The disappointment of my second fight – and no, I didn’t lose it

These clinches were tougher than I expected

Before I go into this, I want to mention that I often made the error as a journalist when I found the intricate details of something fascinating of assuming the reader wouldn’t feel the same. I usually skimmed over that part. While training for my second fight, I discovered that one of my faults is my tendency to rush or panic when trying to get things done. How you do one thing is generally how you do everything. I really had to learn to stop and think this time around. With that in mind, I am going to go into the details which were important to me about this fight and have faith that someone else might recognise something pertinent in them too. As a reader, I often like these details.

After the first bout, I felt so strongly that I had laid a ghost to rest. Rightly or wrongly, my success in that fight had come to symbolise a victory over my abusive ex, and proof to the world I wasn’t some kind of victim. It delivered. I won, I felt strong, people said I was an aggressive and intimidating fighter. Right from the beginning of training for the second one, I was nervous about who my next opponent would be. No one had any expectations of me for the first fight, and my opponent and I were two beginners. Not so this time around. Any time I trained with anyone who had fought before, I became filled with anxiety that we would be matched for the fight and that I would struggle to get another victory. I think it must be this way at all levels in boxing or any other combat sport: you are torn between the fear of losing and the natural desire to challenge yourself.

I probably trained a lot more, having a baseline of fitness and skill which was higher than it was when I first started training to fight. This Girl Can Box ran a four-hour workshop, in which I learned the joy of the screw jab, for example, and during sparring sessions I would get feedback for the first time on what I was doing wrong and what I could do to fix it. Private classes were especially useful, and I often felt I had been given the key to what had seemed like an unsolvable puzzle. During the first fight, I hadn’t been able to escape when my opponent stood in front of me, hitting me with the left and then the right. Straight punches which I stood there and took. Now, I could duck and roll, move to the side, move my head or move in towards her. The possibilities were multiplying, and it felt freeing and exhilarating.

As fight night drew closer, I was increasingly anxious. The way it works in white collar matches is that you don’t find out until very close to the fight who you’ll fight (a week before, in this case). Completely different to professional fights where the entire prep is based around who you will be fighting. The fighters are not professionals and it is imperative that they do not get badly hurt due to a mismatch, or have a bad experience. It is impossible to control entirely since getting in the ring is tough and some will hate it, but promoters and coaches try to be as fair as possible and tend to spend a lot of time over the decision.

I was especially scared of two of the women in my group. Our main coach noted that there was an “edge” to this group, partly because one of these women did not modify her power at all during sparring, so that total beginners got flattened, and became angry or upset. This collided with other tensions and created a moody atmosphere. In the end, the two I had feared fought each other. I was matched with a woman I had sparred with once before, who was slightly heavier and stronger but shorter, and had an aggressive style, moving very close and throwing a volley of punches, so that it became overwhelming.

My defence had been offence before, and now I was faced with someone I couldn’t just stand opposite and fight. I had to get out of the way.

The big night arrives

On the night, we were operating about an hour late as usual, during which time I had swallowed so much Red Bull and was brimming with nerves. I was going to the toilet so often, I was going back in as soon as I had gone out. Because the first fight had been like being in a tunnel and I had had no awareness of the crowd, I took it for granted that I would feel the same this time, but it wasn’t like that at all. The wait to go on was the wrong side of unbearable. I came on after my opponent, and as I stood in my corner, I felt the fragility of being up there. I could see people, the light on their faces in the dark, I could see my Dad, and my body felt so light I wondered if I would be able to move it or if it would collapse when the time came.

When the bell rang, my corner shouted at me a lot that I had to move around and move out of the way. It didn’t feel natural to me. I tend to face conflict head on, not seeing any other way to do it. I thought I would be able to beat my opponent if we got into a clinch as I am taller, but she was so strong we cancelled each other out every time we got that close. The only thing for it was to wriggle free, throw a combo of punches and move again, in the hope that she would get tired before I did.

As the rounds progressed, I started feeling more confident about doing this, with the result that I landed more than I took. I was able to free myself from her clutches and move back to the centre of the ring, controlling the fight from a defensive position. I can’t even recall now if I knew all along what the result would be, but at the end of the third round, I was declared the winner.

The end of ego

Fighting from a position of control meant that I never tapped into my rage. I used force and aggression to some extent, though far less than before. In some ways, the more you learn in boxing the more ego has to be set aside and you have to submit to the importance of technique, tedious repetition, meticulous observation of your opponent. A surrender to something bigger. The win was a relief, but it didn’t lead to any high. I was left with the feeling that I wanted some kind of recognition I could never achieve. Mine was just another fight on a night of amateur fights of varying quality, over in a flash and praised by some but not necessarily even the most entertaining.

The next day this calm gave way to a feeling of emptiness. I only knew how to solve it by signing up for another one, which I am beginning the process of training for now. I understood why heroin addicts say they are always chasing that first high. Along with chasing the feeling I had in my first fight was the awareness of it all as a spectacle, and even though I had won I felt chewed up and spat out. Was this because there is still – and always will be – such a huge gap between the elite sportswomen and my fights? It can’t only be that, as I recently read both swimmer Tom Daley and former judo fighter turned MMA champ Ronda Rousey said they felt bleak after winning Olympic medals. I think it is part of the paradox that you can only hope to win by giving the training and the fight your all, but when you do that, there is no way the payoff can be big enough. My ghosts long dead and laid to rest, I was out there in the world again, still exposed to its indifference to my existence. The only thing you can do then is carry on fighting.

