GODS FALL DOWN
There are a few ways for a foreign reporter to meet a wrestling hero in Senegal.
The first is to ask for an interview. The logistics are easy enough, but the opportunity will cost you US$10 000.
In July, when I was there, the imminent arrival of Ramadan meant the wrestling season would be foreshortened, and with it wrestlers’ moneymaking opportunities, so the asking price was even higher than usual.
I chose a less expensive option: staking out a wrestler’s house on the day of a match.
And so, poaching in the swelter of a summer day in West Africa, I sat on a bench in the Parcelles Assainies, a neighbourhood in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, alongside my intrepid guide, Thomas Faye, a reporter for the Associated Press, and waited for Zoss to appear.
The Senegalese know wrestling as laamb, a deceptively simple contest between two men dressed in loincloths and decked in talismans. The winner is whoever puts his opponent on the ground, whether on his back, rear, stomach, or a combination of hands and knees.
It is an old sport, fought in the sand, steeped in deep, village traditions. But in the last decade, this pastime has evolved into an outsized spectacle, widely televised; its champions have become wealthy celebrities with a greater claim on people’s hearts than any President or businessman.
Today, the combination of legend, money and mysticism has made laamb a cradle for heroes and the ambition of every boy in Senegal.
Star wrestlers are gods.
Hacks and bus drivers place icons of fighters on their dashboards, next to pictures of caliphs and Muslim awliya, roughly the equivalent of saints, which in the Senegalese Sufi tradition bring the bearer some shreds of God’s grace.
Fighters like Zoss are muses of history, holdovers from an era when wrestlers fought ritual matches at the funeral remembrances of community elders or represented their villages in games after the autumn harvest.
But now they are much more: They are heralds from a manifest paradise.
In a country where half of the population is unemployed and the average annual income is US$1 000, wrestlers – who can make as much as US$300 000 in a single match – are portents of a better life.
Zoss’ home is an unremarkable white box of a building whose stateliest feature was a tiled stoop. Across the street was a modest mosque and in the space between was a roiling throng of teenage boys shouting for their champion.
We were not the only ones looking for Zoss.
Zoss is really Saliou Ngom, a 30-year-old gladiator from Dakar who, like so many wrestlers, was a manual labourer until finding the arena.
He and his brothers are popular fighters, often headlining bouts.
Like gods, Senegalese wrestlers straddle the boundary between reality and suspended disbelief.
They look and eat and sleep like men, but radiate an unearthly majesty suggesting they belong to a world of superheroes.
At the end of the alley, a silver Hyundai SUV started inching slowly backwards toward the front of Zoss’ house. Like a distortion in a gravity field, the car began drawing every moving body on the block toward it, bending the universe into cosmic order announcing Zoss’ imminent arrival.
“ZOOOOOSSSSS!” the assembled hundreds bellowed. The door open and he emerged.
He weighs 250 pounds, a mass augmented by a recent, eight-month training stint in the United States, where he prefers to spend his time during the offseason.
He has a long forehead and broad cheeks that seem specially designed to support his wide-set eyes — he looks almost gentle.
At 5’11 he’s a little shorter than the giants he fights, and the disadvantage to his reach and leverage alters his strategy against his opponents.
But outside the sand of the arena, Zoss’ mass is otherworldly.
Even so, it was slowly diminished behind the rush of his admirers, who climbed onto one another when there was no more room to run forward and then, when there were no more shoulders to mount, scaled the iron bars of the windows on Zoss’ house.
Zoss, in his trademark gesture, pointed a single index finger toward the sky and yelled something indecipherable. The response was clear: “ZOOOOOSSSSS!”
“When you win, everybody in the neighbourhood loves you,” a young wrestler called Noireau told me. Noireau is the nom de guerre for Ousseynou Cissé, chosen because of the extreme darkness of his complexion.
He was not yet a star. His interviews were still free.
“Money is the reason wrestling is so important in Senegal. Many boys can’t go to school, and they have nothing to do, so maybe they wrestle. That’s why I do it,” Noireau said.
“But the worst part? When I lose, my family and my neighbours go to bed before I get home. And the next morning, no one will say anything to you. There is only silence.”
The culture of Senegalese wrestling rests on the promise of intimacy as much as wealth.
Star wrestlers become lords of entire districts, privileged with providing for their friends and rewarded with unflinching loyalty.
