Monty Betham – and his one-punch Nana

by Caley Wilson
Sun 30 Aug 2015
13 min read
3
  • Monty Betham (Credit: www.photosport.co.nz)
    Monty Betham (Credit: www.photosport.co.nz)

You may know the young Monty Betham (now 37) from his 101-game rugby league career with the Warriors – and his test matches for Samoa (4) and the Kiwis (9). Or from boxing (7 wins from 8 fights) even though, so far, he hasn’t applied himself to that game the way his famous dad (Monty Sr.) did.

But he’s been catching the eye for years in the course of other pursuits. As a real-life karate kid. As a runner-up to Temepara Bailey, the effervescent Silver Ferns netballer, in Dancing With The Stars. As a sports commentator. As a fitness and boxing trainer. And also, maybe more important to him now than all that, as a fighter against youth obesity. Here he covers some of that territory in a chat with Caley.

 

You’ve made a name for yourself in so many different ways that it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s check out your boxing whakapapa to begin with.

When I was a kid, everyone knew about my dad because he won a Commonwealth title as a middleweight boxer – and he defended that numerous times. He was born in Samoa and his village is Sapapali’i, in Savai’i.

Back in the day, Savai’i was a bit famous for having, in addition to the plantations, a movie theatre and a nightclub. And it was at that nightclub that his mother, my nana, built up a pretty fearsome reputation. I’m told that, if there was trouble there, she’d be called. She was known to have knocked guys out with just one punch. Maybe that’s where the boxing genes came from.

You’re Samoan on both sides?

Yes. But like a lot of Samoan families, ours has a mix of bloodlines. Dad’s father is English and his wife, that tough nana I mentioned, was Samoan/German. Then my mum, who was born in New Zealand, spent time in Samoa growing up. But her dad is Dutch.

Both my parents speak Samoan fluently, which is a skill I wish I had. I’m probably the equivalent of a very good tourist – maybe a bit better.

 

© e-tangata, 2015

We grew up in Mangere Bridge. Mum and dad are in the same house still. I was a good Catholic boy and went to St Joseph’s Primary and then Marcellin College.

I have one older sister, Chante. She’s a third dan black belt in Jyoshinmon-style karate. My kids go to her karate school. She’s also the co-founder, with me, in our foundation to fight youth obesity.

What was life like for you as a kid?

I was a chubby boy, with a big puku and cheeks, until I got put into karate when I was six. That happened for a number of reasons, including that mum didn’t like boxing.

The initial link to karate was that dad used to watch Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies before his boxing bouts. Bruce Lee was the man. I was caught up in it, too, and after I’d broken broomsticks and put a couple of holes in the walls, I got sent to learn properly.

Dad was a real disciplinarian and ingrained in us that a healthy body gives you a healthy mind. “You look good, you feel good, you do good,” he’d say.

We grew up in a generation where hitting kids was accepted and dad and I had our run-ins – some pretty major. He was just reflecting his own upbringing, though. And he was hardly alone in his behaviour as a parent. A lot of the boys, especially from the Island backgrounds, had similar experiences.

But I’m very proud of my dad, and a number of other men, who realised the error of their ways and made changes. This is in the days before domestic violence became the public issue that it is now. Our relationship is good now and, when I made my boxing debut, dad was in my corner.

Perhaps Bruce Lee can provide all the answers, but what did you pick up once you got into karate lessons?

I gained self-esteem and confidence and learned not to give up on things. There were a number of times I wanted to give up and mum said: “You can give up when you’ve got your black belt.”

I’m so glad I didn’t stop. That would have set me on a path that said it was okay to bail on something when you hadn’t finished it. My kids are in karate at the moment and I’m giving them the same messages.

How did you get your start in rugby league?

As a kid, up until under-14s, I played rugby union as a flanker, halfback or mid-fielder. I used to rubbish rugby league guys in those days.

I made a Walter Dickson rugby side at Intermediate school and the coach there, Len Kumarich, later tried coaching league. He asked me to have a go, too. So I had a game for Bay Roskill against Mt Albert and I loved it straight away. You could get involved in the game so much more. If you wanted to get your hands on the ball, you could – and I loved tackling. I knew then it was the game for me.

I eventually moved with a mate to the Papatoetoe Panthers where we had a wonderful side and dominated for a number of years.

My best weekend of sport ever happened when I was 16. On the Saturday, I won the national men’s open karate title, and on Sunday I got three tries for Papatoetoe as we won the Auckland under-16 grand final. I peaked too early!

But then I felt karate was starting to get in the way because John Ackland signed me to a junior scholarship with the Warriors in 1995, which was their first year in the competition. I remember walking through the headquarters as they were being built … getting the gear for the first time. There was a real buzz around.

I knew from age 14 or 15 that I wanted to be a Warrior and I put all my eggs in that one basket. Looking back, it was so dangerous. I was very lucky, as it almost didn’t come off. There were frightening times, especially with injuries and changes of coaches.

