Bare Knuckle Bouts in Madagascar? ‘It Is About More Than the Fighting’

In Madagascar, people often prefer indirect forms of confrontation — through proverbs or through spreading rumors of witchcraft, for example, said Sarah Osterhoudt, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University.

“Harmony is very important, and there’s this idea of collective action over individual action, so anything that allows people to confront things in a ritualized way softens that confrontation,” Professor Osterhoudt said. “Fighting could be a way of doing that within a predictable format.”

At a recent match in Sambava, ropes were suspended on posts over a patch of dirt in an empty lot, flanked by towering speakers thumping out Malagasy pop tunes, replacing the drums that provided the soundtrack to moraingy fights in former times. Female cheerleaders in short shorts and crop tops gyrated to the beat.

Some 2,000 spectators, who paid about a dollar each, filtered through a narrow gate and filled seats or climbed walls, trees and nearby buildings to get a clear view. The crowd was well supplied with alcohol, and young men’s cheeks bulged with khat, a leafy plant chewed for the mild high it provides.

Once the arena was packed, the fagnorolahy entered and strutted around the ring, taunting their opponents with glares, clenched fists and menacing gestures. Despite this theatrical provocation and showboating, the atmosphere among fighters is one of camaraderie, reflecting moraingy’s role as a male bonding tradition.

Soon, Mr. Ambanza entered the ring. A teammate tied a red rope amulet around his bulging right biceps, and his coach smeared Vaseline on his bruised cheekbones before he slipped under the ropes to face his adversary.

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