Why you should care
Because Brazil should produce great boxers.
Swift, smooth and ambidextrous, the slight Brazilian boxer hits in and out, delivering straight and crossing punches to the head of his tenacious Argentine rival. Then suddenly, a right cross sends the Brazilian to the mat and the referee starts the count. But in a mixture of rage and daze, he returns to his feet and resumes control of the bout.
Rubens Diego dos Santos, 21, nicknamed “Manchinha” (Li’l Spot), recalls last year’s hard-fought victory against Argentine Pablo Jose Paz as a decisive moment for his ability to triumph against “a tough and seasoned guy who was able to knock me down.” He could soon show off that resilience on the world stage.
Now 8-0 (including six knockouts), the super bantamweight (122 pounds) fighter is an emerging star in Brazil’s surprisingly lacking boxing scene. The win over an Argentine — the neighboring country has a much stronger boxing tradition — was critical. “After that match, I see that I climbed higher in my career and grew a lot,” says the 5-foot-4 redhead with sun-kissed skin, his face dotted with spots.
Brazil has only five boxing world champions to its name — including Éder Jofre, considered one of the best of all time — while Argentina has 49. The world’s sixth most populous country once had a 44-year Olympic boxing medal drought, though Brazil did net its first-ever boxing gold as host nation in 2016.
Brazil’s relative struggles show in the lack of resources devoted to boxing development.
Like his idol, Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, the Brazilian smartly dodges to the side and inflicts a piercing right-hand hook to the liver.
Manchinha trains in Ivan de Oliveira’s windowless basement in a modest house in the São Matheus neighborhood on the outskirts of São Paulo. He is part of a team of nine who are garnering major wins in a newly revived amateur scene, traveling around in a custom white old-school Volkswagen Transporter van tagged with the faces of the Oliveira Brothers, Ivan and his brother Gabriel, who is teaching boxing to MMA fighters in the United States. The basement also helped shape Luiz Gabriel Oliveira, Ivan’s son, who won bronze as a flyweight at the 2018 Youth Olympics.
The patriarch is Servílio de Oliveira, 71, who won bronze at the 1968 Olympics Games and now serves as Manchinha’s manager. Manchinha’s main financial backers are the Oliveiras who have invested about $ 12,000 to care for him and promote his fights — a substantial sum in a country where minimum wage is about $250 per month. The fighter is part of the Oliveira Brothers group which has another nine athletes and is helped by sommelier Alexandra Corvo, and environmentalist and entrepreneur Beto Peralta. Still, Brazil’s ongoing economic-political crisis impacts the Oliveira clan, who feel let down by their country’s businessmen, brands and sponsors.
“As fighters, Brazilians have a powerful reputation in MMA but not so much in boxing,” says Wall Street Journal boxing writer and philosophy professor Gordon Marino. Brazilian fighters — lacking proper support — tend to be knocked down around the world, while sketchy “managers” climb into their corners posing as coaches, and later posting the photos on social media. “At least in the U.S., the economics of boxing depends on having a fighter who can attract a crossover fan base that seldom watches the sport, like Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and, yes, Floyd Mayweather Jr.,” explains Marino.
The lack of idols means a lack of sponsors, in a vicious cycle. It’s one the smooth, professional Manchinha could break.
Rubens Manchinha and Ivan Oliveira in 2016.
Born in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Manchinha migrated to neighboring Bahia, a boxing hot spot, at age 5. On an ordinary afternoon when he was 16, Manchinha was taken to a police station, held down and beaten by Bahia police officers, who in a case of mistaken identity accused him of taking part in a gang attack that killed a man. The teenager was only released at night after his whole family showed up.
He soon decamped to São Paulo to chase his Olympic dreams. As an amateur in 2014, he caught the attention of Ivan Oliveira, who has trained world champion boxer Valdemir dos Santos Pereira as well as MMA fighters.
“I noticed a very fierce athlete — even more, considering his age — always coming forward, trading blows and not backing down,” Oliveira says. “There was already a lot of skill.”
Manchinha is a boxing scholar, studying the matches and training sessions of his rivals, peers and champions. His role model is Mexican boxing superstar Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, coincidentally also a redhead. Like his idol, the Brazilian smartly dodges to the side and inflicts a piercing right-hand hook to the liver.
The crucial question now, for the sake of Manchinha’s development, is who would be willing to take him on: His trainer says several undefeated fighters don’t want to risk it. “Those guys want to keep their undefeated status, grab a ‘fight,’ make some money, repair the roof of their homes or buy a ride to stroll around,” Oliveira says. “This isn’t for Manchinha. He wants to be a world champion, unify titles, move up in weight division and make a name.”
Manchinha concurs with the world champion talk, but he wouldn’t mind the roof repairs, either. His ultimate goal? To buy his family a proper home.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Rubens Diego dos Santos
- What’s the last book you finished? 12 Rounds by Maurício Dehò and Bruno Freitas
- What do you worry about? The lack of sponsorship, but I believe I will have it in the future, and I train a lot with or without it.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? I like to always feel good around people being cherished, and to care for others.
- Who’s your hero? I believe that is myself, considering the things I’ve been through leading to my maturation, and how hard I push myself.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To buy a house and put my whole family there: mother, grandmother, uncles, brother …
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the Oliveira family’s financial backing of Manchinha and the role of Servílio de Oliveira.