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 ten thousand American dollars. 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.
its champions have become wealthy celebrities with a greater claim on people’s hearts than any president or businessman
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 neighborhood 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—Islamic leaders—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 this former French colony, where half of the population is unemployed and the average income is only $1,000 a year, wrestlers, who can make as much as $300,000 for a single match, are portents of a better life. I had come to Dakar for a glimpse.
The Parcelles Assainies are a snarled tangle of warrens in the northern reaches of Dakar’s banlieue, a French euphemism that translates as "suburbs" but really means "ghetto." Getting to Zoss’s house required driving a taxi past the misleading calm of the apartment buildings fronting the major avenues, and then negotiating herds of goats and quagmires of their excrement. We followed streets that became puddles that became sand along thoroughfares that narrowed inexplicably into alleys before emptying onto wide plazas, until we finally found Zoss’s home, 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 in ragged First World hand-me-downs, 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, languished as a manual laborer until finding the arena. He and his brothers are popular fighters, often headlining bouts. Other than this, I knew nothing about him. 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—certainly somewhere other than the broken-down dreariness and goat shit of the Parcelles Assainies.
"Nobody knows what wrestling is really like. Wrestling is another world," was Thomas’s apt summary of the sport’s place in Senegal. Then, at the end of the alley, a silver Hyundai SUV started inching slowly backwards toward the front of Zoss’s house. Like a distortion in a gravity field, the car began drawing every moving body on the block toward it, bending the banlieue universe into cosmic order announcing Zoss’s imminent arrival.
"ZOOOOOSSSSS!" the assembled hundreds bellowed. The door cracked open and he emerged.
Like other major fighters, Zoss is built like an NFL fullback. 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’s 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’s own house. I finally had to join other onlookers clinging to a fence to see the champion address his legions. 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 neighborhood 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. When I met him, he was struggling in the dirt of Dakar schoolyard, practicing techniques for breaking out of holds and headlocks. He had come from Salou, a city far inland, to break into big-time wrestling. 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. He was so fit he never paused for breath, even after struggling free from his partner’s grasp. "But the worst part? When I lose, my family and my neighbors 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 neighborhood 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 vigor that elicited delighted squeals from the assembled crowd immersed in the spectacle. The water was a ritual bath, blessed by one of Zoss’s 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-colored, some sparking clear, some red as blood.
"Everything he does today will be controlled by the marabout," Thomas said. "You see that guy?" He pointed to a man pacing purposefully back-and-forth in front of the house. "He was told to do that by the marabout. The marabout probably told Zoss to back down the alley." Most of these preparations are nothing more than conscientious observance of wrestlers’ normal behavior. Which foot crosses a threshold, what to put on one’s skin, how to avoid the malicious jinn (genies) lurking in toilets and garbage: 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.
It matters which foot falls first.
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. "I’ll go see if he can talk to us," Thomas said, and then he was gone, too. The crowd slowly receded, some people going to the roof of Zoss’s villa for lunch. The tiny alley universe lost its center and broke apart, reverting to its constituent elements of broken concrete, mud and disarray.
A moment later, Thomas returned. "They are too busy with prayers. They can’t see us now. Maybe at the stadium. They have my number." 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 center of Dakar. The bleachers seem to descend and crumble into the threadbare turf of the stadium’s soccer field. The pristine sands of the temporary ring, strewn at midfield, appear dazzlingly new in what otherwise feels like a weather-beaten ruin.
I was sitting with Thomas again, 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. One the opposite side, across the sandy pit at the center of the arena, VIPs, sponsor representatives, and wealthy guests who could afford $40 tickets sat politely in the shade of an overhang, the local equivalent of luxury boxes and club seats. 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 Technicolor 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.
Thomas continued, "The kids from the banlieue are almost like props in the background. They make it all look real." Around us, those kids, who sacrificed half a week’s pay for general admission, were getting restless. The gates had opened at 3 p.m. It was almost 4:30 p.m., and nothing resembling wrestling had started. And since a Senegalese wrestling event usually involves three or four preliminary matches before the main event, rival entourages were confined in close quarters. Kids started pelting each other with bags of drinking water. When some wrestlers and their assistants jogged across to salute them, the crowd pelted them, too, and then flicked them off. When I looked at the fans across the stadium in the VIP seats, I observed a patrician crowd sitting primly, patiently. I wonder what they saw.
At 5 p.m., 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.
"There is no technique anymore. Everyone just throws punches"
"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. He offered an example: In the middle of a June match between heavyweights Tapha Tine and Bombardier, the power went out in the stadium. Bombardier, perhaps taking this as a divine sign, socked Tapha Tine in the face. Tapha Tine returned the favor when the lights came back on, and he won on a medical decision when Bombardier’s broken nose would not stop bleeding. Diarra said, "How is that good? It almost seems like those guys just want to box."
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’s 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’s 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 remains greeted Zoss as he set foot as a god onto the sands of the arena
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. A fresh salvo of water bags flew onto the field and across the stands, some into the eyes of rival fans, some soaking compatriots. Someone pounded a drum, which echoed like an unheeded call to order but only stoked the chaos. Someone else 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 armor 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. Boy Niang 2’s coach later admitted to the press, "We received a message from Boy Niang’s marabout asking for us to let Zoss strike first." Zoss, even to the newcomer’s eye, simply did not have the reach to make the first move. 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.
Nothing changed. Then, in a move I would see mimicked by little boys in my neighborhood 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. Whatever tactical plan this posture represented—commentators would offer competing ideas later: Was Zoss psyching Boy Niang 2 out? Was it magic?—it was ultimately a statement. Zoss was playing chicken. 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. Victory.
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’s 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’s victory, Boy Niang lodged an official complaint with the CNG about the decision. The two fighters exchanged words in the sports press, 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, on Thursday, 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?"
He insists on speaking imperfect English in the hip-hop idiom he learned from his days emulating Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain
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 recognized: "What’s up, man?" "I see you!" "What’s up, man?" "That’s what’s up!" We finally sat down, in a cool shade that felt miles away from Dakar.
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 neighborhood 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 backstory, no Zoss springing fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, no divine mission from God. At the center 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 one of the country’s few profitable professions. 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 ("BANG BANG / POW POW / I DO MY THANG THANG / LOOK AT ME NOW NOW"). 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.