The Noble Art:
“Wake up. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
With these delicate words I was marched down the seafront, away from the wealthy, civilised and largely white part of town into one of Brazil’s many poor, dangerous, ramshackle shanty towns. I did wonder.
Finally after having navigated through a series of increasingly crooked and unkempt back alleys I saw it. What my grandfather called the best boxing club in the town was in reality no more than a seemingly crumbling boxing ring in the middle of a disused carpark.
For a period in the 1990s, this one club produced more great fighters than the rest of Southern Brazil combined. One boxing ring among tens of thousands; one tiny cohort of impoverished kids against hundreds of millions. A boxing mecca that seemed to defy explanation or belief.
Had some genetic mutation spread throughout the local vicinity without touching the surrounding part of the country? Of course not. Its success was simply down to the coming together of factors reflecting a beguiling and sad truth that has elevated other people from time to time on our planet. These kids had this boxing ring and nothing else.
This gravel enclosure a couple of miles from where my grandfather lived – cold in winter, ferociously hot in summer – with plants growing through the floor was not luxurious but it did have one advantage. It was open 24 hours.
All around it were people pumping iron with makeshift gym equipment and rusted free weights. Big, tattooed and very scary looking people.
Almost without thinking about it, I stood up as tall as I could and tried not to look too scared.
Meanwhile the Afro-Brazilian boxers sparring in the ring and working out around it had stopped what they were doing and were staring at us, trying to figure out what was going on. What were two guys like us doing in a place like this? We looked so out of place because of the way we were dressed, the colour of our skin…we had crossed the line into enemy territory. Was this some type of joke?
The guys came closer to us and then surrounded us, circling us like wolves. A very pretty (probably German) Brazilian girl with blonde hair and blue eyes stood and watched wearing a look of confusion and curiosity on her face and not much in the way of clothes on her body apart from a bikini and hotpants. I imagined she was some type of street prostitute.
My grandfather’s legendary sense of calm and composure was not affected. He called out aggressively to one of the guys sparring in the ring in Portuguese.
“Hey you! Get over here. You’ve got a new challenger.”
“No fucking way, I’m not fighting the guy.” My protestations to my grandfather fell on deaf ears. I heard one of the gathering crowd ask another, “What is that funny language he is speaking?”
At this point in the story, a little bit of background is highly instructive. During my school days, something started which stayed with me until the end, owing largely to a rumour about a guy trying to steal my mobile phone who was (quite literally) thrown into the River Thames which took on mythological proportions and my peculiar and unpredictable habit of exploding once in a while to pound the living crap out of anything that moved (which had nearly got me expelled on one notable occasion). I had a reputation for being a tough guy. As a young, fairly troubled boy with well disguised low self-esteem, this reputation and the face I wore to protect it were very very important to me.
As with anyone who boarded at school, there are many pictures of myself surrounded by my friends, hanging out, playing video games, messing around in the school dorms. These pictures are extraordinary. In each and every one of them, you see scores of very good looking, milky skinned and very well to do white British guys with mops of blonde, curly hair, smiling profusely with perfect white teeth and seemingly not a care in the world. In the middle of the tableau of wholesome upper middle class British public school life, you see one kid who sticks out like a sore thumb. Sporting a vest, a thick solid gold chain around his neck/watch around his wrist and a menacing look on his tanned face, framed by jet black hair, he could pass for a character from the Sopranos, a prison convict, or a wife beater. Was this kid really me? Well it kind of was and it kind of wasn't.
Let it never be said that in multicultural Britain, questions of ethnic origin have no influence on a child’s development.
Having started working out with free weights at the age of 12 (another something my mother to this day insists stunted my vertical development and prevented me from reaching 6 feet tall…) my physique was deceptively muscular, if slight – a look which kind of stuck with me for life. You could easily have mistaken me for a character from a Stephen King novel.
I was the go to man when a problem had to be sorted out. The guy all the other boys went to in order to enforce the law. I was the father figure to the hundreds. I was the king of the pack.
But I was not stupid. At this point in this story, another little bit of background is highly instructive. When you considered the fuller picture, what did it really mean to be the tough guy, the bad boy of one of the best schools in the UK? A school that has been attended by British Prime Minister’s, Rothschilds and a certain Chancellor of the Exchequer whose unfortunate lasting legacy (undoubtedly) will be to be remembered as the politician who was too posh to be a politician? The very obvious answer was: not a great deal.
