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Dambe Fight in Lagos Showcases Nigerian Diversity, Division

A young Dambe boxer wears good luck charms around his neck on March 2, 2018.

Poised like a scorpion with one bound fist ready to strike, the Dambe fighter glared at his opponent, daring him to make the first move.

Dressed in just shorts and an amulet made of black leather and wire, he suddenly swung his fist in a punishing arc to knock his opponent on the jaw and win the match.

Dambe is a brutal style of combat where one fist is designated as a shield while the other, wrapped in a cloth, is a spear to strike the opponent.

It is traditionally practiced by Hausas in Nigeria's north, but on this night the fight was in the southern city of Lagos.

"This is an ancient tradition in the north and we're bringing it down to the south," said the commentator. "We want to see teeth rolling!"

Instead of in the usual dusty squares and small arenas, the Dambe fighters are under spotlights set up on the beach in Lekki, an affluent suburb of Lagos, where a big screen replays fights jumbo-size and drones whizz overhead.

Unlike in the Muslim north, where the crowds are mostly men and alcohol is forbidden, in Lagos women were in the crowd, sipping on cocktails and smoking cigarettes.

The skyscrapers of Eko Atlantic, an extension of Lagos being built on reclaimed land from the ocean, make a modern silhouette on the yellow horizon.

But the attempt to introduce Dambe to the megacity's elite was notable less for the fighting than as a showcase of Nigeria's complexity.

Colonial administrators split the country along ethnic lines — Yoruba in the southwest, Igbo in the southeast and Hausa in the north — in a political ploy guaranteeing division and animosity in the decades after independence.

As a result of this segregation, Nigerians can often feel like tourists in their own country.

Dambe might as well have come from another planet as far as these Lagos spectators were concerned.

"I saw it on YouTube, I've never seen it live. It looked so cool," said Tutu Adetunmbi, a 26-year-old digital editor living in Lagos.

"I didn't know about it before, it's not out there," she said, "if you don't speak Hausa, you won't understand."

My weapon

The Dambe night in Lagos was an exercise in compromise — and patience — as organizers worked to bridge the cultural gap.

Commentators alternated between Hausa and English and were conscious of educating the audience on the basic rules of the sport.

At one point, the English commentator introduced a fighter from the central state of Niger.

"For those who don't know where Niger state is, it shares the border with Kaduna," he said helpfully.

Even the music was split. Drummers and a singer playing the hypnotic melodies of Nigeria's north alternated with a DJ playing hit tracks from pop star Davido and rapper Illbliss.

The athletes seemed used to this cultural fluidity.

"It's a Hausa sport but I'm Yoruba from Ogun state," said Abdul Akeem, a wiry 33-year-old fighter.

In his 12-year career, Akeem has travelled across all of Nigeria to fight.

"It's what I do for a living," he said, flexing his right arm, "this is my weapon."

Butcher sport

Dambe is said to have originated from butchers in the north, who would fight to settle scores and for glory and wives.

Today, a Dambe fighter can win 200,000 naira ($556) in a fight, said veteran Abubakar Usman, wearing two medals around his neck and a white tracksuit.

Some of the old traditions are still used today.

The 28-year-old's right forearm is completely covered in one-centimetre-long scars made from razor cuts seeped with "medicine" to help him win.

"It's my work," Usman said, "it's my business."

A couple of hours into the night and the crowd had moved from the bleachers to the ring to get closer to the action.

"In Lagos you have your own traditions," said Vincent Atueyi, a 25-year-old footballer.

"It's not something I see every day."