On Fight Night in Senegal, Money Pummels Tradition
The New York Times   April 28-29, 2002


DAKAR. Senegal- It's the fight season in this slice of West Africa, and thousands came on a recent Sunday to watch "Holyfield" - five wins in five fights, three by knock-out. In the stands, the fight's promoter - "people call me , Don King " - watched with expectation, hoping that he had found a new star in his fighter, whose real name is Souleye Dop.
"Wrestling is huge, it's a huge industry! " the promoter, Gaston Mbengue, said as he watched a warm-up fight at Iba Mar Diop stadium. "Nowadays even college students want to become wrestlers. Before fighters would win a cow or a bag of rice. Nowadays they can win thousands of dollars. Big money!"
During wrestling season in Senegal- where the sport also allows for bare-fisted punching - young men and boys in loincloths can be seen wrestling in villages in spontaneous matches or in regional competitions, following age-old rites and rules. But in Dakar, the Westernized capital, wrestling has been shedding its traditions. Today, wrestlers are TV stars, with image consultants and multinational sponsors. The big stars choose to fight, not according to rivalries among villages, but mostly for money.
Senegal may have been a French colony, but today the pull of American culture here is strong. The country's top fighter is known as "Tyson."
Tyson has muscles of steel on a 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame. His real name is Mohammed Ndao. Since his first fight in 1993, he has entered the ring draped in the American flag.
" America symbolizes power and domination," he said. "So it was an idea. When people saw Tyson, I wanted them to think of power and domination. I'm the American dream, a self-made man. If's an image I have to manage. Marketing and communication." Tyson lives alone in a sub-urban-style house on the outskirts of Dakar. ("I'm suspicious of women. I meet nowadays," he explained. "Do they want to be with me because of me or because I'm Tyson?")
In the gated courtyard, he had parked his black Mercedes, which he said he drives every weekend to visit his mother in his hometown; Kaolack, about 100 miles southeast of here.
. Unlike previous generations of wrestlers, Tyson finished high school. He speaks good French and sprinkles English words, like "exactly" and "you know," into his speech. He became a wrestler despite the objections of his father, a wood-worker, who had hoped that his son would use his schooling in some profession.
Tyson is an exception because he was not born into a family of wrestlers, a fact that perhaps reflects his business-like attitude toward the sportincreasingly the attitude of most young wrestlers.
"I was lucky," Tyson said. "I went to school and became an intellectual. I chose this job. Before wrestling was a traditional sport. with a lot of mysticism and occult practices attached to it. We've tumed it into a common sport. It's a business now."
Tyson earned more than $4,000 in his last fight, a huge sum here. But nowadays he fights only a season, making more money as the spokes-man for various products, including Nestle milk and a Senegalese rice. He will fight, he said, only against a worthy challenger and only for the right money.
"We're negotiating right now for maybe a fight in July," he said. "But we need the right sponsors and promoters. I'm here to make money."
Such capitalist frankness has drawn some criticism.
"Tyson is an industry of the ring," said Le Cafard Libéré, or The Liberated Cockroach, a satirical magazine based here. "He fights for dough and he makes no secret of it. Dollars only! "
One fan attending the recent Holyfield fight, Bame Mbaye, 72, said he had been going to the fights in Dakar for three decades. He said he did not find Tyson's behavior especially sportsmanlike.
"It's all about money now," Mr. Mbaye said. "It's all become too, well, American."

Some Senegalese say that traditional fighting has become too focused on monetary rewards