Musengwa: Bareknuckle Boxing in Venda

“tell us brother, what colour was Jesus?”

by Andy Hall

In the Remote Venda area of Northern South Africa local champions from the village of Gabo meet their counterparts from the neighbouring village of Chifudzi on the other side of a river, to partake in an annual bareknuckle boxing tournament known as the “Musengwa“. It is seen as a test of one’s manhood and is open to all who are considered brave enough to confront their fears; regardless of age, size or strength which only adds extra mayhem to this surprisingly good-natured free-for-all fight fest; that can pit seriously good boxers with light-weight wannabe’s. There are very few rules; the overriding one being that once blood has been drawn, the fight is stopped so as to minimise serious injury.

“Foster” the reigning champion, from Chifudzi village, gets ready for this years tournament (his son looks on). Venda, South Africa. 19/12/08

Old-fashioned honour and the admiration of one’s peers is the only prize for the winners during these wild, chaotic but good-natured contests, in what is deemed the Noble Art.

There are very few rules; the overriding one being that once blood has been drawn, the fight is stopped

This festival of male pugilism begins each day with hundreds of men gathered around a big dusty “ring’ into which a fighter – usually a well-known one with a reputation to uphold and an entourage of his mates shouting encouragement in the crowd – steps up and goads anyone foolish enough to accept his challenge. There can be half a dozen fighters at a time, strutting and sometimes performing a dance, inside this ring; and all the while looking around at the crowd and daring any to step out and take them on.

A fighter steps into the ‘arena’ to challenge all-comers, using the familiar gesture of a raised fist (any willing opponent then steps forward with a nodding gesture). Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

A boxer known as “No hurry”, from the village of Gaba, performs a war dance in order to intimidate potential challengers from Chifudzi village. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

Once the challenges are made and accepted, each fight takes place one after the other. And because, under the watchful eye of the referees, the fights are stopped as soon as blood is drawn; the fights more often than not, turn into lightning quick and vicious 90 second affairs as fists are thrown with the pointed ends of ones knuckles so as to maximise the chance for facial cuts delivered to the opponent.

There can be half a dozen fighters at a time, strutting and sometimes performing a dance, inside this ring

The more practiced fighters with big reputations and training behind them can be a wonderfully agile, even balletic sight to behold; as they launch themselves into the air, fists blazing. This isn’t your average boxing match with the two pugilists circling each other, jabbing and keeping their distance, waiting for the right moment. No, this is usually full-on and high octane. And when it’s two lesser mortals engaged in combat it can be wild and messy; especially as the bouts aren’t separated by weight divisions.

Two bareknuckle fighters display a particular style of fighting using protruding knuckles, so as to make it easier to cut the opponent and thereby win the contest. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

Bareknuckle boxers display their fast and furious techniques during a bout, using a style of punch (with protruding knuckles) aimed at cutting the opponents face. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

Bareknuckle boxers excite the crowd with their dramatic fighting displays.. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

“Foster” (last years overall champion) is knocked out by challenger “Lucas”(orange shirt). Knockouts are rare, as a boxer is usually declared winner if he manages to knock an opponent down rather than out. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

One of my subjects in this picture essay had a big reputation as a skilled and athletic fighter, but came up that year against a large man built like a buffalo who didn’t look in the least fit, but wow, did he pack a punch. So much so, that he knocked out the favourite who lost consciousness before he even touched the ground.

the favourite lost consciousness before he even touched the ground.

By the time he had come out of the ambulance 15 minutes later – the first time they had employed any proper medical professional (thankfully up and conscious again) – a crowd had gathered near him; and the defeated fighter with no anger or regret in him, declared and joked that he had died and seen heaven. To which a man replied, “tell us brother, what colour was Jesus?”. Bout after bout would take place until sunset, after which new champions were born and new reputations and admirers were made. And even though blood was spilt and each village goaded the other as to who’s champions were more fearsome, all was done in good spirits.

A fighter feels the pain of defeat as well as cut and swollen eye. Fights are immediately stopped and a winner declared if a boxer is cut, for fear of the spread of HIV/AIDS. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

The champion bareknuckle boxer known as ” Senior” is held aloft by his fellow Gaba villagers after he wins yet another bout. Adoration from his peers is his only prize. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

I did this photo essay some 20 years ago now, and since then rightfully, women have been allowed to attend as well, and the Musengwa boxing tournament has become more regulated and less dangerous, but no less interesting.

A boxer known as “Senior”, from the village of Gaba,surrounded by admirers, is about to take on his next victim. He is this years hot favourite for the title of overall champion.. Venda, South Africa. 20/12/08

Andy Hall is based in London and has been a freelance photographer since 1989. His work has taken him on a wide range of commissioned news for numerous publications around the world. Andy is contracted to the Observer and the Guardian, but he has also published numerous times in newspapers and magazines like The Times magazine, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the New York Times Magazine. He has also been commissioned by Red Bulletin Magazine, Newsweek, GQ Magazine and Der Speigel Magazine. He publishes photo-essays with Ars Notoria.

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