By Matheson Sports Media
Photo: Noel Thornberry
The message from the judge was like one of his jabs.
Short and succinct.
The man in the dock was 25 years old. He’d had something of a charmed life. He had a beautiful wife – Theresa, his high school sweetheart. She had given him three of the most precious things in his life – daughters Cyanne, Maria and Menime.
But there he was, very quickly coming to terms with the fact that for the first time in a long time, his fate was no longer in his own hands.
It was 2005, and Alex Leapai was in the court room facing a grievous bodily harm charge after his brutal attack on a couple of local bouncers.
The judge said the brutality – which left one of the men badly injured – warranted a four year prison term – and that’s what was delivered – but with a caveat. The judge, taking into account Leapai’s children, wife and his good work record gave him some hope. “If you behave yourself inside for six months, you will be released…”
He was told he would serve his time behind the walls of the Woodford Correction Centre – a specifically-designed high security male prisoner facility where inmates, for their own safety, are housed in single cell accommodation.
In that moment, Leapai figured he had found his ground zero. But he hadn’t. Not yet. That would come a few seconds later when he glanced across the Logan courtroom to the seats where his parents were huddled.
His mother was howling. His father, with tears flowing, was hugging her, trying to bring comfort to the situation.
This was not the dream they had envisioned for their son when he was four and they had left their village in Samoa for the promise of a better life in New Zealand.
It was like a sledgehammer to all the good work Faataui had done in the local community. He had built the Leapai name into a respected and well-liked one since relocating to Queensland with Leitu when their boy-in-the-dock was just twelve.
“I’d seen my father cry before, but I had never seen my mum and dad cry at the same time,” said Leapai, who in April, will fight for sport’s greatest prize when he takes on Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight championship of the world.
“They were hugging each other – my mum, she was screaming. That broke me. That was the moment when I realised that I’d done something really bad. And not only the crime… but, I’d let my parents down. I knew that I had to do something to change who I’d become. I had to turn all the negative into positive – turn all the bad things that I’d done into good things.
“The only thing that kept flashing in my head, the only thing that I knew would make them proud of me was to one day fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.”
Noel Thornberry first saw Alex Leapai box in 2004.
Thornberry, a former Queensland middleweight champion, had already made a name for himself as a trainer overseeing a big part of the career of the former WBA middleweight champion Maselino Masoe.
He was on hand at the Mansfield Tavern on the outskirts of Brisbane when Leapai stepped into the ring for his third professional fight – a bout he would lose in an eight round decision to Yan Kulkov – then a 32 year old former Russian cruiserweight title holder.
Thornberry turned to his brother Ricky – a former world super middleweight champion – and said Leapai could be a future world heavyweight champion.
“A bloke sitting on my other side was literally scratching his head. What are you talking about? I just thought Alex had all the potential in the world,” Thornberry said. “He just needed to be guided. He needed refining.”
Unbeknownst to Thornberry, Masoe sought out Leapai – a fellow Samoan – and told him that if wanted to achieve anything in boxing he would have to work harder and show more respect to the science inside the ropes. He recommended he link with Thornberry as soon as possible.
Initially, Leapai ignored the advice. But after struggling to a draw against Nermin Sabanovic – a blown up cruiserweight from South Australia – he sought out Thornberry.
“I wanted to get him busy,” Thornberry said. “He had a lot of learning to do.”
Two fights were organised within a 15 day window. The first bout, against Vai Toevai, was won via a decision. But in the second Leapai was knocked out in the fourth round against Queensland’s Baden Qui.
He wouldn’t fight again for 15 months – the state-of-the-art physical and electronic security systems at Woodford made sure of that.
The first night in prison was the longest.
And among the images of his parents, wife and children flashing through his head there was another. It was an image of a man. A Samoan man. A man he had never met but a man whose greatest achievement had sent a crescendo of emotions surging through his soul five years earlier.
When David Tua became the first Samoan to challenge for boxing’s heavyweight crown in 2000, Alex Leapai was like every other Polynesian on Planet Boxing.
“I loved David Tua,” he said. “He was as devastating a boxer as there was at that time. He’d knocked out world champions. That left hook – man, the brother was something special. And he was like me. His family had moved to New Zealand to give him a shot at doing something with his life. And then, there he was, taking on the great Lennox Lewis in a title fight. How couldn’t I be inspired by that?”
Differing time zones meant the fight was beamed into Queensland on a Sunday. The family had just returned from church when the fight began.
Leapai, then 21, found himself standing behind his father. “I heard him say; ‘Thank God for this son of Samoa fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. I wish one of my boys could be in the same position one day.’ When he said that, I was standing behind him holding a beer. It turned me off. I walked outside. I felt bad about myself. Here’s this Samoan guy, David Tua, making his parents proud, making all of Samoa and New Zealand proud and there I am having a drink instead of trying to do the same thing David Tua was doing. My main memory of that day is having that thought of having to do something to make my parents proud.”
That was then. This was now. And now was a prison cell.
“Somewhere along the way I lost that feeling of wanting to make mum and dad proud. And I was paying the price for it. And I deserved everything I got.
“That first night at Woodford… I missed my kids. My wife. My family. I wished that I could go back in time and change what happened but I couldn’t. I made the wrong choice and I knew that I had to pay for what I did. But I had enough time to think about my future. And all I could think about was becoming a world champion. My mind kept drifting back to that David Tua fight and that feeling of wanting to make my father proud. So I started training in my room – doing sit-ups and shadow boxing. I wanted to do what Tua did. I wanted a title shot of my own.”
