Fighters of African origin in recent years have taken over the world of combat sports. From the Nigerian duo of Israel Adesanya (Former UFC middleweight champion) and Kamaru Usman (Former UFC Welterweight Champion) pulling their weights in the Ultimate fighting championship (UFC) to Cameroonian Francis Ngannou dominating the heavyweight class of the UFC, the hold of Africans on combat sports is a firm one. Not leaving out both Efe Ajagba and British-born Anthony Joshua who keeps showing class and flying Nigeria’s flag in the world of boxing.
This dominance has spiraled into the world of Olympics wrestling and Judo, with athletes like Odunayo Adekuoroye and veteran Judoka Tunji Disu, inexplicably dominating both sports in 2022 respectively.
This dominance of Africans in the world of combat sports may be a mystery to many but what they fail to reckon with and which inadvertently may be a reason for this dominance is the local martial art “Dambe”.
Kokawa or Dambe as it is popularly known is a form of martial art originating with the Hausa people in Northern Nigeria. Competitors were local butchers by trade. The spear, or stronger hitting hand, was typically tied with cotton and rope known as Kara while the other hand shields against the opponent's punches. The sport over the last century, expanded to include not just clans of butchers but also traveling villagers.
In Dambe, one of the hands is protected with thongs and is used for attack, the second hand is used to prevent contact with the challenger and to ward off blows. Just like the orthodox stand in boxing and for left-handed fighters, it’s the classic south-paw stand.
The legs can be used for attack, but it's a risky bet. The objective of the fight is to knock out the opponent, and when he's down it's often easier. This is why in recent years it is more and more frequent to see attacks on the knee or the foot.
A form of entertainment as many see it, Dambe evolved into a fighting challenge for many and a few get prizes for winning competitions hosted locally. The fight which was traditionally practiced as a way for men to get ready for war has seen many of its techniques hint at sport and it was only a matter of time before the war fight was adapted into a combat sport.
With a similar rule to the UFC “knocking out your opponent,” one can easily adapt the technicalities learned from this art in the Octagon on the main stage. As a game, it requires tactical thinking and strategic execution, just like the UFC where fighters cannot take hold of the opponent without being technical and crafty about it.
Due to its amateur nature, there are currently no classifications according to weight but the tendency is to oppose fighters of similar builds. Matches last three rounds, to which there is no time limit. The round ends when a fighter touches the ground or when the judge decides. The judge only intervenes if the competitors are not combative or to protect a downed fighter from receiving blows to the ground.
The Future with Dambe
Since the end of the lockdown in 2020, Dambe as a sport and martial art-form has been on the rise. Fighters have taken a more serious approach to how they appear in the eyes of their audience, and are more professional and trained like boxers.
The tradition of the "Kara"— the rope that wraps the arm and hand of the fighter, is still relevant today. It is because of the strength of this hand that damages from blows are often devastating. With time it is expected that this tradition will fade out and replacing it, will be more professional gloves.
Transcending the borders and coastal line, Dambe is now a sport followed in the United States of America and in Southern Asia. And a recent acknowledgment by the president of the UFC Dana White as well as a host of other UFC stars shows how well the sport has garnered popularity. Earlier in March 2022, the official UFC channel released a video that showcases Dambe as an accomplished martial art. Such is the surge in popularity of Dambe that fights are now being streamed and followed online, Including platforms like Youtube and Facebook.
A positive effect of this popularity is the decline in the brutality and increased technicality the sport has garnered recently. Fighters sometimes put iron bars under their gloves but the surge in popularity of the sport has seen most fighters spot the opportunity in the art, hence fewer cheating mechanisms are being employed by fighters. On the contrary, the “violence” associated with Dambe is not different from that of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and Dambe, being part of Nigeria’s cultural heritage, deserves adequate publicity. It is hoped that sports authorities in Nigeria would consider integrating it into national sporting events in the near future while implementing much-needed safety measures, and one day the sport, like boxing can feature in the Olympics.