The people's champion: David Tua's rise from the Olympics to feared heavyweight contender (2022)

A God-fearing teenager from Samoa rises from humble beginnings to become one of New Zealand's biggest sports stars, squanders his riches and sinks into depression before finding peace as a mentor for troubled youth.

In a four-part series, SAM WILSON and MAT KERMEEN retrace David Tua's colourful life and career.

This is part one. Read parts two, three and four.

Making his name

It's the summer of 1992, Barcelona. A young kitchen hand born in Samoa but raised in Aotearoa has, against all odds, battled his way into the Olympic heavyweight semifinals.

Already guaranteed bronze – at the time, only the third boxer in New Zealand's Olympic history to win a medal of any colour – this fearless 19-year-old upstart from South Auckland has his heart set on gold.

Two rounds in, and everything is going to plan for David Tua.

His opponent, a towering, muscular Nigerian called David Izonritei, is bleeding from the nose and appears to be wilting under a barrage of hooks to the head and body.

When the bell rings to end the frame, the short and stocky underdog in the red vest has built up a narrow 6-5 lead on the scoreboard, much to the delight of the boisterous crowd inside the Pavelló Club Joventut Badalona arena.

Tua is just three minutes away from securing an improbable shot at gold.

But in the third and final round, the momentum shifts. Tua begins to tire. Izonritei finds a second wind and starts landing some hurtfulshots from the outside, keeping the New Zealander at arm's length.

Then, with one minute and 24 seconds to go, disaster strikes. Izonritei lands a thudding left to the stomach that doubles Tua over, forcing the referee to administer a standing eight count.

The Kiwi's dreams of Olympic glory are evaporating in the Spanish heat.

The people's champion: David Tua's rise from the Olympics to feared heavyweight contender (1)

Clearly hurt, Tua fights on gamely till the final bell. Deep down he knows he hasn't quite done enough, as Izonritei raises his hand in triumph.

His instincts are proved right. The Nigerian gets the nod 12-7 on points to progress to the gold medal match, where Cuba’s Félix Savón awaits.

Tua sportingly lifts the victorious Izonritei off his feet as the pair warmly embrace in the middle of the ring, blissfully unaware that they'd meet again as professionals four years down the line.

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At that moment, Tua remembers being overcome by a wave of sadness. Not because his Olympic journey has come to an end – in his mind, he has let his parents down.

"It was a great honour, the opportunity to represent New Zealand at the 1992 Olympic Games," Tua tells Stuff at his Onehunga gym, reflecting on his bittersweet experience some 30 years later.

"But for me, the most important and number one thing was to buy my parents a house. If you won the gold, it was either $15k or $20k [reward].

"So man, that was a downpayment for my parents' house."

Tua's pain would soon be eased by a chance meeting with a man who would change his life forever, as well as the plaudits that came his way when he returned home, an overnight sporting sensation.

The people's champion: David Tua's rise from the Olympics to feared heavyweight contender (2)

Fighting origins

David Tua was born Mafaufau Tavita Lio Mafaufau Sanerivi Talimatasi​ on November 21, 1972. His family – four brothers, four sisters, plus mum and dad – resided in the Samoan village of Faleatiu. His upbringing was tough, but loving.

His father, Tuavale – from whom David took the first three letters of his first name when they moved to New Zealand in 1982 – was a self-made man who ran a corner store on the island.

A former fighter himself, he saw potential in David from an early age and would often get adult customers to fight his pre-teen son.

"Yeah, [I was] seven, eight, nine years old," Tua recalls of his ruthless boxing education. "He would call grown-up guys in the village and he would line them up every afternoon and he would make me box them. And he'd always make sure that they didn't take it easy on me."

Back then, Tua couldn't understand why his father treated him differently to his other brothers, when all he wanted was to be a "typical kid in the village" and play with his friends.

"I got to experience what it's like to be depressed, and have anxiety. Because I couldn't understand what was going on," explains Tua.

"It got that bad that I asked my mum if I was adopted, because I felt at the time that dad was a lot harder on me than the other boys.

"But fast-forward many years later, and I did have a conversation with my father and I did ask him why he treated me that way.

"And he said, 'look, you might not have understood it at the time because you were young, but I saw the talent in you' … And he didn't apologise for it!"

