In the early summer of 2002, Abubakar Usman made his debut as a Dambe fighter in Kebbi, a state in northwest Nigeria.
Usman, who was 15 at the time, had been surreptitiously learning the sport’s rules and techniques by watching other fighters from the sidelines of the ring.
On the day of his first match, under the scorching sun, he took on a challenge to spar with an opponent everyone was afraid to face.
He lost, but has since become one of the famous sportsmen of the martial art, with many accolades and prizes – including cash, a car and a motorcycle – to his credit.
“I’ve only lost a few matches as a fighter,” Usman boasts, flashing a grin wide enough to show his missing teeth; two incisors lost to heavy blows.
“I still beat the guy that day,” he says of the opponent who knocked out his teeth.
Rooted in culture
Starting out as more of a wrestling sport, known as “kokowa” in the Hausa language, Dambe today is a “striking sport” where one fist is used as a spear to strike an opponent and the other as a shield.
Unlike the five-round maximum of the United Fighting Championship (UFC) in the US, Dambe is fought in three rounds or fewer if a knockout punch is delivered.
Winners receive prizes in the form of money, cattle, presents from fans, or motorcycles and cars. On rare occasions, young women are married off to fighters as rewards.
Muktar Muhammed is a 31-year-old whose scarred face tells the tales of the injuries he’s sustained over a decade-long career.
He told Al Jazeera that his cousin, who also competes, was gifted a young woman after he won a local tournament in Kebbi.
Many fighters are butchers by trade and were taught the sport from a young age.
Abudullahi Rabiu is from the Kudu fighting community and dropped out of high school against his parents’ wishes to focus on Dambe.
“I am just interested in the fight, not because of money but because of the cultural nature of the Dambe game,” said the 24-year-old, who has won national tournaments.
From ancient sport to internet spectacle
Dambe began when clans of travelling butchers from the Hausa tribe started fighting tournaments with the local communities; they were soon competing for fame and glory as locals huddled around the ring to cheer their favourite fighter on.
Today, the game has become an internet sensation.
Fans across the world have viewed videos posted to YouTube millions of times.
Anthony Okeleke and Chidi Anyina stumbled upon Dambe online and instantly saw potential for the Nigerian market, which is crowded with clips of football, Afropop music and Nollywood.
In January 2017, with a desire to showcase the game to the world, they launched Dambe Warriors on YouTube.
“The first thing we did was to reach out to the community and the fighters. We knew we had to gain the trust of the community first and the association of Dambe fighters before doing anything,” Anyina told Al Jazeera.
“We are looking at the UFC model. However, we want to make it indigenous and unique,” said Okeleke. “Our mission was to push it to the mainstream.”
At the time of publication, Dambe Warriors had 46,000 subscribers and their videos had been viewed 11.7 million times.
Their content is enjoyed by enthusiasts in countries from the Philippines, Thailand and Brazil, to Indonesia and the US.
“We have a culture that has been basically traditional and restricted to people in the community, but now you have an international audience taking a look at it and enjoying it,” said Lolade Adewuyi, former editor of Goal.com, Nigeria.
I am very happy to see the videos because people all over the world are watching me fight. It's better than when I started 15 years ago.
But, for all their fame, Dambe fighters are not paid fairly. The chiefs control the irregular payments, and there are no welfare or health packages for participants.
Adewuyi hopes that the sportsmen will become international stars one day and be paid better than UFC fighters.
“There’s limitless potential in the game,” he said.
For Usman, the fighter from Kebbi State, nothing beats the feeling of people watching him throw and parry punches in online videos.
“I am very happy to see the videos because people all over the world are watching me fight. It’s better than when I started 15 years ago,” Usman said, beaming with pride.