Photos: Bare Knuckle Bouts in Madagascar? It’s more than a punch.

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Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times From left, Rocky Ambanza, Vlan Fanamba and Mamadou riding through the streets of Andapa, Madagascar, to promote the next day’s tournament.

madagascar-bare-knuckle-fight-7SAMBAVA, Madagascar — the boxing-loving fans make their way to dusty outdoor ring arena surrounded by grass huts and palm trees.

They take their seats one by one on makeshift wooden benches and sing songs and lots of cheering, hail the gladiators of moraingy, Madagascar’s brutal bare-knuckle fighting tradition.

There are no boxing gloves, no mercy, everything is on bone. Bouts have no time limit but are punctuated when the bodies hit the ground.

Kicks and punches are landed, absorbed and countered with equal ferocity. The fighters, known as fagnorolahy, perform a violent dance until someone gives up or is knocked down, or the referee identifies a winner.

“I don’t feel fear before a fight,” said Rocky Ambanza, a local star of the game. “If you feel fear, you have already lost. But you must not underestimate your adversary.”

Few opponents would underestimate Mr. Ambanza, 28, whose compact body is marked by scars and scratches. His power, speed and technique, combined with his confident swagger and aggression, made him a crowd favorite during a recent moraingy (pronounced more-AIN-gee) match in Sambava.

Winners of moraingy bouts earn cash as well as prizes that can include stereos, televisions, bikes and even cars.

The traditional sport has changed in another way, too. Typically it was pursued by unmarried men between the ages of 10 to 35. Now, women are increasingly taking part, both as combatants and managers.

The team travels the region by minivan, drumming up attendance by driving around the dirt roads of the towns they visit and announcing over loud speakers the next day’s combat against rival clubs. The fighters sometimes set up the smaller venues themselves.

“My husband loves moraingy, so with the money we’re making from the vanilla trade, we put fighters on a monthly contract and host the events,” said Maria Hadjee, whose family business sponsors a moraingy team in Sambava with a half a dozen male fighters and a coach.

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madagascar-bare-knuckle-fight-9
Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times From left, Rocky Ambanza, Vlan Fanamba and Mamadou riding through the streets of Andapa, Madagascar, to promote the next day’s tournament.
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Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times From left, Rocky Ambanza, Vlan Fanamba and Mamadou riding through the streets of Andapa, Madagascar, to promote the next day’s tournament.

madagascar-bare-knuckle-fight-9

madagascar-bare-knuckle-fight-9