Mother Noella was a more nurturing type, the yin to her steely husband's yang. Tua was so close to her he once racked up a $50,000 bill over a two-month period in 1999 calling home from his US base. ("I ring mum five or six times a day," the homesick heavyweight told the Sunday News. "My family's everything to me.")

Aged 13, Tua started attending the local boxing gym in the South Auckland suburb of Māngere with his older brother. Under the tutelage of trainer Gerry Preston – and later John McKay – he blossomed into an excellent amateur with ferocious power, winning four national titles along the way.

The people's champion: David Tua's rise from the Olympics to feared heavyweight contender (3)

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It was in 1988 – having beaten the best at middleweight – that Tua decided to chance his arm with the big boys at the New Zealand championships in Wellington. The only problem was this scrawny Polynesian teen couldn't make the required heavyweight limit.

"I was actually quite happy because they were feeding me, they were buying burgers and all that stuff [to make weight]. I didn't have to take money out of my pocket," he recalls.

"I went back on the scale a couple of times, and I sort of got near it but didn't [reach the weight limit]. I was like, 'man I can't eat any more'.

"So then the coach says, 'OK wait here, I'll be back'. He went to the car and he gave me this small toolbox. And I put it under my jacket, and I got on the scale and made the weight."

It's a moment of Kiwi ingenuity that brings a smile to Tua's face even decades later.

“I asked my mum if I was adopted, because I felt dad was a lot harder on me” - David Tua

Tua went on to be crowned champion, winning the final by first-round knockout. He was 15. Fighting bigger and stronger men wasn't daunting to him – it was "fun" and a "challenge".

"If people said 'you can't beat that guy' I'd say, 'of course I’d beat him'," he says.

More amateur success followed, including three straight senior heavyweight titles, gold at the 1990 Oceania championships in Tonga and bronze at the 1991 worlds in Sydney, where Tua was stopped by Cuba's Félix Savon in the first round of their semifinal.

In 1991, he also picked up a senior national title (his third). This secured the Olympic berth that put the pot-washing pugilist on course for boxing superstardom.

After his heroics in Barcelona, Tua wasn't short of offers from big-name US promoters to turn professional. Yet he needed to find the right person to guide him towards his ultimate goal – the heavyweight championship of the world.

The people's champion: David Tua's rise from the Olympics to feared heavyweight contender (4)

Turning pro

Among the heavyweight names chasing David Tua's signature after the 1992 Olympics, two stood out: the Duva family's Main Events company, and notorious boxing kingpin Don King.

By now, Tua was being managed by Kevin Barry, a former Olympian who won silver at the 1984 Games. They had met in Auckland's Aotea Square at a parade to welcome home the New Zealand team, a moment that Tua remembers with pride.

"People were waving and all that stuff and I was like, far out!", he says of the rapturous crowd on Queen St. "I guess for me it just clicked how massive it was [to win an Olympic medal]."

Having not capitalised on his own amateur success, Barry had advised Tua to immediately turn professional and make a living from his God-given talent. Driven by a desire to buy his parents the house that he had "promised" them, Tua agreed.

The man who Barry beat in Los Angeles on a controversial foul – a certain Evander Holyfield – was by now a "good friend". It was this unlikely relationship that led Tua in the direction of Lou Duva and Main Events.

The people's champion: David Tua's rise from the Olympics to feared heavyweight contender (5)

Holyfield had signed with the New Jersey-based promotional outfit after his own Olympic coming-out party and urged Tua to join him in their star-studded stable, which then included Pernell Whittaker, Michael Moorer and Meldrick Taylor.

To Barry, it seemed like a good fit. Duva was a highly respected trainer and manager who was known for his decency and honesty.

"This was a match made in heaven as it was a family-based company and just what David needed," Barry says.

By coincidence, while in Barcelona Tua had run into Duva hours after his crushing defeat in the heavyweight semifinals. A deeply spiritual man, he took their chance encounter as a sign.

"I was given tickets to the 'Dream Team' [USA basketball team], you know, Michael Jordan, all the greats. I think they were playing Brazil," Tua recounts to Stuff.

"And on that particular train, on that ride to the game, I met the man who signed me – Lou Duva.

"He was there to watch the boxing and gave me his [business] card, and so I didn't go and watch the 'Dream Team'. I turned around and went back [to the athletes' village] and called Mum and said, 'Mum, guess what? I'm going to get you that house!'"

