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From an Auto Mechanic to King of Senegalese Wrestling –the Story of Balla Gaye

If a controversial story about wrestling hugs the front pages of Senegalese sports tabloids, you can expect it to be Balla Gaye II. No, he is not a drama queen. It is also not that other wrestlers haven’t the penchant to make divisive comments that could get the press talking. Balla stands out partly because he’d never ceased to spew out daring comments that the media will gladly sensationalize but on account he’s likelier to fulfill nine out of every ten vows he makes in pre-match bouts with his touch for swag, which the younger generation -making up majority wrestling fans today -could very much relate to, an added advantage.

In Senegal, blizzard of victories alone is not guaranteed catalyst for popularity but swag, dress sense and ability to live an exemplary life on and off the arena are all traits that count.

Gaye1Pictured Source Aren Bi

Balla has shown majority of these at tender years, claiming the Senegalese King of Arena crown at an unbelievable age of just 26 in 2012. To say he doesn’t court controversy  straying few steps out of the limit is effective to claim he’s  all around immaculate. But like all celebrities, he is bound to tread on few toes. But what makes this frame muscled power house unique is his ability to walk the talk, bundling and sending more experienced adversaries than he is, irrespective of size, tumbling helplessly to the ground.

Yekini, a one-time seasoned star and a much revered figure to this day, was not only King of Arena in 2012 but has never before bitten the dust to any wrestler in a 15-year wrestling career.  However, it was Balla who forced Yekini to dive into the tasteless waters of defeat. He did not only bring down Yekini whose name translates as Man Mountain but packaged him well before beating him to his game; seizing him up by the sides  and sending him to ground, back first. That duel, with the fattest staked prize ever staged in Senegal, brought an end to the retired and former Ecowas champion’s glory days.

Counting today’s most paid stars of the traditional sport mixed with punching, one wouldn’t be mistaken to see him top the list. A full to the brim Stade Demba Diop, a thing that doesn’t come easy in spite of the sport being favored over all, is what characterizes a day Balla Gaye is supposed to fight. The Western media unwilling to be left out of the fun, would dispatch off reporters to cover the now 30-year-old’s combats.

All of this is result of a successful career but one that hasn’t come without massive toiling.

Son to a former wrestling champion, is not hard to see why he chose this lane. Wrestling runs through the family’s DNA. His father Doubless, an immigrant from Mali who found home in Cassamance, North of Senegal before settling in the capital Dakar , a locomotion prompted by his love for the sport, stamped his foot prints on the surface for all to see and is classed as one of the greats to have graced the game. His younger sibling Sa Thies, is one of the brightest up-and coming stars of the age-old sport but who would, for now, have to contend with thriving under the shadows of older brother, Balla.

Dubbed The Lion of Guédiawaye, a town in the administrative Dakar capital, Balla whose name is Omar Sakho, would have had a different career path. Growing up, his parents noticed he was becoming bit of a hot-head and had him sent to an auto mechanic workshop to get him not only become skilled but keep him out peer influence in a crime rate high area. He would last there few months, some reports say a year, but not without feuding with his superiors, who according to him, tried to cruelly whip-stretch him on a table and fought them off, running out of the workshop never to come back again. That fall out, paved the way for the beginning of a new craft. Omar began exhibiting his prowess for wrestling, often coming out unscathed anytime he gets into a fist fight with his peers or older mates. His father Doubless, named Mamadou Sakho, took notice of his son’s love for the traditional art, taking him to a long time bosom Balla Gaye One, from whom he got his name Balla Gaye II. Balla One took Omar under his wings seeing him rise through the ranks in his Ecole du Balla Gaye School.

Balla’s first combat ended with him triumphing before a decent crowd of wrestling-mad fans. Commentators would say his debut outing was a tip of big expectations to come in future. And, that happened. Balla would assert his superiority in a grouping featuring over ten wrestlers, coming out of that tournament unblemished and on top. Wriggling his way out as an underdog in a star-studded championship, a dozen eye marked him keeping track of the youngster’s rapid progression. Slowly but steadily, he began commanding attention and a huge following. Victories over Samba Loabe, Papa Sowe, Mame Ngor Diouf, Saloum Saloum set him on path to an impressive career take-off until a shocked defeat to Issa Pouye applied the brakes to a fine run.

Shaking off that set-back with a win over Tyson Junior had him flowing again, and this upward trajectory, was followed up by wins over Coley Faye, Mbaye Diouf, Modou Lo Mustapha Gueye and Baboye. Sakho came of age by this time and got pitted with Mohamed Ndao Tyson, a man he looked up to growing up, and, who’s strongly extolled for helping turn the tradition art to the multi-million sport it’s today.

