“How was I not killed or jailed?” Steve Deane with the story behind the jovial bigmouth celebrity boxer most Kiwis know as the Brown Buttabean.
David Letele was going to kill someone. He’d made up his mind, set the ball rolling. It was the only way forward. Very soon it would be too late to turn back.
He was in trouble. Bad, bad trouble.
He’d been robbed. At gunpoint. The stolen goods had yet to be paid for, leaving a sizeable debt to the types of people no one ever wants to end up owing money.
His dumb-arsed plan to rebuild his life was coming apart at the seams — much like the shirts he’d stretched as he’d ballooned to over 200kg.
A once muscular frame that had harboured dreams of rugby league stardom had been swamped by fat, and overrun by a steady diet of chocolate bars, coffee and bad decisions. His businesses had failed and his relationship with his partner and kids was heading the same way. His plan to turn things around was in tatters.
All that was left was to get even. And David knew who had wronged him.
“Or at least I knew who I wanted to blame.”
And that was good enough.
Sitting alone in the middle of the night in a boxing gym in a small New South Wales town, the man most Kiwi know as the jovial, bigmouth celebrity boxer, Brown Buttabean, teetered on the edge of darkness.
Then he had an epiphany. Two epiphanies, in fact. Firstly, he realised the man he wanted to kill wouldn’t be the only victim.
“He’s got a family. It’s not his family’s fault he’s a dick,” he thought.
And, deep down, he knew the other man wasn’t to blame for the mess his life was in.
“This shit was going to happen,” he thought. “It was always bound to happen. It was my fault.
“I’m not the most religious person but I was raised religious. I think it was God intervening. I called everything off.”
Fast forward two years and David’s life is very different. Having shed over 80kg, the 37-year-old is a poster boy for what can be achieved by defeating morbid obesity. He is fit and healthy, physically and mentally. He’s far from wealthy, but his finances are at least heading in the right direction. He’s engaged and will marry his fiancee, Koreen, in January.
As the heavyweight title contender Joseph Parker’s hardcase sidekick, the Brown Buttabean enjoys a measure of celebrity. He uses that profile to inspire others to fight their demons. He runs a motivational Facebook page, fitness boot camps, and has just started a fruit and vege run for the needy.
While it’s tempting to view his redemption story as almost complete, the truth is that it is only just beginning, and how it will end is far from certain.
You see, David has been here before. He’s bottomed out, dragged himself up, only to stray from the path of righteousness and tumble back down again.
It’s a bit of a family tradition.
David was born in Hamilton in 1979, the son of David Letele, a first-generation Kiwi Samoan, and Tui Emery, of Ngāti Maniapoto descent. Letele was a former state ward, and Tui a 13-year-old street kid when they met. She was still a teenager when she gave birth to David Jr.
Letele’s parents had come to New Zealand in the 1940s, as part of the first wave of immigrants from the Pacific. They settled initially in Mt Eden before moving to Mangere. They were strict Seventh Day Adventists and, like many Pacific immigrants, seeking a better life for their children. But they struggled with the challenges of raising a family and forging a new life in a very foreign land.
Letele found himself straddling two worlds, not knowing if he belonged in either. His parents couldn’t control him. At the age of 10, after burning down a block at Mangere’s Viscount Primary School, he was made a ward of the state.
His next real home was the Mongrel Mob, where his leadership qualities saw him installed as president of the Mob’s Auckland chapter at just 19.
These days, he’s a softly spoken and gentle grandfather who works for the Grace Foundation, a charity he and Tui founded with their daughter Vicki. They work with the homeless, released prisoners and the mentally ill — broken people who have fallen through society’s cracks.
But, in his Mob days, his trade was armed robbery.
“That’s what he went to jail for when I was five,” recalls his son.
Letele may have been committed to the Mob, but it wasn’t a lifestyle he wanted for his son. Shortly after he was jailed, young David was sent to Australia to live with his grandparents. He didn’t move back to Auckland until he was 11.