My first fight – Part Two

I won that fight in the end. I was running on empty in the last round, but something in me kept going, and I think I held it together for long enough to be seen as the dominant boxer by unanimous decision. I had fantasised so many times about that moment when the compere would announce me as the winner, but it still felt better than I could have imagined. I attempted to climb the ropes, fell off one of them and ended up doing something which looked a lot like dry humping the ropes. I didn’t care.

After the storm: Sharing a hug with my opponent

The photo is of my opponent and I hugging afterwards (complete with surprised looks from both of our corners after such a brutal fight). The strange thing is that right after pummelling each other’s brains out, the first thing you feel for your opponent, if they are any good, is respect and affection. It is so rare to have an opportunity to show what you are made of in life. I have found it even rarer that another woman has given me this chance. Magical things happen when women let each other be angry, competitive, and even aggressive. I feel gratitude and loyalty towards anyone who allows me to show this side of myself, a side which goes on repressed in so many women, seeping out in bitchiness or passive aggression. Give me a straight up fight with fair rules any day over those silent wars. Competition is an element of life, and we should be allowed to test our mettle openly. If not, it will lurk there in the shadows anyway, looking to pounce.

My opponent had a fighting heart and had been through the same thing as I had, and that made us close. Last weekend, by coincidence we were both in the gym together for a class of boxing drills. My training schedule for Thursday’s fight has been manic, and I was exhausted. I have a tendency to put my head down and crumple when tired. “Look at me,” she said. Big eyes again, this time looking just as attentive but not because she was trying to kill me. “Don’t look down.”

What I wouldn’t give for a world where women could say that to each other every time things got tough.

My first fight: part one

Fighting for survival: My first boxing match with the tough Augusta Carman

In five days, I am going to fight again, so I am going through all the emotions I did four months ago when I had my first one. It is difficult to describe how all-consuming it is preparing for a fight. I felt myself becoming tense and irritable as the days approached. Early on in my training, I had met up with a jiu-jitsu champion, who told me to think from the beginning that I had already won the fight. That type of arrogance is anathema in real life, but I started to see the sense in it. I put away the doubts and committed to wanting to win. It seems to me that what is really anathema here, especially in the UK, is sincerity. Admitting that you really want to win, even at the white collar level of fighting as a hobby, could expose you to ridicule. People want to make a joke of it and pretend they don’t care just to save face if they lose. I couldn’t entertain the idea of losing.

I am going to write more about why I fight. Everyone has a reason and it’s always interesting. I met an Olympic boxer who said he never felt anger, but I do. When I fight, I feel a pilot light of rage ignite, and I stoke it secretly, almost afraid to unleash the full flame. When it is burning in full I feel a great freedom, the kind I never feel in real life. That’s something I don’t always want to admit but another writer told me to write this blog as if I was dead if I wanted it to be good, so I am doing exactly that. Specifically, I had the recent memory of an abusive ex who told me my fighting wasn’t serious. It was so serious for me on that day. I had to defeat this particular ghost. My opponent was nothing to do with it.

The night before my fight, my flatmate told me his dad was going to stay one more night with us. I decided unexpectedly that I needed to be alone. I checked into a BNB which was listed online as being very quiet. It is true what they say that what doesn’t kill you leaves you with weird ticks and coping mechanisms, it doesn’t leave you untouched. Whether or not it makes you stronger is an idea I will return to. My trigger is noise, and as I was already feeling tense, the sounds of jabbering voices, the whining sound of Ed Sheeran on someone’s radio and pootling motorbikes at all hours were unlikely to increase my calm. I needed a soundproofed room.

In the morning, I had slept a good 6-7 hours, but I had been tense all night. I considered it a win that the clock said 7am. The hotel was in Hammersmith, and I had breakfast – a full English, which unfortunately included tinned mushrooms – with the sounds of Eastern European voices around me. The rest of the day passed in a bit of a haze. I know I listened to Azelia Banks’ 212, her voice shrieking “I’m a ruin you, cunt”, before I thought I should conserve that fire for later.

At the venue, my opponent increased my ire by turning up in my dressing room. We were friends, and initially I was questioning if I would be able to fight someone I liked, but this tipped it over the edge. The guy who was supposed to wrap our hands was nowhere to be found, and she was panicking. I left the room to use the toilet in the rival dressing room, no doubt further freaking out the people in that room who were no keener on invaders than I was.

Waiting is terrible. As with all awful things in life, you tend to forget them later and gloss over the horror, but I can still remember how bad that was. The only good bit is you have an excuse to eat flapjacks and drink Red Bull. God knows I had no reason to drink Red Bull before I started boxing, but now I do it all the time.

Someone came to warm us up, and I realised my body was stiff with tension. I wasn’t moving my hips the way I should, and I couldn’t follow instructions easily. Bam! I hit the straight right, I hit the jab. I concentrated on the movement and applied more force. The trainer said I had impressive power, or I might have imagined that part.

