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Street Week: Ula Fights For Her Life

Joseph Harper recaps the KFC Fight For Life, including the powerful defeat of Ula from Shortland Street by Millie Elder Holmes. //

I watched the KFC Fight for Life in the comfortable confines of Ponsonby’s ritziest sports bar, The Cavalier on College Hill. The crowd was mostly well-heeled locals in open collars and bedazzled wedges who, as the broadcast began, didn’t seem particularly interested in the nation’s premiere televised charity boxing showcase.

Understandably so. New Zealanders doing this kind of thing in New Zealand still feels odd. The vast, pure spectacle of it. There’s no room for self-deprecation when your selling point is men in glittery shorts punching each other in the head. Especially because this form of big, shiny, local entertainment is still relatively new for us. We’re still learning to take ourselves seriously when weighing in against our overseas opponents, and because of this it feels precarious. As though it could all fall apart very quickly if those involved stop to examine what they’ve built, even a moment.

Hayley Holt was ringside. Interviewing the likes of Israel Folau in a quilted sweatshirt and Konrad Hurrell in a two-piece suit and beanie. Stephen McIvor and Dennis Katsanos seemed thrilled to be a part of it. Katsanos was wearing a huge watch.

As the night went on, the boxing got better. Chiefs Prop Ben Tamiafuna was the very definition of power and grace as he fought from an innovative looking half-squat position against the cartoonishly villainous giant Willy Mason. Mason got the points decision, but the hometown hero was the clear winner to the crowd and the commentary team.

There was a weird fight between two guys who seemed like professional wrestlers. One was named “The Brown Buttabean”. As someone whose boxing education comes from the Rocky movies and the excellent reality TV series The Contender, I was struck by how boring real boxing is when not done correctly. The costumes, conservative fighting styles, and lack of conditioning make for an odd and buffoonish display. As a sport, the spectacle left plenty to be desired. It was mostly awkward-looking short arms that always seemed to end in a boxing hug.

Monty Betham vs. Carlos Spencer felt legitimate going in. Two chiselled specimens of similar athletic prowess. Unfortunately, Carlos bit off more than he could chew. Before the fight, Monty was all smiles. Handsome and incredibly charismatic as he spoke down the barrel of the camera to his wife, reassuring her that he’d be fine. But in the ring he was all business. From the bell he went to work, tearing the helpless Spencer apart with his tremendous speed. It was savage. The referee ended the fight early in the third round.

It was clearly the greatest athletic display of the celebrity section of the KFC Fight for Life. The real money fight, however, was the first on the card, where Millie “Elder” Holmes faced off against Frankie “Ula” Adams.

Before the match, the two were interviewed separately. Both were decked out in officially sanctioned boxer braids. Ula was self-assured. She seemed to be on a high as she spoke of her training and her flight to Hollywood in the near-future.

As someone who had gone in sceptical of Millie’s decision to fight in the wake of (and possibly as a result of) her boyfriend’s tragic death, I was surprised at how genuine Millie was. She’s an uneasy screen presence. Her eyes were darting around as she answered inane questions about her training and thoughts going into the fight, all in her tiny little voice. It was incredibly earnest. Millie didn’t feel like ‘talent’ here. She wasn’t performing, she was simply there to box. It was very endearing. I was team Millie.

The two women made their way to the ring, Ula bobbing up and down with a little entourage, Millie looking coy and nervous; before both waiting in their corners for the match to begin.

Ula played the pugilist well, dancing around before the match in between swigs of Waiwera Artisanal spring water administered by Pua Magasiva. But my decision to go all in on Millie proved fruitful. Immediately she moved in. Not graceful, but determined. Quickly landing some hard shots to Ula’s head and body as the Shortland Street star tried to prance into a good position.

In the second round, Ula looked scared. She wasn’t dancing around anymore. She was dancing away. But Millie was unrelenting. Moving in like the tide, slow and sure with a look on her face that was all truth. “Hey, I want to punch you in the head,” said her face.

As the match went on, it became clear this wasn’t about PR, or anything as abstract as her brand or her celebrity. It was about Millie doing a good job. There was nothing cynical about it. It was Millie Elder Holmes, the young woman who’s been through some tough shit, fighting for the memory of the man she loved with the utmost sincerity.

At the end of the fight, it was clear that Millie had creamed her. Even still, when the result came in and the announcer announced her victory by unanimous decision and her hand was raised, Millie exulted in a great wave of relief. Off mic she let out, “Fuck! Thank god!” before turning her back on the camera to display the tribute to her late boyfriend Connor Morris, that she had printed on her shirt. The crowd in Ponsonby gave a wee cheer. One of the women at the bar leaned up onto the toes of her high heels, emitting a short burst of claps and a jubilant “Yay Millie!”

It was honest and moving. It was a very real TV moment in the middle of this overblown sports circus.

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