Big Hebert Sousa was handed an Olympic draw from the devil, squaring off against top seeds and trailing in his gold medal bout. In the most extraordinary of finishes, the man from Brazil summoned an enormous, debilitating left hook to end the almost guaranteed, podium-topping hopes of top seed, Oleksandr Khyzhniak. Sousa was trailing, he’d dropped both of the first two rounds, and somehow etched his name in the Games’ history with a permanent marker, shocking fans around the globe to become Brazil’s second Olympic boxing champion.
Watching on as Sousa sealed gold, the first-ever Brazilian boxing gold medallist grinned from ear-to-ear, awaiting his own judgement day in the professional ranks. I’d been in touch with Salvador, Bahia’s Robson Conceição since early 2017, admiring his inspired performance in Rio and remaining intrigued at his humble roots. Winning his gold medal in 2016 had lumped heavy expectation on the super-featherweight contender, which at times had led to heavy, perhaps unjustified criticism.
Now, we spoke as Conceição prepared to face Oscar Valdez for his WBO world title in Tucson on September 10; his opportunity has arrived, four years after he expressed his intention to fight any of the champions, as soon as possible. “You can charge me up front,” he explained even then, after signing his promotional deal with Top Rank, “I will be world champion soon. I have been working very hard and intensely for this. I dedicate a lot in the gym and with every fight I learn more, and I prepare myself enough for that to happen. I will be world champion – trust me.”
At times, it has looked unlikely, especially following his underwhelming ‘escape’ when battling Luis Coria in October 2020. It was during that fight that Conceição suffered a knockdown, a busted mouth, and two point deductions – he still won unanimously. While the pedigree has been evident, his progression as a professional has hidden in plain sight. Now, in facing two-weight world champion Valdez, he squares off opposite a familiar, distant foe, with Conceição prevailing by just a point when the two fought in the gold medal match 12 years ago at the Pan American Games.
“This is a great opportunity for springing surprises, and I’m training really hard so that I’ll be completely ready to fight for the belt,” Conceição told Boxing Social. “From the moment I started boxing for real, I’ve always had positive thoughts for the future and that’s why I train this hard. Oscar is a spectacular athlete, no wonder he is a champion. Every moment will be difficult, in boxing nothing is easy, but I’ve been prepared to find my way out of these moments. It won’t be easy, but I’ll surprise everyone. I’m working a lot, training hard to improve my technique and stamina and so it makes the fight more favourable for me. His previous fights were good and I know that he’s a very strong champion.”
Springing surprises has become the Brazilian challenger’s raison d’être. From leaving school at an extremely early age to provide for his family, he sold ice lollies and recycled plastic bags on the beach of his hometown to tourists or those comfortable donating money to his cause. Surviving came first and then avoiding the culture of street-fighting instilled in him by his uncle. Conceição told me back in 2017 that some of those scenes turned very ugly, with violence prevalent on his doorstep. Boxing – legitimately – became his escape, as it has for so many in the favelas and far beyond for children clutching guns while maintaining their remaining innocence.
“As a child, I remember that my house was [only] for rent. There were many very simple homes, but my mother is a warrior, raising two children by herself,” he said. “I woke up early to go to work and [we] managed to buy a very old house. It was there we went to live, this house, without any luxury. I would pretty much do anything to help my mother and my grandmother and, as a result, I had a very troubled childhood, between working and studying. For me, it was such a unique emotion to be able to represent my country at home in boxing. I felt the affection and the vibration of all [of Brazil] and of my family that were present. I felt very happy to be able to conquer a gold medal, and to present it with all of this great emotion. It was one of the most rewarding, happiest moments in my career. The crowd would motivate me, sending me messages. It was very powerful.”
No doubt, Hebert Sousa is experiencing the same rush, king of Brazil – for a week or two. The reality of Conceição’s journey is that – despite the high-profile promotional deal – he has been left lingering in the sport’s shadows, almost offered as a sacrifice to the new champion, the golden boy, the favourite. It doesn’t bother the super-featherweight challenger, now aged 32, as his entire life has been an uphill struggle, a reminder of his existence and a desire to upset the odds. On September 10, he goes again; not much changes unless he topples Valdez and fulfils his prophecy from four years ago when sending voice notes in Portuguese, proclaiming his future success.
“The most difficult moments for me were at the beginning, without support, without an incentive, without suitable places for training,” said Conceição. “My life has always been tough; I’ve always heard a lot of criticism, but I’m not shaken so I’m even more motivated to continue following my path. I like to surprise people, and nothing will stop me; you should never underestimate a man with thirst for victory. This [latest] gold medal is a reason for pride and hope for all Brazilians and children. Brazilian boxing has been evolving a lot and surprising a lot of people, Hebert is a source of great pride and happiness for everyone, especially for me, who is his idol and friend. He is the reason for a lot of my motivation now.”
And with that, Conceição steps up to compete again, without the expectation of his peers, for the sport’s top prize. An enormous underdog when facing Valdez, he believes it’s his time – they always do. But his impact on Brazilian boxing has been felt as the success of his gold medal sent ripples throughout the country’s poorest suburbs. They can do it; they can escape and make something of themselves. Despite never quite appearing Top Rank’s priority, his fans, friends, and followers view him as a celebrity. If he loses when fighting for his world title, he’ll be placed back on the shelf, primed for gathering dust. But if he wins, if he does the unthinkable when starring as half of an intriguing main event, he will live on forever. And that’s his fairy tale ending.
Main image: Mikey Williams/Top Rank Boxing.