “Yagli Gures,” is still practiced in the country to this day.

How, then, did this all-male combat sport turn into a highly sexualized staple of spring-break culture and the beer-drunk male gaze? Or maybe better put, why did we do this to ourselves, and where did we get so lost along the way?

Let’s start with the premise of Yagli Gures. The sport centers on tan, Herculean men slathering themselves in olive oil, sliding all over each other, and in many cases, thrusting their hands down each other’s pants (a way to gain optimal leverage during the fight). After tussling and attempting to mount each other, the loser is the first wrestler who falls with his belly toward the sky.

While it isn’t officially “gay,” it’s undoubtedly homoerotic (though experts stress it was certainly never meant to be seen that way). “In Turkey, oil wrestling is an activity for boys and young men,” explains Thomas Fabian, assistant professor in sports management at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada. “Counter to what many would assume, Turkish cultural norms accept or encourage public displays of masculine affection, including young boys walking hand-in-hand, adult men cheek-kissing in greeting or wrestlers oiling each other. These displays, for them, represent equality of status.”

However, to the Western heteronormative eye, the oily, rippling bodies — combined with the historical exclusion of women — turned the sport into a sexually charged spectacle for many in the gay community, particularly as Turkey began opening up more to the Western world in the early 20th century.

Along those lines, once Turkish oil wrestling began to crossover to Europe and the U.S., regular American wrestling got a little more, er, camp. In the 1930s, the sport moved from a competitive combat event into far more flamboyant and theatrical performances, and in Mexico, around the 1940s, the sport took things a step further by introducing “exoticos” — feminized drag fighters — to their lucha libre matches. It was entertaining as hell, too. As famous queer wrestler Effy once put it: “Camp is the too far, the too much, the scathing commentary on life — and wrestling is in a unique position to fall into those categories all the time.”

It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that women began to get involved with the sport, both professionally (Japan launched the world’s first all-female pro-wrestling event in 1968) and privately. The sexualization of these wrestlers began around the late 1960s, when a trend known as “apartment wrestling” began to emerge in some of the bigger cities in the U.S. Women, wearing little to no clothes, would put on private shows, or “fights,” in people’s apartments for an invite-only audience. According to Pro Wrestling FAQ author Brian Solomon, wrestling magazines “started dispatching photographers to the ‘matches,’ then running the photos with tawdry, fabricated tales that presumed to give some of the ‘backstory’ of the proceedings.”

Over the years, to keep these matches fresh and exciting, a variety of sloppy novelty substances were added to the mix. Mud was one of the most popular (and still endures), as was chocolate syrup, oil and, of course, Jell-O.

Like its oily counterpart, Jell-O wrestling is wildly popular among the country’s sports bar scene, with sales of the stuff spiking around spring break. The trend began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the frat party circuit started retrofitting the dessert, putting it in shots and using it to replace oil in girl-on-girl wrestling contests (the craze was so widespread that some cities even began trying to legislate against it). While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it all originated, one site suggests that the concept was brought to the U.S. from Mexico in 1987 by Reno Gannon, an Arizona bartender.

“Oil wrestling is fun, it’s sexy,” says Scott Richter, a promoter at Denver’s Ugly Dog Sports Cafe, which hosts a popular annual female oil wrestling league. He claims that people travel from all over the country to come and check out their matches. “I guess there’s different fetishes that people have: Some guys like people to nibble on their toes; some guys like being tickled; some guys like girls in oil.”

Safety, though, always comes first: At the Ugly Dog, for example, oil is often swapped out for baby shampoo (tear-free, easier to clear up), with wrestlers removing all jewelry and wearing rubber gloves to prevent scratching. From there, it’s all about putting on a show. “A lot of girls come out and shake their tush to get the crowd’s attention,” says Richter. “Usually what makes a really good match is when two girls try really hard. When girls are fighting their best friends, it’s not usually a great match — you need a little rivalry.”

In terms of the Jell-O twist, John Weller, owner of Jell-O Wrestling Supply, adds, “Jell-O is appealing because it’s messy in a delicious looking way. It’s extremely slippery, and there are bodies sliding over each other. It’s wet, too, so most people are in their swimsuits.”

His enthusiasm is shared by Morganna, who praises the spectacle of Jell-O, which is often dyed bright colors to create vivid splashes across the stage. Sex, she adds, is also a big part of it. “Some of the girls do get a little sexual with each other on stage, but it’s consensual — they talk about everything before, and they’re doing it for fun,” she says. “And honestly? There’s no harm in being sexualized, or for being sexy and putting on a show” (if you want to be sexualized, that is).

As with most forms of wrestling, the most thrilling part is usually the characters doing the dirty work on stage. “[Jell-O wrestling] is very personality driven,” says Gracie Garnet, a producer at the inclusive, all-female Jell-O Underground. The Seattle event, which has been running since 2009, offers a new, more progressive take on the sport, promising women the chance to “empower” themselves through the power of Jell-O. The result is an interactive performance that’s “loud, messy and exhilarating.”

“The girls always tend to have amazing personalities,” adds Garnet, who directed a short film on Jell-O Underground last year. “Before the show, they go and talk to people and interact with the audience. We want it to be fun and enjoyable for everybody. ”

And so, for combatants like Morganna, who is part of the Jell-O Underground community, this kind of wrestling is about much more than its sexy, slippery “spring break” reputation — it’s about going big, feeling comfortable in your own skin and not taking yourself too seriously. “I’m a trans woman, and right before the first time I went on stage, I felt a little weird,” she remembers. “But it felt great, and I was instantly accepted.”

“There are all kinds of characters that do Jell-O wrestling,” she continues. “If you want to experience something like this but you’re afraid, you’ve got to do it. I mean, I don’t want to sound like a Nike commercial, but you’ve got to just do it.”