The Dakar-born did not disappoint, living to the billing of his tagging. Balla made light of Tyson whose strengths were fist-fighting. Having made his preparation in the US, he entered the arena wearing an exaggerated air confidence, partly to mock his adversary-tagged the best thrower of punches there is.

But Balla wasn’t one to cower and rid himself of Tyson in the most humiliating fashion, throwing him crashing head first into the sands. Then King of Arena Yekini had avoided a sprouting Sakho, dismissing him as too fragile for his liking. However after he buried Tyson’s head to the sands, there certainly was no hiding place and Yekini inevitably found himself seeded with Balla. An expert in contest of grapple, Yekini wasn’t one to be out of place when boxing an opponent mattered. Prior to his Balla combat, Yekini, from a tribe of fishermen, named Yakha Diop, had disposed of seventeen opponents, drawing only one and has gone without losing in 15 years. Balla though made the unthinkable possible, spanking Yekini as hundreds shocked fans, mainly from the Boal-born’s hometown, fainted.

Allegation of Drugs

As millions got pumped into the sport by partner companies, Senegalese wrestling was being suffocated by allegations of increased use of performance-enhanced drugs by wrestlers hoping to walk their way to success by shortcut means. Balla Gaye was one of those targeted by accusing fingers. His overly unhealthy-looking chubby arms and pumped up cheeks, side effects associated with steroid use in the build-up to his fight against Tapha Tine, did him no favors.

Gaye2Picture by press Afrik

The CNG –acronym for the National Wrestling Federation – failure to implement clauses requiring wrestlers be subjected to tests before and after battles, had tongues wagging.

The unsubstantiated claims of substance abuse resurfaced with Balla again in the spot-light. In 2014 he’d signed a contract to take on Bombardier, a mammoth 6-foot-7, 300-pound legend. Balla knew he could never come near matching Bombardier’s weight mass but still left for America to resume training. When he returned, a week prior to the combat, Bombardier was only 50 kilos bigger than him amid widespread The Lion of Guediawaye used tabs. Balla went from the shaped toned wrestler he once was to looking obsessed and sporting a bulging stomach. He would bit the dust in that contest, relinquishing his Rois de Arenes (King of Arena) title to Bambardier. Word later spread that Balla was sick and once threw up prior to the combat but went ahead to stage the fight fearing being labeled a coward should he order a postponement of the duel.

That moved, proved Omar Sakho’s undoing consequently forcing him to take a seven-month sabbatical to allow quick recuperation of his body.

Gaye3Picture Label: Balla had a bulging stomach amid growing suspicion he was on drugs. Source Dakaractu

A career at risk of a downward trajectory

While he remains in-demand where it regards endorsement deals, Balla is one of most paid stars of the arena. But his career runs risk of heading down drain. That could translate as drop in monetary value. The 30-year-old last won a duel three years ago against a certain Tapha Tine. Since then, it’s been a rough ride for Doubless’s son. His attempt at a return to victory, last year, backfired spectacularly as he endured a routing. His ego suffered the most in the aftermath of the fight against Eumeu Sene, a man he lost to in 2009.

Gaye4Picture Label: Balla getting shockingly trounced by Eumeu Sene. Picture source Seneweb

That takes his number of losses to four, three of the two coming consecutively in 2014 and 2015.

Another more defeat would be disaster delivered in full package and a severe denting of his reputation of eighteen victories.

There have been talks of a rematch with Tapha Tine but of particular interest to Sakho is accepting proposal to fight Gris Bordeaux. Gaye is carefully evaluating his moves to avoid another catalogue of disappointment. It has never occurred before for Balla to make an open declaration of interest to tackle an opponent by this December, he did, urging Gris –who lost his previous contest in June – to accept when fight promoter Asan Ndiaye makes an offer.

Gris, tagged –the Tiger of Fass –looks an easy adversary and Omar is pressing for the fight to happen confident of using the contest as stepping stone to walk his way back to the top.

Whether this contest will see light of day is a matter to be decided likely by December’s end with the wrestling season to officially resume January 2017.

Gaye5Picture Label: Who wants a fight? Balla is itching for a combat next year. Picture source Sene Sport

Balla might be having it rough in the arena but not with his popularity. Function he’s involved in is bound to draw attention.

His trademark teasing first before launching an all quick attack on opponents, have been missed.

His style of wrestling is embodiment of style being temporary and class being permanent.


Featured Photo: Balla Gaye  before the laamb championship match. Joe Penney for The New York Times



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