Something had to change for Manu Vatuvei, the former Kiwi and Warriors league legend who returned to Auckland this year from his stint with English club Salford injured, increasingly overweight, and with worryingly low motivation levels.

His Achilles problem, which cut short his time in the north of England, prevented him from training and provided a good excuse to sit on the couch where his weight ballooned to nearly 130kg.

Not surprisingly, that affected the 32-year-old's mental state. Used to being in a team, with all the routines and structures that brings – not to mention the banter with fellow players, training and discipline – Vatuvei was slipping into dangerous territory.

In order to find something to do he took up a construction job – working full days on houses from 7am until 4pm – and then he got a phone call from Duco which has the potential to change his life.


Tomorrow night he will fight Dave "The Brown Buttabean" Letele on the undercard of Joseph Parker's bout against Alexander Flores at Christchurch's Horncastle Arena. It is his professional heavyweight debut and if it goes well for Vatuvei he is likely to pursue a career in it.

Manu Vatuvei will take on David Letele tomorrow. Photo / Photosport
Manu Vatuvei will take on David Letele tomorrow. Photo / Photosport

Boxing can destroy lives but it can save them too. That's part of the fascination of the sport known as the sweet science and in this case it has Vatuvei active, in good mental and physical condition, and with a new self-control that often comes with putting on the gloves and getting into the ring.

"I got to my heaviest when I stopped playing footy," Vatuvei told the Herald.

"Getting to that weight was hard. I felt sluggish and heavy and tired the whole time. I wasn't used to that. I had to do something so I started working in construction.

"I started getting active and luckily enough I got a phone call from Duco and I was asked if I wanted to jump on this card.

"I wanted to get back into shape. I was 129kg. I've never been that heavy before – my previous heaviest when I've been injured was 120kg."

The man known as The Beast who scored tries for fun on the wing for the Kiwis and Warriors weighed between 110kg-115kg during his playing days. He weighed in today at 116.35kg.

He was loved by his team's supporters and feared by his opposition in equal measure and yet he said he was near defenseless to the feelings of mental malaise which came when he suddenly stopped.


A recent survey in England found more than 60 per cent of professional rugby players suffer mental health issues when they retire and that is likely to apply in New Zealand and Australia too.

Former England and Arsenal football player Tony Adams was recently appointed as head of the Rugby Football League and has made it his priority to improve the mental health and addiction issues of its players.

Vatuvei's opponent Letele has a similar story, but his comeback from injury and obesity is even more stunning. Letele tipped the scales today at 110.45kg. At his heaviest, Letele was 210kg and he uses his experiences and story as motivation for those in a similar position.

"Boxing has copped a lot of bad press in the past but boxing has turned my life around," Letele, a former league player, said. "Four years ago I came back from Australia with nothing – depressed, broke, I hated my life and wanted to drive into a pole every day. Boxing gave me my family back and it put me back to where I should be – and that's on top. I am what breaking the cycle looks like."

For Vatuvei, the issues among rugby and league players will likely come as no surprise.

"Coming from team sports and training all the time and being active to doing nothing was a shock to the body and my mind too," he said. "I've always been in a scheduled environment. I've always had that structure. I wasn't used to just sitting at home doing nothing. I needed a routine and this has given me that. I feel far happier – mentally I'm feeling really good about myself."

Manu Vatuvei poses during the weigh in ahead of his bout. Photo / Getty
Manu Vatuvei poses during the weigh in ahead of his bout. Photo / Getty

Vatuvei has fought before – in a Fight for Life corporate bout against rower Eric Murray in 2012 - which he won. Training for that fight was beneficial in many ways including teaching him better self control on the league pitch.

"Growing up as a kid I had a temper and I used to get angry a lot," he said. "League helped me with that but I still had a few issues with those things, especially when you play and an opponent does something to you. You get tunnel vision instead of looking at the wider picture. Boxing got me mentally tough and focused – it doesn't matter what happens, you just have to focus on what you have to do.

"If there's a bad situation I can always control my anger and solve it in a different way."

But while his win against Murray gave him a taste of what it was all about, this fight against Letele, who has been in the ring 19 times as a professional, is different because of the threat his opponent presents and the fact it could be the start of something. He has an offer of five fights with a promoter in Australia but it is dependent on how he does in Christchurch.

"This is more nerve wracking, especially coming up against Dave who has been in a lot of wars," Vatuvei said. "For me to come in off one fight… someone like Dave is going to put a lot of pressure on me and try to frustrate me. He'll try to make me throw a lot of punches and get tired so that's something I'm really nervous about. For sure, you don't want to get knocked out – that's one thing you're always worried about.

"When you're training in a big group you can always hide away and cut corners, but with boxing it's one on one and your trainer is watching you the whole time. You can't take short cuts. Looking back, it's made me realise when I was playing that if I wasn't doing my job someone was doing it for me. I don't want to put that on someone else, I want to do my own job and do it right.

"It's a matter of getting used to the footwork – little techniques on how to punch and how to load up. A big thing was conditioning my shoulders to keep my hands up because when the fatigue sets in they can come down. There are a lot of things that I've had to work on – especially my fitness.

"I'll just stick to my strengths and hopefully if I carry on with this I can get better and better and add other things."