Kicked out of school at 16, Sam Hill's decision to turn to martial arts was one that saved his life.

It was a relationship set up though the common adversity of playground bullying. A seven-days-a-week boarder at South Auckland's Wesley College, Hill was constantly getting picked on through his early high school years.

"I wanted to learn to protect myself," Hill tells the Herald. "Eventually I got asked to leave school [for fighting]. I found a kickboxing gym which I honestly think put me on the straight and narrow and saved me from a whole lot more trouble in my youth."

Hill got started in the workforce after leaving school and began training at SMAC gym in Manurewa. It wasn't long before he decided to focus on fighting full time and in 2017 won the welterweight title at the King in the Ring eight-man elimination kickboxing tournament. Now 27 and training at the world renowned City Kickboxing, Hill will look to defend his crown this weekend when the welterweights return to the King in the Ring stage.

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Mike 'Blood Diamond' Mathetha is one of a number of past King in the Ring winners who train at City Kickboxing. Photo / Photosport
Mike 'Blood Diamond' Mathetha is one of a number of past King in the Ring winners who train at City Kickboxing. Photo / Photosport

Hill made the move to City Kickboxing about 18 months ago, looking for more experienced sparring partners to work with and learn from. With the gym's stable consisting of UFC stars Israel Adesanya, Dan Hooker, Kai Kara-France and Shane Young, as well as a host of former King in the Ring winners, it was the right place to go.

"When you're sparring people more experienced, you tend to learn a lot more. It's a lot harder and you get a lot more gains. If you want to get further in the sport, I think eventually you have to find those more experienced sparring partners.

"The guy that's hit me the hardest and didn't look like he was even trying was Dan Hooker. I sparred with him once and he landed a kick – it didn't even look like it was hard, but far out it did the damage."

Hill will be hoping the increased level of training pays off this weekend in the King in the Ring tournament that could see him fight up to three times in the night. An eight-man elimination tournament, fighters need to win three bouts on the night to claim the title.
It was a concept that fuelled some nerves in Hill initially, but he quickly learned the format suited him nicely.

Sam Hill (right) was crowned King in the Ring champion in 2017. Photo / Calden Jamieson
Sam Hill (right) was crowned King in the Ring champion in 2017. Photo / Calden Jamieson

"The thought of it, it was like 'holy hell', fighting three times I was a bit nervous but I actually feel better every fight," he explains.

"First fight, you're kind of getting rid of the nerves and I'm a slow starter, too, I take a while to warm up so by the second fight I feel great. Third fight I didn't feel nervous at all, I was willing to die in there. I think being the third time in that night, the nerves were gone."

This weekend's eliminator looks set to be Hill's last outing in the ring for the next three or four months as he turns his attention toward making his mixed martial arts debut.

He says he wants to spend the next few months working on his wrestling and grappling with his sights set on a debut in the cage toward the end of the year or early in 2020; and defending his crown will be the perfect way to briefly step away from competition.

"I don't want to see anyone else win this title. I want to claim it as my weight division."