Three years ago Philip Tele'a was told he was too fat to live.

He decided he was too young to die and has shed 122kg. He feels, he says, "unstoppable".

Tele'a, 33, whose weight has dropped from 295kg to 173kg, is one of Brown Buttabean Motivation's (BBM) success stories.

Set up and led by Dave Letele, aka boxer the Brown Buttabean, the group of volunteers run daily free boot camps in West and South Auckland.

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They are held in school halls and parks - wherever there is free space. But now, with the help of the Hugh Green Foundation and Skycity, they have leased a 700sq m building in Manukau.

Tele'a spoke to the Herald during the first week of boot camps held at BBM's headquarters.

By his 30th birthday, complications because of his weight had cost Tele'a his job as a forklift driver and made him such a regular at hospital that doctors gave him the hard word.

"They said that if I wasn't going to do anything about my weight then the next time they were going to see me was in the morgue."

"It was pretty harsh but I had to hear the truth. That was a turning point."

At Tuesday night's boot camp, Tale'a was among the fastest during an exercise called "the bear crawl".

David Letele, aka The Brown Buttabean, left, with Philip Tele'a at a free boot camp in Manukau. Photo / Brett Phibbs
David Letele, aka The Brown Buttabean, left, with Philip Tele'a at a free boot camp in Manukau. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"We started a boot camp especially for Phil called Heavyweight Heroes," says Letele, "and now he runs them.

"Actually, as he's got fitter those classes have got too tough so we've started a new one, called From The Couch, which is entry level for those around 300kg."

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Tele'a says his first step towards fitness was the hardest. He was shy, embarrassed and tired of being looked at.

"I wouldn't go to the malls, to any public places. Even family stuff, I'd always make up excuses. I didn't want to face anyone. I was feeling depressed. But now, I'm a whole new man. I'm always out and about."

He almost drove away from that first boot camp.

"All I could hear was this loud-as chant, and people encouraging each other. It made me think, 'awe, no, I'm not ready for this'.

But Letele had spotted him and called out a welcome.

The popular free Brown Buttabean Motivation boot camps have a new base in Manukau. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The popular free Brown Buttabean Motivation boot camps have a new base in Manukau. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"It was different from the gyms I had tried, just a positive environment and I saw all different sizes working out together.

"I started with just walking two minutes across the field and I couldn't even do that."

Tele'a puts his success down exercising consistently and cutting fizzy drinks and processed carbohydrates.

He's even inspired his family to drop the habit of "to'ona'i, a big feast after Sunday church".

"I think this is what I should be doing, especially inspiring morbidly obese people. I know their struggles."

His advice is to just start despite any fears. "Set realistic goals and work towards them slowly. And don't worry what other people think because this is your journey."

The next step for the former schoolboy gridiron player is an official boxing bout, something that had seemed impossible as his weight rose.

He is due to make his debut in October by which time he aims to weigh less than 150kg.
"Right now," says Tele'a, "I feel unstoppable."

David Letele, says he is
David Letele, says he is "paying it forward", with his popular free boot camps. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Letele, who weighs 110kg - having once been 210kg - has no doubt Tele'a will achieve his goal. "The amount of work you have to do to lose 100kg means that although there will be people who are faster, no one will out-work us."

He earns a living supplying tailored exercise and nutrition programmes but plans to expand the free services to include advice about food and budgeting.

He is "paying it forward", he says, having been helped when at his lowest ebb.

The son of a Samoan Mongrel Mob leader and a Maori teenage mother, Letele's life fell apart after a promising rugby league career was ended by injury.

Five years ago, while living in Australia, he lost his business, his relationship, his health and was robbed at gunpoint.

"Man, I should be dead or in jail with where I've come from. Because I'm not, I want to help serve my community."