The human fascination with show of strength and strong men dates back to ancient times. From the earliest times, humans have been known to crave a display of strength…
By Chimezie Chika
One of the most recurring memories from my younger years was watching WWE on television at weekends. I was introduced to the wrestling sport in the early 2000s by my father who had been watching WWE shows since the early 1990s. We would sit side by side on the long sofa and watch a show recorded on VHS and then argue about the prospects of our different wrestling heroes for the next show, delighted by their feats of strength. In our imagination, we mythologised their actions and made them larger-than-life. Around the same period, I was, along with many of the neighbourhood kids, obsessed with action movies involving macho characters and superheroes.
We had cutouts of our favourite characters — Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan and Commando, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, Dolph Lundgren as Red Scorpion — on the walls of our room and in our scrapbooks. Outside, we claimed to be these characters, bearing their names, practising during play some of what we had seen in their movies, puffing out our boyish chests and hanging our arms in our bid to look formidable and macho. Sometimes, as most young boys tend to, we sparred dangerously, an attempt to identify the strongest kid in the neighbourhood, but we would soon be dispersed by fuming adults.
Adulthood has not entirely cleared these interests in shows of strength. Many adults are interested in wrestling, action superhero movies, and all kinds of strength sports. Clearly, this was not a fleeting childhood obsession. What is it about sitting in front of a television watching two strong-muscled people maul each other that so many people seem to enjoy? Why do we enjoy shows of strength or the idea of huge macho men lifting heavy weights or saving the world from destruction? What is it about the ideas of the strong man, with his typical show of tremendous strength, that so fascinates us? Very few might have immediate answers to these. But gradually, and with a sense of feeling very much reassured when there is a strong, kind person near us, we have come to realise that this fascination is fed by many impulses: our craving for protection, for a messiah, and for action. For young men, a prolonged obsession with strong men, especially in the wrong environment, may not be ideal. The desire to become saviours, the quest to replicate a show of strength, and previous exposure to aggression, have been linked to violent male behaviour in adulthood.
The human fascination with shows of strength and strong men dates back to ancient times. From the earliest times, humans have been known to crave a display of strength. During the Stone Age, men sometimes engaged in long battles with huge beasts, and when they finally defeat the beasts, they are not only seen as the strongest person around but also win many admirers (In literary works such as Beowulf and Moby-Dick, we see manifestations of this). There is something heartwarming about a strong man fighting the elements and other monstrous adversaries and coming out victorious. In classical antiquity, this fascination was fed by the epic story of Agamemnon and Achilles in Homer’s Illiad, two strong men fighting for supremacy in the present and the future. During the Olympia festivals of ancient Greece, part of the many sports on display was wrestling. The gladiator shows of ancient Rome also fed into this fascination. As this last instance implies, the motives are not always positive. Yet humans have continued to indulge themselves with displays of strength over time.
One of the perennial entertainments of most ancient civilisations is wrestling. Most African tribes are known for wrestling and power shows. They are an integral part of different traditional cultures enacted during ritual events, festivals, or before a war. During certain festivals in ancient Igboland, there is usually an ascending list of events that include ritual cleansing, masquerade dance, wrestling, and other activities. Wrestling helps to determine the strongest young man in a region. The winner, as is always the case, becomes very famous and wins many female admirers. This event was so important a part of Igbo culture that Chinua Achebe wrote about it in his novel, Things Fall Apart (“Okonkwo was known throughout the nine villages and even beyond . . . as a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat . . .”)
Traditional wrestling is very popular in French-speaking West Africa. Known in French as the Lutte Traditionalle, it is an important part of many different cultures, including among the Wolof, where it was supposed to have originated. Among the Wolof, folk wrestling is known as “Laamb.” The wrestlers wear thin strips of lambskin loincloth and have charms and amulets tied around parts of their body. Each elite wrestler has a coach, a shaman that prepares charms and concoctions for him, and a griot that sings his praises. The fight takes place on a sandy ring, usually on a beach. There are also ground rules such as no punching, biting or grabbing of the loins. A contender must exercise great strength and balance, for he loses the bout immediately after his knees touch the ground. There are such crowds during a wrestling match that a latecomer hardly finds a viable space.