Their entourages of fans become the equivalent of neighbourhood gangs and brawls between rivals are common in and out of the stadium.
Tensions run especially high at the perfunctory “face à face,” a theatrical pre-match promotion where both the headliners and their fans confront one another in front of television cameras.
In April, a face à face between perennial champion Yékini and rising star Balla Gaye 2 devolved into a melee featuring stabbings, concussions, and cameos by riot police.
With the air in the Parcelles still ringing with his name, Zoss paused to unscrew the cap from a bottle of water. He raised it high, emptied the contents over his head, and shook the excess from his crown with a muscular vigour that elicited delighted squeals from the assembled crowd immersed in the spectacle.
The water was a ritual bath, blessed by one of Zoss’ marabouts, a Sufi spiritual practitioner versed in esoteric Muslim sciences like ‘ilm al-huruf, the recombination of Koranic words that releases their secret power.
The water purified Zoss from any hexes already placed on him by his opponent’s own counselors. There would undoubtedly be more, and Zoss had to remain vigilant.
His assistants were already unloading buckets of magic liquids for the day ahead, some vomit-coloured, some sparking clear, some red as blood.
A wrestler’s every act produces effects in the visible and invisible worlds. These may all seem silly and specific, but in wrestling, they are deadly serious.
The footfalls of gods reverberate in realms beyond ours.
In an instant, Zoss was gone, vanishing into the shadowy precincts of his house and the spiritual world they guarded.
Inside, there would be prayers, more ritual ablutions and other sacraments.
An assistant emerged on the doorstep and started tossing what looked like potpourri in every direction, a substance as diaphanous and light as fire, meant to beat back the demons lurking beneath the minaret as it strained toward heaven.
Having missed Zoss at his home, we followed him to his workplace, where he is scheduled to wrestle a younger fighter, 23-year-old Boy Niang 2.
The slowly eroding concrete façade of Stade Demba Diop dominates the skyline of Liberté, a middle-class district in the centre of Dakar.
The pristine sands of the temporary ring, strewn at midfield, appear dazzlingly new.
I was sitting with Thomas, this time on the cement benches of the stadium’s east stands. I had forgotten my Press credentials and couldn’t gain access to the Press seating, which left Thomas muttering, “You see what happens? You see what happens?”
He meant that now we had to sit in the cheap seats reserved for the teenage entourages of the fighters.
On the opposite side, across the sandy pit at the centre of the arena, VIPs, sponsor representatives, and wealthy guests who could afford US$40 tickets sat politely in the shade of an overhang.
The field and stands were drenched with advertising — for Orange, the French phone company, for ADJA bouillon, for Crédit Mutuel du Sénégal — all illuminated by the Technicolour rainbow of Senegal’s capitalist dreams.
“This is all a big business laboratory,” Thomas said. “There’s never been this much money in wrestling before. But if you look, the real show is for the premier fans. The wrestlers have more obligations to sponsors now.”
He was right. The praise singers — another aspect of tradition adapted to the wrestling spectacle — and drummers lined the approach to the locker room tunnel, which ran under the west stands.
The wrestlers performed their ritual dances facing the VIP side of the field. Zoss was there, moving lithely in his crisp blue warm-ups emblazoned with the logos for Crédit Mutuel du Sénégal.
Even gods have masters.
Around us, who sacrificed half a week’s pay for general admission were getting restless. The gates had opened at 3pm. It was almost 4:30pm, and nothing resembling wrestling had started.
A Senegalese wrestling event usually involves three or four preliminary matches before the main event.
At 5pm, the wrestling started.
Because a wrestler only needs to go down once to lose, matches can often be disappointingly short, usually lasting less than two minutes and sometimes ending with a pitiful trip in the sand or a clumsy throw-down.
Official matches like today’s, overseen by the Comité National de Gestion de la Lutte (CNG), the professional sport’s governing body, provide one more strategy for victory. They include the sanctioned use of barehanded punches, which make laamb more violent and, to some, more amateur.
“Punching is a problem. In the past, this was real wrestling, but now it’s almost like boxing. There is no technique anymore. Everyone just throws punches,” Oumar Diarra, Secretary of Senegal’s Association of Sports Journalists, told me.
Zoss has roots in old-school, punch-free wrestling.
