Seven years ago Latu Talu was an overstayer from Tuvalu.
On Friday, the 24-year-old boxer from Porirua was honoured as "Migrant of the Year" by the New Zealand Association for Migration and Investment.
"I just can't believe it, I was thinking there must be lots of migrants who are better and more deserving than me," Talu said.
The award was presented to him by Minister of State Services Paula Bennett at a black tie ceremony in Auckland.
Talu came to New Zealand with his family when he was 7, but his parents separated when he was 15 and he went to live with his mother.
He came to the attention of Immigration New Zealand when he applied for a work visa for an after-school supermarket job.
His father had not included him as part of the family's residency application.
Talu's mother had been diagnosed with cancer and his sister, then 13, was too young to work.
"I just had to work, if I don't work my family didn't have any money, there was just no other way," he said.
"By the time I was 17, there was no more money to keep me in school and I had to work fulltime."
In 2006, he took up boxing as a hobby at the Naenae Boxing Academy to get his mind off things and fell in love with the sport.
"It is a sport that it is only me that had to push myself, not like rugby where you have to depend on your other players to play it well," Talu said.
If he didn't work hard or go for a run, only he would suffer in the boxing ring.
Under the wing of academy patron Billy Graham, Talu became its first NZ champion boxer in 2007 and legitimised his immigration status.
He went on to win the North Island Golden Gloves title, Wellington/Hutt Valley titles and travelled to America in 2012 to demonstrate his boxing skills at the US Air Force Academy.
Last year, Talu was selected for trials for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games but missed out because he did not have New Zealand citizenship.
He was finally granted permanent residency in February and is now head coach at the Cannons Creek Charitable Trust boxing academy.
Talu and his partner have two young children.
In his spare time he is involved with at-risk youth and the local Rotary Club.
Mr Graham described Talu as "a resilient, resourceful young man who is thankful for everything that comes his way. He's been through so much for a young lad and is truly deserving of the award."
Association chairwoman June Ranson said the award recognised a migrant whose personal efforts and achievements made them exceptional.