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The Art of Dambe

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

What is Dambe?

Dambe is a centuries-old West African form of kick boxing originating from the butcher caste of the Hausa people. A fight lasts `three rounds, ending in the knocking out of one of the opponents. Dambe fighters do not use boxing gloves but instead wrap their hitting arm in rope. Historically, Dambe derived from the Hausa word for “boxe” and included a wrestling component, but now it is essentially a striking art. Traditionally it was practiced as a way to ready men for war and its techniques and terminology allude to warfare.

Dambe is basically an art of punching and kicking, in some instances, it’s fierce and brutal and leaves boxers with broken ribs, dislocated jaws and bloodied faces. In some communities, traditional boxing has been banned because it often results in the death of opponents. The prize after the end of the game often comes in the form of cattle, money, motorcycles and cars. In rare instances, fighters have been rewarded with women to marry after sterling performances. The sports fighters are mainly butchers who learned the art of kicking and punching from an early age. There is no certainty on the origins of Dambe, but researcher of Nigerian martial arts culture Edward Powe said Dambe may have originated from Egypt because of its similarities with Egyptian boxing during the 12th and 13th dynasties. Muslim scholars also suggest Dambe must have arrived in Nigeria around the 10th and 11th centuries. Though the traditional boxing has gained international recognition, it started among the low-income earners of the Hausa mainly the butchers. The butchers traveled to different villages at harvest, organizing fighting challenges with other butcher guilds from the area as part of the festive entertainment.

What happens during a match?

An attendant charges a fee at the gate of a large, open field, welcoming men, women and children. Wooden benches are placed on elevated platforms to give an illusion of an arena, while local musicians sing and drum away to war songs. The fighters bind their punching hand—referred to as ‘the spear’—with a rope called ‘kara,’ making it as strong as a stone, while the weaker hand is used as a shield for protection and must be held with the palm open facing towards the opponent.The three-round game is not timed, instead an end is called when an opponent or official calls for a stop or the opponent is knocked to the ground. The game is essentially about punching and kicking as a tone down against the former approach, which was abolished because of its dangers—fighters had shards of glass sewn with the kara to inflict maximum body damage on their opponents, which sometimes resulted in death. Another typical normality with the Dambe warriors is that their right forearm is usually completely covered in about one-centimeter of scars made from razor cuts laced with traditional herbs to give them strength and help them win—it is also not uncommon for fighters to wear charms on their bodies and smoke marijuana before the fight.

Although there are no formal weight classes, competitors are fairly matched. These competitors aim to knock down their opponent using kicks and punches in the three-round fight. Like the weight classes, the rounds are also open ended – there is no time limit. Instead a fight ends when there is no activity, one participant or an official call for a halt, or a participant’s hand, knee or body touches the ground.

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