Mad as a cut snake, he was," says Mal Meninga over the phone. "Yeah," the Aussie rugby league legend says in broad Australian, "mad as a cut snake - on and off the football field."

Meninga is difficult to get hold of, with the second State of Origin game coming up. He is coach of the Queensland side who lost to New South Wales by the skin of their teeth in the first game last month, so he's busy trying to make sure that doesn't happen again.

But he has a good laugh when I tell him it was his old mate Dean Lonergan who gave me his carefully guarded number. "Did he now?" Meninga echoes. "What, does he expect me to give him a rap or something?"

Meninga won't be drawn on why Lonergan was mad as a cut snake. Suffice it to say, Lonergan's youthful exuberances as a Canberra Raider back in the late 1980s may have hampered his on-field potential just a bit.

"Probably one of his regrets during his time there, he didn't grasp that his antics off the field, um, weren't [helping him become] successful."

And what were these antics? "Oh, you know, just enjoying life," says Meninga hazily. "Being in Australia, you know, chasing young fillies and all that type of stuff. Just the usual young person's stuff."

Weekend Review called Meninga for insights into the former Kiwi rugby league star. Lonergan might have seemed a boofhead in the old days but these days he is an entrepreneur about town.

He's one of Auckland's larger than life characters, a curious mix of hard league man and philanthropist.

The pair are great mates and Meninga has a lot of respect for his friend. He has fought in two of Lonergan's Fight for Life charity fundraisers: "I like his ideals, I like his values, he does things for all the right reasons. He's got a genuine desire to help the community and I like that sort of thing.

"He's always had that persona about him, he likes to do things for his fellow people."

The most obvious public expression of this is Lonergan's Fight for Life events. These have become a household name in New Zealand but not without a controversy which saw Lonergan take a hit. Word is, when the Herald ran a story a few years ago detailing the cut Lonergan received for the second Fight for Life for the Yellow Ribbon youth suicide trust, he was pretty hurt.

The media viewed the $411,000 he was paid as a scandal. What was not widely known was that he had staged the first fight free the year before, went broke and had to sell his house.

He carried on, though, and since then the fights, which pit sports celebrities and the odd politician against each other in the boxing ring, have raised $3 million to $4 million for charities.

Nonetheless, the media has not let up, constantly querying the amount he makes.

The big guy's had enough. He sits in his Ponsonby office, a 192cm (6ft3in), 120kg straight-talking giant, leaning back, hands behind his head, sizing us up. After all, it was a Herald reporter who broke the original story and unleashed the media.

He's agreed to speak despite - in blunt yet inoffensive Lonergan language - being "f ... d by the Herald before".

He tells us that although his new show coming up in August, a circus/athletic extravaganza, has a charity element, he is pulling out of the charity gig, at least for now.

Last month's Fight for Life raised $400,000 for Child Cancer but cost about $1.25 million to put on. While the charity incurs no risk, Lonergan does.

He reckons he has made it clear to media where his cut comes from - from things like TV rights and commercial angles, never the charity dollar - and "it gets up my nose when the media ring me trying to find out, like, 'how much is the charity paying ya?' "

The plan is to concentrate on growing his business, Dean Lonergan Events. He wants to expand offshore, hopefully to America in the next few years. He loves America and the way that country celebrates success.

America has already influenced his most ambitious event yet, to be staged in West Auckland where he grew up. It is called Cirque Rocks - Cirque de Soleil meets rock'n'roll, entertainment and athletes.

It has Chinese plate spinners (you'd be surprised how many Chinese do this as a career, Lonergan says) top BMX riders and skateboarders, fast track tumblers, Russian motorcycle foot jugglers and a lot more acts, plus a 60-piece orchestra, a 30-person choir and a 15-piece rock band. That's 215 performers in all.

Lonergan travels to Las Vegas a lot, getting different ideas on how to make his events bigger and better.

"When we do Cirque Rocks it's going to be with the very latest ideas, the very latest lighting stuff and we're going to do it in a really unique way, and it's just expensive, man. It's going to cost close to just over $2 million to put this thing on you know, for five days."

Lonergan thinks big. He describes himself as right wing, somewhere between National and Act, and heavily into personal responsibility. Whether people are in a good place or a bad place, it's their own fault.

"Having said that, I have come over the years to understand that we have a social responsibility for those who don't necessarily do as well, so I'm sort of torn between far right wing and a little bit left wing leanings.

"And to be fair, if I didn't have those left wing leanings I sure as hell wouldn't do what I'm doing because in those first couple of years it cost me an absolute bloody fortune and to be fair if I ever actually make any serious money I'd probably give it away. Most of it, anyway."

He reckons he almost voted Labour for the first time in the last election. There were two reasons.

One was the anti-smoking legislation, a "fantastic bit of human rights. I support the right to smoke but not in my face, so long as you're doing it outside and not blowing it over me I'm happy for you to do that.

"And also, I thought the civil unions bill where they're allowing gays to engage in civil unions, why the hell shouldn't they be allowed to do that? Why shouldn't they be allowed to have full marriages, two consenting adults?"

But when it came to the polling booth, he just couldn't quite mark the Labour box.

