Martial arts is an integral part of many cultures in the world. From wrestling in Dagestan to Thai boxing in Thailand, competing in a martial art has been a staple of young men and women for centuries. All the way back to Greek times with pankration, an early form of mixed martial arts, sporting events with combat provided that outlet for anger, aggression, and even self defense. Oft-overlooked is the entire continent of Africa. With hundreds of types of boxing and wrestling from the continent, many westerners do not get that opportunity to get to know about Africa’s sports. Today, we are diving into the sport of dambe, a boxing art from Nigeria. We had the chance to speak with Maxwell Kalu, the CEO of African Warriors FC, which holds dambe matches and mixes in wrestling in as well. Maxwell gave us an inside look at what makes dambe not only a unique sport in terms of martial arts, but also a personal sport for all of it’s athletes and countrymen.
What is dambe?
First thing is first, you have to know what the sport of dambe is before we get into the nuts and bolts. It is a form of boxing with only one hand that also allows for kicks and knees as well.
“Dambe is a form of boxing native to Nigeria, primarily practiced by the Hausa people of northern Nigeria. The key role of dambe is the knockout blow, which is known as the kill. You are only allowed to strike with one hand, which is your hand that’s wrapped in rope. The other hand is unwrapped and is used for blocking and for gauging distance and you’re allowed to kick and knee as well.”
Maxwell’s description was great. But it does not do much justice in comparison to watching what the sport actually is. Check it out below.
As for the roots, the exact beginning has been lost through stories from centuries ago. But one thing is clear, dambe is there to enact one on one war. The terminology used in dambe makes that very, very clear.
“Dambe roots are a bit hazy, but they say it comes from warfare. I think by the terms referenced in dambe give a clue to that. The wrapped hand is known as the ‘spear’ and your unwrapped hand is known as the ‘shield.’ And, as I said, the knockout blow is known as the ‘kill.’ The rules are quite simple. The knockouts or knockdown wins you the fight. We at African Warriors have a goal to elevating Dambe by putting in more standards and making it easier to understand for an international fight fan.”
The Tradition and Pride of Dambe
As with many other martial arts, tradition is a big part of the culture of the sport much like sumo in ancient Japan as we’ve previously explored. In dambe, you are to represent your house, or village.
“Dambe’s roots are from tradition. You have guys that want to compete to just put their village on the map. One of the guy’s name translates to English as, ‘The Shield of this Village’ or a ‘Son of this Village.’ Around the country you have different styles depending on where you are coming from.”
Perhaps just as important to the fighters is the music. Like in Muay Thai where the sarama is played for not only the fans, but the fighters as well, dambe relies on the music to accompany them into battle.
“Music is essential to dambe. Very, very important. They can’t fight without the music. The music has a lead singer and various drummers. It’s their job to get the fighters in the zone. They’re singing songs referencing the villages and singing about big wins they’ve had in the past.”
Accompanying the music and rhythm are tales of warriors. Not just warriors of the past, the music is tailored to the fighters coming to fight. The music is personal, and that is a part of what makes it so special to the fighters. The songs are not cute and fluffy, either.
“This is one of my favorite stories about the music. Nigeria has hundreds of different languages. I don’t indigenously speak the language. I knew parts of it from being around the sport but I don’t speak it fluently. We had a cameraman at the last event who spoke the language well. He tapped me after a while and asked, ‘Do you know what they’re actually saying?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I have a general idea. I hear the guy’s name.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no. What this guy just said is, ‘The time for killing has come. Don’t worry, if you die, we will take you back to your village and bury you.” That’s literally what the musician says. These guys they love it, the beating their chest and waving their hands.”
Dambe fighters live within the sport. They come up at a very young age through a farm system of sorts. They sit behind the older, more experienced and mature fighters, and watch and learn. The opportunity to learn from the fighters they look up to is an awesome experience. These young kids likely grew up idolizing these athletes and now, they get to learn from their heroes. But it’s a brutal way to come up, all for the glory for their house and village.
“Talking about the nature of the sport, the primal nature of this sport. It’s not a game in that sense. You don’t play boxing, you don’t play dambe. You don’t go down to your local gym and play dambe, this is a lifestyle. These fighters live in camps where they train and live with one another. They represent houses. Think about American Top Team or City Kickboxing. The house is like for a young boy of like, 11. Depending of where you come from in your country, you’ll be part of that house to represent. You’ll learn from watching the bigger guys fight. If you’re lucky they’ll come and tell you that you can fight before them. The three big houses are Kudu, Arewa and Gurumada. Part of what the musicians are singing are, ‘Someone of House Gurumada.’ It’s very personal. It means a lot to these guys and to the communities they’re representing. They come from some of the hardest communities in Nigeria which is a hard country to live in. This is their chance to become superstars and to be sponsored by a governor and to make some serious money.”
