African Martial Arts – Unique traditional fighting styles

Africa is an incredibly vast continent that is made up of many countries, cities, towns tribes, and villages. The people who live in these places all have their own unique history and culture. Some of these cultures include unique fighting styles that have evolved over many years. These fighting styles make up what we refer to as African Martial Arts.

African Martial Arts like all other martial arts has evolved from other styles of combat. Some styles are based on grappling while others involve striking with or without weapons. Some of these martial arts play an important part in society with organized competitive bouts that are watched by thousands.

Many of the African martial arts were developed out of peoples need to protect themselves and their town or tribe. Today these martial arts are now practiced in organized competition or just for fun among friends.

Lutte Traditionnelle (Laamb)

Lutte Traditionnelle is a popular style of folk wrestling that is mainly practiced in Senegal, and West Africa. In terms of style it shares a lot similarities with Greco Roman wrestling. The techniques in Senegalese wrestling are also very similar to techniques seen in catch wrestling and other folk styles.

The most well known from of Lutte Traditionnelle is Senegalese Wrestling. It is commonly referred to as Laamb and has two distinct styles. One form allows the use of strikes with the hands (Lutte Traditionnelle avec frappe) while the other does not (Lutte Traditionnelle sans frappe).

The performance of pre-fight rituals and dances called Bàkk is an important part of competitive Senegalese wrestling. These oral art performances are used to boast skill while at the same time instilling fear in an opponent. Sener people are deeply superstitious and have strong belief in the power of the Bàkk to influence the result.

Since the late 1980’s Laamb has become massively popular in Senegal is now recognized as the country’s natural sport. The top Laamb fighters in Senegal receive cash prizes for winning tournaments as well as corporate sponsorship and fame. The money on offer for the top competitors far exceeds the average national wage and provides a opportunity for many men to create a better life for themselves and their families. The biggest Laamb events are held in the Arene Nationale de Lutte in Dakar and regularly receive crowds of +20k people.

In the video below former UFC heavy weight champion Cain Velasquez travels to Senegal to find out more out Senegal national sport.


Dambe is a West African style of boxing. It is primarily practiced in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad by the Hausa people. The sport was developed in local communities by a particular caste of travelling butchers. These butchers would fight each other and accept challenges from the local community. The marital has also been used as a way of preparing young men to go to war.

Today young fighters compete as a way of gaining money and status within their community. In Dambe each match consists of 3 rounds. Each fighter has their dominant striking hand wrapped in cloth which is tightly secured with a piece of chord. The goal in Dambe is to deliver a single blow that causes any part of the opponent’s body to touch the ground. Percussive music and chants precede the bouts. Side betting done by spectators is commonplace and is an important part of the culture of the sport.

A popular Youtube channel called Dambe Warriors follows the 3 main Dambe fight houses (teams): GURUMADA, JAMUS & KUDU. The main fights on this channel regularly attract millions of viewers and have made stars of the top Dambe fighters.


Engolo is another of the African martial arts that developed in South Angola, near to the Cunene river. This martial art is thought to be an initiation for youngsters from tribes in the surrounding region.  Many of the moves are reminiscent of the Brazilian art of Capoeira. In fact  Engolo may well have been one of the primary influences on the Brazilian martial art when it was first used by the slaves there in the 16th century. In Engolo the aim is to overwhelm your opponent with an array of kicks and leg sweeps. The kicks are often done from inverted positions by using ones hand to balance on the ground.

Engolo has traditionally been performed at a festival in the context of a rite of passage for youngsters and was accompanied by percussion and song. At other times in history it has been used as a form of dueling or self defense.

Nuba Wrestling

Nuba wrestling is a popular form of traditional wrestling from Southern Sudan that is done by the Nuba people. The sport was traditionally practiced by cattle keepers who fought for valor and bravery. The objective of each but is to put your opponent on their back. Competitors traditionally competed naked but today compete in a pair of shorts.

The sport is a unifying factor for all the tribes in a region. Disputes over cattle abduction  can often result in bloody conflicts in a place that has a painful history. However traditional wrestling can act as a distraction and an outlet for young men who fight for fame and pride. The South Sudan Wrestling Entertainment (SSWE) provides organized opportunities for traditional wrestlers and the bouts draw large crowds from the local communities.


Masangwe is a bare knuckle style of Boxing that is practiced in South Africa by the Venda people for hundreds of years. In Masangwe there is no protective gear and no time limits. Masangwe is quite viscous compared to other boxing styles as not even a knockout is sufficient to stop a fight. In Masangwe the only way a bout ends is when one fighter submits to the other.

The sport began about 200 years ago when young boys would bring their bulls to the river to drink. Often the bulls would be encouraged to fight each other which then prompted the boys to begin fighting among themselves.

Bouts are often used a way of settling differences between men in the Venda community. Unlike other African boxing styles there is no betting on Masangwe matches with pride being the only thing on the line for the combatants. When each bout is done is is important for the fighters to shake hands and show mutual respect for each other.

When a fight is on the people of the village will encourage their own fighter by cheering and singing songs.


Tahtib is an ancient form of North African stick fighting style. It was primarily done in Egypt and was often part of military training. The sticks were typically made of wicker or bamboo and were approximately 4 foot in length. Over the years, Tahtib lost its place in society as a martial art and over time evolved into a form of performative dance. This dance became known as Egyptian Stick dancing.

However there have been attempts in recent years to revive the ancient martial art. This is being done by volunteers who are trying to formalize the techniques used and applying a fixed structure that better facilitates competition.

Nguni stick-fighting

Nguni stick-fighting is a martial art that evolved in South Africa. It was originally performed by herd boys from the Nguni people and is also referred to as Zulu Stick fighting. In Nguni stick fighting each combatant is armed with two long sticks, one stick is used for attack while the other is used for defense. Nelson Mandela famously practiced Nguni stick-fighting as a child.

In a Nguni stick match two opposing fighters will fight in order to establish who is the strongest or the “Bull”. Other variations of Zulu stick fighting is practiced in countries outside South Africa. These other forms of stick fighting usually evolved in the same manner and are ingrained in the herding way of life

Today Nguni stick-fighting is often done as part of a a wedding ceremony as a way for opposing warriors from each family to get to know each other.