RIO DE JANEIRO -- Wallis de Souza is 18 years old. He lives in a two-room house with his mother, Vera, and his two sisters, Carolina and Leticia. They don’t have much, he says. No paper on the walls, no running water and only a little basic furniture. They, like everyone else in the favela dubbed “Tijuquinha,” are illegally tapped into the electricity grid. But they’re proud. Nobody likes to say they live in a slum -- instead, he describes his neighborhood as a community.
Like the 50-something other kids congregated in this outdoor basketball court, Wallis is training Muay Thai. A smart kid with bright eyes, he has long, lithe arms and sinewy shoulders. He flicks out rapid punches into his training partner’s raised hands.
Until this evening, Wallis had no other equipment save for a pair of shorts and a team T-shirt. A student of the Tropa Muay Thai social outreach project, Wallis has just acquired a brand new pair of boxing gloves and shinpads, courtesy of UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub. He’s a little bashful at first, but grateful. Also a purple belt in jiu-jitsu, Wallis hopes to one day become an MMA fighter. With these gifts, he can help pursue that goal.
Schaub was introduced to the children of the Tropa Muay Thai project while in Rio two months ago on a press junket. His jiu-jitsu coach, Amal Easton, an American who lived in Brazil for an extended period, wanted to show Brendan a side of the city tourists rarely get to see.
“I’d never been out of the United States until I came to Brazil in June. For me it was a bit of a shock,” says Schaub, who grew up in Colorado. “We’re in one of the nicest hotels in Rio and right across the street is a favela. It’s just not something Americans see; we don’t realize how fortunate we are.”
Immediately upon meeting the children in June, Schaub promised Muay Thai fighter and founder of Tropa Muay Thai, Edu Pachu, that he would help as much as he could. The project receives a small amount of from the government, but Pachu funds the operation out of his own pocket.
The kids looked somewhat apprehensive when 20-odd foreigners turned up to watch them train, but their frowns melted when Schaub began to unzip the black kitbags he had brought with him.
Schaub’s sponsors, Ecko Unltd, donated 100 t-shirts to the project, while equipment manufacturer Revgear supplied child-sized boxing gloves and shinpads. For many of these kids, it was the first time they had ever worn padded gloves.
It’s cute but also a sad that, even with a couple of years of training experience, they didn’t know how to put them on. I saw many a youngster with their left and right mixed up.
This was no cheap tactic to win the hearts and minds of local fans prior to his fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on Saturday, but a genuine effort to help those with a shared dream.
“It’ll give those kids in the favela something to shoot for,” he says. “Before, what do you aim for? To be a world champion in jiu-jitsu? It’s awesome -- but it’s tough to make a living out of. Now, you can be the next Michael Jordan, but of the UFC. It gives these kids a ton of hope.”