Put yourself in the boxing boots of Wairangi Koopu, the former Warriors and Kiwi league star preparing to get in the ring with national treasure Keven Mealamu, a double World Cup-winning former All Black who is beginning his journey to a potential New Zealand heavyweight title.
This lose-lose scenario faced by Koopu, 42, who is fighting 43-year-old Mealamu in the Fight for Life main event at Auckland’s Eventfinda Stadium on July 21, was addressed directly on Thursday as the match-up was officially announced.
Koopu did his best to avoid being the villain of the piece and made a pretty good fist of it, saying: “Not only am I fighting against an ex-All Blacks legend and a man I know who is very physically fit and fighting under Monty [Betham] as well… Keven is one of the most respectful and humble people you’d ever meet… and I know he wants to make a go of professional fighting.
“To be part of that first journey and potentially disrupt it – it’s a little hard to think about. It is a challenge, but the biggest thing I can do to respect both men in their journey is to bring my best.”
The journey has already been fairly long. This Fight for Life event, refurbished by promoter Dean Lonergan after a seven-year absence and raising money for the I am Hope charity run by mental health campaigner Mike King, has already been postponed twice after originally being scheduled for December 2021 and March this year.
And it is the first step in what Mealamu, who played 132 Tests, hopes will be a successful new career. The former hooker, who played his last game for the All Blacks in the 2015 World Cup final victory over Australia at Twickenham, has aspirations to challenge for the vacant national heavyweight title.
He will start that goal under a trainer in Betham who has never lost a Fight for Life event as a boxer or trainer and against a fighter in Koopu who won his previous fight on points against rugby player Matua Parkinson in 2011.
“He’s 1-0, so I’m the underdog,” Mealamu said.
Asked whether he can stop Mealamu, Koopu said: “I can - whether I do or not is a different story.”
In an interview with 1News after the traditional stare-down, Mealamu said he was tipping the scales at 106kg – the same as during his playing days, although he was leaner due to the different training involved compared with rugby.
He added that he had to eat well in order to keep the weight on - a dilemma most men his age have in reverse order.
And he confirmed he had gone over his first ring walk in his mind a few times.
"Just what it will be like walking out to music under lights in front of people," he said.
"But I just take myself back to ‘it will happen’ and I just need to do my preparation properly.
“I can still take those things from rugby – preparation puts you in a good place. You can’t miss any steps. It was supposed to be in December and then in March so I’ve put more time into learning the craft properly. It’s still not perfect but it’s a lot better than it was when I started.”
The national title aspirations were about continuing to challenge himself, he said.
“When you hear there’s a vacancy for the New Zealand heavyweight belt, it was like when I started wondering if it was possible to win a World Cup. ‘Oh yeah, there’s a chance we could do that, so what is it I have to do in order to do that?’
“It’s the same thought process. I know I still have to take care of Fight For Life, and we’ll assess from there. But those are the aspirations that pull you through when it gets hard. I know that from my experience in sport – it gets you through when you’re too tired, it gives you the kick up the butt to do the little stuff.”
Betham told 1News that he had been involved with Mealamu’s nascent boxing career since body sparring sessions with his mate and Jimmy Spithill, the Australian America’s Cup skipper early last year.
“I was in the corner having a little breather, thinking ‘Jeez’.”
He was impressed by Mealamu’s fitness and determination then and now.
“To have a guy who’s an All Black legend who’s not afraid to get in the ring was amazing because I’ve seen a lot of rugby guys in the past shy away from it.
“He has a lot of attributes that are so coachable. His engine is amazing and his work ethic. He says he doesn’t want to let me down but I don’t want to let him down. He’s a hero of mine and our people. He’s a treasure of the country so I want to look after him on this journey.
“I liken him a little bit to David Tua – not in ability but demeanour. When he says something in that quiet, soft voice, it’s scary when you look in his eyes. I remind Keven many times that he was one of the most powerful scrummagers in the world – so in this situation here where you’re underneath the rib cage, you deliver that power. We don’t have the range or reach but we have other attributes.
“I won a New Zealand title and I believe Keven can. There are things we have to do and we don’t want to get too far ahead. He is a national treasure and a good man. I don’t want him to take any unnecessary harm and the way I’ve been teaching him ensures that his safety is paramount. We’ll see how we go but I believe he can win a national title which would be epic.”
This is from a man who has been in the ring against a national treasure of a different era – former All Black first-five Carlos Spencer, whom he comprehensively beat in Hamilton in 2014.
“I’ve been there before with Carlos,” he said. “I know what it’s like and it’s crazy.”