Connect to share and comment

Senegal's wrestlers hit the big time

Traditional Laamb wrestling competitions entertain large crowds.

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.”