Published: May 24, 2012
DAKAR, Senegal — Many called it the biggest match of all time. Others, just the biggest of the season. Either way, it was too big for the limited seating at Demba Diop Stadium here — a fact not lost on those who started lining up outside at 9 a.m., 10 hours before the main event.
The marquee combatants arrived in the late afternoon, welcomed by musical odes and a chorus of erratic drumming. Each defied his massive frame, nimbly performing the “dance of champions” and taking measures to repel black magic before stepping into the ring. The preparations at the stadium for the fight last month lasted hours; the bout, mere minutes. For the wrestlers and their fans, however, the outcome would endure for years.
Although traditional wrestling exists in various forms throughout West Africa, the version in Senegal, known as laamb, has reached unparalleled heights. Laamb ends when one of the wrestlers puts his opponent’s head, back or both hands and knees to the ground. Unlike other forms, laamb allows punches in certain matches. Those matches are the ones upon which wrestlers, spectators, sponsors, promoters, shamans, musicians and journalists descend every weekend.
“We used to wrestle for the honor of the village,” said Malick Thiandoum, a sports broadcaster for Senegalese Radio and Television. “Today, with the televised events, with the sponsors who inject lots of money to have visibility, it has become a breadwinner for lots of wrestlers.”
The centuries-old sport began as a leisure activity for fishermen and farmers, as those with catches and crops to spare would occasionally wager them on the outcomes. Laamb became a viable profession around the time Senegal achieved independence from France in 1960; wrestlers began receiving about $200 for a match.
Today, the going rate is $100,000 for top-tier matches, not including the sideshows. With appearance fees and kickbacks surrounding the bout last month, the combatants — Yahya Diop, who uses the stage name Yékini; and Omar Sakho, who goes by Balla Gaye 2 — each received about $300,000, according to the local news media. Such payouts are made possible through the sponsorship of multinational corporations operating in Senegal, which has experienced average annual gross domestic product growth of more than 4 percent over the last 20 years. But the country is plagued by wealth disparity. With nearly half the population living below the poverty line, laamb represents an opportunity for many young men to lift themselves, and the families they are responsible for, above that line.
“I want to become a champion and a millionaire,” said Ousmane Sarr, 23, who has competed in many “simple” matches — in which punching is not permitted — but only one full-contact bout. “I need to get more matches with punching, then I can stop working as a mechanic when the season ends.”
But the percentage of wrestlers who become rich in the sport is minuscule. Of more than 3,000 registered wrestlers, only a dozen earn more than $100,000 per combat, and those wrestlers have only one match per year.
“There is a mirage, a sort of dream, that the youth of the country are living,” Thiandoum said. “But we are in the process of telling them, ‘Be careful, because there is a gap between what you believe and reality.’ ”
During a season, he added, a vast majority will earn less than $2,000 in the ring, and many will earn nothing.
The sport, like much of the population, is migrating from rural to urban and finding a home in the suburbs of Dakar, where opportunities are low and crime is high.
The magnitude of the recent Yékini-Balla match created the threat of violence, which was partly realized before the event. At a weigh-in-style news conference at the luxury Radisson Blu Hotel in Dakar less than two weeks before the combat, a brawl erupted between the wrestlers and their entourages inside, and outside among their supporters, who were dispersed by tear gas when the riot police arrived.
Such incidents have put the sport under greater scrutiny. Starting next season, the National Committee for the Management of Wrestling, a 13-member board under the government’s Ministry of Sport, will expand its regulatory jurisdiction from the matches alone to all aspects of laamb. The decision was a response to the hotel incident, for which it could not penalize the wrestlers under the current system.
The French telecommunications giant Orange, the principal sponsor of the Yékini-Balla bout, is also rethinking its approach to laamb in light of the violence. After the brawl, billboards reading “the passion is more intense with fair play” and “the model of a sport without violence” replaced images of the two wrestlers next to the Orange logo throughout Dakar.
The company has not publicly discussed its approach for next season, except to say that laamb is an indispensable part of its interests in Senegal.
“According to our surveys, it is the most popular sport here — even more than soccer,” said Magatte Diop, the director of sponsorship at Sonatel, Orange’s Senegalese subsidiary. “The sponsorship of wrestling gives us an emotional proximity to the Senegalese consumer.”
The show is not just in the ring, and neither are the sponsors’ logos. A ticket for the gala allows the fan to watch five or six matches, which can last from a few seconds to 40 minutes, depending on the wrestlers’ style and the risks they are willing to take. With long breaks between the matches, the traditional spectacle is part of the show — including the mystical preparations, which were lavish on the day of the Yékini-Balla match.
Their warm-ups suits, emblazoned with the Orange logo, came off to reveal magical talismans called gris-gris (pronounced gree-gree) as they prepared to douse themselves with protective baths of varying size and color.
“The gris-gris and baths are just for protection against negative tongues and eyes,” said Mbaye Gueye Dieng, a marabout, or spiritual guide, in the mystical Sufi tradition prevalent among Senegal’s Muslim majority.
Both wrestlers spent months preparing their bodies for the combat, training hours a day at their local facilities and abroad, where they have access to better equipment and training. But many believe that bouts are won and lost on the spiritual plane.
“The most important preparations are made in the home of the marabout,” Dieng said of the gris-gris containing Koranic verses, the baths infused with protective bark from the local baobab tree and other elements.
When it was time for the match to begin, the referee, in his Orange-supplied uniform, blew his whistle to deafening roars. After 2 minutes 6 seconds of grappling and the occasional punch, Yékini suffered his first defeat in 20 professional matches over 15 years when Balla Gaye 2 put the back of the 320-pound King of the Arena into the sand.
Balla Gaye 2 ran to his corner and hugged his manager, while Yékini’s team went to help the fallen, visibly shocked champion to his feet and out of the ring. On his way out, his smiling face betrayed an air of relief. Yékini, 38, would later say that he was considering retirement.
“I have sacrificed my life and dedicated myself to my career,” he said. “In wanting to win everything, we risk losing everything.”
His 24-year-old opponent presented Yékini with a painting, a Koran and a traditional boubou, or Senegalese tunic. “Every wrestler dreams of nothing but meeting Yékini in the ring and beating him,” Balla Gaye 2 said. “For what he has done in the sport, I give him these gifts along with my best wishes.”
Not long after the match, speculation about the next one began. Another promoter has started planning a bout between Balla and the last wrestler to defeat him, Eumeu Sčne, who does not respect the reign of the newly appointed King of the Arena.
“I am the Emperor of the Arena,” Eumeu Sčne said.
The revenge match is being talked up as next year’s biggest match of all time.