DAKAR (AFP) –
From remote villages to stadiums teeming with thousands of fans, traditional wrestling is Senegal’s sport of choice, with battles cloaked in mysticism and religion pitting locals against each other.
Until now that is.
They call him “the White Lion”, a square-jawed hulk of a man draped with gris-gris (amulets) around his bare chest, legs and stomach enters a dusty arena in a suburb of Dakar.
Wearing only dark green underwear, the Spaniard Juan Francisco Espino charges towards his similarly attired opponent, their ponderous bellies and thighs undulating as they approach each other.
A few punches are thrown, Espino gets a grip on his opponent and swiftly manouevres him onto his back, winning the match. The White Lion remains unbeaten, a step closer to becoming one of Senegal’s idolised “kings of the arena”.
Having won his first three matches, and with the novelty of having a Toubab (foreigner) taking part in the sport, Espino is already recognised whenever he wanders the suburbs.
“Juan! Juan! Juan,” children cry out as the 1.95 metres tall, 145 kg man walks past, while adults try and snap a shot of him on their mobile phones.
Wrestling in Senegal is an old practice which would pit neighbouring villages against each other after the annual harvest. In 1930 striking was introduced, and this is the form which is the most popular today.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the sport’s popularity, drawing sponsors, media coverage, full stadiums and wealth beyond the imaginings of most Senegalese for the top wrestlers.
The big names in wrestling are idolised, children play at being wrestlers and many dream of the day they too will enter the arena and make their fortune, escaping the poverty in their neighbourhoods.
Espino was born into a traditional wrestling family in the Canary Islands and at a very young age learned the art of the islands’ wrestling style from his father.
While passionate about the sport, he was disappointed at not being able to whip up more zest among fans.
He decided to go elsewhere, moving to Brazil for six months to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and then to South Korea for two months to learn Ssireum, the local wrestling style.
Last May Espino was named the European “grappling” champion, a very technical form of wrestling.
“There is wrestling all around the world,” he explains. “So I told myself I must go and see and learn all these different kinds of wrestling, as each one is unique.”
In 2008 he discovered Senegalese wrestling, and in watching videos of the sport, was drawn by the fervour of the public during matches.
“I saw these stadiums with 30,000 people, just to see a wrestling match. I told myself I can’t miss that, that I too want to fight in these arenas.”
Arriving in Dakar, he signed up at a “stable” or wrestling school.
But it is a slow process and no other white wrestler has ever gotten as far as Espino. He has to follow the steps of the wrestling circuit and learn as he goes. It has been two years since he began fighting in Senegal.
“I came to beat the best. But I understand that I have to go through the stages, that it is a long process to have access to the big fights,” he says.
While the matches are over in moments, much is made of the ceremonies leading up to them.
Mystic practices, dances, amulets, body paint and most importantly, the most powerful marabout available to guide you.
“I have a marabout for my mystic preparation,” Espino says smiling.
“Whether you believe in it or not, it is part of the tradition and for thepor moment, every time he has told me to wear green, and I have won the fight!”
While some 7,000 wrestlers are licensed in Senegal, only about 40 are able to make a living from their winnings.
The last big match in April saw wrestling giants Oumar Sakho or “Balla Gaye 2″ and Yakhya Diop or “Yekini” each earning some 100 million CFA (152,000 euro) in fees for a match of only a few minutes.
However recently accusations of excessive violence during fights, excessive fees, doping suspicions and rumours of sponsors pulling out have tainted the sport’s image and forced those involved to reflect on its future.
Fees were thus recently capped at about 114,000 euro, and the time accorded to the mystical ceremonies inside the arena shortened.