Marketing dambe to a bigger audience
While dambe has been around for centuries, the goal of African Warriors FC is to bring the sport to entirely new levels worldwide. Maxwell has worked on adding rulesets, similar to commissions for boxing or MMA, where the sport is more easily understood by those not native to Nigeria.
“In the African Warriors rule set, we have the fighters fighting in three three minute rounds. Fighters are looking for a knockout win. You win the round by a knockdown and if you knock your opponent out you’ve won the whole fight. You’re looking to win two rounds out of three.”
If there’s no knockdown, which Maxwell says is very rare, the judges do their duties and declare a winner. Fortunately for the viewer, the pride in dambe comes from being a warrior and actually getting the kill.
“If there’s no knockdown inside the three minutes, we go to a judges decision. But the good thing about dambe is that you’re usually getting some action. I think it’s a very small minority of fights that I haven’t seen a knockdown of sorts. And a knockdown counts as a hand or knee touching the ground.”
Another interesting tidbit is that Maxwell is seeing dambe evolve. There are fighters developing some styles and gameplans, each creating their own unique style utilizing their own advantages and working with their disadvantages.
“The game is evolving. Some guys kick more than others. When I have seen sweeps, it’s really to get the guy off balance and follow up with a punch. I haven’t really seen any sort of straight sweep. It’s almost like a Thai style sweeps to follow up with a punch.”
The African Warriors Mission
As for the promotion, African Warriors is aiming to globalize the sport even further. Dambe has already swept through Africa. Maxwell and his promotion want to help get the fighters more attention and grow the sport as a whole so these fighters can thrive.
“With African Warriors, we’re trying to give these guys a national and international platform. We’re putting in more standards when it comes to the sport. We’re working on a character side of things, introducing them to the audience and fighting videos, speaking to international fight fans and making sure they understand what they’re looking at. That’s where we come in. We are looking to take dambe and wrestling and take them both to more audiences at home in Nigeria and internationally.”
To grow the interest in the sport, African Warriors FC also peppers in wrestling matches into their cards as well. While it’s not exactly freestyle wrestling, the comparisons are close enough. With all the different styles of wrestling throughout Nigeria, much less Africa as a whole, they strive to come up with a modified ruleset that’s pleasing for everyone.
“Your closest comparison is freestyle wrestling but it’s usually on sand. Across Africa, which is 54 countries, most have different forms of wrestling. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest country with a population of about 200 million, it has hundreds of different ethnic groups all of which have different languages, different customs, and wrestling is part of that. In different parts of Nigeria, wrestling is practiced in different forms. The goal remains the same: the first person’s back that touches the ground loses the bout. In African Warriors, along with dambe, we brought in an African Warriors ruleset for wrestling, which is local and indigenous style of Nigerian wrestling with just a bit more streamlined in terms of rules and round times. Africa has great, great wrestling. Nigeria has wrestling and has been doing it for hundreds, if not, thousands, of years.”
The wrestlers of African Warriors take their matches just as seriously. They take the time to train with the Olympians of Nigeria. While the Greco-Roman and freestyle elements are there, it’s still the grassroots-style wrestling that attracts eyes in Nigeria. The wrestlers come for the glory and the opportunity to provide for their family.
“Some of our wrestlers train with Olympic wrestlers who train in Greco and freestyle. Nigerian wrestling is more grassroots wrestling, this is what they’re doing in a village where they don’t have access to a mat or wrestling boots. They’re just doing it on the sand usually done around times of celebration. We do it around harvest time, big religious festivals and it’s just a case of dignity representing your village and your family name. You want to be the biggest dog in the village. They get huge amounts of food, money, all kinds of things. That’s the culture of indigenous wrestling.”
The Return of Dambe
With the pandemic having the entire world on hold, dambe hasn’t been immune to the quarantine lifestyle either. But, Maxwell comforts us, letting us know, they are getting back in action soon.
“We’re trying to come back by September. It’s really been touch and go. Focus is just bing on our fighters constantly. I think there’s this pent up energy of everyone just ready to get back. We haven’t quite got an island in the Middle East to do our events. So we’re working on operational stuff and stuff behind the scenes.”
Dambe is one of the world’s hidden gems of combat sports. With action and excitement, those looking for something new might look to dambe and African Warriors FC for the thrill they’ve been seeking. The sport is on its way back, too. With cards being scheduled, we are in for a treat when Africa’s most exciting sport returns to action.
Check out African Warriors website: africanwarriorsfc.com/
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