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Interview: African Warriors head Maxwell Kalu talks Dambé surge

The man behind African Warriors chats with BE about their origins, hopes, ambitions, and visit from Kamaru Usman

NIGERIA-CULTURE-SPORT-DAMBE
We could be seeing a lot more of this internationally in the years to come, and that’s a great thing.
Photo credit should read STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Dambé has been something we’ve been featuring more of recently courtesy of our What The Fight series, and it’s been gaining traction in recent years. One of the organizations making the biggest strides is African Warriors, which features both Dambé and wrestling events featuring African athletes.

The head of the organization, Maxwell Kalu, was kind enough to chat with BE and chop it up over how he got involved with combat sports, how he fell in love with Dambé specifically, and what strides they’ve made as an organization. Furthermore, we’ll dive into his love for the art and how it ties into a sense of African identity, as well as a visit from their recent VIP, UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.

Victor Rodriguez: First off, Maxwell, tell me about your interest in combat sports. is this something that you grew up around? is this something that you came to a little bit later in life? how did that interest begin for you?

Maxwell Kalu: Yeah, oh man. I always had a lifelong interest in combat sports. So I grew up doing Karate, doing kickboxing, Muay Thai, and I did Muay Thai through my teenage years into university. I always loved combat sports, always appreciated combat sports so much more than any other sport. I could never follow football or anything like that, or soccer, as you would say. Just doesn’t do it for me. So yeah, always been a lifelong combat sports fan. I grew up in the UK and spent a lot of time in Nigeria where i’m from heritage-wise. I always had a particular affinity for Nigerian combat sports. and that’s how I got to Dambé and wrestling.

VR: Alright, and what were some of the figures from Nigerian combat sports that you looked up to in your youth?

MK: That’s a good question. So Dick Tiger, he was a former boxing champion before my time. I grew up with stories bout him from my dad, from my uncles, as for his boxing exploits. And I think it wasn’t necessarily just Nigerian sports figures, I think Dick Tiger’s probably the most famous Nigerian boxer. But it was more just anybody... growing up in the UK there’s a huge culture of boxing so there’s always something to see there. And if you’re talking traditional combat sports, if you talking Dambé, if you’re talking wrestling, wrestling is something that’s done in Nigeria around big festivals, that kind of thing. The men would come up and beat their chest and sort of vie to see who was the most manly and everything. I just grew up always aspiring to sort of emulate what you saw from combat sports athletes and appreciated that. As I said, I kickboxed myself and appreciated it. I wasn’t good enough to anywhere near professional but always loved the sports.

VR: OK, tell me about your first memories of encountering Dambé and what it felt like when you were able to see this, something that was different from what you were encountering elsewhere as far as standard boxing or kickboxing?

MK: Man, it’s funny. Dambe... so how it works is Dambé is from northern Nigeria, as I’m sure you’re aware. I’m from the southeast, I family connections and links to Dambé so I’d always heard about it. But unlike wrestling I hadn’t really seen much of it. I sort of encountered Dambé later in life. It all started really when initially with African Warriors the plan was we were gonna launch a Nigerian UFC, a Nigeran MMA organization. I was spending much more time in Nigeria going back and forth between Nigeria and the UK, I’m here (Nigeria) now full time. I was going around gyms and checking out the scene, that’s when I saw Dambe. it was like “wait a minute....”

MMA is great, I’m a huge MMA fan on a global level, be it UFC, be it Bellator, be it ONE. But you can’t beat — this is something else, something totally unique to Nigeria. Something steeped in culture going back hundreds of years, if not thousands. It was just visceral. It was a friend of mine that took me to a Dambé fight, how many years ago now. The musicians are going off playing drums, the fighters are displaying and doing all of the showmanship they do, the crowd is loving it, and I thought “Wow, this has to be it, man.“ You can’t do Dambé justice when you just watch the videos and we try to make sure people can see all aspects of it there and once you see all the energy around it, it’s like nothing else.

VR: That is saying a lot, because there is a lot that comes through in the video. When you hear the crowd, when you understand, you start to sense the levels of nuance in what the fighters are doing and how the fighters are so receptive to that. So before we get to that, when you witnessed this and saw this and were able to absorb and take it in, what led you to say “We need to make this work“ and what were the steps taken to make that happen.

MK: When I saw it i said “This, this has to be it.“ This is something that nobody else does, something unique to where we’re coming from in the world and something that any combat sports fan no matter where they are can appreciate. Really it was just trying to formalize it because Dambé has institutions older than you or I but at the same time it’s also informal in many senses. It’s working out “How do we build an organization from this?” It took a lot of travelling around Nigeria and finding fighters, finding custodians of Dambé. I’m not sure if you know, but Dambé has houses, for example. Fighters don’t fight for an American Top Team or City Kickboxing, they fight representing the house they’re born into and you’re born into that house based on where in Nigeria you’re born.