Tua's other suitor, King, had a reputation as a ruthless operator, with dubious morals. He had been accused of cheating his fighters out of millions of dollars and having links to organised crime.

King served time in prison in the 1960s for stomping an employee to death over a US$600 gambling debt and was considered bad news by many in the industry – quite a feat in the shady world of professional boxing.

With Main Events offering a four-year deal with a $98,000 sign-on fee and promising to give the young prospect time to develop at his own pace, Barry and Tua prepared to sign on the dotted line.

“This was a match made in heaven as it was a family-based company” - Kevin Barry

But King wasn't going to give up that easily. He tabled a rival offer with a $650,000 bonus upfront and bombarded Barry with phone calls in a bid to change his mind.

"One of Don King's guys started calling two or three times a day," Barry recalled to the Sunday News in 2000. "He was saying you have to go to Don and kept telling us Don had made more millionaires out of boxing than anyone else."

After consulting with Tua's parents – who wanted what was best for their son and cared less about the financial rewards – Barry convinced Tua to sign with Main Events and flew out to Las Vegas to complete the formalities.

He informed King's associates of his client's decision, so was surprised when someone claiming to be a representative of the promoter confronted him at the airport.

"This guy had two airline tickets in his hand and said: 'You owe this to your fighter and yourself. We want you to fly to Lake Tahoe and spend a couple of days talking to Don'," Barry added.

"Don is the master of manipulation and there was no way at the young stage of my managerial career and the very young stage of David's professional career we were going to be exposed to him."

The people's champion: David Tua's rise from the Olympics to feared heavyweight contender (6)

King got the message – but not before flying into Las Vegas, waiting in a limo outside the Mirage Hotel where Barry and Tua were staying, and demanding a meeting.

Tua chuckles at the memory.

"But at the end of the day, my heart was already set on Lou Duva," he explains. "The reason being I'm a man of faith, from a family that goes to church on Sunday."

At the time, Duva was also guiding the career of undisputed champion Holyfield, himself a devout Christian.

"My decision was easy," adds Tua.

After passing some rigorous medical and fitness tests, Tua signed the contract. He was now a Main Events fighter.

There was palpable excitement among the Pasifika community when Tua began his journey in the paid ranks, recalls Samoan actor and director Oscar Kightley.

"I remember as a community, we were eagerly awaiting him turning professional, because Samoa has a long and proud history of boxers," he says.

"We had Jimmy Thunder before David Tua. He was this young guy who had sleeping pills in his fists, who would instantly put his opponents to sleep. So he [Tua] was following in a long and proud history."

With Duva and former middleweight contender George Benton in his corner, Tua made his professional debut against Ron Humes on Tuesday December 1, 1992 – barely four months after gracing the podium in Barcelona.

Humes, a local club fighter with five wins and five losses to his name, had campaigned at cruiserweight and wasn't expected to put up much of a fight at the Pavilion Convention Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

And so it proved, with Tua needing just 37 seconds to bring their scheduled four-rounder to an abrupt conclusion.

A lean-looking Tua connected with one of the left hooks that would become his trademark to send Humes crashing to the canvas. He didn't get up, and referee Al Rothenberg waved it off.

Tua was up and running in the pro game.

He would be back out two weeks later, dispatching another soft touch, Lorenzo Poole, in under a minute.

It was the start of a long and often bumpy road to the higher echelons of the heavyweight division that would enthral and frustrate the New Zealand public in equal measure.

This is part one of The People's Champion. Read parts two, three and four.

FAQs

What was David Tua's boxing record? ›

five professional losses

Where is David Tua now? ›

The only Samoan and New Zealand heavy weight to have a crack at the world heavy weight title, Tua now spends his energy helping young people and through sports and training gyms, he and his wife are working with partners to open a medical center in one of the training gyms in Auckland to help the community.

Who threw 975 punches? ›

Ibeabuchi and Tua set a CompuStat heavyweight division record with 1,730 punches thrown. Ike also set the individual CompuStat record by throwing 975 punches and averaging 81 per round.

Who knocked down Tua? ›

David Tua Knocked Down in Draw With Monte Barrett.

Who did Lennox Lewis say hit the hardest? ›

Lewis explained in a lengthy Instagram post that boxing legend Evander Holyfield was the toughest opponent in his career ahead of Tyson.

Who is David potsane? ›

David Potsane was a double South African champion | SuperSport.

