SOKOTO, Nigeria (AP) — Lawali Danjega is 6 feet of shirtless sinew, tense muscle and jangled nerves as he readies himself for a bout of traditional Nigerian boxing, frantically wrapping and rewrapping a length of rope around his tightly balled right fist.
Twenty years old and a butcher by profession, he's one of the many young pugilists competing in the martial art of the country's north known as "dambe." The fighters bind the fist and wrist of one arm with rough rope, step into a makeshift ring and heave wild roundhouses and kicks at each other.
A bound fist, hard as a baseball, can knock an opponent senseless, with teeth landing on the sandy boxing ring. The scene is a frenzy of noise. Winners are greeted with drumming and wails of approval from singers. Spectators argue over bets, cheer on their favorites and shower the victors with money. For chronically underemployed young men, it's added income, too.
Victors can win several hundred dollars, an enormous sum in a country where 70 percent of the 140 million population lives on less than $2 a day.
"I need this to survive," Mr. Danjega says of the prize money before entering the ring on the outskirts of Sokoto, a city of about 600,000.
Dambe is especially popular among butchers and other young laborers in the months after the harvest and cattle-slaughtering season.
In recent years, sound systems have been added for the drummers and singers and plastic chairs set out for spectators. But in many ways, the sport is unchanged, and so is one of its main purposes: community cohesion and mass entertainment.
"This brings people together. Overseas, people watch football, and you make contacts, you meet friends. It's the same as here," says Shehu Musa, home on a visit from London. Eyeing his fellow spectators, mostly men, he adds: "It's the macho types who come out."
The crowd of about 800 has gathered around the ring in the hour before sunset. Some two dozen fighters representing two different localities gather at either end of the ring, wrapping their punching fists.
Some of the young male fighters head behind a bamboo shade to share chubby marijuana cigarettes. Others use old razor blades to slit open their forearms and wrap them in a poultice of marijuana. Some tie on magical charms meant to bring protection or strength.
Each bout is three rounds, and a winner is declared when the loser hits the ground. Kicks are allowed, but punches are more common. Unlike Western-style boxing, only one hand is used for punching.
At the referee's signal, the fighters, wearing only shorts, advance to within striking distance and extend their unbound hands toward each other, measuring the distance between them.
When an opening comes, they windmill punches toward the head, forehand and backhand. Jabs are rare. The referee ends the round when the action gets too intense or after a few minutes without much action. A round also ends when a fist unwraps.
Bouts often end with no clear victor: There's no winning on points in dambe. When a knockdown is recorded, the results can be brutal. Many veteran boxers have more scars than teeth.
In one fight at Sokoto, a young boxer connected solidly with his opponent's forehead, and the man dropped flat on his face as if hit by a gunshot. Most other losers simply tumbled forward onto their hands or onto their backs, registering a loss.
Winners are paraded around the ring, gathering accolades and being showered with small bank notes by spectators. The government is seeking to outlaw the custom, called "spraying," — saying it degrades Nigeria's currency, the naira.
While there's no official dambe circuit, repeat winners sometimes find rich patrons. Popular boxer Muhammad Dantagaye, retired now at age 32, says he was given a motorcycle after one win and had his Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca paid for by a wealthy fan.
There are other rewards. "If you win, the girls will want to be close to you," he says. "Some may be frightened, but others know you're a champion."
Back at the arena, the crowd is irritable after a few unexciting bouts. Then, Mr. Danjega enters the ring, teammates clapping him on the back.
After some ineffectual sparring, Mr. Danjega charges. He lands a roundhouse right on his rival's face, rocking the man on his heels. A few kicks to the midsection and another haymaker, and the foe is flat on his back in a cloud of dust.
Mr. Danjega falls to his knees with his arms in the air, screaming with glee as the crowd roars approval.