This in itself is steeped in history — before a fighter fights, you’ll see the musicians, who are central to Dambe. They’ll be singing the songs in Hausa, and these songs about “here’s Victor, before him came-so-and so of house BloodyElbow who was an amazing fighter in his day 50 years ago.” It’s so steeped in culture. It was like trying to get to grips with all of these things and then work out the path forward, how are going to put together our own ecosystem within the whole wider Dambé ecosystem.

From that African Warriors was born and we started, we launched with a few events. We did a few events in Lagos. And then we put together our own camp. So we have our own camp where we have fighters living, training, fighting. That’s where we’re based out of. Along with that we have affiliate camps across the country, that just meant that we have access to all these fighters all over the country. We’re able to get amazing Dambé content. So yeah, that’s the abridged version, but that’s pretty much it. I watched it, said “This has to happen“, worked around formalizing it. We did things like updating the ruleset for example: we invented the first unified ruleset for Dambé which is totally respectful to the traditions and culture of the sport I think. But just just makes it easier to watch and understand I think. So three three 3 minute rounds for example, fighters win a fight by winning two out of three rounds. A round is won by knockdown a fight is won by full knockout for examples. Just things that make things simpler and give the audience an understanding of what they’re watching. And also a better chance, too. You’d have a fight where two fighters are matched up — and this is a big deal — you know, a champion from House Gurumada facing off against a champion from House Kudu, and he would slip over and fall and the fight’s over.

We just tidied these things up, and yeah. From there, African Warriors was built.

VR: Tell how it’s been received and about your efforts to expand? How is that coming along, how has that worked and what kind of feedback are you getting from people and the participants involved?

MK: The reception has been amazing. We have a global audience, initially when we founded this thing we thought of it as a Nigeria play, an Africa play at best. We’ve been shocked in a good way that a huge chunk of audience from the US, a chunk of audience from Europe. Daily, we’re getting messages from all over the world saying “This is great, how can I know more? How can I watch more?“ The reception on an international level has been amazing. Weve done pieces with Vice News, pieces in CNN, with the BBC. Big international media has come to learn about us. And in terms of local reception, I think is that’s much more important and we’ve had great local reception, too. These fighters are coming from some of the hardest and toughest backgrounds in Nigeria, and one of the hardest in the world. So being able to set up a system where these guys are making money monthly on a stipend, guys are getting access to healthcare beyond what’s usually available at Dambé Arena. All of things have meant that we’ve got a great relationship with our fighters. Things are great and in terms of local audiences, people love it, too. But to be fair they didn’t need us for that, Dambé well before us was filling arenas and filling up marketplaces. People are just happy to see people — us — coming and try to do something more with it, trying to raise standards and bring awareness to it. Universally we’ve had a good reaction to it.

VR: I think at least when i started doing the WTF pieces and I started to scour for other types of fight content that were less conventional — to our readership, at least — i stumble upon this and say “OK wait, now there’s a very, very different thing” because there’s a very heavy roll of the dice because there’s a game of, the margins are quite distinct from what you’d find in a conventional or modern boxing match or wrestling event. That stuck with me, I liken it to... well, some bouts, to an old western. There’s not much going on but the moment one guy draws his gun (big gasp), you know? Big drama show, it happens right there. And that’s sort of what happens to me watching some of these fights “OK, they’re measuring each other“ out but you see the micro-movements, you see the guy stepping on the other guy’s foot, and they’re moving nice and slow and throwing a lot of feints, but the moment one punch is thrown, you feel the audience immediately comeingalive. And that spoke to me and I’m not even — I mean look, I’m not of Nigerian descent and there’s something quite universal and beautiful about seeing that happen. That’s probably why I’ve developed quite an affinity for this. So I guess, do you think that’s perhaps more of the wider appeal of Dambé right now? That this is offering something that front or do you think there’s some other element, a bigger thing that gets its hooks into the viewer and draws them in?

MK: I think it’s multiple things, and I’m so glad you said that because sometimes it’s lost on people. That there’s so many small thing shappening any given time in a Dambé bout. Dambé goes in ebbs and flows. You’ll have the ebb where they’re watching each other. It’s really interesting that you see the concentration on their faces, you see that all the small movements count. And when you don’t have two big gloves to block with, you’re head movement, your foot positioning is that much more important. there’s always so much happening. combat sports fans everywhere can appreciate that. I think as well that people also appreciate the stripped back, raw nature of it. This is fighting without the commercialism, without the bright lights of what we’re used to in the western world. This is just two warriors on sand fighting in it’s purest form. Speaking to Dambé’s roots coming from warfare, the (symbolism of the) spear the shield, the knockout being called a “kill”. This is so much more truth, the real essence of battle moreso than anything else you’re going to see, I just think people really appreciate that. We’ve definitely had people from the US especially, we get a big contingent of our following, an African American following who are just like “This is so refreshing to see a sport coming out of Africa being celebrated“. Asia has Kung Fu, Taekwondo, Karate, Muay Thai, all of these things. Africa has cultures equally as ancient and equally as old and steeped in history, and Dambé is just now coming to the forefront. We’re seeing people really engagin with that on multiple levels. And there’s definitely something in the rise of people like Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman and Francis Ngannou, more people are looking towards the continent in terms of combat sports Every time one of those guys fights we have a huge jump in people looking for us. I think it’s just this Black Panther movement, the UFC African invasion. People just appreciating combat in it’s rawest form.

