To Thell Torrence, Jimmy "Thunder" Peau was special.

His case wasn't.

Heavyweight boxer Peau has died in his old hometown of Auckland at the age of 54.

His most recent life remains something of a mystery, but his travails in America have been revealed over the years and it is hard to think of another Kiwi OE sports story like it.

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But Peau's American experience also comes across as a boxing cliché, where dreams of glory become a slide towards despair.

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For those of a certain age, who had witnessed the high-profile rise of the Samoa-born heavyweight boxer, news of his death was a moment of great sadness.

From the heights of a Commonwealth Games gold medal, the controversy of his 1988 Olympic omission, and a bizarre fight at Alexandra Park where a shoeless Peau found his feet sticking to the hot canvas, he virtually disappeared from public view as many famous sports people do.

Jimmy 'Thunder' Peau. Photo / Getty
Jimmy 'Thunder' Peau. Photo / Getty

It emerged that Peau ended up homeless for a period and living in a Las Vegas park.

The man who tried to get him out of there was former boxer Torrence, a Nevada Hall of Fame trainer whose career brought him into close contact with some of the sport's most famous people, including Ken Norton and Eddie Futch.

Torrence is a softly spoken man who is still training and promoting at the age of 84. With his fighting career over, Peau visited Torrence in an act of desperation it seems.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Torrence says, when told by NZME of Peau's passing.

"I knew him well, and I was just speaking to someone about him a few weeks ago. His name came up."

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Torrence is unsure of the exact date, but Peau wandered into his office one day. Peau – or Thunder – didn't have a driver's licence or other ID, preventing him from getting assistance or even a job.

Torrence, who had seen Peau fight a few times, sent him to the Nevada Boxing Commission for help.

"He told me he was living in a park here, and I asked him why he wasn't working," says Torrence.

"He said he didn't have an ID. I gave him $50 or a $100 to help him get to the commission.

"I was sad to find out he didn't have everything going for him, and I hoped he would get his life straight."

Jimmy Thunder knocks out Bomani Parker in 1995. Photo / Getty
Jimmy Thunder knocks out Bomani Parker in 1995. Photo / Getty

A short while later, Peau returned.

"Jimmy didn't talk much – he was a proud guy," says Torrence.

"I'm sure it broke his heart to go ask for anything. When he showed up again I asked him (about the money) and whether he went to the commission.

"He dropped his head and said 'no'. Every other guy would have lied. He told me the truth.

"I'd already thought about it, and what does a guy like that do? Why catch a bus to go somewhere and be embarrassed?

"These guys are proud people. They're proud fighters. They don't like to ask people and sometimes people ignore you. Rejection is very difficult."

Torrence gave Peau more money, and never saw him again.

Perhaps part-motivated by his meetings with Peau, Torrence has since set up a programme to help fighters who have hit the skids.

Jimmy Thunder celebrates his win over Craig Petersen in 1992. Photo / Photosport
Jimmy Thunder celebrates his win over Craig Petersen in 1992. Photo / Photosport

There was so much more to Peau's life - both good and bad. But the image of a homeless gold medalist lost in a foreign land is hard to shake.

"Jimmy was a solid fighter," says Torrence.

"He was a very talented kid who came here, got hooked up, was doing well, then things went wrong either in his career or life. This happens a lot.

"Down and out fighters are close to our heart. There are guys out there we need to get to, before their careers are over."

Torrence will never forget Jimmy Peau.

"He was always a gentleman, always real respectful," he says.

"My heart goes out for Jimmy, and the other fighters as well."