If you’ve never heard of the ancient West African sport of Dambe, this article is going to blow your fu*king mind!
I’ll get into the rules in a bit but first, here’s a bit of history about this insane sport:
Dambe was invented by the Hausa people of West Africa and was traditionally associated with the lower caste of their society; they were the only ones who were allowed to ritually slaughter animals and handle meat so travelling butchers would form boxing teams, known as ‘armies’.
Traditionally, bouts occurred at festivals that marked the end of the harvest season when clans would travel throughout the region, butchering animals for the small farming communities and villages.
Harvest was also a time when rural communities were awash with money and gambling on outcomes of bouts and feats of strength became closely associated with the sport. Even today, side betting for spectators and prize purses for fighters remain an important aspect of the festival.
Nowadays, participants are as often young men from the city who train in gyms or backyards and compete year-round. While fighters no longer come from the Hausa butcher caste, the brotherhood aspect remains strong and young fighters join a community that travels to perform at carnivals, complete with amplified sound systems and elaborate pre-bout rituals.
Traditionally, Dambe included a wrestling aspect, known as Kokawa, but today it’s mainly a striking contest. The main weapon is the strong-side fist (which is usually the right hand). The strong-side fist (known as the ‘spear’) is wrapped in a piece of cloth and covered with a knotted cord. Some boxers dip their spear in sticky resin mixed with pieces of broken glass, although this is now an illegal practice.
The lead hand (called the ‘shield’) is held with the open palm facing the opponent. The lead hand can either be used to grab or hold depending on the situation. The lead leg is often wrapped in a chain and is used for both attack and defense. The unwrapped back leg can also be used to kick too. Because wrestling used to be allowed and the goal of the game is to cause the opponent to fall down, kicks are more common nowadays than in traditional bouts.
Matches last three rounds but there is no time limit per round. Instead, a round ends end when any of the following occurs; 1) there is deemed to be no activity, 2) one of the participants or an official calls a stop to the round, or 3) a participant’s hand, knee, or body touches the ground, which means they have been ‘killed’. Although there are no formal weight classes, fighters are generally matched with someone who is similar in size.
In traditional bouts, amulets or talismans were often used as forms of magical protection. Amulets are sometimes used in modern urban bouts but officials tend to discourage the use of magical protection as it’s deemed to be unfair.
It is still common practice for amulets to be placed in the feather filled pillows which fighters place in their wrapped fists and fighters often scar their striking arm, rubbing ointments and resins into the wounds in order to provide strength or defence. Some modern traveling Dambe companies even engage in the ritual smoking of weed before fights. This sounds like a sport for Nick and Nate Diaz!
Due to the similarity of the stances and the fact that Hausa boxers have a single wrapped fist, the sport bears a resemblance to illustrations of Ancient Egyptian and Hellenistic boxers. This has caused people to speculate that Hausa boxing is directly related to Ancient Egyptian boxing. Who influenced whom is a hotly debated topic but the argument is supported by theories that the Hausa people used to live closer to Sudan in the east than they do today.
I could go on about this sport all day but in order to get a true appreciation for just how cool and crazy Dambe is, you need to see these lads in action…
WATCH DAMBE PRACTITIONERS GO AT IT ON THE PLAYER BELOW:
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