Thankfully, though, I played 100 games and captained the club. It was awesome. I grew up there from 15 and was captain at 24.

In your first year as captain, in 2002, the team made the grand final against the Sydney Roosters. But things didn’t quite go to plan personally.

No. I went down injured early in the season, maybe just game three, with a crook knee.

I was hungry to return and was soon there at training on my crutches. I wanted the boys to feel that I was on the road back and was looking to take their position. I thought that would help fire them up.

I got back in time for the grand final and was named 18th man [a position which doesn’t take the field]. Looking back, I can’t believe I never pushed Daniel Anderson [the coach] harder to get me on the field. I was thinking about that just the other day. I hadn’t played a game before the grand final, but I went on the Kiwis tour afterwards.

Would I have been right? I’m not sure. I’ve spoken with Ricky Stuart, who was coach of the Roosters, and they were adamant I was going to play.

There was a critical moment in that match when our bench forward Richard Villasanti put a big hit on Brad Fittler. [The Roosters fired up straight afterwards and went away to win 30-8]. Mick Watson, the Warriors CEO at the time, said he wondered what it would’ve been like if I’d been there to match the Roosters’ aggression.

Your reputation as a tough guy was well established by this stage. I recall you topping a Rugby League Week poll as the player that other players in the NRL least wanted to get in a fight with. How comfortably did that element sit with you?

My role was to be the enforcer. That’s what the coaches wanted. It might sound surprising, but it was a role I didn’t really like. Every game when I stood up to some of the other enforcers [guys like Gordon Tallis, Willie Mason or Adrian Morley] the guys around me played well, though. This is back in the day when some “biff” was considered all right. But time moves on, things change.

In 2005, in another game against the Roosters, we scored a try. But Anthony Tupou and I had gotten into a scuffle off the ball. It was nothing major – I don’t think a punch was thrown – but the try was disallowed as a result. I came back from Sydney the next day and could sense that things had changed. The media were pointing the finger at me and, at our next home game, our fans booed when my name was read out as we ran on to the field.

I really took it to heart. No one knew how much I’d given to the club – the talking with management into the wee hours trying to find ways to win, smoothing things over when there were tensions between players and their families … so it really hurt me, man. It really hurt. And that negative tone towards me, from the media and some fans, hung around.

I had a year to go on my contract, but it was just too hard. I like to think of myself as a thick-skinned guy who could take it, but I couldn’t handle it anymore. I knew it was really hard also on my mum and my wife, Jamie, who was pretty upset with some of the reports.

So I did a year with the Wakefield Wildcats in the north of England. That was cool, but it wasn’t the Warriors. Also, I started feeling the body a little bit more. I was missing home. I was on my best money over there, but I thought I’d call it a day.

You were still relatively young, at 28, to be retiring. Do you regret finishing then?

Nah. No regrets. None whatsoever, which is awesome. I came home, my kids grew up here and I was able to change the perception of what people thought about me – or what most people thought about me.

We live in One Tree Hill, close to mum and dad, and to Jamie’s parents – so it’s worked out fine.

And the next step was to get back into boxing?

Well … not really, because I’d never boxed. I’d always been curious, but I didn’t do any boxing when I was younger. On the odd Sunday I’d muck around with my dad, but, when we sparred, I was doing karate, chin up, nothing like boxing. So the first boxing I did was in 2007.

You’ve handled yourself well in the ring but, eight years on, you’ve had just eight fights. How come?

Initially, I was frustrated with the sport. For instance, I went over to Australia to fight on an undercard for Anthony Mundine and three opponents pulled out. One after the other. Or I’d wait for sparring partners and they’d be 40 minutes late. I struggled with that.

Then my wife didn’t like it. She didn’t see a future in it – and she was pregnant at the time. Mum wasn’t a fan either.

Boxing at the start was really hard. I don’t mean “blood, sweat and tears” hard, but I was still learning – and there are nuances and little subtleties that you can only pick up over time. I had five fights in 2007 [Monty won them all] and then decided that was enough.

But then I got called out to fight a rugby guy in Fight For Life and no one would fight me. With two weeks to go the promoters said: “Would you fight Shane Cameron?” He was number 10 in the world.

People mostly take on challenges where they’re confident of a good outcome. This wasn’t one of those situations. It was a big and scary challenge. And, over six rounds, I lost. But it was the best feeling I’d ever had after a fight. In Shane’s next bout, he knocked out Monty Barrett who was a serious, experienced, professional boxer.

But boxing is on the backburner now?

Umm… I love boxing at the moment. I’m working with a great coach at City Boxing called Lolo Heimuli and I’m going to explore things some more.

Jamie, my wife, is in a position now where she’s reasonably comfortable with me getting in there again. She lives with it, because she knows that, when I have a fight coming up, I’m alive and in good spirits. I love her for that.

And your mum?

No, she’s still not so comfortable.