Somehow it was time already. I was at the side of the stage, trying to move to prevent the stiffness taking over. “Move your head!” my corner was saying to me. The intensity of that moment is something I can never forget. I find it hard to trust people, hard to get close to them, and yet at that moment I would have done anything I was told. The usual distance between people is gone. So rarely can you open a door and step behind the social niceties to something so raw.

We walked on. I had DMX, X Gon Give it to Ya, a tune which starts with the sound of barking dogs. I knew my family and friends were there but I couldn’t see them. I just walked, like a robot, my corner throwing up an X with his arms which encouraged me. I was first in the ring and walked around it as I waited for my opponent.

I barely remember the moment when we started exchanging punches. I saw her face, her huge eyes, the look of concentration. Again, there was no room for guile, for any kind of mask. You look into each other’s soul is what I want to say. I am afraid to be that sincere because I am afraid of ridicule yet again, but that is how it feels. I remember being told to throw punches if nothing is happening, to throw them even if you don’t have the energy, and I remember that I wanted to make everyone pay that had ever underestimated me – in this, and in anything else ever. I was quickly dominating the fight. My skill and technique were lacking, but I just kept throwing and dominated it that way. At one point, I saw that she was on the ropes, but I couldn’t remember how we got there. I couldn’t hear the crowd at all, only white noise.

The bell rang for the first round, and I was exhausted. As my only defence was attack, I didn’t have anything left in the tank. My corner gave me water and told me again to move my head, something which I knew but it just didn’t make sense to me.

I went out again, and chased her around the ring, despite my diminishing energy. She never gave up and landed punches back. I was slowing down, but I carried on throwing them. Her eyes, concentrated and intent, stared back at me. At some point, I heard the noise around us. We sat down again. This time, my corner said to me, “just keep doing what you are doing.” Did I dare to hope I had won this? There was just one problem: my crude approach had exhausted me, as I had no skills to allow me to dodge the punches or buy a few seconds of time when I needed them. The only way I had of shutting her down was by attacking, but I was tiring fast. I was 41 and she was 26. I felt like I didn’t have another round in me.

Back out there, I remember very little of the third round. Through the exhaustion, I still extended my arms, but there was a moment I knew I was just standing there, guard down, while she hit me in the face. I heard her corner for the first time. “She’s finished!” he yelled. Was I, or could I come back and finish the job? It meant so much to me to win, but I couldn’t even get my breath.

Women who pack a punch: Rachel Bower

Former National Champion Rachel Bower

Former National Champion Rachel Bower

Since I started boxing, I became aware there was this whole universe out there which I had never known about. A history of a sport which is waiting to be told, heroes (heroines, perhaps I should say) and villains, and hordes of people beavering away to make women’s boxing happen at a grass roots level. What I’m doing is white collar boxing, or boxing as a hobby for people with other jobs. My opponent for my first fight once asked our coach what was the level below white collar, and he said, “I don’t know, a pillow fight?” As much as this made a mockery of our blood, sweat and tears, there are most certainly plenty of levels above it. Rachel Bower was someone who interested me, because apart from her career as a boxer (now retired) which included representing England and being a national champion, she is a coach who sits on the National Governing Body’s (England Boxing) Coach Education Subcommittee where she is involved in designing new coaching courses, and is active in promoting women’s boxing at the grass roots level. She has really seen it from all sides, and I was intrigued by this behind-the-scenes role in particular, and how this might be important for women.

Expect many more interviews like this one (done over email in the interests of journalistic disclosure) in the coming months.

How did you first get interested in boxing?

I joined the police around 12 years ago and in the Met there is a huge annual boxing tournament called the Lafone Cup. I heard about it and decided I wanted to enter. One of the officers at my station offered to train me and do my corner. I soon realised it wasn’t the boxing he was interested in, and he wasn’t even a coach! So I contacted the head coach for the police and travelled up to the old police training school twice a week to train.

What did you like about it when you first started?

I picked it up quite quickly and to be honest I just liked being good at something! It’s so technical, I loved how much learning was involved in something that looks so easy.

What can it teach you about life, which is of particular value to girls and women (or generally)?

I could talk for hours about this. Boxing can offer so much. In relation to women and girls it’s brilliant for self confidence. For young girls I love that it teaches them that you can do anything and don’t have to conform to a stereotype. In general it can really help people find a purpose, a constant quest of improvement and develop so many important life skills such as discipline, patience and persistence. I’ve been involved with coaching disengaged young people and have witnessed first hand how it can develop personal responsibility, timekeeping, respect and communication skills in people who have struggled with these areas in their day-to-day lives.

What were the challenges you faced as a woman in your career, in the training, competing and funding aspects of the sport?

