David Tua on his biggest loss
When David Tua took his long walk to the ring at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas for his world heavyweight title fight against undisputed champion Lennox Lewis, he caught sight of his father, Tuavale, and was transported for a moment to his childhood in Samoa.
There, as a boy, in the village of Faleatiu, which still celebrates its favourite son with a sign announcing it as the “home of the Tuaman”, he watched old fights on TV with Tuavale. The fights featured boxers such as Rocky Marciano and George Foreman, the latter ringside for his fight against Lewis, and Tua senior said to him: “I hope one day that I get the chance to be at a world heavyweight title fight.”
Now, 17 years ago to the day since that night in front of the bright lights which ultimately ended in a unanimous defeat to Lewis, Tua told the Herald on Sunday he felt vindicated regardless of the result. “Even though I hadn’t fought or competed in the ring [against Lewis], a dream had come true because of that,” he says.
Tuavale passed away in June this year. Tua, who will turn 45 in a couple of weeks, lost his mother, Noela, in August. Unsurprisingly, emotions are still raw. “It’s bittersweet — they were together in this life and they are together again at the end.”
Sitting at a table at his gym in Onehunga, quiet now but usually full of energy, Tua adds: “They were wonderful people. Amazing parents. As far as them encouraging me through the tough times in training — it was a positive thing at that time.
“We didn’t have much. Dad had to work at times 14-16 hours a day just to support me and my older brother Andrew at the time. Training camps weren’t cheap. They both worked tirelessly to make sure I didn’t miss any camps.”
Those camps and fights in the US — he was almost exclusively based Stateside during his 21 years as a professional — took him away from his family for months, but the sacrifices made by him and his parents honed Tua into a 1.78m wrecking ball.
As a boxer, Tua will forever be known for his leaping left hook, a weapon that destroyed many of his opponents, including, memorably, John Ruiz after just 19 seconds, but he couldn’t get close enough to land it consistently against Lewis, the last undisputed world heavyweight champion.
It was Tua’s one and only world title fight and while he probably had the better of the early rounds, Lewis’ jab — the much taller man had an incredible 35cm reach advantage — took its toll in the end.
“All in all it was a great experience. It wasn’t the outcome that I had searched for,” Tua says. “But a lot of great things came out of that fight. I learned about myself.”
Asked if he had any regrets about that fight, Tua says: “Absolutely not.
“You know, you go through the fight and if the plan works, great, but if it doesn’t you stay in there until the fight finishes. I’ve never been one to take the easy way out. I could have quit on my stool, I could have thrown in the towel and all that . . . but you have to keep trying.”
Tua’s ability to take and deliver powerful punches meant he was rarely out of a fight and many of his 52 professional victories came from late knockouts. His record when he finally quit the ring four years ago reads: 52 wins (43 knockouts), five defeats, two draws.
He was never knocked out and until very late in his career was never put down or hurt.
He takes to the present tense when describing Lewis now: “Very scientific. Great finesse. Uses a great jab. He boxed a very good game plan. He stuck with it and did a good job of it. He’s got a good right hand.”
But Tua needs prompting when asked about his career. “I don’t sit around and think about the things that I’ve done,” he says. “I’ve moved on from that and now I’m enjoying what I love doing every morning — taking the classes here at our gym and being involved with community events.”
There are obvious highlights, though, like his destruction of Ruiz and the ability, after a victory that has slipped his mind, to make the final payment on his parents’ house in south Auckland. He adds: “It was a privilege. It was a great honour and opportunity for me to look after my family and take care of them. It was a beautiful journey while it lasted.”
The fight against Ruiz, an American who later beat Evander Holyfield over 12 rounds and had lost only twice in 27 professional bouts when he faced Tua, came in 1996, four years into Tua’s pro career. It was Tua’s most significant win at that point.
“Obviously John Ruiz [was a big win], but that is a different story,” he
says. “It was the belt that mattered.”
Tua tells a story about how as an amateur in New Zealand he won a national heavyweight title, and was presented with a trophy, a certificate and a shield, but not the gleaming belt he had seen in a display case. When told that was for the most scientific boxer of the tournament, Tua couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“I was really hurt. I really wanted that belt, so when there was a chance I could fight
John Ruiz, my first question was ‘is it for a belt?’. They said, ‘yes’.
“About a week and a half before the fight there was a problem with my elbow. I had an x-ray on it and there was a hairline fracture. The doctor said ‘you can’t fight’. I said ‘no, I’ve waited a long time for this, I’m not going to let it slip by’. Sure enough that was the punch which did the job.”
Ruiz hit the deck after 14 seconds. An extra five went by as referee Tony Perez counted the unconscious figure out. Doing “the job” helped Tua to the WBC international heavyweight title. It was a victory which created interest around the world. Asked if his left hook, a punch which began at his toes and travelled up his tree trunk legs all the way to his knuckles, was coached or natural, Tua replies: “A bit of both. It started way back when I was young in Samoa. When I was asked to go and cut the grass I did it with my left [hand]. Even though I was righthanded, dad would say ‘no, no, use the left’. So for some crazy reason it would have developed some kind of strength through it. Going into boxing, the left hook seemed natural, but the timing and to perfect it, how to throw it properly, was another matter.”
While many of the kids who come to Tua’s gym to train or take part in leadership programmes held in conjunction with the local schools now are likely to be Joseph Parker fans, they know of Tua’s deeds too. “Surprisingly they still remember my name. It’s not too hard to spell. It’s humbling.”
Asked about Parker, the KiwiSamoan who is the holder of the WBO world heavyweight title, Tua says: “I’ve been following him. He’s doing amazing things. Obviously he’s become world champion. It’s still early days. The rest is up to him. There are a lot of great, exciting fights, for him lined up. I hope that all goes well for him.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Tua says, when asked what advice he would give Parker. “Continue to love what you do because you have to be passionate to do what you do.”
Tua was involved in a long legal dispute over money with former managers Martin Pugh and Kevin Barry, the latter now Parker’s trainer, but he has always loved the sport.
Among his more promising fighters is a nephew, Andrew, an 18-year-old middleweight about to start his amateur career.
“I’m still involved in it. It’s still a big part of my life.
“I’ll always be involved with boxing. I love teaching, I love sharing knowledge and I love seeing these kids succeed.”
Finally, asked which opponent hit him the hardest, Tua says, smiling: “My mum. My mum had the hardest punch — she had a good sneaky uppercut.”
David Tua has had ups and downs in his career but has never lost his love for boxing.
David Tua (right) lost to Lennox Lewis.