Letele’s gang affiliations and criminal activities would nevertheless have a profound effect on his son.
“It’s easy to look back now and wish you had done some things different,” he says.
The years after David moved back to Auckland were a time of stability for the Letele family. Letele was released from prison after serving six years of his 11-year sentence, and he and Tui got back together. He had a job as a truck driver and Tui worked at a second-hand clothing store.
The family moved into a Mission Bay house owned by David’s uncle Ian, who worked as a high ranking executive in several major trans-Tasman businesses. To a family that had recently been living in a friend’s garage, this house was a mansion, even if they lacked the furniture to fill the rooms.
David went to Selwyn College, where he did well enough academically. He was a stand-out junior at league, made Auckland age grade sides and played for Mt Wellington alongside his father — something that remains a career highlight.
He was fit. Very fit. He made the New Zealand secondary schools team, and seemed on track for a bright future in the game.
“Then I got my first injury. That’s when things took a turn.”
He’d made a Māori selection team. But, training on “a shit field with no lights, I stepped into a massive pothole and just shattered my right knee”.
For the next three years, he had a series of knee operations. He’d come back, injure another knee, have another operation.
His father, meanwhile, was diverting from the straight and narrow path he’d attempted to follow since getting out of prison. He was growing marijuana, first in a garage, and then a warehouse.
By now, David was studying business at AUT. But the frequent injuries that had derailed his league dream had left a mark. He was putting on weight, drinking, and “just being a dropkick”.
When his dad’s criminal sideline caught up with him and he was arrested, David took it badly. He dropped out of AUT, quit his job at a video store and began “working” at a tinny house.
For the first time in his life, he was fat. And he was angry. He’d fight at the drop of a hat — with everyone; Mongrel Mob associates and extended family members included.
Things came to a head one night when he and his mates were refused entry to a Mongrel Mob party. There was a fight, a car got smashed up and, during the ensuing argument, he got hold of a knife and stabbed himself in the chest.
Bleeding from a gaping wound, he was taken away in an ambulance. Three days later he was back in Australia after his uncle Ian again came to the rescue and whisked him out of the country.
“That was the first turning point in my life,” says David.
By the time he touched down back in Australia, the once super-fit athlete had blown out to 150kg. But he got a job as a water-proofer, and carrying 50kg rolls of bitumen up and down ladders soon stripped the weight off him.
When he returned to New Zealand a year later he was down to 106kg.
He enrolled at university and went back to rugby league. His father, who had hired a crack lawyer and received a sentence of home detention over his drugs arrest, was by now operating a legitimate hydroponics store.
David joined the Manurewa Marlins in the Bartercard Cup, made a New Zealand A selection team and attracted the interest of the Warriors.
Ultimately his dodgy knees wouldn’t be up to the big time. He briefly held a contract with Manly, but played out his league career with second tier clubs such as the North Sydney Bears and Carcassonne in France.
In 2003, he met a former partner, Georgina, at a family wedding in the Cook Islands. The couple would have two sons, to go with one from a previous relationship of Georgina’s. They moved around before settling in a New South Wales country town, where David played for the local league club while working his way up from supermarket employee to manager to owner.
The store performed well, but a second store he opened in a nearby town tanked. Faced with bankruptcy, he turned to the street — to what he knew.
“I didn’t want my kids to go back to not having the nice things again. The same shit my dad had always done. The reasons why, it’s all bullshit.”
It didn’t end well. His relationship with Georgina and his kids deteriorated. And, then, one night: “I was on the toilet. My cousin answered the door. I heard all this kerfuffle and I came out to a gun straight in my face.”
Alone in his gym later that night, David knew what he was going to do. But then came the epiphanies that would save him from stepping over the edge.
He called off his revenge attack, but that didn’t solve his problems. He was in debt and living in a shitty motel when a former Selwyn College classmate, David Higgins — the founder of Duco, a sports promotions company — got in touch.