Lonergan's mum, Dorothy, who still lives in West Auckland, says her son has had his tough times but he has a big heart and a great ability to pick himself up and start again.

"He is very, very much a softie. Once Dean is your friend he is a very, very loyal friend. I mean, you could tell Dean your biggest, darkest secret and it would never, ever get out."

Family is everything, she says, and he adores his 10-year-old son Liam. "He lives for that boy," she says.

His Gran, Eileen, who recently passed away, was also adored.

You might remember her from Radio Hauraki when Lonergan was a Morning Pirate DJ in the 1990s.

The stints were called "Dean's Gran's Favourite Songs" and Lonergan would call her to tell her which songs to request, like Break on Through by the Doors, or a Jimi Hendrix number.

"She was in her late 70s at this stage and he'd say, 'Gran, this is what you've got to say,' " says Dorothy.

"This particular day she rang up and she requested the song and she goes 'you know, Dean, that one by The Windows'."

Eileen was a big influence in the family, a league nut in a family of league nuts.

Says Lonergan: "She always wanted someone in the family to be a Kiwi. I had cousins who played rugby league, I had uncles who played rugby league so there was only ever one sport I was going to play."

It was a family member who helped get Lonergan one of his rugby league nicknames, "Hunter."

The story goes that when selection for the Kiwis was coming up, Lonergan was on the bus with his Aunty Noeleen.

They were having a chat - probably Lonergan was doing all the talking - and decided he needed to have a tough image to get selected, so they cooked up "pig hunter" to put down as his occupation.

Lonergan had never been pig hunting in his life. He has since though, just the once.

"Man, it's hard work. You've got to walk for miles and miles and you've got to stick things. Yeah, no. Killing pigs, I don't think it's one of my fortes."

He had another nickname, too, "Cowboy". This one was given by former league star Mark Graham because he used to walk around with a snakeskin belt and cowboy boots.

But the best known incident of his 11-test career was the time he ran into Steve "Blocker" Roach while playing a test against Australia.

He was knocked cold and one of his legs spasmed, all caught on camera. He was helped off but talked the coach into putting him back out there and he played on.

The Mad Butcher, Peter Leitch, was there that day and held his hand when he was out: "He's the only league player in the world that's ever had a dance named after him, the Dean Lonergan Shuffle." He's always got on well with Lonergan, he's one of the good guys, says Leitch.

"He's just a hard-case bloke and you know, he's never scared to give an opinion on something and that's what we need in this country."

The knock-out earned Lonergan his reputation as hard man, that and an early charity boxing match he took part in as a fund-raiser for his old club Glenora. The Australians thought he was a professional boxer.

By the time he stood for Tamaki in a by-election for Sir Rob Muldoon's seat as a stunt for Radio Hauraki, the reputation was cemented.

The slogan went: "Why should Dean Lonergan be elected member for Tamaki? Because he says so, and let's face it, who's going to argue with him?"

You can argue with Lonergan, but you might not get the last word. He is one of life's talkers with the gift of the gab traditional to his working class Irish ancestry. Or, in Meninga's words, "he can yap all right."

Lonergan will converse at length on anything, from how he would like to run the Herald for a few years, to his fascination with the presentation of sport, to how he would like to go and see the Pyramids in Egypt one day, to how much he loves his son.

He is not with Liam's mum anymore but has Liam every weekend and whenever else he can.

Liam leans to music and movies instead of league, the pair see a movie a week.

"Last Thursday he rings me up and says 'dad, dad, dad, Da Vinci Code's out, we gotta go, we gotta go."'

They went and Liam loved it but Lonergan did not think it was as good as the book, which he's read three times.

Sometimes they just drive around together listening to songs and deciding which ones to put in the events - "I just drag him around, we get everything done."

Rugby league has been good to him, Lonergan reckons. It gave him his start in promotions and it helped channel the aggression of a young man.

He did not used to give it any thought, but says league is a brutal, aggressive game.

"You've got guys now at 110kg, they can cover 100m in under 12 seconds, they stand 20 yards apart and they run at each other at full speed and smash the [expletive] out of each other."

He remembers going to Carlaw Park with his little cousin to watch with "total glee".

Is Lonergan still as mad as a cut snake?

Probably. Meninga says he is coming over for a Raiders reunion and suggests ringing him at 3am "then you'll understand why he's a bit of a rogue at times".

Ten things you should know about Mr Fight For Life, Dean Lonergan

1 Grew up in West Auckland, played rugby league from the age of 5.

2 Won Auckland Rugby League Referees Association best and fairest player for 1985.

3 First boxing bout in 1989 was a fundraiser for Glenora. Called himself "The Assassin".

4 Played 11 tests for the Kiwis, retired at 26.

5 Filled in on Radio Hauraki as one of the Morning Pirates and ended up staying seven years.

6 Used to get his Gran on air to request his favourite rock songs.

7 Ran promotional league games bringing Australian teams to Carlaw Park, before the existence of the Warriors.

8 Tried to buy the Warriors in 1997 and then later became promotions manager.

9 Began rumour ZZ Top were playing at start of Warriors season only to have two mates turn out wearing ZZ Top beards.

10 First got into charity work when a mate's house burnt down. Put on a fight night and raised $50,000.