Senegal's wrestlers hit the big time

DAKAR, Senegal — Out in a warehouse district of this nation’s capital, a 20-year-old wrestler named Ahmeth Deme is a champion.

"Le Lutteur Gentleman" — "The Gentleman Fighter" — proclaims a painting of him in combat stance emblazoned on a concrete barrier across the alley from his mother's apartment. Deme hopes to send his mother to Mecca with his prize fighting pay.

Over Senegal's highways, much slicker advertisements studded with telecom logos hype the weekend clash between Balla Gaye II and Balla Beye II, two celebrity gladiators who will pocket more in that single match than Deme may ever win — the equivalent of $100,000 each.

"Qui sera le lion des banlieue?" the billboards ask. "Who will be the lion of the city's outskirts?"

Laamb — Senegal's traditional wrestling that was once fought by fishermen on shore leave and farmers in their idle season — has boomed into a national industry, and a pastime for thousands of young men in the banlieue hoping to tackle their way to riches.

"Imagine someone who has no opportunity, maybe he's a simple mechanic,” said Idrissa Sane, sports journalist. "He can't even dream of having a million CFA [francs], but if he's got the right size, the right muscles, why not? He can't get it any other way."

In triumph or defeat, the titans of Laamb secure handsome corporate patronage just to perform in over-capacity stadiums where spectators blast horns, rattle drums and often faint if their fighter falls.

The brawls last just a of couple minutes. First, the rivals lock unblinking stares, wave hands in each other's face, and throw stomach jabs, until one of the two cracks, lunges, links biceps and the loser's body pounds the sand.

But first, the pre-game rites demand hours of quality television, wrestling the capital's shops and marriages to an afternoon halt as each combatant parades into the ring with his own dance, his own drum cadences, and his own occult practices designed to unnerve his enemy.

Trainers douse their champion in liniments that can grant them the balance of a baobab tree, or render them invisible. Virtually all knot a scrap of the Quran into their combat wear as spiritual armor. Yekini, Laamb's reigning king, mean mugs his opponents through a peephole cut inexplicably through his flip-flop.

"We call that the mystic side, the second force of the fighter," Sane said. "You can choose to believe in it. Some people don't."

The centuries-old tradition reaped a brief flash of 1970s TV fame, when a teenage Mandinka warrior named Kunte Kinte learned to Laamb in the opening scenes of Alex Haley's slave history mini-series "Roots."

Kinte, Haley tells us, endured the savagery of slavery in Virginia by holding Laamb's life lessons in mind — how to safeguard one's body, spirit and culture from a frontal attack.

Through the centuries of the slave trade, colonization and Islamicization, the Laamb sport has managed its own survival dance, thriving at long last thanks to Senegal’s growing TV audience, mounting corporate sponsorship wars, a blossoming middle class — and thanks to Tyson, a charismatic camera-hog who flaunted his wrestling winnings, issued outrageous threats and entered stadiums stomp-dancing out of an SUV, brandishing the American flag like some mystic weapon.

"In Tyson, the public had a new champion, one who came with a particular style,” Sane said. “He turned our traditional fight into a modern sport.”

Out at a training beach in Thiaroye, wrestlers say they're looking to modernize it further, subsuming moves from Brazilian Capoeira and Greco-Roman wrestling.

"Nowadays, if you want to be a good fighter you need to practice judo, karate and kickboxing," said the trainer.

Laamb’s circuit sustains satellite industries at training camps throughout the city's outskirts, like Balla Gueye’s school, where women sell friend snacks, sodas, waters and bread to a throngs of young, male spectators.

"Look at these kids, hanging out here," wrestler Cheikh Ndoye said. "They all want to take our spot."

For some Senegalese, Sane says, that’s a shame, that this generation should invest so much of its vigor and brawn into some sweaty aspirational combat.

But at the beach in Thiaroye, where young boys slapbox, and the "lutteur gentleman" trains, the athletes disagree.

“I was born with this,” said Baye Mbaye between practice bouts. “When I was young, I did this. My forefathers did this.”

“I'm so proud to be a wrestler,” he added. “And I'm ready to fight.”