Diogo Reis arrived in Shanghai at the latter end of 2014 to work in a Portuguese law firm specialising in the corporate side of things. Fast forward almost five years, and while he remains a corporate lawyer, he has diversified somewhat into the world of professional boxing.
Boxing and international law isn’t a combination that immediately springs to mind, but these twin disciplines are the cornerstones of Diogo Reis’ life in Shanghai. Even by the standards of this fair city, it’s something that stands out.
For a lot of Shanghai’s boxing community, the sport is something they found here at the Aboro Academy –where Diogo trains – or at Golden Gloves, home of Brawl on the Bund. But for Reis the city provided a platform and infrastructure missing in his native Portugal, allowing him to develop what he already knew.
Starting some eight years ago, boxing was supposed to be a break away from competitive running, but like many others he fell for the sport’s rough charms. Just two months into his new pursuit, he experienced the sharp end and had his first bout.
It was a much grittier affair than the amateur shows de rigueur here in Shanghai, watched by the proverbial ‘one man and his dog.’ The lights – or lack of – weren’t the important thing though: it was the realisation that he had the requisite resilience to pursue this most demanding of sports.
The pursuit of boxing, however, isn’t for the dilettante, and like the attention needed for the finer points of international corporate law, so boxing also demanded his full attention and powers of perseverance. On arriving in Shanghai for what was supposed to be three months, Diogo, with some help, found multiple world champion Michele Aboro under whom he has flourished.
It’s been far from a smooth ride, however, as I’ve been personally been witness to. Apart from some highly questionable decisions in several amateur bouts, there was a traffic accident in September 2015 that kept him away from sport for almost half a year.
However, Diogo now considers this a blessing in disguise. "Being away from the gym, its rhythms, routines and disciplines made me realise just how much I missed it all, and that participation in sport is for a finite period which I needed to take advantage of."
After a remarkably fast recovery and rehabilitation period, Diogo was back in the gym and working harder than ever. In fact, one of his first sparring sessions was with me at the Golden Gloves location on Xinzha Lu, where I was hoping to take advantage of his disability: no such luck. His timing and hand speed had barely diminished and the damaged knee seemed stronger after the period of intensive recuperation.
After several more amateur bouts around Shanghai, Diogo made the decision to try his luck in the perilous world of professional boxing in the super-featherweight division (59kg). His bow in the paid ranks was pure China: a ring in a shopping center in Minhang, cordoned off for the fistic festivities.
The opponent was a local, unbeaten, favoured prospect, who in the tradition of the hometown guy was supposed to win. Watching from ringside, where I judged some of the other bouts, I thought he had done enough to get his hand raised. However, the official decision was a questionable draw: a refrain boxing fans will be all too used to hearing.
In August of last year, this time in Shenzhen against a 2-0 boxer, Diogo showed tremendous resolve, no little skill and ring smarts to win a decision against the favoured man. "It was a cathartic moment, like a weight lifted off my shoulders and a sense of justification. Especially after the injury and bad decisions."
Diogo’s win, elegantly achieved and showcasing his crisp clean punching, might have escaped deserved attention in a previous era. In the digital epoch, however, and with the assistance of social media, his fights were seen back in his homeland, impressing a promoter enough for him to offer a spot on a show in the prestigious Casino da Póvoa, near Porto on May 25.
"It’s the break that every fighter hopes for," says Reis. "That a promoter might see something in you, and this one obviously has enough faith to want bring me from all the way from Shanghai. For sure, the pressure will be on but I feel I will respond rise to the challenge and show the things I have learned in my time away."
Badhrul Islam is a coach and shareholder at Golden Gloves boxing gym, combining that with a day job as teacher of literature at Wellington College, Shanghai. Badhrul and Diogo have been friends since 2014, bonding over a shared love of boxing, whisky and talking profound nonsense.