How old is David Tua now? ›

Is Ike Ibeabuchi still in jail? ›

According to the Arizona prisoner database, Ibeabuchi was released from prison on September 23, 2020.

What did Ike Ibeabuchi go to jail for? ›

Born in Nigeria, Ibeabuchi who first migrated to the United States of America at the age of 19 in 1993 had several run-ins with the law before he was arrested in Las Vegas over alleged sexual assault attempt on a 21-year-old stripper.

Who beat David with 975 punches? ›

In the all-action slugfest between the pair, Nigerian-born Ibeabuchi landed 332 of 975 punches, while Tua landed 282 of 755 punches.

What happened to the Miami Dolphins quarterback today? ›

Report: Tua OUT Against Houston

Tagovailoa's injury involves a small fracture in the middle finger of his left (throwing) hand and it has not healed sufficiently for the second-year quarterback to make his scheduled start against the Texans in a battle of 1-7 teams.

What does MVOA stand for? ›

MVOA
AcronymDefinition
MVOAMaharishi Vedic Organic Agriculture
MVOAMountain Village Owners Association (Denver, CO)
MVOAManitoba Volleyball Officials Association (Canada)
MVOAMount Vernon Orchestra Association (Virginia)

What is the meaning of Tua? ›

TUA or “Terminal Use Agreement” shall mean any agreement between the Borrower and a counterparty for the provision of Services.

Who is the hardest puncher in history? ›

1. Mike Tyson. Whenever there's a discussion about the hardest hitting boxer, Mike Tyson is always mentioned.

Who is the hardest puncher in the world? ›

On more than one occasion, UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou has displayed his formidable punching power. In 2019, the Cameroonian paid a visit to UFC Performance Institute where he created the world record for the hardest punch ever measured at 129,161 units.

Who has the highest punching power? ›

Francis Ngannou has the world record for the most powerful punch. His punch is the equivalent to 96 horsepower, which is equal to getting hit by a Ford Escort going as fast as it can! It's more powerful than a 12 pound sledgehammer swung full force from overhead.

How old is MIXO potsane? ›

Kamohelo Potsane — who fought under the alias “Mixo” — was at the peak of his career in his 20s as both a boxer and a marathon runner. In addition, he had sports endorsements pouring in from all over the world. The 56-year-old Potsane was born in Gauteng, but his boxing career took him around the world.

How much money did Lennox Lewis make? ›

As we have mentioned, his net worth is around 150 million dollars. Most of his wealth has come from his earnings during his boxing.
...
Lennox Lewis Net Worth 2022: Biography Salary Assets Cars.
Net Worth:$150 Million
Monthly Income:$1 Million +
Date of Birth:September 2, 1965
Gender:Male
Height:1.96 m. (6' 5”)
5 more rows
Jul 13, 2022

Who trained David Tua? ›

Ronnie Shields, who trained Tua for six years, told RingTV.com that Tua was never the same after the loss to Lewis, but it wasn't because Lewis beat him up.

What does MVOA mean? ›

MVOA
AcronymDefinition
MVOAMaharishi Vedic Organic Agriculture
MVOAMountain Village Owners Association (Denver, CO)
MVOAManitoba Volleyball Officials Association (Canada)
MVOAMount Vernon Orchestra Association (Virginia)

Who is David potsane? ›

David Potsane was a double South African champion | SuperSport.

Who trained David Tua? ›

Ronnie Shields, who trained Tua for six years, told RingTV.com that Tua was never the same after the loss to Lewis, but it wasn't because Lewis beat him up.

How old is David Tua now? ›

How old is MIXO potsane? ›

Kamohelo Potsane — who fought under the alias “Mixo” — was at the peak of his career in his 20s as both a boxer and a marathon runner. In addition, he had sports endorsements pouring in from all over the world. The 56-year-old Potsane was born in Gauteng, but his boxing career took him around the world.

How tall is Mike Tyson? ›

How old is Mike Tyson? ›

How much money did Lennox Lewis make? ›

As we have mentioned, his net worth is around 150 million dollars. Most of his wealth has come from his earnings during his boxing.
...
Lennox Lewis Net Worth 2022: Biography Salary Assets Cars.
Net Worth:$150 Million
Monthly Income:$1 Million +
Date of Birth:September 2, 1965
Gender:Male
Height:1.96 m. (6' 5”)
5 more rows
Jul 13, 2022

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