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It Takes Tua to Tango David Tua is a playful Samoan, but he plans to give Lennox Lewis a serious run for the heavyweight title

Nov. 13, 2000
Nov. 13, 2000

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Nov. 13, 2000

It Takes Tua to Tango David Tua is a playful Samoan, but he plans to give Lennox Lewis a serious run for the heavyweight title

The compound has had animal problems before, as you might expect
when a lion, a tiger, a chimp and a camel share the backyard.
The fighter's human entourage has had to stand guard against a
pack of coyotes that creeps down off Mount Charleston to snack
on the frozen horsemeat left to defrost in the Nevada night air
for the next day's feeding. That was just one problem. But there
has never been anything like this.

This is an article from the Nov. 13, 2000 issue Original Layout

"It went right under my bed," says one camp member. "It was on
top of mine," says another. Everyone in the camp, it seemed, had
some kind of nocturnal experience with...something...and the
breakfast table is extremely agitated. "I think it was in my
bed," says the fighter himself, slapping his spoon down for
emphasis. "Something black? With whiskers? If I'da caught
that...."

Well, you can just imagine. David Tua's fierceness is scarcely
softened by the Samoan lava lavas he prefers for casual wear
around his fight camp. Even at breakfast--his hair, as always,
standing straight up--he conjures the notion of pent-up
primitivism. He's a 245-pound cannonball is what he is, a guy who
grew up knocking down banana trees with his bare fists and whose
ancestors' idea of fine dining (it's in his press bio!) was the
occasional missionary. If he'da caught that mouse....

He leans into his guest and, so nobody else can hear him,
whispers, "I was going to set him free, you know, that little
mouse. You can't hurt a little mouse."

Tua, who will face heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis on Saturday
night in Las Vegas, is after bigger game. While he has no plans
to put Lewis in a pot (it was Mike Tyson who said he wanted to
eat the Lewis family), Tua is definitely on a trophy hunt.
Underpromoted for much of his eight-year career, he has waited a
long time for a chance at the title, and he's not about to let it
scurry away, like some little mouse.

Haven't heard of Tua? Not a lot of folks have. It was only
recently, after administering a succession of vicious clubbings,
that he emerged as the division's top contender. For years, since
being brought to the U.S. from Auckland, New Zealand, he was odd
man out in a Main Events stable of heavyweights that included
Lewis, Andrew Golota, Evander Holyfield and, later, Michael
Grant. This despite being the most colorful and action-oriented
among them. Since being sprung from Main Events a year ago, he
has been promoted hot-and-heavy by America Presents (which also
promotes Tyson), earning No. 1 status, a lot of press and,
finally, this weekend's nearly $4 million payday in Las Vegas.

Possibly the vicious clubbings would have earned him the shot
anyway. They were becoming hard to ignore. Built like Tyson,
willing to take whatever punishment was necessary to get close
enough to deliver a paralyzing left hook, Tua was crushing
people. He's 37-1, with 32 KOs, his only loss being to Ike
Ibeabuchi. ("And now he's in a mental institution," says Tua,
slyly.) The KOs have been more and more convincing. His four
fights over the past two years have required all of seven rounds,
and they've all been picturesque, in a heavyweight kind of way.
Showtime exec Jay Larkin recently described Tua's June razing of
Obed Sullivan: "Sullivan slowly slid down the ring post, like
paint running down a wall."

Tua will be an underdog all the same. He has not faced the same
caliber of opponent as Lewis--who this year has blown out Grant
and Frans Botha, following a controversial draw with Holyfield
and then a decision over him--and Tua is not regarded as anywhere
near the athlete the champion is. Lewis can jab, box, pile up
points, bore you to death and win huge decisions (and he can
mortally wound you with his right hand, if it lands). At 6'5",
Lewis towers over the 5'10" Tua, no matter how high his hair.
Tua, who turns 28 this month, will have to eat a lot of leather
to get close enough to wear out the 35-year-old Lewis with his
powerful whacks.

However, do you really want to bet against a kid who writes
poetry, calls his parents in New Zealand regularly (he has had a
monthly phone bill of $22,000), lives to organize Ping-Pong
tournaments and then, when he does go to work, as he did in March
1996 when he chopped Johnny Ruiz down in 18 seconds, is impish
enough to say, "I just wish I had more time to get to know the
guy"?

You would have to go back to Riddick Bowe to find a heavyweight
this playful, and to Muhammad Ali before that. Lewis has been an
exemplary champion, though one often derided for excessive
caution, but he remains private and enigmatic and, if you believe
the pay-per-view numbers, not all that interesting. Tua is the
flip side. If there's the slightest bit of mystery to him, he's
eager to dispel it with another of his well-polished tales.

The principal explanation for the Tuaman, as he likes to be
called--as in "This fight is a Tuamandatory" (here's a boxer who
can take a pun)--is his strange upbringing on the small island of
Faleatiu, in Western Samoa. The Tuaman delights in recounting his
father's unorthodox tutelage (Tuatelage?), which in any other
culture would be considered abusive enough to warrant jail time
but, in this case, earns only a son's undying devotion. O.K.,
here's the story.

"I didn't want to box," says the Tuaman, whose actual name, by
the way, is Mafaufau Tavita Lio Mafaufau Sanerivi Talimatasi.
("See why I'm David Tua? There's no fight poster in the world
could get that in.") "Rugby or cricket, maybe. Or go to the
beach. But I sure didn't want to box. The old man, though, he
wanted me to box."

His father, Tuavale, the owner of a "convenience" store (think
7-Eleven with a thatched roof) and a former boxer himself, would
recruit teens from the area to spar with his eight-year-old son.
Every day after work, the father would promise a loaf of bread to
the older boys if they gave his youngster a workout and a
whipping if they didn't. "They respected Mr. Tua," the son says.
"I know for a fact they were afraid of him."