I asked one of your league coaches what stood out about you and “work ethic” was top of the list. That’s not the case, though, for all the guys coming into top grade footy, is it?

Junior rugby league in New Zealand is often dominated by the big guys. Some guys don’t even learn how to tackle properly, because no one wants to run at them. Or they rarely get tackled, so they aren’t sharp at playing the ball.

If you don’t have a good strength of players throughout competitions, you’re not used to playing those games where you have to get into an arm wrestle. And, when you have to do that week-in, week-out, in the NRL … that was the problem for a lot of the young boys coming through.

Having a good work ethic was instilled in me. And I tell the kids: “Hard work beats talent when talent won’t work hard.” If you’ve got talent and you work hard, you’re … well, you’re Sonny Bill Williams.

You’re a pretty well-known guy, but some people these days mightn’t appreciate what a big deal of a boxer your dad was.

Well, it wasn’t until I was older that I realised how good he was. Not just that Commonwealth title and all the times he defended it, but even being in camp with Muhammad Ali – and sparring with him. Being trained by Angelo Dundee. In fact, I was almost born in Miami because dad was over there boxing, but then he got homesick.

Knowing what dad achieved, from really humble beginnings, it definitely planted some seeds in my mind. I’d look through his scrapbooks after school and watch his videos. If he hadn’t done all those things, and documented his career, I probably wouldn’t have been so ambitious.

I have massive respect for him because boxing is one of the hardest sports. It’s lonely. You don’t have team-mates. No one can come off the bench. You can’t get subbed. It’s a lonely place in the ring. Even training is lonely.

You’ve trained a number of interesting people for charity boxing events or for fitness. Who has surprised you?

When I was at the Warriors, Manu Vatuvei was just a kid. When I trained him for boxing, I loved seeing how he’d blossomed as a person, as a father and as a trainer. He had real mental toughness and application. That was nothing like the young kid I played with. It was such a privilege.

I loved training Jamie Ridge too. I remember her as a two-year-old at the Warriors with Matthew, her dad – and she showed a lot of her dad’s steely traits when she was training.

I’ve trained a lot of the Sevens boys as well. Titch [Gordon Tietjens] will send them down to me to test what sort of mind-set they have and how tough they are.

But there have been all sorts. Blues players. Liam Messam. Piri Weepu. Stan Walker, who I almost got a fight. He was reasonably handy.

Also, it was great working with Stephen McIvor, the TV sports guy. Going back a number of years, he got bashed in the ring. He’d been mismatched in my opinion. We first trained together a couple of years ago and he worked hard. So hard. I got a new-found respect for him. We had some tough times, but to see what he did was awesome.

It was a shame Mike Puru [from The Edge radio station and TV’s The Bachelor] didn’t get to fight Jake the Muss [Temuera Morrison]. I was working with Mike and, man, he was hard work, but he never once gave up. He tried really hard and was so fit. I think he would have caused an upset. But he broke his cheekbone in sparring. He was ready to go – he would’ve shocked the world!

A major interest for you has been tackling childhood obesity. How did you get your foundation started?

One morning, I was reading some stats in the paper over breakfast. I’ve always taken pride in where us Kiwis rank on the world stage, but this time I was disgusted. We ranked second in the OECD for childhood obesity.

I got on the phone to Chante, my sister, straight away and told her I’d found my calling.

She’s very bright and she looked into things in depth. Turns out she was as passionate as I was about the situation and so we co-founded our Steps For Life foundation.

In short, we work with 13 to 18-year-olds to fight obesity. We look at nutrition, exercise, psychology, and we get the families involved.

Those on the programme train with me a couple of times a week and we do workshops in the weekend with things like supermarket tours and goal setting. Psychological support during and after the programme has become a big feature. Some people take it for granted that if you watch what you eat, and you go for a run you’ll lose weight. But the problems can be so much deeper than food and exercise.

Speaking of nutrition, it seems that a few so-called “healthy” foods are contributing to the problem.

Don’t get me started. We have breakfast cereals that are 40 percent sugar and sports drinks with 16 teaspoons of sugar per bottle.

Some of our sports stars are promoting foods that aren’t beneficial to our kids and it’s not ethically right. It makes me mad.

There’s scope as well to be annoyed by the mangling, especially by Aussie sports commentators, of Maori and Pacific names. With your move into broadcasting, what’s your take on that scene?

From my brief time commentating rugby league, I know that getting things right is a lot harder than what it might seem. Sometimes there are a few different opinions on how a name is said and you’re not sure which one is right. So who can the Aussies confer with to nail that? Some of them could try a lot harder, though. If they’re not even giving thought to it, that’s disrespectful.

On the flipside, there are a few players out there who let incorrect pronunciations slide. They should be embarrassed, as that behaviour is part of the problem too. I know when I started playing I was called “Beth-em” and I didn’t like that. Our name is pronounced “Bee-tham”. That’s the name we’re proud of and I made sure that was known.

Both parties have a responsibility because the game is only going to get browner.

 

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