Bare-knuckle gladiator relishes win

Yanked from the sweaty crush, Victor Makhuvha puffs out his chest, throws a few bare-fisted jabs and minutes later finishes off his opponent with several rapid-fire blows.

Yanked from the sweaty crush, Victor Makhuvha puffs out his chest, throws a few bare-fisted jabs and minutes later finishes off his opponent with several rapid-fire blows.

Makhuvha is unlikely to become a household name beyond a cluster of villages in this lush part of Limpopo and the 35-year-old car mechanic claims to have no desire to be a professional boxer or wrestler.

But his easy victory this week in the yearly Venda fist-fighting tournament has made him something of a local legend.

"I feel like a king," he said, wiping perspiration from his forehead with a cloth.

"When I go back to my village it will be like when Nelson Mandela entered (his home province) the Eastern Cape after being released from prison."

Makhuvha was among hundreds of men who engaged in several weeks of bare-knuckled amateur fights in front of screaming audiences in the area. The competition, run by community leaders, concluded with the final knockout rounds on December 30.

The sport, which began three centuries ago among young bored farmhands of the Venda tribe, attracts scores of spectators who often walk miles to cheer their favourites under the searing summer sun.

Fights are virtually mob scenes, with winners and losers emerging from the ring bruised and bloodied, and onlookers shouting their approval or dismay at the results.

Men in wide-brimmed hats and tank tops crouch at the ringside, shouting over who should be the next combatants.

Volunteers, ranging from children as young as five to pensioners, are randomly chosen from surrounding villages to fight, until one of them is either knocked out or surrenders.

Women are excluded from the competition.

"The fight is very rough. This is something we've practised from generation to generation," said Tshilidzi "Poison" Ndevana, the 48-year-old president of Musangwe, or Fist Fight Club.

Worries about the risk of spreading HIV, which can be transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, recently prompted organisers of the tournament to stop fights at the sight of a serious open wound.

About one in nine of South Africa's estimated 45 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

Police officers also are on hand at fights to help ensure they are relatively safe and that there is a quick response if a fighter is seriously injured.

"The problem is safety. If someone gets hurt there isn't much here to help them," said Reckson Ratshilumela, 40, a secondary school teacher. "But at least it keeps them busy out of crime."

Fans of the event seem to agree it is undertaken in fun, with no hard feelings lingering outside the ring.

"These are true fighters here," said Rinae Mphaphuli, 19, a student who added that his lean physique kept him from volunteering to fight. "I am here for a good time." - Reuters

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