“Just think,” says Gibi, “what’s going through the head of a young boxer before he goes into the ring.” He wipes the sweat off his face with a calloused hand. Fingers warped by hundreds of thousands of blows slide over a wide, flat nose. “The adrenalin,” says Gibi, “’ it’s adrenalin, ‘cos you’re scared because you’re also unsure, but above all it’s pride.” Why pride? “Now just imagine. You can represent your community, everyone can see you, all eyes are on you, you can win a medal, a trophy. Pride is the most important thing.”
Antonio Cruz, everyone calls him Gibi, stands by a boxing ring inbetween bars and snack stalls. TVs and stereos are blaring out. From next to him comes the roar of the traffic. Gibi massages the neck, shoulders and arms of a young lad and rubs vaseline into his face. Each move of his hand is a caring gesture. Gibi, who can’t read or write, knows what it means when all you have is yourself and a dream. That’s how Gibi, a kid from a poor quarter of Salvador, became the boxer Cruz, member of the Brazilian national team. 181 fights, 162 wins, 40 titles. Nine years ago he turned to training. The youth standing in front of him is called Luiz. He’s just about to send him into the ring. Luiz Henrique Gomes da Silva, aged 16, is Gibi’s favourite pupil.
Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo da Maré is a collection of favelas – the Brazilian word for shanty towns. Maré is in North Rio, only separated from the sea by the Linha Vermelha, a motorway leading to the airport. It’s Saturday afternoon and Luta Pela Paz (Fight for Peace) is staging a small competition today. LPP is a charitable organisation founded in 2000 by Englishman Luke Dowdney and offers boxing, wrestling, judo and capoeira for kids and young people. Today, boxers and wrestlers from LPP will take on young athletes from sports academies in Rio, Sao Paulo and the state of Minhas Gerais. 550 kids and young people take part in sport and a further 250 take part in school classes, educational courses in HIV/AIDS or in LPP’s job placement scheme. The Laureus Sport for Good Foundation has supported LPP since 2003 and awarded Dowdney the Sport for Good Award in 2007 for his work.
“I’m a total believer in Luke’s work,” says Gabriela Pinheiro. “He recognised that sport’s important, but it’s only one of many pillars on which you build a functioning community.” She’s a young, energetic woman, sitting in the academy’s office. That’s what they call her blue-painted three storey building that stands between a square shaped church and a run-down sports ground. Pinheiro is responsible for LPP’s finances, acquiring sponsors and donations. She stands up and fetches pen and paper. She then draws an extended oval in which she depicts squares, bounded by two straight lines. “Okay, the oval is Maré, the largest complex of favelas in Brazil. The straight lines are the motorways, the Avenida Brasil and the Linha Vermelha.”
125,000 people live in Maré, which is made up of 17 favelas. They’re called Parque Uniao, Parque Rubens Vaz, Baixado Sapateiro or Morro do Timbau and it’s almost impossible for outsiders to tell them apart. A wild, chaotic land of boxes. Crude clay bricks, concrete, corrugated iron sheeting, plastic, wires and pipes in between wasteland and cesspools. Pinheiro shades in the squares. “Look, the VC rules here, the Terceira Comando here, the VC again here, the Terceira again here.” A patchwork of territories with invisible boundaries, where only locals know the safe routes, which are, however, never completely safe.
VC, explains Pinheiro, stands for Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, Terceira Comando means Third Command. They are criminal gangs, involved in dealing drugs and arms, which extort and murder and relentlessly feud with each other. It’s Thursday when Pinheiro is explaining this, the day after a shooting where the Brazilian army moved in with tanks and helicopters. The day after, not far from LPP in the Nova Holanda favela, two young men were killed outside a restaurant. Taxi drivers warn passengers to undo their seat belts in Maré so they can get out quickly in a shooting and look for cover. Pinheiro says: “How are young people meant to grow up to be sensible in this climate of violence if they don’t get any help?”
Luiz is a wiry youth, tall, serious and quiet. His father died shortly after he was born. What happened? Luiz shrugs his shoulders. The reason why he lives with his grandmother rather than his mother also remains unclear. We only know: “I learned to be unobtrusive”. His grandmother had to beg to make ends meet. But now LPP pays him 250 real (115 euros) a month and he also gets a food package with noodles, rice and beans. “We’re often the first people in these kids’ lives who really take care of them,” says Gabriela. “If they don’t come to training or to lessons any more, we ring up. If they don’t come to the phone, someone looks in on them. We show them that there’s a way forward for everything.” Luiz has had 28 fights up to now and 28 wins. He says: “Train hard, listen to your trainer, never forget your goal.”
The goal, the big goal. He thinks about it when he’s climbing into the ring this Saturday afternoon. Not about Nova Holanda, the favela, the fear of walking on the street. Not about his old mates who don’t come to school any longer and so wander around with revolvers. Luiz thinks that everyone can see him now, that he will win against this Anderson dos Santos. He is more nimble and supple and his reach is longer. But Luiz has a hard time of it, the other boxer hits back bravely. After the first round Gibi says: “Listen kid, you’re their hero, don’t let them down.” Perhaps Luiz now thinks about Roberto Custódio who is also a hero in Maré. He came to LPP when he was 14 and now boxes in the Brazilian national team. Second round. Luiz hits and hits, but his opponent hits back. Before the third and last round Gibi says: “You’ve got to win this round, kid, otherwise you won’t win the fight.”
Winning is a big word. Even for kids who are born into a world where you can only lose. Carlos Eduardo de Lima, aged 12, is standing by the ring. He doesn’t know where his parents are and how old his brothers and sisters are and he still hasn’t passed the third year in school. There is Wanderson de Oliveira, aged 14, whose eldest brother was shot, whose father disappeared and whose mother says: “I’m husband and wife in this house.” As Gibi believes, there is only one option left: “When you’re boxing you can convert your negative experiences and aggression into something positive. Boxing teaches you to grow up, to become a man.” Like Wanderson, whom they call ‘Sugar’ because he’s as pretty as Sugar Ray Leonard and very talented. “Sugar! Sugar!” cheers the crowd whenever Wanderson boxes. “Wins, recognition, that’s what they need,” says Gibi. “Every win gives them more self-confidence.”
Pinheiro had asked: “Can we save the world?”: “No, but we can teach young people that there’s something better than being admired for drug dealing and killing.” Little Carlos knows this already: “I want to be like Luiz and Sugar one day.”
Gong, last round. Luiz comes out of his corner. The adrenalin’s pumping. He wants the 29th win. He needs it. If his mother had signed the travel authorisation request he would have taken part in the pan-American championships in Mexico this summer. She didn’t. “I don’t understand this hatred,” says Gibi, “but now it’s getting hard for him. International experience is crucial at his age.” Luiz is now landing one blow after another. His opponent staggers, exhausted, beaten. Gibi says: “Luiz has a stronger commitment and will than all the others.”
Henrique Gomes da Silva, whose goal it is to become a soldier in the marines, who wants to box for Brazil at the Olympic Games in 2016, has a clear points win. When all the fights are over, he is called into the ring one more time. The judges have voted him the best boxer in the competition.