I HAD a difficult childhood, like so many in Brazil. To give you an idea, I lived in a house that was 35 square feet and I was sleeping in a room where five other people slept. There was no bathroom and that is how I lived until I was 23 years old. My nickname ‘Popo’ means ‘milking’ where I’m from. At the age of five I was still milking from my mother’s breast. That’s where my nickname came from, I was given it as a child.
Up until I was 12, I didn’t give the small house I lived in a second thought. It was all normal to me, there was nothing else to compare it to. But once I became a teenager, and I was starting to get older and bigger, I remember being hungry, so hungry, and I started to wonder why there was no food for us. I was training but we had no money. Then those cramped conditions became harder.
My father worked all the time and my mother cleaned houses. My mother played a big part in my upbringing, in making me the man that I became. She was intelligent and educated me in the ways of the world and put me on the right track, so I always understood right from wrong. I would like to be remembered one day like her, as a good influence and a good person.
Boxing gave me the chance to improve our life. I was good at football and I enjoyed that. I always have. Nowadays, I play in the Brazil Masters football team and we play around 10 matches a year.
But when I was 13 I made the decision to be a boxer because my brothers boxed. I knew I had talent and I loved to fight. Before I had any amateur fights, I was sparring in the gym with 18oz gloves and I was knocking out my sparring partners, many of whom were already fighters. I realised how hard I could hit at this time. I wanted to win medals in boxing and that became my focus.
I enjoyed moving through the ranks. It was an exciting time for me and I got to fight all over the world. In 1998 I fought in England for the first time. My opponent was Peter Buckley and I remember the fight well. He didn’t get stopped very often but I managed to break through his defence, which was not easy, he had a good defence, to stop him. It was extra special to fight in Liverpool because I got to visit The Beatles museum.
One month before I became world champion – the WBO super-featherweight title in 1999 – I was still living in that small house and in that one room where we all slept. It was then that I bought a new house for my father. After I won the title, I could pay off that house. It was so special because of that but also to know I was a world champion in the sport of boxing. I won the title in France, beating Anatoly Alexandrov, and when I returned to Brazil there were 2,000 fans waiting for me in the airport. There were fireworks in my city and there were live interviews with me alongside footage of the whole country celebrating my victory live on Brazilian television. It was a great moment.
The next year I went back to the UK. I fought Barry Jones in my second defence. He dropped me, which was a shock at the time. But I dropped him six times to make up for it! I dropped him with punches to the body, punches to the head. In the end the towel came in, which was the best decision. These days I follow Barry on Instagram and he’s a gentleman. I am pleased that he is now a commentator and is successful.
Barry was of course not the only fighter to be knocked out. Everybody was getting knocked out. In my first 29 fights I had 29 KOs then I came up against Alfred Kotey in 2001. He broke my cycle of knockouts. He was so resistant and took a lot of punishment. I respect Kotey, he was a former champion. I know he is no longer with us. God bless him and his family.
After that I fought Joel Casamayor in Las Vegas. I had been to Vegas before so I knew what to expect but I had not fought anyone like Casamayor before. It was a traumatic fight because he was such a dirty fighter. I ended that bout marked and cut in several places, all coming from him using his head. I still have nightmares about that guy!
The Jorge Barrios fight in 2003 was more fun. It was a war. It was not the plan to knock him out in the last round but the opening came and I took it. God took my hands and put them on the face of Barrios to change the fight. There was talk about me fighting Naseem Hamed. Truth is, he was always running from me. So many were running from me at this time when I was at my best between 1999 and 2004, when I made 10 defences. I wanted to fight Floyd Mayweather, too, but he did not want to fight me. It was easier for these guys to run from me. I didn’t blame them.
By now I was very famous in Brazil. I was not just a boxer anymore, I was a celebrity. This was not a hindrance to me. I knew I was famous because of my boxing, and being so good at it. This allowed me to be a good role model for children and I savoured having that standing in my country. A lot was made of my divorce from my wife at that time but this was not a problem for me. It was not a ‘hard’ breakup. We remained friends and we still are friends.
That said, in 2004 I lost my first professional fight to Diego Corrales. I was criticised for refusing to fight anymore in round 10. That still annoys me. How dare people criticise me for that, people who were not in the ring fighting, people who could not feel what I felt. It was not their place to criticise. After that fight I was in the hospital for five days. A vein had split inside my head. I was told if I did not quit at the moment I did, I could have been killed in there. I do not regret saving my own life. I prefer to be alive.
I won three times after that, including winning the title at lightweight, but lost again in 2007. That defeat to Juan Diaz was hard for me to take. I had lost a lot of weight beforehand, I hadn’t been that active either. I still believe I was a much better fighter than Diaz but my coach, who was watching me carefully, could see that I didn’t have the power or strength I used to have. He didn’t want me to continue, he knew I’d lost all that weight, he knew I wasn’t at my best. It was stopped after eight rounds.
There were three more fights for me. One in 2012, another three years later and the last in 2017. My son wanted to see me fight which is why I came back in 2012, but I realised it made me ineligible for entry to the International Boxing Hall of Fame. I hope that happens in the future. The last fight was just for me to say goodbye. Retirement has not been difficult for me because of everything I achieved. I can honestly say I would not change a thing about my career.
I moved into politics in 2011 because in my region, they never had a politician who was connected with sports so I saw an opportunity that would benefit the area through sport. I have achieved a lot in this area, but I want to do much, much more. Being a politician is difficult, there are a lot of other politicians with different ideas but I will continue to do what I believe is right.
I am very happy today. Most of all I am happy because now I can help people. My family, my friends and my community. I help young boxers. I give them what they need to train. I now take five-hour classes too, where I teach boxing. It’s something I am very passionate about. Life has been good to me, but maybe not quite as good as has been reported! I read somewhere that I have a lot of mansions and each of them have a football field in the back. The truth is, I have one mansion and it does has a football pitch but it is for eight-a-side and not full size. I also have a footvolley pitch, a gym, a cinema and a place to party. It’s wonderful. How can I possibly complain? Nowadays my bathroom is the same size as that old house I used to live in, when I used to sleep on the floor with five other people until I was 23 years old.