He switched tack to boost his fitness for premier club rugby but the smell of leather and linament, mixed with sweat, took Jerome Joseph-Pampellone's fancy in his first entry into a boxing ring three years ago.
Only last week Joseph-Pampellone took a gargantuan stride to the higher echelons of amateur boxing when he established himself as the top eight pugilist in the globe at the AIBA World Boxing Championship in Russia.
From Wednesday next week, the 23-year-old Aucklander will step into the ring at the Hastings Sports Centre to wow fans at the Hawke's Bay Boxing Association-hosted, four-day New Zealand Amateur Championship for men and women.
"It just shows that I'm still focused on my game and still keen to keep that No 1 spot in New Zealand," said Joseph-Pampellone who is defending his 81kg light heavyweight belt.
The orthodox fighter, who also put his west Auckland gym of Peach Boxing on the global map, had won his first three fights in Yekaterinburg last week before coming up shy on a split decision in the quarterfinal to Benjamin Whittaker, of England.
Craig McDougall, who runs the Hastings Giants Boxing Academy and was instrumental in helping revive the provincial passion with amalgamating clubs again, says that's what hosting the nationals is all about.
"So that we'll all start developing — excuse the pun — heavyweights of boxing for our local clubs," says McDougall, alluding to the enormity of what Joseph-Pampellone has achieved in his 3 x 3-minute bouts.
"It's a huge feat for someone who is pretty young in boxing, too, so we're really excited."
The HB Boxing Association executive member likens Joseph-Pampellone's presence here to having the All Blacks visit the Bay where potential Magpies recognise pedigree athletes "have two arms and as many legs" but have done the hard yards and acquired a desirable mind set to foot it at the elite level.
"Jerome's a pretty composed boxer and a really nice young kid coming into, I guess, in leaps for these young fellows in the wake of the Jedi," he says of a nationals that come on the heels of ones in Hastings in 1920, 1934, 1958 and 2003, bar 1926 in Napier. Fights will be staged from 1.30pm to 7pm each day but from 3pm in the finals on the Saturday.
McDougall says the sole purpose of having a regional sports organisation status is to support and develop not just clubs that are already operating but perhaps help sprout a few more.
London-born Joseph-Pampellone, who has Trinidadian heritage but arrived in New Zealand with his family when he was 4, had upset world No 3 and former Olympian Abdelrahman Salah Orabi despite his lack of experience. He registered his third victory of the tournament by inflicting two standing eight counts and a knockdown on the Egyptian.
Judges gave the Kiwi a unanimous decision of 30-26, 30-26, 30-25, 30-26, 29-27 on their cards.
Joseph-Pampellone had earlier registered 5-0 wins against El Mohor Ziad, of Belgium, and P Kovacs, of Hungary.
"To have that sort of performance — to have him just come out of Russia — but they aren't too big to box at our nationals," says McDougall, adding he'll be having a great week against his five opponents here.
He'll be up against Trevor Swainson, of Canterbury, who beat at the NZ Golden Gloves in July. The others are Egalani Taito, of Whanganui, who he eclipsed at the North Island Golden Gloves in Taupo in June; Colton Seymour-Moir, of Kirikiriroa, a young talent who had turned heads at the Youth Oceania Championship in Samoa not long ago; Rhiane Bishop, who hails from Otago, as well as River Royal, who fights out of the Mike Sykes Gym in Rotorua.
"River's a good boxer, well skilled from a coach who has done it all and who's own son was a great international level light heavy weight," says McDougall.
Joseph-Pampellone is a plumber by trade but doesn't let the daily rigours of eking out a living get in the way of realising his boxing dreams.
It is something former builder McDougall relates to when he was in the ring in his heyday.
"I'd come to training pretty shattered after digging drains all day so Jerome will be doing that and that's part of any sport," he says. "In boxing, you've got to dig deep and then at the end of an honest's day's work come in to the gym to spar."
McDougall says it takes a collective grind to help prepare a boxer who always has to put in the shift as an individual and listen to the coaches.
Joseph-Pampellone says with the couple of unknown quantities in his division he's expecting the unexpected but, ritualistically, he always keeps his guard up no matter where.
He's had 37 bouts, losing six of them, including a knockdown to an Aussie bronze medallist.
"I'm still new to the sport so I've been training hard."
Joseph-Pampellone adheres to the principles of ring craft and believes everything stems from his jab although he has claimed three knockout victories in his career.
It appeals to him that boxing is an individual pursuit in the ring and draws on one's will power to prevail.
"You get what you put in and you can't cheat [with the training]."
Joseph-Pampellone says he's found his passion and won't return to rugby.
He's indebted to his co-trainer brothers, Isaac and younger sibling Boaz Peach, who also tickle his mental faculties.
"They push me to my limits but they also make me enjoy the sport, too."
Joseph-Pampellone, with fellow national teammate David Nyika, will have the opportunity to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics during the Asia-Oceania qualification tournament in Wuhan, China, from February 3-14, and at a world qualification event in Paris in May.
Boxing New Zealand chairman Keith Walker, who has been to six Olympics, five Commonwealth Games and seven world championships as an AIBA official, will be here.
It is understood for Walker the 1958 nationals in Hastings was his first one as a boxer.