It’s been a while since I’ve written about my ongoing relationship with my sparring partner, Michel, but for the most part, nothing much has changed. He’s still training at Fight for Peace, still winning tournaments (mostly by knockout), still on that very long journey to becoming a fighter. Since I last wrote, he was pretty much beating me up every time we met, and while that for the most part remains true, we now contest on more even grounds, or at the very least, I’m able to go a full 3-4 rounds during a sparring session and stay on my feet. But a few weeks ago we met under calmer circumstances, a time where two people get together and share another aspect of life as friends. It all started when I asked if I could see where he lives.
To recap, Michel is from Cameron, and in all senses of the expression, dropped everything to come to Brazil to pursue a boxing career. I remember when I asked Luke about Michel’s story, he kinda chuckled and said, “I dunno, that guy just fucking showed up one day and never left.”
Michel lives in Jardim America, a neighborhood about 30-mins north of the gym, and while it is still in Zona Norte, it is not a favela, which means it escapes many of the complications that the drug trade brings to Brazilian shantytowns. We catch a bus at the entrance of Passerla 9, outside the supermarket where I usually get off to go into work. On the bus I go through the basic conversational motions that I have with fighters: When’s your next fight? How’s your weight? Do you have any injuries? Once the pugilistic pleasantries are over, we stand and watch the street pass through the windows in silence. To break it, I ask a general question about his life.
He goes right into his relationship with Mara, another fighter at Fight for Peace who trains between boxing and Muay-Thai kickboxing. One time I remember watching him show her a proper left hook on the punching bag, and the amount of care laced onto his face has never left my mind.
He told me that they had broken up in the recent days. According to him it’s because he has no money, but when he explains the specifics, to me, it’s more that she wants to live a life typical to a 23 year old, one that allows the occasional drink with friends, nights out dancing, things that boxers are generally restricted from. At the same time, I see Michel’s point. Many of these things are financial challenges, especially for a someone who came to a new country with absolutely nothing and is living in a place that has virtually no industry for boxing. And though they both compete in combat sports, Mara sees it as more of a phase in her life, or at the very least, she isn’t as sure about it as a career as Michel is. Given the lack of demand for boxing in Brazil, and even greater lack of women fighters, one can’t really blame her.
But for Michel this is his life, the one chance he took to pursue a dream ever since that first moment his father told him fables about Mike Tyson, and that thought of becoming a boxer entered his consciousness. In some ways, he knew what he was signing up for, perhaps not the exact specifics of the job, but this was just one part of the sacrifice.
“I don’t mind being hit by punches,” he tells me on the bus, “but when your heart hurts, that’s a different pain.” He eeks a grim smirk and clenches his chest in dramatic fashion.
I try to tell him that I’ve lost nearly every romantic relationship I’ve ever had for the sport of boxing, not in the sense of pursuing a career as a boxer, but to be here, doing this project, yeah. I’ve lost a few.
But I tell him that one day someone will appear and they’ll understand his life, and their life will somehow be going in a compatible direction. As long as you keep on the path of being a good person, I tell him, fate will take care of you. I realize that part of me is just saying that to convince myself.
There is a glimpse of hope in his eyes when he looks at me, but at this point my words don’t do much good. They don’t fix the situation all that much, just maybe carry him on a bit further through the next step. He glances down at the floor to think about my words and probably about his life. When his eyes return to mine, he finally says, “Being a fighter, is hard.”
I nod in return.
We finally arrive to our stop outside of large green and yellow building with the word “Coco Verde” painted in red letters. It looks like some kind of large manufacturing warehouse.
“This is where I live,” he tells me.
“Here?!” I respond.
“Yes, here,” he repeats.
“Wait. Here?!” I say again.
“Coco Verde” is a factory that makes decorative landscaping pieces from the left-overs of coconuts, things like flower pots and lawn ornaments, and Michel lives here. We enter the building and there are huge piles of brown boxes stacked throughout the factory. I have no idea what’s in those boxes, but they’re maybe large enough to hold kitchen appliances or living-room furniture. Michel leads be into the back and opens a flimsy aluminum door to a basic room tiled with linoleum. I take off my shoes at the entrance and pass a small bathroom into the main room where a long dark-brown table sits covered with his belongings. Shoe boxes, clothes, title belts and magazines are spread across the dark oak. A rocking chair, and a small 12-inch television finish off the living room and behind it is a kitchen equipped with a refrigerator, standard sink and a microwave. Michel digs into the fridge and pulls out a banana, then asks if I’d like one. I politely decline. When I ask him where he sleeps, he pulls out a twin mattress from being the refrigerator, drags it out into the living room, and plops it down on the floor.
“Home,” he smiles and sits back onto his rocking chair.
Michel doesn’t pay any rent, the owner of this “Coco Verde” happens to be a fan of boxing and on a chance encounter met Michel and told him he had a spare room at his factory. Additionally, he pays Michel $R300 a month for boxing lessons. With the income he earns from Fight for Peace, that puts him at about $R1000 a month, a little less than $500 USD. A tight budget for someone living in Rio, even in the North Zone.
To help further curb the costs, the owner, a French transplant originally from Algeria, also gives Michel one free meal a day, but on a day such as this when he is with guest, he calls to let him know that he won’t be eating at the main office. We go to the local pay-per-kilo restaurant across the street instead.
The prices there are better than that in most parts of the city, about $R6 for as much as you can pile onto one plate. I gather a healthy serving of vegetables, pasta and beans, Michel taking far less due to making weight for his next fight. Our conversation during lunch is pretty basic. I ask him about his future plans in boxing and in Brazil. He tells me he’s going to train here for another 2 years in the amateurs, than maybe relocate to where professional boxing has more of a demand. I asked him why out of all the gyms in Rio, he chose Fight for Peace when it is located in one of more dangerous areas of the city. He told me that it was the best in the city, that they win all the tournaments. I ask Michel if he’s beaten everyone in his weight class. He smiles and nods, “Almost.” At a record of 49 wins to only 7 losses, it doesn’t surprise me.
We get up to pay for our meal and I’m fully prepared to treat Michel for showing me a bit of his life. I pull out my wallet and unroll a multicolored fan of Brazilian currency, but before I can do anything, I see Michel pulling out his own. A lone $R20 bill sits in the pocket and he hands it over to the cashier. With his hand he makes a peace sign, signaling for two. I stand uneasily and do this nervous gulp, trying to explain to Michel that I’d gladly pay for him, or at the very least, pay for my own meal. Michel simply looks at me and smiles.
“Ah Nick, but you are a guest in my neighborhood," he says, "I must pay for you. It is custom.”