The crowd is buzzing as the unforgiving Dakar sun beats down and the stadium fills past capacity. The air is thick with tension — one fears to step on anyone’s toes. The drums pound louder in anticipation of the historic match that is about to begin. Two loincloth-clad wrestlers prepare in an expansive ring, their feet deep in the sand. Each grappler is joined by a maraboutor two, spiritual guides who lead their men through rituals that, while steeped in traditional culture, also borrow heavily from the mystical Sufi Islamism practiced by most Senegalese.
In the ring is Fodé Doussouba, the 6-foot-2-inch, 330-pound star of traditional Senegalese wrestling sans frappe (without hitting or punching), who has enjoyed an undefeated, 11-year reign. He walks through a wooden loop four times to ward off negative spells.
His opponent is the heavy favorite, Bory Patar, the 6-foot-5-inch, 265-pound champion of wrestling avec frappe (with hitting or punching), the modern, commercial version of the sport that combines elements of wrestling and bare-knuckle boxing. Patar, who is wearing leather charms and amulets, douses himself in an oily liquid handed to him by his marabout — a potion to increase his strength, make him invincible and assure victory.
In the stadium’s seat of honor sits a regal man in a grand boubou — Bassirou Diagne Marème Diop. In a few decades he’ll become Le Grand Serigne de Dakar, the leader of the Lebou people, fishermen who are the original inhabitants of the region. For now, in 1961, he’s a rogue wrestling promoter who has rigged the match between old and new, giving the fighters different contracts that require each to compete in his own style, while filling the stadium with fans hungry to see what type of fight it turns out to be.
4, 3, 2, 1 — wrestle!
Patar lashes out. “He punched me!” yells Doussouba, holding his head in shock.
Diop rushes into the ring and loudly berates Patar. “Why did you hit him? You know this match is meant to be a traditional wrestling match — no punching!” As he walks away, though, he whispers to Patar: “Next time, hit him harder.”
4, 3, 2, 1 — wrestle!
This time, realizing he’s been tricked, Doussouba reaches for a big stick and uses it to beat Patar. The event descends into chaos as the fans start fighting in the stands. The match is stopped, but a winner can be declared: the modern style. From that point on, the dominant wrestling in Senegal is avec frappe.
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