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Dambe: The Art of African Butchers’ Boxing


Butchers’ Boxing

Dambe is a martial art that was developed by the Hausa people of West Africa and is based on the ancient boxing traditions of Egypt. The Hausa people founded the art while traveling the land as butchers. These men were the only ones who could slaughter animals and handle meat according to cultural ritual. They would move from village to village at harvest time performing combat ceremonies and taking on challengers as local harvest festival entertainment, somewhat similar to a modern day fight event.

Not a Gentleman’s Sport

Though it may have roots in boxing, this is no gentleman’s sport. Instead of gloves Dambe uses the “strong-side fist” or “spear” which is wrapped in a piece of cloth and secured with a cord, which is tightly knotted. This turns the fist into more or less a rope mallet. Before the art became more “civil” some fighters would dip their spear in a sticky resin containing shards of glass. The palm of the hand is open allowing for grip. There no shin guards either. Instead, a thick metal (sometimes jagged) chain is sometimes wrapped around the fighter’s lead leg. This is a less common addition to fight attire in current times, due to the tremendous amount of bloodshed it causes.



There are no weight classes though “promotions” try to match competitors closely in size. Each match consists of three rounds in which there is no time limit. There are three ways to stop the round:

  1. There is no activity between opponents
  2. One of the participants calls a halt to the round by breaking his stance or the official calls the halt
  3. A fighter’s hand, knee or body touches the ground (This is called “killing” the opponent)

The art was also practiced as a way to prepare men for war.

Modern Dambe

Today Dambe has organized fight companies or promotions that still travel village to village, but instead of butcher clans, they typically consist of urban youths.  Matches are performed outdoors in “battlefields” with the spectators forming the boundary of the fight area. The event is often held outside of meatpacking plants in the tradition of the butchers who began the art.

Events are accompanied by ceremony and drumming. The traditional regions of practice include northern Nigeria, southern Niger and southwest Chad. Like other combat sports, spectators often bet on matches and the fighters compete for a purse.


Use of Magic Deemed Unfair

The use of magical protection is discouraged for fairness in modern urban bouts, but amulets are still placed sometimes in the feather-filled pillows that fighters put on their wrapped fists. Another tradition is scaring the striking arm and rubbing special salves as resins into the wounds to provide strength.

Ritualistic smoking of marijuana is common before bouts, and perhaps necessary.