I wrote a column this week, which is not the one you're reading now.

It was good — full of opinion, as is required, a rather fierce comment about combat "sport" in which I traced a line from boxing matches in pubs right back to 50,000 Romans screaming for blood at the Colosseum in the first century.

You're not reading that column because I paused long enough to visit Whanganui's River City Boxing Club and what I found there completely confounded me.

I was not expecting to meet church-going grandparents that devote many hours and their own money to running a club with an 80-year history.


The club shares large and well-equipped premises with the Kaierau rugby club in Springvale. There was plenty of room to run around for the five to 10-year-olds who gather on a Wednesday afternoon under the cheerful direction of head trainer Eddie Tofa and some parent volunteers.

They were a gloriously mixed bunch — all ages, sizes, ethnicity and gender. I didn't expect so many girls. Eddie's clearly well practised at focusing all that childish energy and, for most part, kept them busy with callisthenics.

But the kids did eventually don gloves and work on bags, target pads and very lightly spar with trainers (this is what the club calls a fitness session and there are six a week, mostly for teens and adults; other sessions focus on boxing training).

I was watching all this while chatting to Sandra Tofa, Eddie's wife. Their granddaughter Bella was hanging out, too — she's 10 and throws a good punch, though her mum has pulled her out of boxing because of concern about head injuries and for now she's concentrating on gymnastics.

Kids keep filing in past the reception desk, depositing a can of food on the counter or a gold coin. The cans get donated to foodbanks. The club's rent is $85 a week and Sandra says they don't always make that — all her and Eddie's time is volunteered.

Sandra laughs when she tells me "the island boys" playing rugby for Kaierau call her "mum" or "aunty". I have a feeling it happens a lot.

She and Eddie have 10 kids of their own (including Viki, a super heavyweight boxing champ who plays for Marist and Steelform Wanganui, and Sosoli, a World Cup-winning Black Fern) and consciously strive to create a family atmosphere at the club.

I'm still sitting there full of objections and concerns, but managing to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open.


I hear about a young boy brought down to the club by a police officer. Nice kid, Sandra says, starting to run with the wrong crowd. Here's a chance to make new mates and stay out of trouble; his grandmother comes to support him.

For others, there is no connection between their family at the boxing club and family at home. Sandra tells me about one boy whose family they've never met; any info sent home never comes back. The boy walks to the clubrooms by himself ... he's been coming a couple of years, quiet, keeps out of trouble.

Class starts at 4pm but the Tofas have been there since three because some kids come straight from school. They're here five days a week.

I ask whether there are problems with the kids taking the skills they are learning here and being bullies or causing fights at school.

Sandra is emphatic — the youngest kids don't spar against each other anyway, and the club has a strict policy of no fighting outside the gym. Hubby mentors them, says Sandra with a nod toward Eddie, teaches them how to walk away from a fight.

Just as well. Perversely, the boxing club kids are sometimes picked on. Other kids know they train here and sometimes goad them to show what they can do.

There's an open space where the boxing ring normally stands. It was used at Frank Bar for the fight on the weekend and hasn't been set up again yet.

Sandra wrinkles her nose — booze was spilled and it needs a good clean. Better that though, than blood: when the mixed martial art crowd borrow it, she has to use a steam cleaner on the dried blood.

The way Sandra describes it, there's a huge gulf between mixed martial art and amateur boxing. Everyone here boxes with headgear and gloves; mouthguards are mandatory. Yes, kids compete, including 11 year-old Trinity Albert who won a bout in Taupo earlier this month.

Head injuries are possible despite the headgear, she concedes, but none of the club's kids have ever been knocked out in a fight. They are carefully, evenly matched with opponent, and trainers stand ready to throw a towel into the ring to stop the fight if they have concerns.

Not so with mixed martial art, she says; a fighter goes down and the fight goes on.

I've all manner of intellectual arguments about the barbarity of calling fighting a sport, deep concerns about fights in pubs and the multi-million dollars that pro fights bring in for promoters, broadcasters and state-controlled gambling. I could argue about the racist, classist roots of professional boxing.

And yet ... I feel completely at home in this cavernous space; its smells and sounds are still familiar.

A long time ago, I spent years lifting free weights, mostly in crappy little gyms with sweat-soaked carpets. I spent my mid-teens ringside, watching my beloved older brother win national and Australasian titles in full contact karate. I was training in another martial art then but, in my early 20s, went to Kyokushin, too. I still carry in my body the confidence that comes with that training.

You're not going to find me at boxing matches. But I've haven't got a word to say against the Tofas and the love and care they dispense here.

*Rachel Rose is a writer, gardener, fermenter and fomenter.