“Nigerian Dambe is a brutal and exhilarating sport. A fight to the knockout with prize money at stake,” say Alex Simpson and Sebastian Barros, the London-based co-directors behind this new project. “This style of Nigerian boxing is fiercely competitive and largely undocumented.”
The story of Dambe is told through the eyes of 35-year-old Taiwo, a street boxer from Ogun State, Nigeria. Simpson and Barros conducted parts of Taiwo’s interview on top of one of Lagos’s many unfinished tower blocks that provide cinematic sunburnt views across the former capital. Shots reveal the Ogun fighter training in empty stairwells, underneath bypasses and with a make-shift punch bag made from rice. “We wanted to capture the essence of Dambe in a cinematic way,” say the directors. “Witnessing the practice through the eyes and experience of Taiwo felt like the most personal and effective way to do it.”
Dambe is fought in rounds of three, or less if an opponent is knocked out. The fighters are self-taught and surreptitiously learn the rules and techniques of the game by watching other fights. The most fascinating feature of Dambe is the competitor’s primary weapon, a single arm bandaged in cotton and rope—not for their own protection but to deliver devastating blows. What started as a rural sport in Northern Nigeria has become a national phenomenon that is now somewhat funded by the government and has a dedicated channel on YouTube (Dambe Warriors) boasting millions of online views.
“Beyond the strikes and intimidating stares there’s a depth to Dambe that you otherwise may not have known existed,” the London filmmakers comment. “The sport is steeped in tradition and surrounded by theories of supernatural protection and magical amulets.” Dambe fighters may receive money, cattle or jewelry as winnings but Taiwo explains that the real prize is the glory and adoration the competitor receives from the crowd. Simpson and Barros conclude, “When Taiwo spoke of his fights we felt the enthusiasm pour out of him—reliving each fight with intensity and affection in equal measure.”