The kid dreaded these sparring sessions. He was big for his age
but hardly of a unique physical type on that small island. Lots
of kids were big for their age. Sometimes he wouldn't come home,
making up elaborate excuses about taking care of sick friends'
parents, whatever he could think of. "I figured I'd sneak home
when he was asleep," Tua says. "Never worked. I'd crawl into bed,
and I'd hear this voice from the next room. 'Come here!' And he'd
give me the strap."

Tuavale did not believe in days off, either. "I'm still hearing
about that one Sunday--there were no sparring partners on
Sunday--when he locked me in the house with my sister, no way out.
It was my first bloody nose. And I'm tired of hearing about it
from her."

But those were the good old days, as it turned out--the family
relatively prosperous (David says his folks had the only car on
the island, the only TV) and the fights all simple. Tua would
come to miss those sundown sparring sessions when the family,
seeking better opportunities for its eight children, moved the
1,800 miles to Auckland, to live in government-subsidized
housing, getting by on small wages from picking pumpkins. Also,
Tua was apparently surrounded by a different element than he was
in the island days when he would gather friends and punch banana
trees until they toppled. Now it was gang warfare, with rivals
clearing out a parking lot, fighting to exhaustion, the losers
having to give up their boots and leather jackets.

Tua escaped that crowd the day he followed his older brother
Andrew to a boxing gym. It seemed comparatively civilized, given
his previous exposure to boxing. Nobody got a strap, for one
thing. It seemed natural, as well. "I had become interested in my
heritage once I got to New Zealand," he says, "learning about the
Samoan warrior spirit. It finally clicked for me. Why would my
father make me box? Because it was my destiny."

He began entering tournaments, fighting, as always, out of his
weight class. When it came time for his first junior championship
competition, in 1989, there was no other middleweight for him to
fight, so Tua moved up to intermediate-class heavyweight by
hiding a toolbox inside his jacket during the weigh-in. The
16-year-old Tua knocked out his opponent in the first round. It
only looked as if he used a blunt instrument from the toolbox
(Tuabox?).

Tua made New Zealand's 1992 Olympic team but, losing to Nigeria's
David Izon, did not get a gold medal springboard into the pros.
(He settled for bronze.) Main Events gathered him up, packed him
off to New Jersey, but brought him along slowly, without much
fanfare or cash. "My first four, five fights," the Tuamanator
says, "all the money went to my phone bill."

Tua was becoming a homesick basket case, rooming with four other
boxers, eating strange food, missing the family prayers. "This
was a lot rougher and dirtier than I thought it would be," he
says. "I wanted to go home. I told my father, I can't do this
anymore. I could be back on the beach."

His father--who, as you might have gathered, believes in a kind of
tough love--said he could come on back, but he had better pick a
different beach from the ones he was used to. "Think about all
the people," the old man said, "who are going to laugh in your
face. Quit if you want, but don't come home."

Tua realized that someone who truly had warrior blood in him
wouldn't appreciate friends laughing in his face, so he stuck it
out, accommodating his loneliness as best he could. "I kept
calling home, only about six times a day," he says, "and I'd hang
out at the Barnes & Noble, or the record store. I had to believe
in my destiny."

It was slow, coming into that destiny, though. Fighting on Main
Events undercards or headlining small shows in New Jersey, Tua
got zero attention for his lengthening string of knockouts. Nor
should he have, considering the level of fighter he was knocking
out. Not until 1996, in his 23rd fight, was he matched with
anybody at all promising, and that was Ruiz. He might have
proceeded quickly from there, but the next year, in his 28th
bout, he lost a questionable decision to Ibeabuchi (who, while
not institutionalized, is undergoing psychiatric evaluation,
though not necessarily because of anything Tua did to him), and
it was back to the starting gate. It took him nearly two more
years to gain top ranking and nearly two more after that to force
a fight with Lewis, or as the Tuaman calls him, "Mr. Lewis."

Now that he's finally in the limelight, he's loving it. Just
about anybody who shows any interest is invited to Tua's camp
outside Las Vegas, where he shows off and sometimes poses with
his animals (the menagerie of retired casino attractions is
maintained by the property's owner for possible showbiz
pinch-hitting), plays two-a-day Ping-Pong tournaments, practices
quips at Lewis's expense ("I don't hit that hard," he says,
speaking of Lewis's reluctance to accept the fight. "It gets done
very quickly, but it doesn't hurt"), tells his Tuaman story and
crafts his poetry. "Deeply lost in darkness," he begins, reciting
from memory, trailing off into, "the electricity through my body
totally paralyzes me"--with something in between.

The other thing he does, and he leans in close to whisper it, is:
"I call home a lot." Oh, really? Still talk to the old man? "Only
about four times a day."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOEY TERRILL One Sarong Samoan What Tua is giving up in height to Lewis (5'10" vs. 6'5"), he more than makes up for in brawn.COLOR PHOTO: TOM CASINO/HBO Take that In his clean-shaven days, Tua got in his licks against Ibeabuchi but lost a 12-round decision.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOEY TERRILL Ready to rumble Tua's a fighter by trade, but Ping-Pong's his true passion.
"I DIDN'T WANT TO BOX," SAYS TUA. "RUGBY OR CRICKET, MAYBE. THE
OLD MAN, THOUGH, HE WANTED ME TO BOX"
"THINK OF THE PEOPLE WHO ARE GOING TO LAUGH IN YOUR FACE," HIS
DAD SAID. "QUIT IF YOU WANT, BUT DON'T COME HOME"