Sport

'When I first saw him, I knew there was something there': Clepson dos Santos tipped to make mark at Commonwealths

Holy Trinity's Clepson dos Santos will be hoping to force his way into the flyweight ,medal picture at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Picture by Hugh Russell
Holy Trinity's Clepson dos Santos will be hoping to force his way into the flyweight ,medal picture at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Picture by Hugh Russell

MICHAEL Hawkins has laid eyes on thousands of boxers through the years, but still the sport has the capacity to surprise. Clepson dos Santos first came on his radar four years ago, from the perspective of the opposition corner.

Diarmuid Bradley and Patrick Mullen were two emerging talents at Holy Trinity, but came up short against a small, skinny kid from Banbridge Boxing Club. Hawkins, ever the competitor, still disputes one of those decisions.

Dos Santos may only have been “14 or 15”, but an impression had been made.

“The quality of everything he does is top class,” said Hawkins.

“When I first saw him, I knew there was something there. You don’t need to be an experienced coach or a talent scout to identify that – he stood out.

“The fluency’s there, he has that natural ability, but then you’ve to look at the rest. That’s only the beginning. There’s a long road from nine to 19, a big 10 years in a very tough sport, so you’re always trying to assess where they’re going to end up…”

Eventually dos Santos joined Holy Trinity and, although yet to box at elite level, impressed Ulster High Performance coaches enough to become the youngest member of the Commonwealth Games team bound for Birmingham in the coming weeks.

For that reason, the past eight months have been a bit of a blur for the talented 18-year-old.

Back in December, he was left in limbo when a legal loophole prevented boxers born in 2003 from entering the Ulster Elite Championships – even though he turned 18 a few weeks after they were wrapped up.

“This rule is an absolute nuisance that holds back quality young men,” says Hawkins.

“If you look at Ray Close, Wayne McCullough, Barry McGuigan even, they were boxing at senior level at 17. They’ve all done that, so whoever came up with this invention of not allowing them to box until 18, it has kept more boxers out of the game rather than in the game.”

So while others with an eye on the flyweight spot had the opportunity to impress, dos Santos – like Commonwealths team-mate Dylan Eagleson - was left anxiously waiting in the wings.

“There was definitely a point where I was thinking it’s not going to happen,” says dos Santos.

“But then I was down in Dublin training with another lad going for the 51 spot, he said about me getting assessed as well, so that’s sort of how I found out. Once I heard that, I knew at least I was going to get a shot at it.”

In those behind closed doors assessments at the end of March, he defied his tender years to seal his spot. Walking out at the opening ceremony at the Alexander Stadium, climbing between the ropes at the NEC, special moments lie ahead.

Speaking after a media workout at Jordanstown on Monday, dos Santos admitted it was only really hitting him now that the team was leaving for Birmingham on Sunday, with the action getting under way five days later.

Not bad for a young man whose natural talent soon came to the fore after walking through the boxing club doors in Banbridge.

“My step-mum and dad got me into boxing when I was eight, and I just fell in love with it,” said dos Santos, who spent some of his early years in Portugal, native country of father Antonio.

“Growing up like, you had to be tough, so you boxed to be able to look after yourself. I’m only small now still, but usually smaller ones get picked on, so I had to get toughened up.

“Going to Holy Trinity was the next step in my development, I haven’t even been there three years yet – and then there was Covid in the middle of all that – but it actually feels like I’ve been there for a lot longer.

“They’ve done so much for me.”

Doing pad-work with Team NI coach JP Delaney on Monday, the speed and sharpness are clear to see. There is an element of stepping into the unknown with a first elite tournament playing out before a TV audience, but then that’s just how this year has rolled so far.

You learn, and you learn fast. It’s the only way.

“We went away to a training camp in Italy in April, and I was nervous before it because it was the first time I’d experienced something like this with top countries.

“I sparred with the world number two at my weight, a two-time Olympian. They’re experienced guys, you have to give them their respect, but I thought I did well. I was happy with my performances, the coaches were happy.

“That gives you a lot of confidence for everything else to come. I think I can do well over here.”

Hawkins has no doubts. The best years of Clepson dos Santos’s career are still to come, with the Paris Olympics two years from now a realistic proposition, but he has the potential to shine in Birmingham.

“Clepson will certainly mature and he will be better next year, and he’ll continue to get better. He’s in that training camp environment now and living the dream… is it coming too early for him? No, I don’t think so.

“It’s up to him now to go out there and show people he belongs on that big stage, because that’s where every boxer wants to be.”