VR: That sounds great to me because it sounds incredibly adequate. It’s not quite the appeal that bare knuckle has, but as a stripped-down form of combat where you do have to be smarter and more calculated in order to be successful. I feel like it harkens back to like the days of the early, early UFC events, the No Holds Barred era where some guys wouldn’t even tape their hands at all. Here you only have one main weapon to strike with but that doesn’t mean it’s your only weapon in the actual fight. Obviously, you’re using the body to parry, for setting hand traps and things of that nature. With all of these elements combined, you’re talking about the expansion that you’ve had, the growth that you’ve had in a relatively short period of time, I’m wondering what are your plans? Where do you see this going, how big do you see this getting?

MK: We have big, we have global ambitions for Dambé. We have a TV deal in the UK, that’s the first deal for African combat sports in the UK. We did a series run on YANGA! TV there which was really well-received. We have a few more deals on the table now. We just want to take Dambé and wrestling, because we do wrestling as well, we want to take those to wherever we can find fans. We want Dambé being broadcast, we want it being streamed, and we just want to be able to improve the lives of our fighters and just represent on a global level. That’s going well, we’re growing our social media audience daily. We have inbound requests, partnerships, suggestions, abuse, all of it. But it’s all good, it’s all good because it shows that we’re working and people are taking notes. Obviously a big paart of that was just doing this documentrary with Kamaru Usman, UFC champ, first African champ in UFC history. And to be part of his homecoming in coming back to Nigeria for the first time in almost 20 years, that was amazing. Even to be able to go beyond that, to take him into camp, in an area, a part of Nigeria far from the bright lights of Lagos, to have him see Dambé in its pure form was amazing. He loved it, he really loved it. He was so engaged, the fighters were so happy to have him there, and it was such an inspiration to them. I think it speaks to where this is going, we were able to command the attention of the UFC champion who came and just have some great fun and he enjoyed what he saw.

So yeah, we want to take Dambé global. And the start of that is we’re still raising awareness, we’re still beating the drum, we’re still winning fans for this sport. We’re still introducing the fighters, introducing the personalities behind the fighters. Introducing the culture behind the sport.

Something that you said which I really appreciated, Victor, was that there’s a huge amount of nuance to this sport. And I can understand how someone can see it and think it’s two men in a sand pit fighting but it’s way beyond that. Culture, music, all of these things. and we’ve just been able to scratch the surface in terms of introducing this sport but we have a huge, huge way to go.

VR: Kamaru Usman is what I was gonna pivot to next, because much like yourself he is from the southern part of Nigeria, he’s from Edo State. He didn’t seem to have much of a connection to any of this but seeing him commiserate with the fighters, watching them as they wrap their hands and really studying, really taking everything in seemed very much like an experience to him. What was the process like, inviting him, and what was he like off-camera? What did he have to share regarding how he felt after the buzz of this event?

MK: He was blown away, this is the thing — Dambé is an experience and watching it for your first time and walking into an arena, thousands of people gathered there, musicians singing your name, the fighters are excited to see you, presenting their hands for you to touch before they fight, which is a huge honor in Dambé. All of these things, I think he was just, it was a lot to take in. But he took it in and off-camera he was just super positive. He was like “Wow, more poeple need to see this. We need to take it to a new level, people need to know about this.” Of course, I think he’s one of the best minds in combat sports he was like “We should be thinking about this how we can do this better.” He was really thinking about what else we could do and how far can we take it. It was amazing to have him, he was super positive and it was a great fight as well. It was one of those as advertised moments where two great fighters that I’d seen multiple times. We put on this special match which was a rematch of a fight they’d previously had and they just delivered. It was one of those things that you coudln’t even script it. You have a three round fight, rounds one and two are very even, very back and forth and it end at the last round with a big knockout. Kamaru really loved it and we were very happy to have him.

VR: You’ve talked about your steps to take this global, what steps are you taking to make that happen and what markets are you looking to break into next?

MK: As I said, the starting point is that people really need to know what’s going on here. For that we’re currently in the midst of negotiating a few broadcast deals. The US is big for us, having such a huge combat sports audience and it’s where we get a lot of our inbound traffic from. The market is showing us that they want us to be there. The first step is to make sure people can see our content in more places. We’re also going to be launching a series of live shows next year as well. So that’s where we’re coming from, really. I’ll give you more detail as the time comes but just expect that you’re going to be able to see African Warriors in more places. we’re going to be doing more collaborations with more people from the wider world of sports. We’re going to have some live cards where we’re going to put up some of our best talent up in the arena.


You can check out more of African Warriors Fighting Championship over on their YouTube channel.