I have been very fortunate in my boxing career. The police team had the strongest female squad in the country at the time I made the team. The coach was very proud of this and we were given his time, resources and lots of opportunity. I realise how lucky I was as this is not the case in 99% of gyms. In my last couple of years competing I moved to the famous Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club. Again I had a coach who focused on his female boxers but we had no facilities, having to change in an old toilet cubicle. Due to my day job and shift work I’ve always travelled around to different gyms to train. As a woman I’d often be treated differently at first, however, I was confident in my ability and once the coaches saw me train they would slowly warm up to the fact I was a ‘boxer’ not a ‘woman’ once in the gym.
Funding wise, as a boxer I didn’t face a problem as the club would fund travel to competitions etc. When I made the England team we also had our expenses covered to attend training camps. However, as a volunteer coach for England I don’t receive any financial support which is starting to affect the amount I volunteer. The camps I coach at are all around the country and i spend hundreds of pounds on train tickets.

Why is it so important to have more female coaches?

We don’t need female coaches just to coach women. We need them because they offer different ways of coaching and different skills than some men offer. However, there are some things that female boxers may feel more comfortable talking to a woman about and appreciate that they have been through the same thing. I feel that the more female coaches there are [the more it] will inspire other women to venture into coaching and [it] also normalises the role of women in a traditionally male sport.

Has the situation improved in the past decade or so?

It’s improved so much since I began boxing.
England Boxing, the national governing body for amateur boxing, are doing a lot to encourage more women into high performance coaching. I’ve just been appointed a mentor to help me progress to coaching at international tournaments. I do feel like some of the opportunities I’ve had, like coaching for Sport Relief, have presented themselves because I am female rather than despite of it. However, there are still few female coaches at grass roots level and this is something I feel passionate about. I share my experiences via a blog for the Female Coaching Network and social media in the hope that others turn to coaching too.

Is there a particular interest in women’s boxing happening at the moment? It feels like there is, but it would be good to get an expert view!

I think interest in women’s boxing peaked with 2012 the ‘Nicola Adams Effect’ and inclusion in the Olympics however the legacy still lives on. The professional women’s scene has really picked up and England Boxing have really invested in developing elite level boxers. There is also a thriving female white collar scene. However there is still some way to go to encourage women and girls to start and for clubs to invest in them and retain them once they get them through their doors.

Do some people still believe women shouldn’t be allowed to box?

There will always be people (both male and female) who will think that, like I’m sure some still think we shouldn’t be allowed to vote!

What was it like to coach your boyfriend?

It’s challenging but rewarding at the same time. It’s always great to see people close to you doing well, especially when you’ve played a part in it. However, the dynamics in our relationship change once we are in the gym and sometimes switching between girlfriend/boyfriend and coach/boxer can be hard.

Which female boxers, past and present, do you admire? Any key fights to watch on youtube (either up-and-coming fighters or classics are welcome)?

I’m sure everyone says this but Katie Taylor is just something else. I don’t really follow professional boxing (something which surprises a lot of people), but I always try and catch her bouts. In the amateur world Ebonie Jones is one to watch. I used to spar with her when she was a junior and by then she’d already won numerous titles. She’s now part of the Army Boxing Team and on the GB programme.

Sweaty gloves, Muhammed Ali and toxic femininity

Since I started boxing, I’ve suggested it to quite a few women I know. New people who sign up have usually had it recommended to them by friends who have already done a white collar event. White collar fights are usually aimed at professional people who have never boxed before. Some told me they were put off, not by the fear of being punched in the face, but because they had tried boxfit or similar classes before, and didn’t like putting their hands into sweaty gloves and pads which had been used by other people. One said to me she thought the hygiene was too poor in the fight gyms she had been to.

Muhammed Ali once said that it isn’t the mountain ahead to climb that wears you down, it’s the stone in your shoe. I think he was trying to say that it’s the trivial bullshit that can prevent you from achieving what you want to in life. Nothing is more trivial than being too concerned to put your hand into someone else’s sweat to ever feel that feeling of some greater force flowing through you as you punch the pads, to get strong and fast and fearless.

I do have sympathy for people with OCD, which is a mental health issue. However, I have listened to too many conversations in groups of women where they each try to outdo each other over the issue of cleanliness. Like competitive dieting, or judging others for their sexual behaviour, it is a form of a fixation on purity. If I’m the cleanest, that makes you dirty in comparison, just like if I’m skinnier than you, that makes you fat in comparison. Much is made of so-called toxic masculinity these days, but these are examples to me of toxic femininity. At its worst, it not only prevents the individual themselves from really living life and enjoying it, but attempts to inhibit the lives of others. Do not not do things because of other people’s sweat. It’s a bit rank, but you’ll soon forget about it when you’re learning how to slip and roll and deliver a killer upper cut (I still can’t do any of these things well, but I am trying).

This is a picture of my gloves. They don’t smell too good after a training session. I never knew it before I started boxing, but hands can sweat just like feet, and the odour is similar. They are also fucking awesome and I just don’t care.

When sparring makes you cry

Tuesday night I was walking down Camden Road in tears. They just fell down my face and I cried openly, with no real motive. No motive that is, unless you count the blood spewing from my nose and mingling with those tears, the dull ache in my head and the pain in my forehead every time I went to raise my eyebrows.

Once, in a job I had a long time ago, a colleague was telling me he thought another colleague was unstable. Erratic behaviour, extreme demands and shouting at others were all invoked as evidence, and then we came to the piece de resistance: she had been known to cry at work. To him, that was proof she was a loon. I wanted to tell him that on numerous occasions, I had been inconsolable in the toilets. Sometimes that was due to conflict with other members of staff, sometimes it was personal life stuff, sometimes it was just a release of tension and stress. But I couldn’t admit that without tacitly admitting I too was unstable.