Many commentators considered his fight against the precocious Boy Niang 2, a youthful boxer from the new school of fighting, a big risk. Boy Niang 2 had a career record of nine victories to one loss.
This fight against Zoss would be his last chance of the season to prove he belonged in the upper echelon of fighters, a steppingstone to bigger bouts and paychecks after Ramadan.
Zoss had lost his last fight and was simply trying to maintain his status among the stars of the sport, the ones who got sponsorship deals and their faces on billboards.
It seemed tough, and maybe wrestlers feel stress, but Zoss’ mood was indiscernible from his casual, practiced dancing. He was never distracted by the aspiring fighters struggling behind him.
Among them was the mammoth Sa Thiès, who faced the equally mammoth Moussa Dioum right before Zoss’ headline bout.
Sa Thiès shares a blessed fraternity. His older brother is Balla Gaye 2, the consensus king of laamb after his victory over the indomitable Yékini in May.
This night, no doubt riding his older brother’s popularity, Sa Thiès attracted a fervent crowd of supporters. After the referee blew the whistle, he and Moussa circled each other nonchalantly, until Sa Thiès bent down to pick at the sand.
At that moment, Moussa Dioum took a halting step forward. The hesitation was all Sa Thiès needed. He lunged at his opponent’s waist. Moussa Dioum took one futile swing that hit air and then collapsed to his knees under his enemy’s weight.
He would later blame the loss on the advantage of superior magic, claiming Sa Thiès had disappeared before his very eyes. The fight had lasted 30 seconds.
The consequences lasted much longer. Pandemonium erupted in the east bleachers, where Sa Thiès’s fans had waited impatiently for hours to see their champion fight.
Someone ran through the seats with live flares, spitting fire and light. At the front, the diabolic celebratory crush pitched spectators over the front of the stands, where they split their heads on the concrete landing and fell unconscious.
As we escaped to more distant seats, Thomas muttered again. “You see what happens?”
The police slowly intervened, but the joyous rage burned on, the crowd thinning as more people were injured or led away or moved to flee, until all that was left were battle-weary revelers, tired but smoldering, like burnt cinders.
The remains greeted Zoss as he set foot as a god onto the sands of the arena.
His warm-ups fell away like the remnants of his mortal condition and revealed the obligatory mystical armour of the Senegalese wrestler.
His arm, chest, and legs were strapped with talismanic gris-gris, small leather pouches containing verses from the Koran and khawatem, magic squares containing numbers that, if properly configured by a marabout, invoked divine protection.
Across from him, Boy Niang 2 loomed, festooned in his own magical protection.
After all the anticipation, the riot, the praise-singing, and the beating drums, the whistle blew and … nothing.
The two fighters stared warily at each other, but made no other moves apart from some distracting waves of their arms.
Laamb can be frustrating because the matches end so quickly, but it can also be frustrating when the matches last too long.
It was obvious both fighters had been instructed to proceed defensively.
So three minutes went by, the two men glowering at each other, until the referee blew the whistle to remind both fighters they indeed had to fight or face sanctions from the CNG.
Then, in a move I would see mimicked by little boys in my neighbourhood for days, Zoss put his fists on his hips and stared at Boy Niang 2.
It was a gesture of resignation as much as defiance. Sanctions be damned. Boy Niang 2 would have to strike first.
Around the eleventh minute, he did. Zoss anticipated the lunge, caught Boy Niang 2’s torso from below, and stood him up. As the two grappled, Zoss maneuvered his opponent’s back to the sideline. Boy Niang 2 carelessly left a knee within Zoss’s reach.
All Zoss had to do now was force Boy Niang 2’s head up and seize his opponent’s leg. They tumbled out of bounds, Boy Niang 2 sprawling on his back.
Boy Niang 2 was furious. In laamb, an out-of-bounds pin still counts if the wrestling move that causes it starts inbounds.
Of course, what constitutes such a move and which motions in the ring lead to a pin outside of it are matters of interpretation, and Boy Niang 2 was telling the referees their reasoning, in this case, was wrong.
But his petitions went unheeded by the officials, who finally raised Zoss’ hand in triumph.
At the verdict, the twilit cosmos of the arena warped as Zoss sprinted across the field like a comet, trailing a stream of smaller bodies including journalists, managers, assistants and fans.
Boy Niang 2 was left behind in the void, bleak and silent.