At an all boys public school in London, I ruled with an iron fist. I was feared and respected in equal measure. In the heart of an outdoor boxing club in a favela in downtown Brazil, I was just the skinny white kid. A piece of meat about to be beaten to pulp by another bigger, tougher piece of meat. There was very little to stop me being stabbed in the neck by a desperate street kid who needed to sell my clothes for money for food. I was less than a nobody. I was the walking dead.
As my opponent approached me, the size difference between us became frighteningly apparent. He was at least 3 (possibly more) years older than me, a good 3 inches taller and the muscles in his body were developed in a way that I had never seen at 12 years old. He was covered in tattoos with cryptic and mysterious designs and he had a scar below his left eye which looked like the product of a knife or acid attack.
He walked over to me, smiling all the way. I took my top off to reveal the body of a child – naked for all to see. We stood like a picture of contrasts. I noticed I was still wearing my watch – a TAG Heuer worth about a couple of thousand – which once no longer covered by my sleeve immediately glistened brightly in the glare of the merciless Brazilian sun, attracting unwanted attention. Big mistake.
The guy looked straight into my eyes and said in Portuguese:
“Why do you look so scared? Is it because I’m black?”
The watching audience burst into laughter. Even the pretty blonde. Definitely a prostitute.
“Hey man, that’s a nice watch. Can you tell me the time?”
He grabbed my wristwatch and pulled it towards him. My instant reaction was to pull my wrist back but within milliseconds I could tell from his grip that he was a lot stronger than me. Rather than reveal this dangerous truth to everyone, I let him have my wrist, forced a sarcastic smile, tried to look as cool as I could and sneered:
“Fuck you, dickhead”.
My watch was more than just a watch. It was a gift from my mother that had become my armour, part of my persona, part of me. Now I would be returning back to the UK without it– having to explain to my mother, my schoolfriends and everyone else what had happened to my watch. What had happened to me. How my jaw had been wired shut whilst I was robbed in broad daylight. Oooh. What a tough guy. I would be returning back to the UK as a fraud.
I looked up at my grandfather one last time, expectantly. Yes the old bastard was as mad as a brush. That was obvious. But surely my grandfather would stop this?
“Ok, come on, come on! Enough. I feel like I’m watching a couple of women here. Are you boys going to fight or stand around kissing?”
I put my fists up and pretended to look confident. But before I knew it, I was struck by something with such speed I didn’t even see it. What the hell was that? A rock someone had thrown at my face? A bullet? I grunted as my head tilted back and I felt something warm, trickling down my face and into my mouth. That coppery, metallic taste. My mouth was full of it. It filled so quickly I tried to spit it out but it was so thick it hung from my mouth for seconds before hitting the floor. I winced as I watched the thick, red, viscous substance take forever to hit the sandy golden ground. My blood. I was choking on my own blood.
Wikipedia defines “bloodlust” as “a desire to see blood being shed”; “it usually refers to a desire to see blood being shed in combat”.
Everything slowed down. I scanned the scene and saw faces lit up with incredulous smiles of joy and laughter. My fists automatically clenched tight. My shoulders hunched. I was the king of the pack. I was going to have to show everyone.
Fuck my grandfather. Fuck my mother for sending me here. Fuck Brazil. Fuck race politics and fuck poverty. I would single handedly wipe the floor with every single one of these street kids and the girl too if I had to. I was happy to approach the endgame. If I died, I died. It didn’t matter to me. This story was going to end my way, not anyone else’s. I would have the last word. I had to lay the down the law.
I proceeded to break every bone in his face.
On the way back home my grandfather asked me how I knew I could beat him. I didn’t answer him. How could I? I didn’t know. Neither did my grandfather. That was the whole point.
He was supposed to be a great man. But his sick experiment had put two kids at risk. He had shown no regard for the welfare of a poor, Afro-Brazilian boy or for his own grandson.
“If you don’t want to answer now, I’ll ask you in a few hours once you’ve calmed down.”
I sighed and shook my head in disgust at the man, still wiping the blobs of congealed blood from my face with the back of my now swollen and blistered hands.
“It’s difficult to explain. I just know. It’s like the other guy is moving in slow motion but I’m moving in high speed. Somehow I just seem to know where to hit him to beat him. It's like an explosion but I know how to control it.I must have a high testosterone level or something.”
“Hahaha. I knew it! Now we just need to teach you how to use these explosions.”
I had passed my first test.