The belief has stayed with me. The first time I sparred in my white collar boxing group, people apologised every time they made contact. Some punch too hard (you are only supposed to use 60% of power in sparring, which is practicing your fight skills without getting injured), drunk on the cocktail of fear, outrage and adrenaline. Some people get upset when they get hit in the head, and some cry. It takes some getting used to.

I have surpassed that stage, but it can still be a shock. I recently sparred on a Sunday morning with a formidable partner. Still sleepy from the melatonin I had taken – and I don’t want to face up to the fact that fighting might aggravate my insomnia rather than ease it, because I CANNOT give it up (I’ll save why that is for another blog) – I took a lot of punches from her, and they hurt. Right about that minute, I knew I was going to cry. It was like a dam bursting, and I couldn’t contain the water anymore. The shock and pain merged with all the residual self-doubt in me and I felt like I was hurting because I deserved it. Yes, there was self-pity in there too.

Then I looked up, and saw a quote from Mike Tyson on the gym wall. “Never show weakness,” it said. I went to the toilets, again, to blow my bloody nose and sob a bit. I came back smiling. When I came back, another woman who had been sparring was openly in tears. Why did I feel like I had to hide it?

When I was in Brazil, the first foreign correspondents I met were generally men. They talked about the choice to move to Brazil as a relatively untapped market which was to be the venue for two mega sporting events, the World Cup and the Olympics, and as an exciting and beautiful place to be. They never mentioned it might be difficult to be away from home in a dangerous country. If anyone thought that, they kept it to themselves.

Then I met a young female correspondent who was arriving soon before I was leaving. She wanted advice, so we agreed to have a drink one evening. I thought it would be about the practical stuff, like how to pitch a story, how to keep safe, etc. And the first questions were about that. Then, “How did you manage your emotions?” she asked. It took me by surprise. Nobody ever asked me that, but of course it mattered. Tyson was right that you can’t show weakness in a fight, or your opponent will take advantage of it, but that’s not the whole story.

I don’t know how far I’ll get yet, but I’m interested in these questions: do men and women deal with these emotions differently (in boxing and in life)? What can we learn from each other? What is true strength and courage all about? I don’t know the answers yet, or if I ever will, but for now I know that I can deal with it if I cry sometimes after sparring.

Fighting and writing

This blog is now dedicated to boxing. I’ve been home from Brazil for two years now and fighting is the most interesting thing I’m doing with my time. It would be misleading to even say I am an amateur boxer, as that implies someone who still trains full-time. Most of the time, I am sat at a desk like a sack of potatoes, and at 41 boxing will never be my main occupation.

Nevertheless, after taking part in my first fight on May 24 2018, I am addicted. There is something about boxing which attracts writers, even though it might be said to be the opposite of a cerebral activity. Maybe because of that in fact. You are never so much in the moment as when you are being punched in the face, and fighting for your life as it feels at the time.

A little part of me feels guilty that focusing on any sport and its inner ramifications for the player is neglecting what’s going on in the world, like a kind of navel-gazing. Maybe there will be time to reflect on those things too. Maybe my age makes me think this is the last time I will be able to throw myself into the purely physical, and I have to rage against the dying of the light with a pair of gloves and a bloody nose.

Another reason I wanted to do this is because some of my favourite fighters have not been known for their ability to articulate themselves, at least not in words. Obviously Ali is an exception. That might be why the sport attracts the likes of Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates to do it for them. So much goes unsaid, and I want to try and say it.

Yet another is a thought which has been ruminating since I read A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan some time ago. It’s a good introduction to combat sports around the world, and also explores the compulsion to fight. While I find myself nodding along to a lot of it, there was very little in there about women fighters and quite a big focus on masculinity and the desire to join a pack and prove yourself. It struck me that for women doing this, it is not so much about belonging as transgressing. Women are supposed to nurture and heal, not compete, show aggression, and fight. Yet the sport appears to be becoming more and more popular among women. I want to explore that here, talk about some of the emotions it throws up and what it means to women to fight each other physically.

Let battle commence.

Heroes and villains – Jose Junior

Jose Junior (photo: Andre Santos)

Jose Junior (photo: Andre Santos)

There is a saying that Brazil is not for amateurs. I don’t think it was referring to foreign correspondents, but it certainly could be applied to reporting here. Corruption and a kind of promiscuity between organisations and individuals, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, mean that it isn’t easy to tell simple narratives of heroes and villains. How to tell a story of an ordinary person standing up to crooked authorities, for example, if that person has colluded with those authorities and even unofficially accepted money from them? What about drug lords who are sorely missed, religious figures who are involved in organised crime, and people indicted of terrible crimes, only to be released some time later? Perhaps there are still heroes and villains, but the context must be understood. These are muddy waters, more so than the Guanabara Bay itself.

