Photo: Balla Gayes waves to the crowd

By Sulayman Bah

Balla Gaye’s Saturday’s victory could be described a correct call after many predicted him to emerge with the bragging rights in the build-up to the fight.

It was a sigh of relief for the former King of Arena on the back of a nervous 30-minute showdown peppered with all that makes a good combat.

It was a win that didn’t present itself without some enormous toiling for the Lion of Guediawaye. So much was at stake with the risk loftier on Balla’s side as any more defeat could have seen him plunge into oblivion –one that could effectively hammer a dead nail into any hopes of ever regaining his former glory.

The responsibilities on his shoulders were mammoth. Lac de Guier had lost his rematch–it must be said on referee decision – to Modou Lo. Sa Thies, Balla’s younger sibling, added to the bitter pills following his humbling to Boy Niang II of Pikine. Guediawaye, the region that once marshalled the arena with alacrity, couldn’t afford any more losses. Considering all these, it culminated into a burden of pressure on Balla Gaye despite the star’s great efforts to mask it.

Photo: Balla Gaye in his ritual dance before the combat

So urgent was Omar Sakho’s need to return to winning form that he altered not only his overly accelerated game plan but revamped even his physiognomy in a desperate redemption-seeking bid.

Sporting curly blond hair and adorned with knotted jujus, Gaye’s road to victory has been a long trek.

Balla’s preparations for last Saturday’s triumph began in the aftermath of his defeat to Eumeu Sene in 2015.

All tacticians from the first to the lowest ranked wrestler at Ecoule de Balla Gaye knew danger stares their club leader in the face. Omar Sakho has never, in his illustrious career, endured defeats in succession. Consequently, two losses in a row beginning in 2014 against Bombardier which cost him his crown, was real cause for alarm.

Following a meeting amongst Balla Gaye’s aides, it was recommended for the then beleaguered wrestler to take a brief one-year breather from fighting while doing it in tandem with some bit of soul-searching. This initiative was given a damning interpretation mainly from critics, amid widespread allegations that his decision not to compete for the entire 2016 season was to allow effects of the performance-enhancing tablets he’d been purportedly using, to clear out of his system. Omar did not bother to dispose of these charges. In the interim, he’d been hitting the weights and later assumed an admirable well-toned body.

Photo: Dousing in holy waters, Balla on his rituals

Meanwhile, it was an unusual sight for the wrestling term to start and elapse without Balla. Yet seasoned watchers of the arena had to contend with that stark reality.

December 2016, the Lion of Guediawaye was already evaluating fight proposals on his table. A rematch with Bombardier, Modou Lo or Tapha Tine topped the radar. One enthusiastic pundit even suggested another fight with Eumeu Sene. That option was considered unthinkable by Balla’s representatives. Early 2017, there was already a definitive opponent – a certain Gris Bordeaux, the Tiger of Club Fass.

Reason for Balla deciding to square Gris was as clear as the day’s light.

Bordeaux, whose real name is Ibrahim Dione, is an experienced star but has almost equal number of defeats as his eleven victories in a combined twenty-two clashes.

An avid puncher, his game statistics made him an obvious choice to face the wounded Lion who has been buoyed to use him as a stepping stone to return to the big times.

Photo: Gris appeared to have made a trois-appeal after being sent sprawling in the sands

Statistically, if track records were what determined a wrestler’s next opponent, then the Balla and Gris fight wouldn’t have ticked. Their career paths are worlds apart. Gaye’s performances are impressive – 21 wins and four losses in a total 24 fight episodes. However, like the parlance fair-play in all sports, Balla versus Gris still made sense sports-wise giving both haven’t had opponents and are not tied down to any contract obligations.

Their first face-to-face televised on Tfm was explosive at least on the side of Balla Gaye. The two traded words even before this. Balla taunted his adversary by saying no one from Club Fass had ever beaten a wrestler from Guediawaye from the heydays of his father when he was king of arena.

Provoking further, Omar Sakho referenced his win over Mustapha Gueye in 2009 whom Gris replaced as the Tiger of Fass. As though it wasn’t enough, he then ostentatiously gloated over Bordeaux, flaunting his pumped up biceps in a tongue-in-cheek dig.

Photo: Both wrestlers in a keen punch-up

His opponent kept a cool head in spite of the tension. Promoter Luc Nicolai initially revealed his intentions to stage the fight in the United States but baulked out of it before rescheduling the combat in Senegal.

The duel could have been held eight months ago if not for the Stade Dembda Diop’s stampede that left at least eight people dead, throwing Senegal into national mourning. With the stadium, where the fight was being planned to be staged, in ruins and renovations to take more than twelve months, it meant postponement of the Balla-Gris encounter. The development came at a time the Senegalese arena was being gripped by venue crisis as promoters feared incurring losses at prospects of organising matches at the 60,000 Leopold Sedar Senghore Stadium.

Then a miracle happened –the wait finally came to an end with 31stMarch 2018 picked as concrete date for the fight.

Much has been seen and words traded between the two wrestlers and their respective camps in the run-up to last weekend’s make-or-break tie.

The exchanges even at one point had the duo resorting to prying into one another’s privacy. But what had tongues wagging was Balla’s vows to beat his adversary in under a minute in his last presser.

However, on day of the fight, the dynamics sang a rhythm perhaps different from Balla’s expectations. The fight did not end as many had hoped, wrapping up on points and on referee verdict. First one minute of the clash witnessed rapid succession of blows with Balla delivering uppercuts on Gris’ head, inviting intervention from the referee and a warning. The Tiger of Fass responded with left and right combinations at resumption of proceedings. Balla kept surging forward and cornered his opponent who went out of the sacks making it 1-1 on warnings. A minute later, an under pressure Gris was forced again out of the sacks as points stood at 2-1 in the Guediawaye-born’s favour.

Photo: The arbiter declaring Balla Gaye winner on grounds of having less warnings as puzzled Gris watched on

Then the score board read 3-2 on warnings incurred still with Balla in the driving seat. By the 20th minute, it was apparent the combatants appeared weary. It was Gaye’s longest career fight ever. The pattern of fight did not change until the arbiters closed the clash in the final third.

Gris’ performance did not disappoint as the duel wasn’t a one-way traffic either despite his defensive approach. The Club Fass’ juggernaut sought to establish in Saturday’s thriller that he was no push-over or a stepping stone for any wrestler.

Join The Conversation