I was a young primary school boy, star-struck and hungry for stories when my Uncle first told me about the legend of a Nigerian superman called Killiwe Nwachukwu, who reigned between the 1950s and 1970s. The story fascinated me in the same way an American kid is fascinated by comic book heroes such as Captain America and others. At the time, though, I did not think of the reason why I would be attracted to such a story. My instincts were driven by the simple pleasure of storytelling and hero-worship.
In the nineteen-fifties to nineteen-seventies Nigeria, in which many of the common people could not afford to get a television as we could easily do now, this age-old fascination was satiated by road shows such as those of Killiwe Nwachukwu and Samson “Pistor Killer” Ibeabuchi. It was a world in which people became famous for performing feats of strength or showmanship in public. There were open-air wrestling events organised in popular arenas and stadiums, usually heralded with great expectation and noise. In the middle of his strongman career, Nwachukwu tried to get into wrestling but, as the story went, no one wanted to fight him. “They tried to organise wrestling for him but nobody agreed to face him in the ring,” his brother said in the BBC documentary. This belief in Nwachukwu’s invincibility is not widely accepted. The belief in some quarters (including those of my uncle’s) is that he was finally defeated by another strongman, Ibeabuchi, in the late 1960s, whose story was more or less similar to Nwachukwu’s. They were strong men who went about performing seemingly impossible feats of strength, including lifting five people at once, carrying ten bags of cement, and pulling cars on a rope. There were also prizefighters like Dick Tiger and Power Mike whose feats as professional wrestlers became very popular in the 1970s and 1980s. People discussed them with awe and enthusiasm and thronged to venues where they were scheduled to fight, an act which is part of the human craving for the thrills of physicality, action, and fear.
In the imagination of the public, there is often a mythological angle to the story of strongmen. In urban lore, there are claims that these people are endowed with greater superhuman ability than they were supposed to have possessed. Some were said to have the endless appetite to dispatch large cauldrons of food, others were said to be giants over eight feet tall. Western supermen such as Hercules are part of an entrenched classical mythology often exploited by Hollywood. In ancient Africa, there are mythological superheroes; like Ojadili in Igbo mythology, many often exhibit a fatal hubris. In modern urban lore, some people believe that many of the stories of supermen such as Ibeabuchi and Nwachukwu, and others across Africa, were myths. In a psychological sense, it is easy to understand social responses across time that turn unusual characters and events to myths. Even where truth exists, there are always attempts to create versions of that truth which, over the years, become part of the storied lore of a place.
Today, people do not need to listen to folktales or go to road shows to see a superman performance. The would-be strongmen of modern times have gone into different well-organised sports that promise huge payday. Anyone could sit in the comfort of their home and watch a glut of different sports available on the television that show people who possess immense natural strength, whether marathon, weightlifting, discus throwing, boxing, wrestling, bodybuilding, kickboxing or long jump. In Nigeria, many people are fixated with the sport of wrestling, especially WWE, with the larger-than-life characters of John Cena, The Rock, The Undertaker, or Bautista, and many other strong men that delight us with their antics in the ring. In recent times Nigerian UFC champions, Kamaru Usman, and Israel Adesanya have been making waves as dominant MMA fighters with multiple wins in their divisions. British-Nigerian boxer, Anthony Joshua, is a two-time united heavyweight champion and still holds one of the best records in boxing history.
In an essay in the The Atlantic, Allegra Ringo argues that the human brain is wired by environment and experience to seek out the seemingly wondrous, the freaky, and the bizarre. In other words, humans are fascinated by things that are greater than them, and by the idea of heroes and saviours, no matter how different they may appear. The ancient sport of wrestling affirms this fascination and so do many other sports that involve individuals who show exceptional strength. An article on the website of the Foundation for Economic Education gives the reasons people are fascinated with the idea of super men and superheroes as including being a welcome distraction from economic struggles, being psychologically attracted to chutzpah, and being a result of the human need to be protected by more powerful beings and entities. Religious devotion and male aggression also rises from such compulsions.
The organisers of these different sports have recognised this atavistic human fascination with strongmen and have held up its huge value for entertainment. For people, the enjoyment of strong men runs deeper. The times have changed, the tables have turned, the old obsession has morphed into new forms of modern sports, but the response remains the same: the adrenaline, the hint of fear, the faster heartbeat, the awe, the craving for action and for things greater than us.
Cover image credit: Twitter
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1