The six months at Woodford were lonely – made worse because, “you couldn’t trust anyone! So, I did what a lot of guys inside do. I got close to the Lord because he is the only one you can talk too. He is the only one that listens. I came out not only a changed man, but knowing that boxing would provide me with my redemption. But it wasn’t easy getting out and trying to stay on the right path. There were plenty of opportunities to get with the people who could influence me in the wrong way. If I had stuck by my old ways I would have been straight inside again. At the times I felt tempted to drift back to my old ways, I would listen to the voice in my head reminding me to stay disciplined. I believe that was the Lord talking to me. I am convinced he was guiding me.”
Boxing helped too. Noel Thornberry put him to work almost immediately upon his release. The Kiwi heavyweight Hiriwa Te Rangi was quickly dispatched as Leapai went on a run of seven victories before losing to former Australian heavyweight champion Colin Wilson.
Leapai wouldn’t suffer defeat again for a stretch of 17 bouts between 2008 and 2012. The American Kevin Johnson – who lost a WBA title fight against Vitali Klitschko in 2009 – got the better of him with a ninth round knockout.
Plenty of boxing ‘insiders’ opined that ‘KJ’ had ended Leapai’s fight career. But eight months later, at the end of 2012, he was back in the ring knocking out Akmal Aslanov. Matt Hicks was next. Then Joe Lloyd. And Mexico’s Felipe Romero. The latter coming with the added bonus of the WBO Asia Pacific heavyweight belt – previously donned by former world champions Sultan Ibragimov and Ruslan Chagaev as well as… David Tua.
The victory against the highly touted Romero set up a meeting with the undefeated Denis Boytsov in Germany in November last year. With Boytsov’s 33 and 0 record the fight was supposed to be a formality for Tyson-esque Russian. So much so that it was reported as being nothing more than “a tune up bout’ ahead of Boytsov’s planned meeting with Wladimir Klitschko.
Leapai hadn’t read the ‘script’.
It’s called the hurt game for a reason.
And not always for the punishment dished out.
When Alex Leapai stepped into the ring to go to war with Denis Boystov at the Stechert Arena in Bamberg, Germany he was already battling a calf injury. He had torn it in the first minute of the first round of sparring against Solomon Haumono at his camp in Sydney three weeks earlier.
“The win that night was built on courage, heart and hunger”, Noel Thornberry said. “He just wanted to succeed no matter what. It was so important to him. It was as important to me as it was to him because as much as I have believed in him, he has believed in me.
“I knew early on – even before the fight started – that on that night, there was no way he was getting out of the ring without giving everything that he had. And, trust me, he was tested beyond belief.”
Indeed. In the seventh round Leapai popped his calf again.
And then he did it again in the ninth. Leapai made his way back to the corner.
“Noel, my leg’s gone.”
‘Who gives a shit? Use the other one. We’ll fix it tomorrow. We are here now. We have to do this.’
“No problem, mate. I just wanted to tell you. Let’s get on with it.”
There was one round left and by the end of it – courtesy of two knockdowns (somewhat ironically in the seventh and ninth rounds respectively) Leapai was declared the winner with a unanimous decision handed down from the judges.
Wladimir Klitschko is – just as Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis were – the greatest boxer of his generation.
He is the holder of the IBO, WBO, WBA and IBO belts and most of the knowledgeable boxing scribes around the world have always placed him ahead of his recently retired brother, Vitali.
He has fought 64 times and lost only three. But it’s those three – to Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster – that provide hope for the unlikely challenger from Down Under.
“The boxing analysts make me laugh,” Alex Leapai said. “They look at the records and make a call on the fight that way. They focus on the 61 wins. But I’m focused on the three defeats on his record, and anyone who knows boxing knows this – I hit a lot harder than any of those guys.
“In his last fight all he did was hold and throw a few combinations. Now he’s going to come up against one of the biggest punchers he has ever faced. This fight is not going to go the distance. I’m going to shock the world.”
Noel Thornberry, not surprisingly, concurs as he works on the flight plan for the April 27 bout.
“There is plenty of footage available of Wladimir. But there are a lot of people who have studied the guy and gone into a fight with a game plan but the game plan hasn’t worked. He’s been able to shut them down or nullify them in some way. We, like others before us, are very confident. But there’s a reason for our confidence that no one can deny.
“When you prepare for a fight, part of it is identifying your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. One of Alex’s great strengths is his power, but he is so awkward that it’s hard to prepare to fight him because he can throw punches from anywhere. I can’t always predict a punch that Alex throws and I know that at times Alex isn’t sure where the next punch is coming from either. But when he throws it everyone knows there’s going to be some real power behind it. Opponents can’t prepare for that. So that awkward delivery is a big advantage for us. It makes him a very dangerous opponent.”
Alex Leapai is a father of six now.
Two boys – Alex and E.J – and his ‘baby’ Ivona have joined the family since the darkness of the Woodford Correctional Centre.
And they, along with his wife and his burning ambition to make his parents proud, will provide all the motivation the 34 year old needs when he gloves up to Wladimir Klitschko.
“When I was in prison I never felt sorry for myself. That wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I felt sorry for my wife. And my kids. And my parents. I did this to them. I knew I had to change. I knew I had to become a man for them.
“When I go to Germany and get in that ring I have to stand my ground and let people know who I represent. There’s no way Wladimir Klitschko is going to take that away from us.
“When he looks into my eyes he will see the real Alex Leapai. He’ll see a father of six. He’ll see a wife who has stood by me through the lows point of my life. He’ll see the parents who I have let down in the past and who I am making proud again.
“So when I climb into the ring, it will be personal. I will stand my ground. And I will fight. And I will win.”