Higgins had been there the night David stabbed himself, and he knew his mate was in trouble. So he arranged for him to fly back home — business class, because David was too big to fit in an economy class seat — and agreed to clear his debt. On the condition that David relocated to Auckland, permanently.
“You’ll end up in jail or dead if you go back,” he told him.
The pair didn’t know it, but the rekindling of their friendship was about to spawn New Zealand’s first celebrity corporate boxer.
Higgins has always been fond of a freak show. He’s pitted dwarfs and busty soap stars against each other in the ring, and dreams of one day arranging a bout between pygmies.
A man who couldn’t fit in a regulation airline seat was too good a chance to pass up, especially if he could motivate him to get fit and help him out financially at the same time.
Higgins offered to take him to Germany to attend Joseph Parker’s fight on the undercard of Wladimir Klitschko’s heavyweight title fight against an Australian Samoan, Alex Leapai. But there was no way he was paying for a business class fare this time.
So David stopped eating and started walking. He’d park his car at One Tree Hill and walk up as far as he could every morning and night. The next day he’d go a little further, and further again the day after that.
By the time he hopped on the scales for a joke at the weigh-in in Germany he was down to 178kg. A German boxing official in attendance was stunned. That night at dinner, the official grabbed David so he could show him off to Wladimir’s fellow world champion brother.
“He dragged me over to Vitali like I was a prize ape. He told him how much I weighed and Vitali was like ‘noooooo’.”
His freak show value was confirmed. All he needed was a name. Higgins’ brother, Andrew, suggested the Black Buttabean — a play on the ring name of Eric Esch, an obese American fighter who gained global fame more for his unusual physical appearance that his boxing skills. “I like it,” said Higgins, “but I think we’ll have to call you brown.”
The Brown Buttabean would play an obnoxious arse who challenged all comers to take him on.
Opponents lined up. First up was Lopeni “Horse” Vatuvei, a South Auckland hardcase with a fearsome reputation, who happened to be the brother of Manu Vatuvei, a star winger for the Warriors in the NRL.
“Nobody knew who I was. They all said I was going to get killed. But [Higgins] knew where I came from, that I had the heart to push through.
“I’d been in fights in my life where I didn’t know if I’d make it through alive. So, even though he was fearsome, I didn’t care. But when I jumped in the ring and saw the shape of him — I was freaking out.”
Buttabean won the fight, but his obnoxious persona meant he didn’t win many admirers at first. He may have Samoa tattooed boldly across his torso, but many Kiwi-Samoans were less than impressed with his antics.
“They hated it when I first came out. They’d call saying I am an embarrassment to all Samoans. I always say you don’t have to talk the shit that I talk but speak up for yourselves. We don’t always have to be walkovers. You can still be respectful and humble as a person and not be walked over.”
In Samoa it’s a different story. When he travelled to the island for Joseph Parker’s most recent fight he discovered he was a genuine celebrity. Even the Prime Minister was impressed. “Don’t go changing” was the advice from Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi.
For David Letele, however, change is pretty much a constant.
He’s continued to drop trouser sizes at a remarkable rate, but doesn’t bother to look at the scales all that often. He still courts abuse on social media to promote fights but, where once he took it to heart, he now no longer reads it. He’s more interested in the motivation group he mentors through a private Facebook account that has over 4,500 members.
“It’s a place for people who are going through hardship, not just with weight. It can be anything with life. They just go on there and be motivated, help each other.
“I realised that a lot of people are inspired by my journey. It’s so simple, helping people through just showing what I’m doing.”
Buttabean’s boxing journey is almost over. He will fight for the last time in December. But that doesn’t mean he will disappear. By then the obese comedy boxer will have morphed fully into an inspirational health and fitness figure — a living embodiment of the fact that being down and out physically, mentally, emotionally and financially doesn’t prevent anyone from dragging themselves up off the canvas.
He knows he’s been lucky. He’s made mistakes and stumbled into dark places from which he might not have returned.
“How I haven’t been killed or at least gone to jail is beyond me.
“That’s why I reckon I’m meant to do something. I’m meant to be here.”
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.