Salvador da Bahia was the setting for an almost unthinkable rise in homicides. Up a whopping 435% in a decade, they have further followed suit, with numbers continuing to rise even now. In order to survive, one must become a fighter.
The natural birthplace of Capoeira (the art of dance-fighting), Salvador led one young man down a different path. Education in certain parts of Brazil is short-lived. Manual labour and crime act as a more effective form of learning. On the job.
“I would go to the market, buy vegetables and then go to sell them in my neighbourhood. I tried to study and work at the same time. I worked at the market, selling ice lollies at the beach, carrying shopping bags and even working as a bricklayer. I would do pretty much anything to help my grandmother and mother. As a consequence, I had a very troubled childhood in between studies and working.”
From talking to Robson Conceição, it was quickly apparent that our upbringing differed dramatically. Growing up in Brazil is hard and fast. It builds character and muscle, leaving out Pythagorus Theorem and the useless facets of a British syllabus. I always thought growing up in Glasgow was tough. I didn’t know the meaning of the word.
As he begins to make waves in his professional career, Brazil’s only Olympic boxing gold medalist opened up on his entry into the sport. He spoke candidly about a certain member of his family, whom I’d heard him mention before.
“My Uncle Roberto was very tough in the streets. He was very famous in the neighbourhood because he fought a lot during Carnival and holiday season. For that, I wanted to follow in his footsteps, fighting in the streets, so I started practising boxing in the streets. It was very violent and I fought a lot. After a while, an opportunity came through with a friend who worked at a gym and whatever he learnt he would teach me in the backyard, with no shoes on. He had one shoe in his hand to simulate a mitt and I learned with him.”
In order to step up his street-based induction to the Noble Art, it had been estimated that Conceição had walked 9km return trip for a training session. I say estimated, he never mentioned it. Without money to travel back and forth, he did what was required. This was perhaps the first indication that boxing was in his heart.
Boxing, in areas like Salvador da Bahia especially, is imperative to the community and its youth. Without it, many teens would have become embroiled in the soaring gun crime that ravages the City. Some still were. Their solitary Olympic boxing champion wasn’t prepared to let his escape route pass him by.
“An opportunity came with a social project where teenagers from thirteen to sixteen did not have to pay gym fees. I was thirteen and asked my grandmother to sign me up for the project and from that moment, I learnt about sports and about boxing. My trainer was Lino Brito and he started telling me that I could reach the Brazilian national team. He told me that I could become a great athlete and from that day on, boxing became a part of my life.”
Robson entered various high-level amateur competitons and lost to Vasyl Lomachenko by one point during a World Amateur Championships. The pedigree was there. Following disappointing Olympic campaigns in both Beijing and London, the stars aligned for Rio 2016. The home team.
I remember watching him in both the semi-final and the final. His speed, control of the ring and savage execution of techniques grabbed my attention. Brazil, famed more for alternative combat sports such as Helio Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai, had produced an elite competitor. I was excited about this guy, tracking him until his signing with promotional giants Top Rank.
He sounded like a father thinking back on the birth of his first child when he reflected on his Olympic journey. As we spoke, I could sense that beaming smile, as present now as it was on the podium.
“Well, winning an Olympic medal, especially one that my country had never won before was very rewarding for me. It was one of the happiest moments in my career, winning that medal at home, in my own country with the home support. The crowd motivating me and sending me messages. It was very powerful and it helped me to keep fighting.”
Moving on to paid bouts had always been part of the plan for Robson. After being taken on by Bob Arum and being trusted with leading the way for a wave of raw South American talent, he was fairly blunt in discussing his native country’s issues within the sport.
“I was invited to join the Top Rank family. I want to become one of the best boxers in the World, and in Brazil. Brazil has many great athletes, it only lacks opportunity but I hope that one day that’s gonna change. I hope that we can have a great number of successful fighters. I would be very proud if I had more recognition in my country. If I had more support or more incentives, then we could reveal new athletes and new champions more often.”
Conceição has been moved at an impressive pace thus far. His five wins coming in a combined fourteen rounds. Four of those opponents with winning records and the last two fights scheduled at eight rounds, clearly signalling his intention to be fast-tracked. This special talent, turning twenty-nine in a week, is in a hurry to snatch belts at the upper echelons.
The burning desire and unwavering determination of a fighter from a difficult background cannot be matched. Roberto Dùran used to fight as a child for food, he had the devil in his eyes before, during or after a fight. That do-or-die mentality can prove the difference at the top level. They have fought for everything in life, as much as they have in the ring. Their hands pound out a ferocity born of hardship. Bloodying their way to acceptance and the closest thing to comfort.
“All I’ve got today is thanks to boxing. My house, my family… as I said, it’s all thanks to boxing. Infact, I survive only thanks to boxing! Today, boxing is my life.”
After speaking to Robson and his manager, they told me they very much hope to be included in the Top Rank bill on December 9th, headlined by Lomachenko v Rigondeaux. The magnitude of the event would certainly eclipse any of his other professional outings. Confirmation pending, I’d be thrilled to see him on there alongside other young stars Mick Conlan and Shakur Stevenson.
“I’ve been getting stronger opponents and the fights are more complicated. I like the competition. I like good fights, good opponents and I hope to be fighting the best soon so I can get closer to my objective which is; a World title belt.”
It’s difficult to feel anything but happy when listening to, and looking at Robson Conceição. Only a few years ago, he was selling ice lollies on the beaches of Salvador for money to feed himself and his family. He worked every job he could find for every penny he could earn. He found trouble whilst finding out about his family. Then… he found his destiny.
“I hope to be remembered as Olympic champion in amateur boxing and World champion in professional boxing. I hope to achieve this soon!”
Could this prospect establish himself as a champion? Transitions seem to be his thing. From the streets to the stars.
Written by Craig Scott