Lisbon, Portugal – Inside the Antonio Ramalho Boxing Spirit gymnasium, located in Outurela social housing in the suburbs of Lisbon, 7 p.m. is rush hour.
Inside the long dark hallway in the basement of the local sports center, we can already hear the swing of punching bags and gloves hitting them with force.
“You three are going for a run with Wilson,” said an authoritative voice.
“Welcome,” said the same voice.
It was the voice of trainer Antonio Ramalho, also known as Mestre, founder of the gym.
A timer on the wall beeps. Time for a break. Around the timer are pictures of fights, athletes and special moments.
In the gymnasium, people from all walks of life gathered – engineers, lawyers, architects, nurses, police officers, students, former prisoners.
“From the moment someone walks through that door, the only thing that matters is if they have a good character,” Ramalho said.
As the timer goes off again, a group of young people start shadowboxing. One of them is Wilson Semedo, who arrived in Portugal from Cape Verde in 2012, at the age of 13.
Semedo dropped out of school and joined gymnasium in 2016. Although he had been in Portugal for four years, he spoke only Kriolu and had difficulty adjusting to his new life.
“I was not an easy child. I had an explosive temper and hung out with friends who only did bad things, ”Semedo said. “At 15, I was just going out and drinking. “
But he says Ramalho’s discipline and keen eye changed his life.
Everyone had “abandoned” him, Ramalho said.
“He was rude, savage, had no goals in life… it was also difficult for me at first. He told me he wanted to compete, so I started setting goals for myself besides boxing: to be more polite and go back to school or work.
With boxing taking up most of his time, Semedo has left bad company and nightlife. He started training every day – morning and afternoon – and found a part-time job.
After a lot of sweat and workouts with older athletes in the gym, Wilson entered the ring. His outstanding performances in amateur tournaments in Portugal caught the attention of the Cape Verdean Boxing Federation and in 2018 boxing took him to his home country to compete.
He represented his country at the 2019 African Games but was unable to qualify for the Olympics.
Undeterred, Semedo pledged to continue.
“Boxing has given me everything. It helped me not to fight in the streets and to respect others, ”he said.
“I feel like I was born for boxing. It gave me discipline, focus and focus.
As his technique and dedication improved, Ramalho entrusted him with teaching boxing to young people.
Kevin Sanches, also from Cape Verde, arrived a year after Semedo.
Both groups of parents came to Portugal in search of a job and a chance for “a better life”.
Inspired by a boxing-themed anime, Sanches started training at the gym in 2018, at the age of 14.
“I wasn’t really good at school because I didn’t feel motivated,” Sanches said.
“But I’m smart at boxing. I was helping newcomers after my training and found that I was growing too. So I started to think about becoming a boxing trainer or a personal trainer.
“I was ready to take a risk”
Sanches then took a professional sports course in high school and when the time came for the internship, Ramalho invited him to teach boxing to children.
After each training session, Sanches collects food for his family from a social organization that supports neighborhood households.
“My mother wakes up at 4.30 am. She has two jobs. My father works on ships. I do not ask him anything that is not really necessary because he always complains of aches. He bought boxing equipment so I could train at home. He’s glad I’m finally focusing on something instead of my phone.
The two young people owe the changes in their lives to Ramalho, who was born and raised in a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Lisbon.
He started training children by accident. After 12 years as a professional boxer, he opened his first gym in 1988, in a small room above a restaurant.
“On the first day, there were only children who showed up,” Ramalho said.
“None of them were old enough to box. The first child I trained had a t-shirt all the way to his feet. He didn’t even weigh enough for boxing.
He decided to work with what he had.
Twelve years later, at the 2000 European Cadet Boxing Championship in Greece, two of the six young boxers representing Portugal came from his gymnasium.
Over the next five years, those two, followed by others, won “everything there was to win,” he said.
A club that no one knew was writing part of Portuguese boxing history.
“At that time there were a lot of clubs in Portugal but they weren’t competing abroad. I was a young coach, wanted more and was willing to take a risk. I took my athletes to compete in Spain because I had contacts since the time I was a boxer myself.
Ramalho moved to the basement of the sports center in 2007, to a room donated by the municipality as an appreciation for the work he did.
The room got too small as more and more people joined in. Now he’s on the verge of having four bedrooms, in addition to the outdoor training space he uses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I present new projects to the company that runs the site and they have supported me a lot and given me more rooms because they understand the importance for the community,” he said.
In the administrative room, awards and medals cover the walls, shelves and tables.
Last year, Ramalho was named an Ambassador for Sports Ethics by the National Plan for Ethics in Sport and Hero of Humanity by the World Boxing Council (WBC) for his social work.
Its most impressive accomplishment, however, is the study center.
Opened in 2015, the center has computers, a library and a snack area. Volunteers help the children with their homework and prepare for exams.
Ramalho recently joined the European Erasmus + program and partnered with two similar organizations in Romania and Italy to organize cultural exchanges and increase educational and employability opportunities for its young athletes.
He now wants to open an art room.
“Over time, I realized that boxing is a powerful tool in attracting these kids but it maybe doesn’t give them the continuity they want. That’s why we combine boxing with educational and employability opportunities. The goal is to use sport, which is a powerful tool in shaping people, but we also need to open doors for them to other things.
Salvador Carrizosa was 11 when he switched from rugby to boxing because, he later realized, the latter “teaches self-control, sacrifice and courage”.
“Not the kind of courage to challenge others, but to face my own fears and difficulties.”
He has just finished high school and wants to work on the stock market.
“It’s flexible work, so I can combine it with boxing. And even if I can’t do professional boxing, I will stay connected to the gym.
“It doesn’t matter if you are Floyd Mayweather or a newcomer, everyone is respected the same. And the one who knows more helps the other. And this other one will probably do the same. It goes beyond the gym. This is what makes this place so special.
All of Ramalho’s trainees agree on two things: boxing has made them less aggressive outside the ring and Ramalho is like a second father.
“I came to boxing after my grandfather died, who was like a father to me,” Carrizosa said.
“Mestre continued the work he was doing showing me how to be an honorable man. He helped me get over my loss, get back on track and help my family. What I learn with the boxing family, I bring back to my mother and sister. He shapes me for life.
“I’m already winning”
Miriam Silva, who lives near the gym, started boxing at age eight but left to try other sports. But in 2018, she was back.
“I came back because I love the sport and I feel very good here,” said Silva.
“I used to think that because I’m a girl, I wouldn’t go as far as boys. A lot of people outside of the gym say that. But this is not true. Mestre motivates me a lot. Sometimes he sits next to me and tells me the best I can do. All these motivational messages he shares on the gym’s social networks, he tells me to put them in my head and not to forget them.
At 17, Silva not only competes in the ring, but also teaches boxing to young children, just like Semendo and Sanches. And receive an allowance to do so.
Ramalho attributes his social and human vision of the sport to the fact that he lacked the support of his coach in his youth.
“I started boxing at the age of 13. Someone my age wasn’t even allowed to compete, but I was skillful, so I was cast to the wolves. I could have grown up in boxing differently but I lacked the support of my trainer. He didn’t speak much to me.
“Now when I sit down with my boxers and talk to them, I wish someone cared as much about me as I took care of these kids.”
As with any boxing club, having boxers competing and winning is very important for a coach but, he says, “right now if I have a kid who enjoys being here, who trains with dedication and loves helping others, I am already winning. . “