Village champions headed large processions to the site of matches. The less powerful wrestled first, each pair with a referee. In an earlier time they had fought to the death, but they were not that brutal when Riefenstahl saw them, though their ears were frequently torn from wearing silver earrings. The women licked the men's wounds. The men showed no pain.
"The loser gets up quickly, disappointed but certainly not crushed," she wrote. "The victor is lifted shoulder high by the men from his village, and carried around the circle." The palm of victory is a branch of acacia wood given by the victor's team. This stick is taken back to the cattle camp, burnt, and the ash is carefully preserved. Half of it—to be used only at the wrestler's death during the burial rite—is put into a cattle horn and hung by his house. The other half is dusted over the champion's torso at the next tournament, the ash being the essence of both the tree's and the man's strength.
The victors would disdain prizes. "They fight," Riefenstahl wrote, "for the renewal of the sacred vitality of the tribe."
A place in the book is marked by a postcard that is from Riefenstahl herself. "She and I were pen pals for quite some time," says Douglas. "Look at this." The photograph is of a triumphant Nuba champion on another wrestler's shoulders. "That man," says Douglas, "is the image of my grandfather."
Within the gleaming immensity of Arizona State's athletic plant, Douglas's steamy wrestling room is a catacomb. Low, dim, subterranean, it is a fitting place, as a few of the team's T-shirts promise, to be WRESTLING WITH THE DEVIL.
A padded concrete pillar divides two squares of dried-burgundy mat. About 30 athletes of all sizes, in groups of three (two to wrestle, one to keep time and recover before rotating in again) engage in furious one-minute rounds. There is much collegial coaching. Six men yell at once: "Get his hand off your knee!"
Douglas, in gray shorts and T-shirt, moves from pair to pair, correcting, laying on hands, his six-second sermons supported with hooks and pivots and astoundingly easy upendings that show what happens if you get the angles just right.
"We move on the mat," he has said. He have a specific intent, to set up, penetrate and finish. We don't want to fight you where you're strong. We want to attack your weakest spot. Speed lets you do that. This system wants a student with speed and Olympic aspirations."
So the most humiliating thing Douglas calls out is an occasional, dry "Keep wrestling." It seems absurdly unnecessary as the combatants, agile, prehensile crabs, make the mat squeal and pop with explosive takedowns and reversals. Douglas orders other team members to stand as buffers between maniacally straining pairs. Rough beards scrape. A hold slips, and a face takes a stunning elbow. When time is called at the end of each round, the most brutal bursts conclude with reassuring little pats. No harm intended. Understood.
"Tempers flare," Douglas says. "They'll hurt each other if someone gets in a bad position. But never purposely."