Things are often not what they seem. Polarised politics are common everywhere now, perhaps a symptom of the dominance of social media. It creates a pressure for news stories to conform to often naive interpretations of reality. Where favelas have been removed and residents have been evicted, for example, it is common to find new families occupying the shells of those homes, often claiming to journalists and the authorities that they have lived there for years so as to claim the right to be rehoused. They aren’t telling the truth; but perhaps the wider truth is that housing is a problem here, particularly for the poor, and the trend for squeezing them out to the peripheries of the city with the miserable public transport system being what it is here has the knock-on effect of these occupations. It’s a reporting challenge.

This need for nuance was on my mind when I interviewed Jose Junior of AfroReggae, an organisation originally formed in the Vigario Geral favela which has worked to help young people escape from organised crime for 23 years. He negotiates with gangsters who want to hand themselves in, recently interviewing Brazil’s most wanted man, Celso Pinheiro Pimenta, also known as Playboy. The photos appeared in the right-wing news weekly Veja; Playboy was shot dead in a police operation soon after. A Brazilian version of when actor Sean Penn interviewed Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Penn was also blamed for the subsequent capture and death of El Chapo, a responsibility he refused to take on board. Penn said he had just wanted to open a debate about the war on drugs, though he admitted the Mexican authorities must have felt humiliated by the publicity.

With Celso Pimenta, Playboy (foto Alesandro Rocha 2015)

With Celso Pimenta, Playboy (foto Alesandro Rocha 2015)

Sitting behind his huge desk in Lapa, downtown Rio, Junior is even more unashamed. “The police had no way of following me into the favela. Plus, everyone wanted to do that interview,” he said. It’s undeniable that Playboy’s flamboyant behaviour, provoking the authorities with ostentatious parties and brutal violence, along with his middle-class background, all made him a compelling figure.

As is Junior himself. Covered in eight tattoos which are a collection of different religious motifs, from Shiva to a Jewish star of David, his sports luxe dress sense puts him firmly with his favela roots. Yet he is hated by many on the left, who see him as an establishment figure. Junior supported centre right candidate Aecio Neves in last year’s election, another fact he is unrepentant about. “We were proved right – today most of the country is against the government,” he says of Dilma Rousseff’s leftist Workers Party. His eclectic approach to tattoos and politics could seem like the typically carioca tendency to make deals with people regardless of your principles. Yet Junior insists this is down to integrity and loyalty, and he certainly displays that with his unapologetic defence of out-of-favour ex-Governor Sergio Cabral, for example. These are personal loyalties, and they span all classes, races and walks of life in Rio, the famously divided city.

On that big desk are photos of friends he has lost to Rio’s violence, a mixture of AfroReggae colleagues, childhood friends and police. Another controversy has been the organisation’s decision to work with police, met with bitter responses from favela communities grieving loved ones taken out by police violence. “I don’t have one side or the other. It’s very important for me to retain my principles,” says Junior.

Unsurprisingly in this most compromised and compromising of cities, accusations of corruption have flowed. It sometimes seems as if people are more offended by open conversations between different sides than behind-the-scenes collusion we all know goes on. Or perhaps people just assume brown envelopes are exchanging hands because it’s so often the case. Junior’s response? “I could be a very rich man if I wanted.” The accusations and even death threats do not appear to phase him, though what lies beneath the bravado is hard to fathom. Health problems including chronic pain have been diagnosed, showing that it does all take its toll.

“I’m not afraid of dying. I am afraid that people close to me will die as has happened many times,” he says, glancing at the photos of his long lost friends as he speaks. “I confess I’ve thought about killing myself a lot. But not out of fear, it was like I was missing a place which I had never been to. But I have to live, I’m the first person in Brazil who has confronted organised crime and hasn’t left this city or this country.”

A biography has just come out in Brazil of Jose Junior with intentions to turn it into a film. A regular on the nation’s powerful Globo TV, he is a kind of celebrity here, with a fan club as big as his anti-fan club. In the book, he admits he misses physically fighting with people, and it’s at that point I wonder if all this is just macho bravado. So many men will bore you here with tales of their street fighting adventures. Being seen along the country’s officially most dangerous man could be a kind of game, just like the dressings down Junior says he has given countless drug bosses for employing children or killing liberally in their communities. Rio is addicted to violence and it hardly seems to matter whose side you are on at times. This version of masculinity is king.

I had difficulty with the interview. Notorious or unpopular figures can be very telling about the society that produces them. But how to explain this mixture of naivety and knowingness, self-hatred and narcissism, honesty and artifice, mysticism and pragmatism, that is so typical of this place?

I ask him about admitting in the book that he had homosexual experiences in his youth, surely a tough thing for any macho man to admit.

“Everyone had them, that’s the reality for my generation. It wasn’t as easy with girls in those days. In my days, it was normal to have sex with an older man instead. I told anyone who knew me about it, I wasn’t being brave [in admitting it],” he says. That was my macho theory debunked. Suddenly, the Sean Penn/El Chapo saga looks very simple indeed.

Why are people calling for a return to Brazil’s dictatorship?

