Training out the back of an Otara pub proved the launching pad for a notable boxing career, writes Nick Edlin.

Has the adage a picture is worth a thousand words ever been more appropriate? Paea 'The Tongan Warrior' Wolfgramm lands a thunderous right to a canvas heavy-bag that has seen better days.

The deep indentation his pitch-black glove leaves on the bag is dreadful in its implications -an inanimate object today, a fellow human tomorrow.

The hunched twist of his body, his furrowed brow, the set of his mouth all bespeak the grim determination only true fighters understand. Behind him, hundreds of empty beer cans are bagged in clear plastic, awaiting collection.

All the world's a stage, sure, but this theatre was resolutely local. Welcome to boxing, Otara style. Wolfgramm lives in Brisbane now, where he helps out with his wife's car rental business. It's a long way from the incredible feats he managed as an amateur super heavyweight in the mid-1990s.


Wolfgramm put Tongan sport on the map by claiming bronze at the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games, gold in the Oceania Championships the following year and silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where he lost the final to no less an opponent than future world heavyweight champion Vladimir Klitschko.

It was the first and only medal an Island nation has won at an Olympics. What makes Wolfgramm's achievements so special is that they sprung from a makeshift gym out the back of an Otara pub, the Tradewinds Tavern.

"It was a storage area for beer cans and so forth," he says. "The owner of the building allowed us to use it for free and gave us a lot of space to put the ring and bags up." Wolfgramm turned professional shortly after Atlanta, and the photograph captures him in training for his first money bout in the United States.

He has a clear recollection of the image but is hazy on the details - and with good reason. "I've taken a few too many right hands in my time," he laughs.

Wolgramm's story as a boxer began at the gym as a 22-year-old. A career that included Olympic and Commonwealth medals and 20 professional fights was conceived amid the fug of stale beer.

"On Saturday mornings, when you came in, there was absolutely the smell of hops and fermentation going on. When you mingle that with sweat, it can be quite ripe."

Very little science was applied in dealing with the odours.

"We just opened all the doors - that was the air conditioning."

The bad stink wasn't the only thing he had to get used to. There was also the small matter of the other fighters. Wolfgramm fast learned there was no such thing as baby steps in Otara.

"When I started, there was a guy there who was a light-heavyweight Oceania champ. He was the only one I could spar with, and I used to get a hiding day in, day out.

"It got to the point where I would look into the gym and see if he was there. If I saw him, I would jump back into the car and go home."

But his trainer made him front up, and he credits the experience with helping him develop into a competitive boxer so quickly.

Wolfgramm has fond memories of the unique gym, where jokers from the pub would come out back to watch him train, beers in hand. He was saddened when it closed.

"The owner sold the building, and the new one didn't keep the gym open," he says. "I loved training with the local boys in Otara. It was my home town."