Thomas answered his buzzing cell phone. After the call, he turned and said, “We won’t see Zoss tonight, because of the victory. There is too much to celebrate.”
Sometimes, as in divine revelation, gods come to you.
The week following Zoss’ victory, Boy Niang lodged an official complaint with the CNG about the decision.
The two fighters exchanged words in the media, with Boy Niang 2 claiming Zoss had stolen a victory with the aid of referees and Zoss more or less telling him to shut up.
The distraction seemed like it would keep Zoss preoccupied. Yet, Thomas got a call telling us to meet Zoss at Club Olympique, a posh athletic association on Dakar’s West Coast.
We waited for two hours. Finally, in the middle of a lunch of ham sandwiches, a familiar silver Hyundai SUV glided into the parking lot.
He had appeared. The tinted glass rolled down to reveal the face of Zoss who said, in English, “What’s up?”
After he parked, we left the empty lot together, passed the empty tennis courts, and walked through a concrete corridor until finally entering the Elysian peace of the swimming pool.
Zoss wore a flat-brimmed, black baseball hat with no logo, an oversized white T-shirt, and black jean shorts.
He walked with the stunted gait of a man whose muscles are too big for his bones and greeted everyone in sight with the practiced ease of a celebrity who is used to being recognised: “What’s up, man?” “I see you!” “What’s up, man?” “That’s what’s up!”
Zoss only started wrestling at 20 when it became obvious he wasn’t going to make money as a rapper.
He insists on speaking imperfect English in the hip-hop idiom he learned from his days emulating Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain. He never says “yes” as an affirmative, only “That’s what’s up!”
He married his wife last spring, right before his father died in July. Zoss regrets not finishing his education.
He dreams of opening a school to give Senegalese boys what he didn’t get. He wants to support his family and obey God by praying five times a day.
When I told him little boys in my neighbourhood were now challenging me with their fists on their hips. Zoss erupted in laughter. “I see you, man. You know, man, when you see the little boys do that, it means you’re the example. I’m the example, now, and that’s what I try to do, man.”
I reminded him that Boy Niang 2 had challenged the victory decision. It was still a sore spot: “So you know what? In Boy Niang 2’s last fight, he got a similar decision out of bounds.
“Why’s he gotta talk, man? That’s not good, man. I won this fight! Boy Niang, this guy talk too much, man, going on TV, talkin’ a lotta, you know, going to radio, talkin’ smack. He needs to accept he lost and go train. No talk!”
Away from the arena and from the kids from the banlieue, there is no magic, no mythic back story, no Zoss springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, no divine mission from God.
At the centre of the wrestling mythology is a world without enchantment. Zoss is, in short, a normal Senegalese man, raised in poverty and educated by pop culture, only one lucky enough to have the right body for a profitable profession.
Even his ambition is pedestrian. He goes to the United States, to Indianapolis, of all places, so he can train or eat at McDonald’s undisturbed.
What seems magical from the outside, is, to Zoss, mundane, utilitarian. Even the prayers of the marabouts are only a practical expedient.
“Marabouts? I gotta lotta!” he said. Then he laughed at the thought of his marabout harem.
If one doesn’t bless him with victory, he simply moves on to the next. I remind him that Moussa Dioum claimed Sa Thiès was invisible. “Was it magic?” I asked.
“I don’t know about that, man.” he said. “You know what to expect when you’re fighting. He go to a marabout, you got a marabout, too! What you mean, you don’t see the guy? I don’t know, man. When I lose, I don’t need to talk, man, I just lose.”
The interview lasted until we both got bored after an hour, but Zoss offered to give me a ride home.
We climbed into his SUV and the stereo started blasting “Bang Bang Pow Pow” by T-Pain. The tinted windows rolled up again and the cityscape went dark.
Before we had ended our talk, Zoss, echoing Noireau, said, “When you win, everybody is happy for you. My fans are this way. When you don’t win, there is nothing, man, you know?”
A week later, Gaston Mbengue, the “Don King of the Arena” who organized the match and hoped to wring even more publicity from the controversy, called Zoss and Boy Niang 2 to a post-bout face à face.
Afterward, a fight broke out and the wrestlers’ entourages started beating each other with clubs and umbrellas.
“I told you I would settle our score!” Boy Niang 2 shouted. He clubbed Zoss in the head and the victor slumped to the ground.
Even gods fall down.
This article has been excerpted from SB Nation