Earlier this week wrestling fans rushed to the Demba Diop Stadium in Senegal to see the monumental match up between Yahya Diop (Yekini) and Omar Sakho (Balla Gaye 2). The event didn’t start until seven in the afternoon but at nine in the morning fans were already camped outside the stadium. Laamb wrestling has become even more popular than soccer in Senegal, according to Magatte Diop, the director of sponsorship at Sonatel, Orange’s Senegalese subsidiary.
Despite the massive size of the two combatants, the two wrestlers gracefully performed the “dance of champions” as drums and musical odes welcomed them into the arena. The dance was meant to repel black magic from the wrestlers before they stepped foot into the ring. Their “uniforms” consisted of magical talismans called gris-gris and before the match both men poured a protective bath all over their bodies. According Mbaye Gueye Dieng, a spiritual guide or marabout in the mystical Sufi tradition, “The gris-gris and baths are just for protection against negative tongues and eyes.” Despite all the physical training that goes on in order to get the wrestlers prepared for the big matches, many spectators believe that the spirits are the ones who determine the winner.
“The most important preparations are made in the home of the marabout,” Dieng added.
In order to be victorious in laamb, the wrestler has to get his opponent’s head, back, or both hands and knees to the ground. Only certain matches of laamb allow for punches, and these matches often gain the most publicity.
Malick Thiandom, a sports broadcaster for Senegalese Radio and Television, said, “We used to wrestle for the honor of the village. Today…with the sponsors who inject lots of money to have visibility, it has become a breadwinner for lots of wrestlers.” Orange has become a major sponsor for the Senegalese sport. The most successful laamb wrestlers earn more than $100,000 per match, but the odds of most wrestlers gaining this much success are slim. Thiandoum admitted that he is constantly telling the youth not to pursue this sport in an attempt to gain financial success because there is a “gap” between what they believe and reality. Most combatants will earn less than $2,000 a year in the ring.
The recent match between Yekini and Balla Gaye 2 was an example of one of the rare high-profile and high paying matches. Sources told the New York Times that each combatant received about $300,000 for the match. Yekini was defeated after two minutes and six seconds, his first defeat in over 15 years. Promoters are currently trying to arrange a match between the victor, Balla Gaye 2, and the last wrestler who was able to defeat him, Eumeu Sene.