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Complexo do Alemão’s Fight Club #SustainableFavelaNetwork [PROFILE]

Sustainable Favela Network* Profile

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Initiative: Alemão Fight Club (Clube de Luta do Complexo)
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Year Founded: 2014
Community: Complexo do Alemão
Mission: Clube de Luta do Complexo is a group of martial arts teachers and volunteers who aim to help form better athletes and citizens through sport and culture, and make young people aware of their capacity to make their community a better place.
Public Events: Clube de Luta do Complexo offers free martial arts and basketball classes for residents of all ages throughout the week.

It’s early in the morning on a Monday but there is already a group of people waiting outside the Youth Center in Complexo do Alemão in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone. They are waiting for André Luiz Fernandes, a martial arts teacher and co-founder of Clube de Luta do Complexo (Alemão Fight Club) who helps teach and organize various sports classes six days a week, together with a group of twelve other martial arts instructors and volunteers from Alemão. What started out simply as an idea to get more youth from their community involved in martial arts has blossomed into a project with an extensive schedule; Clube de Luta now offers classes in taekwondo, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, functional training, karate, kempo, capoeira, and basketball. For Fernandes, the fact that there are now hundreds of youth and adults participating in this project after only four years is somewhat surreal. “I had no notion of the proportions that this project would take. I get chills thinking about organizing it going forward,” he says jokingly.

Fernandes, 36, has lived in Complexo do Alemão for over 30 years and has a long history of learning and teaching martial arts in the community. His first exposure to fighting came when he was working part-time as a cleaner at a local gym. The taekwondo instructor at the gym noticed Fernandes watching the classes as he cleaned and after a few weeks asked him to train with the group. Despite being enrolled in school at the time, Fernandes accepted the instructor’s invitation and began to train two days a week. The instructor never required him to pay, which is a practice that Fernandes has taken to Clube de Luta where all classes are offered for free. “We never charge anyone anything,” Fernandes explains, adding: “Well, we don’t charge money, but you will sweat and cry.”

Clube de Luta do Complexo began four years ago when a small group of martial arts teachers in Alemão realized they could utilize resources more efficiently and reach more students as a unified team. Since then, they have become a fixture in the community and are known for fielding talented athletes. Students from Clube de Luta have a record of winning local and state championships, and some have gone as far as challenging for spots on Military and Olympic teams. But Fernandes points out that putting in the work necessary to make champions is what matters most. “It’s not the competition that’s the hard part. For that you just need to show up and fight your best. What’s difficult is getting there in the first place.”

This philosophy is one that permeates through the work of Clube de Luta. As an organization that has had little institutional support, the group has had to make do with limited resources, at times hosting classes in public parks or on the street. When describing the current training facility located in Inhaúma, Fernandes laughs: “It’s like a cave. But it’s great, all we need is a floor and a roof.” In spite of these challenges, Clube de Luta has managed to thrive and now has over 308 students. While the majority of them are from Complexo do Alemão there are some that make the trip from other neighborhoods. Fernandes thinks it is the familial environment and culture of respect the team has created at Clube de Luta that keep students coming back week after week. “When the majority of students arrive they come from a reality where they don’t have discipline and respect. Here they enter into a space where everyone is already accustomed to respecting each other.”

Clube de Luta has helped catalyze physical and psychological transformations in countless students by building each individual’s sense of confidence, self-respect, and discipline through rigorous trainings. In a community where residents’ real needs have been neglected by the government and where daily life is often violently interrupted by police operations against drug traffickers, creating new cultural opportunities for the community’s youth is especially important. The transformative potential of martial arts is something that Fernandes believes in strongly. “I always knew the power of martial arts to change people, I grew up seeing that change… We once had a student who was hit by a stray bullet and suffered from panic attacks. He wouldn’t even leave his house. Finally we got him to train, and he began to build his confidence. Now he’s teaching a kickboxing class.” For Fernandes this is the goal of Clube de Luta—to aid in the development and growth of the students so they can become examples to others in their community.

Having secured their own space in the community and grown to serve so many, the project leaders are still looking forward and hope to recruit new volunteers and train new teachers. And Fernandes is confident they will achieve their goals. When describing what he has learned from his work with Clube de Luta, he reflects: “Anyone can do it. There is no one who can’t succeed. We once had a student who didn’t have a leg who wanted to fight jiu jitsu. We tried to convince him to take another class because 90% of the holds in jiu jitsu require your legs, but he persisted, and he did it. He competed in the same category as everyone else, and would sometimes win. What I’ve learned is that whoever you are, wherever you come from, if you want to do something you can do it.”

*Clube de Luta do Complexo is one of over 100 community projects mapped by Catalytic Communities (CatComm), the organization that publishes RioOnWatch, as part of our parallel ‘Sustainable Favela Network‘ program launched in 2017 to recognize, support, strengthen and expand on the sustainable qualities and community movements inherent to Rio de Janeiro’s favela communities.