The New York Times had a great article yesterday on laamb, a style of wrestling popular in Senegal. Laamb, sometimes called “Lutte Senegalese” is enjoying a resurgence in Senegal, and is now more popular in that country than more global sports like football. The Times article focuses on a recent match where a rising champion unseated a legendary wrestler, and examines the finances of the sport, where hundreds of thousands of dollars can go to the top performers in the sport. The video that accompanies the story is particularly compelling and worth your time.
Yekini vs Balla Gaye II, the most anticipated Laamb match of 2012
Mentioned in, but not a major emphasis of, the Times story is the role of traditional magic in Laamb. Wrestlers enter the ring adorned with gris-gris, leather charms that contain verses from the Koran and mixtures of herbs, prepared by marabouts, who also bathe the wrestlers in herb-laced protective baths. In Ghana, the country I know best in west Africa, some similar practices take place, but they’re rituals practiced in secret. Some of the stranger experiences I had in Ghana in the 1990s involved visiting traditional healers with musicians I was studying with – magic (“juju” in Ghana) was something part of some people’s lives, but it was something not something for public consumption. Watching a few laamb matches online makes clear that very different rules apply, at least as concerns this sport.
For an interesting introduction to laamb, I highly recommend Dhani Jones’s “Dhani Tackles the Globe”. For two years of very compelling TV, NFL linebacker Dhani Jones spent his offseason visiting different countries and competing in a wide variety of sports. His visit to Senegal is pretty incredible – he trains with Bombardier, one of the legends of laamb, and competes against a Bombardier protege. He also goes through a pretty amazing pre-match ritual with a marabout which, to me at least, offers the somewhat uncomfortable spectacle of an intense mystical experience shown as entertaining television. It’s available as a $2 purchase from iTunes, and it really a fascinating hour of video. (The clip above is from the show, but is not one of the best moments – it’s Dhani’s discomfort at discovering the traditional wrestling loincloth, which is basically one extended dick joke… but it’s all I can find on YouTube.)
Watching the Yekini/Balla Gaye match, I’m struck by the parallels between laamb and sumo. Both sports have quite simple, and very similar rules: the major differences between laamb and sumo have to do with precisely which body parts can touch the ground before a wrestler loses a match (in sumo, one hand or knee on the ground means you lose, in laamb, it’s two…). In both cases, a fast-paced match is preceded by long rituals, and the framing of an event is similar, multiple matches, separated by rituals, constitute an event. And there’s some body-type similarity between successful laamb wrestlers, and the body types currently dominating sumo: guys who are big, but not huge, who balance mass in their lower body with well-developed upper bodies.
Sumo in Japan has been transformed by an influx of non-native wrestlers over the past few decades. First, the sport was revolutionized by Pacific Islanders, particularly Hawaiians, whose massive size gave them an advantage over smaller Japanese rivals. (Akebono, born Chad Rowan in Hawaii, stood 2.03m and massed 240kg, as much as 100kg heavier than some of his rivals.) Lately, it’s been dominated by small (okay, small by sumo standards – under 150kg), nimble and very, very strong Mongolians like Asashoryu and Hakuho. It’s been challenging for the sport to adapt to the foreign influx – some Japanese fans have expressed frustration at the absence of a Japanese grand champion or strong contenders. But it’s clear that the future of sumo includes an increasing population of international competitors, from Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and even Egypt.
So, why not Senegal? As the Times article explains, part of the allure of laamb is the opportunity for young men to make money in a country with very high unemployment. Similar factors led Mongolian wrestlers, experienced in Bökh, their traditional wrestling style, to begin competing in Japan. Pioneering wrestlers like Kyokutenho, who came to Japan in 1991 and just won his first Emperor’s Cup at age 37 in the May basho, are taking steps to ensure that Mongolians remain in sumo for decades to come. Kyokutenho just obtained Japanese citizenship (indeed, he won the Cup as a Japanese citizen!), probably so he can become a coach and stable manager when he retires from competition. What would it take for half a dozen Senegalese to come to Japan to compete? I can imagine a Senegalese yokozuna in two decades – can sumo?
My guess is that it’s more likely that we’ll see former sumo and former laamb champions competing in mixed martial arts, a sport that’s increasingly popular in Japan. But there’s something very satisfyingly xenophilic about the idea that the rituals of laamb and sumo might someday come into contact.