Thousands wearing Brazil's colours protest in Copacabana

Thousands wearing Brazil’s colours protest in Copacabana

I wasn’t here in June 2013, when protests took over Brazil. I remember being quite surprised by the scale of them, especially as Brazilian friends had often told me that the nation wasn’t really the protesting kind compared to neighbours such as Argentina.
This weekend, hundreds of thousands were on the streets again all over the country, but it appeared very different. While military police were criticised for their violence in the June 2013 protests, which were notably young and had an anti-establishment feel, they were cheered at the one I was at in Copacabana. This time, an older and more affluent crowd – predominantly white – were protesting against the government under President Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party (which I expect none of them voted for in any case).
Some, though not all, want the President impeached, though this will be a tall order seeing as there is no smoking gun linking her directly to the Petrobras graft scandal. The investigation is still ongoing, and the Worker’s Party’s treasurer has been implicated in it today. Nevertheless, even those calling for impeachment admit it is unlikely at this stage.
The most disturbing element I saw was the number of people calling for a military coup. Brazil’s military dictatorship lasted from 1964 to 1985, and while it is often viewed as being relatively benign in comparison to Argentina’s, for instance, the numbers of disappeared are almost certainly higher than the official figure from Brazil’s Truth Commission of 434 disappeared or killed. Sunday in fact marked 30 years since the country became a democracy, yet many want to go back to the past.
Rita Souza wants a military coup

Rita Souza wants a military coup

“We have to do what we can to get rid of this red wave,” Paulo Alberquerque, 48, told me. He was representing an organisation called Movimento Unificado and calling for a coup. “Just to clean it up. And clean is exactly the word. They are destroying Brazil, especially our organisations. Communism is not for Brazil.”
While the political scientist David Fleischer explained to me that this group is at best a fringe, mostly headed by retired military officers, there were also many individuals at the protest in Copacabana such as Rita Souza, 60, who saw military intervention as an effective interim measure to deal with Brazil’s persistent corruption problem.
“I’m here on my own,” she told me. “Impeachment won’t take out all the corrupt politicians for good. We need the military to take over for 90 days, then to hold another election.” Some I spoke to mentioned Fernando Collor, a former president impeached in 1992, who nevertheless returned to politics and has been implicated in the Petrobras corruption scandal recently.
Many have forgotten that as with other regimes, the promises of a temporary, provisional government and no restrictions on freedom of speech or the opposition were soon put aside the last time the military took over here. My initial reaction to these placards was shock, though a friend said perhaps it is a sign that Brazil’s democracy is in good health if people are able to take to the streets and openly ask for such a thing as a military coup. It seems as though often in Europe or the US, certain topics can’t be broached at all, which populist right wingers such as Nigel Farage take advantage of. Saying the unsayable has an appeal all of its own, and certain views have more power if they are seen as forbidden.
Across town, in the less affluent northern suburb of Meier, an “aulao” (big class) was held that night by history professor Wolney Malafaia. A group gathered in a circle to listen and debate the legacy of the military dictatorship. It was exactly the sort of gathering that a democracy allows you to have, which would not have been permitted under the military regime. I was reminded of how fragile this democracy is here, and how recently the reality was very different.
“We are not in a democracy, with the media, justice system and police that we have now,” Malafaia said. With institutions such as the military police still in existence, and Amnesty International’s recent finding that 82 young people are killed every day in Brazil (77% of whom are black), it is hard not to agree that the transition has been slow, and troubled. The impact of the dictatorship was felt more among favela residents, indigenous people and those in distant rural locations than the well-off, educated student protesters who everyone remembers, people at the gathering pointed out. These groups are still the ones who experience violence and discrimination today.
The plummeting Real, unemployment, deeply embedded corruption and the high cost of living here are all legitimate complaints, and it would be a deep disservice to describe everyone who took to the streets on Sunday as a far-right loon motivated by hate, or just rich people who don’t want to see concessions made to the poor. When the economy starts to crumble, people feel this in their pockets. A friend of mine who works for the federal health department is still waiting for her salary from three months ago. These are real issues, and it is no wonder people are unhappy with Rousseff (who has exacerbated matters by seeming distant and aloof in any public addresses she has made). I hope Brazil finds a path to political reform to address these issues, with or without Rousseff at the helm, starting with a clean-up of Petrobras. The worst thing that could happen would be to go backwards.

Surprising truths about drugs and life on the streets in Sao Paulo

cracolandia nov 14
I recently went to Sao Paulo to write for the BBC about a Facebook page, Sao Paulo Invisivel (Invisible Sao Paulo) which tells the stories of homeless people on the streets of Sao Paulo and photographs them. It has been a huge success, with some people reuniting with their families and moving into rented accommodation purely as a result of the page and its 140,000+ supporters.

While I was there, I also visited the area known as Cracolandia, Sao Paulo’s Crackland. I found out about it during my first stint in Brazil, during which a massive and violent operation cleared out the area. The resulting photographs on a US news site were like something from a film, crumbling buildings eerily lit by police lights, painfully thin people who looked like zombies scattering as the police descended. I went for the first time for an alternative football event held there during the World Cup, and then it was during the day, as well as the fact the area was swelled with people from various NGOs and the municipal authority. Hardly the zombie apocalypse I had been expecting, but perhaps not a normal day there (if such a thing exists). A visit on my own later on revealed some surprising facts about the place and its hundreds of inhabitants. This was after those inhabitants had been wheeled out for lurid World Cup reports on the dark side of Brazil that beamed out all over the world. Here are a few of those things, in random order, which I found surprising (but true) about the zone of Sao Paulo which has been taken over by drug users and their dealers.

