Dambe: The Brutal Ancient West African Martial Art
Dambe boxing is an ancient sporting tradition, popular among the Hausa people of Northern Nigeria. The brutal game, lasting three rounds, has the sole aim of beating an opponent into total submission. It is a game of bare-bodied male boxers, who often leave the battlefield with broken jaws, bloodied noses, and cracked ribs. This is Nigeria’s martial art, which is gaining global recognition at home and online.
Historically, while no one knows the exact detail surrounding the origin of the sport in West Africa, Edward Powe, a researcher of Nigerian martial culture, recognizes striking similarities to the images of Egyptian boxers from the 12th and 13th dynasties. Muslim scholars claim it arrived in Northern Nigeria sometime between the 10th and 11th century. However, Dambe boxing also known as Kokaw started out among the lower class of the Hausa trained animal slaughterers (The butcher caste group). The butchers traveled to different villages at harvest, organizing fighting challenges with other butcher guilds from the area as part of the festive entertainment. Subsequently, it became a traditional practice to prepare men for war.
Unlike Western boxing, there are no boxing gloves in Dambe, and instead the right-hand is wrapped tightly in rope until it is hard like a stone. This fist is typically called “the spear”. The left hand is then left free to defend and distract your opponent. In the past, the spear hand wrapped in rope was usually dipped in resin or shards of broken glass to inflict more damage on the opponent. The legs are also used to strike and defend.
Tournaments are made of three rounds. Fights usually end when the knees, hands or body of a fighter touch the ground following a strike. When this happens, the fighter is said to have been ‘killed’ by his opponent. A brutal sport, money is often the incentive for people to practice Dambe and participate in fight tournaments.
Just like other athletes, Dambe boxers engage in an intense training regime, workouts are conducted morning and evening, five times a week. While some exercises are exclusive to the Hausa’s, others are not, such as drill, carried out to strengthen the head, neck and trapezium muscles. The boxers do push-ups with their heads, similar to the neck bridges practiced by wrestlers. The use of a single finger to support the weight of the body is also applied for strengthening the punching hand and arm.
Though fighters can be as young as 10 years old, the career span for the sport is short. Boxers usually retire in their late 20s, retreating to coaching younger members or searching for other sources of income. Just like other contact sports, the long-term effect can lead to brain damage. One of Nigeria’s most famous Dambe boxers, Shagun Dan Tagayi, a champion in the Sokoto region, had his fighting career cut short due to damage to his brain sustained from the sport.
Dambe is also gender-biased. Although women do attend fights, the sport is very male-dominated; the majority of spectators are men. What’s more, while female fighters do exist, tournaments are rarely organized for them.
In a nutshell, Dambe tournaments are the MMA tournaments of Nigeria, dazzling the public with raw violence. Entrenched in the history of the region, the sport offers fighters a livelihood in exchange for risking their lives to entertain the masses.