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Senegal's wrestlers hit the big time

Traditional Laamb wrestling competitions entertain large crowds.

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."