They’re not zombies
alexandre cracolandia
Alexandre, 40, who has been in Cracolandia for half his life

I can’t pretend that what I saw there isn’t sad and shocking, because it is. People scrabble in the dust on the ground for bits of the crack rocks which might have broken off. This is in a place where a rock costs just R$5, or £1.25. Some are dressed bizarrely, or partially dressed, with the ravages of drug abuse clear on their bodies. However, like alcoholics, there are varying degrees of this ravagement, and just like alcoholics, some have jobs. I spoke to Alexandre, now 40, who has spent 20 years of his life in Cracolandia. He has now been off crack for four months, and participates in the De Bracos Abertos scheme (of Open Arms) which gives people living there some money in return for doing some work for the municipal authority. The work Alexandre is doing now is mainly street cleaning, but interestingly he worked almost all of the time he was in Cracolandia. I’ve worked with alcoholics and people with cocaine problems before (what journalist hasn’t), and while their work might be affected in some cases, many still function to some degree while some will ultimately be lost forever. Crack may appear a world away, but the same rule applies.
“My father kicked me out of the house because I’m gay,” Alexandre told me. He gravitated towards this cheap, transient part of the city firstly as an adolescent because he didn’t have anywhere to live. “The community is good here, I made friends. At first, I only smoked marijuana or drank pinga [pinga is a slang term for cachaca, the sugarcane spirit made in Brazil],” he said. After a while, he experimented with crack as the people around him were doing. He is under no illusions about the effect it had on him. “It was total degradation,” he said, as only a life without inhibitions, conducted entirely on the street, could be. Yet there is still always a person inside that zombie shell. “I lost my self-esteem. People treat you like an animal, but were are still humans,” he stressed.
Some people, whether under the influence or not (people who have been heavy users of any type of cocaine, of which crack is a byproduct, seem to have that fast, intense way of talking to you at all times, I’ve noticed) want to tell you about their previous lives. It is poignant, because they are often convinced they will go back tomorrow and leave Cracolandia behind, but in many cases that will never happen. A man approached me in Rio’s version of Cracolandia carrying a laptop bag, and gave me his email address, although there was no laptop inside, he was not working and was squatting in an abandoned, half-demolished house. These stories may be a form of drug users’ denial but they are also a reminder that family, love bonds, work and individual interests are inside us all. To have slipped into this twilight zone for a while does not mean they have been totally forgotten.

They’re not all on crack
rita roseane
Rita Rose, Cracolandia’s community leader, with police officer Roseane

During the day, behind the band of crack users and makeshift tents they have assembled, there are a team of NGOs and a community base where the police have a permanent presence. All of this means there are various people who are in the transitional stage of trying to leave the crack life, as well as all the workers there. The most incredible person I met was Rita Rose, 48, the community leader. Yes, Crackland has a community leader. Though not an addict herself, she arrived in this place in 2009 to find her husband, an addict. “I slept here at night on the floor with my arms round him, I took him to hotels when I could, I fed him,” she remembered. “I fought it all, but he’s in prison. It’s a strong love. I don’t want to lose him like I lost my first husband, because of crack. I have to believe we can win.”
Rita now mediates between fights – which have been known to end in the death of one or more of the participants – and speaks up on behalf of the residents to the authorities, among other tasks. She puts her ability to resist the bacchanalia all around her down to her strict upbringing. It’s hard not to imagine that she has seen and experienced the worst of drug addiction too, and that has put her off, but then again maybe such rationale has no place in this world. If it gets you it gets you. That’s true of any drug.
“This place has a name. Don’t call it Cracolandia, this area is Campos Eliseos,” she implored me. The area known as Cracolandia has moved over the years, but Campos Eliseos is the official name for where it now stands. Looking around, how could anyone see anything but a Crackland, I thought to myself. But Rita sees Campos Eliseos, and maybe I should try to do the same.

Government schemes have been a success – but that has not reduced the population
The de Bracos Abertos scheme is nearly a year old now, and it has been hailed as a success. Alexandre, the 40-year-old rejected by his homophobic father, was one of its success stories. It has been coupled with a police approach which has officially been softened. While notably brutal in the past, the policy is now to only arrest drug dealers, although this is sometimes a grey area in Cracolandia, where users will carry drugs or sell them in return for tiny amounts.
The problem is that this hasn’t reduced numbers, which can go up to about 1,500 people at night. Quite the contrary.
“I have realised that the population is getting bigger. People know that there is the opportunity for treatment here,” Sergeant Herrera told me. Another reason is that the users feel safer together, as well as the fact that they know they can buy drugs there. There is also speculation from the municipal authority that the homeless population in Sao Paulo is increasing generally.
As I was leaving, the NGOs working there were about to have a meeting to decide what to do about the increasing population. Maybe part of the problem is that the more enlightened policies of the past year or so are not being enacted in other parts of Sao Paulo state. A more joined-up approach would definitely seem a better idea. Sadly, Brazil’s healthcare system is ill-equipped to deal with all these addicts. These few islands of assistance, such as the Bracos Abertos scheme, are all they have, and that won’t help everyone.