The boxer who didn’t fight back
When Robrto Custodio was just 13 years old, he loved to play football and fly kites with his friends on the streets of Maré, his favela in Rio de Janeiro. His family worked hard and tried to make certain he was safe from all the atrocities that blights the place they call home.
Then, his father was brutally murdered.
Crime and violence are part of everyday life is Rio’s famous favelas and Roberto was at the heart of it. Amid thoughts of revenge, he faced not only the end of his father’s life, but the possibility of throwing his own away as well
"Losing my father, the way he was taken out of the world, was so cruel. But life is nothing but surprises: things we can barely imagine end up happening in the places we live," says Roberto. “I lost control. I even thought about taking justice into my own hands.”
Fighting for peace
“This is our reality. This is the reality of Rio de Janeiro and its favelas. We have to thank God every day because each time we leave our homes, we don’t know if we will return” reflects Roberto.
Around the same time, a Laureus-supported boxing project named ‘Luta Pela Paz’ (Fight for Peace), was being set up in Maré. Its aim was to engage at-risk young people within the community through boxing and martial arts, offering them real alternatives to crime.
The project would prove to be instrumental in helping to support the young Brazilian through this difficult time.
And so, Roberto saw a way out: “I was only thinking about vengeance, but the project was there to stop me. I came to realise that by taking revenge it would make it even worse. That’s why I threw myself into sport.”
Taking the anger out on the punch bag
He started training and attending the project every day, channelling his emotions through boxing and staying off the streets. “Luta Pela Paz helped me a lot and looked after me during the difficult times. Eventually, I thought ‘From now on, I’m going to focus on my training and try to move forward,” says Roberto.
This was 14 years ago. Since then, he has amassed countless medals and trophies and has become one the leading boxers in the country. “This is a way that I managed to get recognition. Not by carrying a gun or being a thief, but by doing something good. Not just for me but also for my community.”
Roberto has been called for the Brazilian National boxing team, representing his country on the highest stage. “When I was called up for the Brazilian team, I was realising my dream,” he says.
Now 27 years old, Roberto has travelled around the world with the national team. And, though based with them in Sao Paulo, it is of testament to his character and love for his community that he remains a coach to those back in Maré, looking for someone to rely on, as he once needed himself.
“I love coaching. For me, it is passing on what you have learnt and that is a great joy, especially passing on to the young people in Maré.” says Roberto.
“Sport teaches you a lot about life. It teaches you to be a man, to be polite, and to respect others. Boxing helped me a lot and now I do everything I can to help the young people that come to me.”
And he sees first-hand that despite the problems Rio still faces, the work of Luta Pela Paz is making a remarkable difference to the lives of many.
“I have seen so many young people in this community totally lost, without any idea of what to do. Now Luta Pela Paz is an option for them, people are getting better access to jobs where once only trafficking was an option for them.”
The success of the project has attracted many famous faces, looking to witness first-hand the power of sport in some of the world’s most vulnerable areas.
‘It’s a beautiful thing,’ says Adriana Lima
In the lead up to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Brazilian supermodel and boxing enthusiast Adriana Lima visited Luta Pela Paz and spent time sparring with, and inspiring the project participants. Following her time with the young people, the IWC Brand Ambassador spoke of her passion and respect for Luta Pela Paz.
“I feel very honoured to have the chance to be in the ring and share my passion for boxing with these children,” said Lima. “This project improves their self-esteem and allows them to find value in themselves and understand what they’re capable of. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Brazilian Formula One legend and Laureus Academy Member Emerson Fittipaldi recalls a memorable visit to the project in May 2005: “When Luta Pela Paz opened its doors, it channelled this aggression into boxing. In a community like Maré where macho behaviour is important for young people, boxing has a built-in appeal.”
The sporting legend met and listened to the many stories of the young people from the project who, like Roberto, have found a new direction and purpose in life. “The idea is that young people taking part will not feel they need to have a gun to get respect. Supported by Laureus, the project has become a safe haven in the middle of a nightmare of drug trafficking and violence.” says Fittipaldi. “Around here, children as young as ten are used as armed soldiers and drug pushers. The firearms mortality rate for teenagers aged 15-17 is only matched in a war zone.”
Roberto Custodio now has a family of his own. And after all he has been through, it is hard not to reflect back to the decision he made all those years ago: the decision to fight for peace, not revenge.
“I’m so glad I took that decision … Now I can say ‘I won’. I can say ‘I am the winner’.”