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two women in boxing stances with green outlines around them against a pixellated blue background
Boxers Lani Daniels (left) and Alrie Meleisea (Photos: Combat Sport Network NZ; design Archi Banal)

SportsMay 26, 2023

Doing it for whānau and ‘aiga: The wāhine facing off for the world heavyweight title

two women in boxing stances with green outlines around them against a pixellated blue background
Boxers Lani Daniels (left) and Alrie Meleisea (Photos: Combat Sport Network NZ; design Archi Banal)

On the eve of their historic world title bout in Auckland, boxers Lani Daniels and Alrie Meleisia tell Zahra Shahtahmasebi that in a sport where women struggle to get the exposure they deserve, persistence pays off.

It is still dark outside when Lani Daniels rolls off the couch to put on her boxing wraps. Old, clearly well-worn, the couch is surrounded by punching bags and old boxing relics. Daniels (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) has been sleeping here for the last four months to prepare for a shot at a world heavyweight boxing title. She moved down from her Northland home of Pīpīwai in February, taking up the couch in the west Auckland gym of her coach John Conway.

It’s not for lack of options. “I stayed at an apartment a few weekends back with one of my mates, and I had the nicest bed,” she remembers, “but I had to get up at 5.30am to go to training, and it’s a lot easier rolling off the couch than it is getting out of a nice cosy bed.”

On Saturday, Daniels will step into the ring against fellow professional boxer Alrie Meleisea for the vacant International Boxing Federation world female heavyweight title.

It will be a historic moment for Daniels and Auckland-born Sāmoan Meleisea, ranked number one and two in the world respectively – it is the first time an international title has been contested by two New Zealand-born boxers.

A trained mental health nurse, Daniels, 34, has been boxing for the last 10 years. Since starting her professional career in 2017, she has a fight record of seven wins, two losses and two draws. She is the current New Zealand Professional Boxing Association (NZPBA) female light heavyweight title holder, and in March this year, she added the Australian National Boxing Federation Australasian heavyweight title to her list.

With a centimetre of height on Daniels’ 169cm, Meleisea, 30, has been in the boxing game for 15 years, with a professional boxing record of six wins, one loss and one draw. She has previously held NZPBA and Universal Boxing Federation Asia Pacific female heavyweight titles and most recently won the vacant Pro Box NZ Heavyweight title last December.

Lani Daniels and Alrie Meleisea were welcomed to Auckland’s Ōrākei marae by Ngāti Whatua Ōrākei mana whenua, who will look after the IBF belt until one of the fighters wins and earns the mana to come and claim it (Photo: Combat Sport Network NZ)

Daniels and Meleisea share many things, including a drive both to win and to better themselves. The key to progress? Stay there long enough to watch the grass grow, says Meleisea. And while waking up at odd hours to go running in the rain sucks, it always feels better afterwards, Daniels adds.

For Daniels, morning trainings start at 5.30am every day without fail. In a hoodie and sweatpants, with boxing gloves in hand, Daniels piles into a van with Conway and two training partners.

They are dropped off at the bottom of a long, windy, dead-end road in the coastal suburb of Titirangi with the task of running back – up and down the hills in the dark, humid Auckland morning.

When they make it back, Conway holds pads for each of them on the pavement before taking them to do laps of the 220-odd stairs, known as “Heart Attack Hill” by locals. Words of support to keep pushing are passed between the trio as the sun rises over them.

They work on a 2:3 regime, which involves training twice one day, then three times the next.

“We keep things pretty simple, we just do what we need to do. You think you’re getting fitter, then he [Conway] adds another piece on to make you fail,” says Daniels.

“But we embrace failure a lot in our training, that’s how we train hard – you might have a bad session, but you’ve always got the next one to do better.”

Rest is also a major component – stretching, foam rolling, massages and naps – to make sure Daniels can recover for the next day.

Meleisea’s training looks similar – pads, strength and conditioning, cardio, sparring. You’ll find her at boxing gym Red Line Combat Academy on Auckland’s North Shore, which she refers to as “the lab”, every day of the week. Like Daniels, she has kept her training and rest intertwined: she moved into one of the rooms upstairs at the gym in the last week of April, camping out on a large air mattress.  

Knowing there are never any guarantees in boxing, Meleisea says this is the most honest fight camp she’s had in her career. “The coaching staff have been on my ass… making sure I’m performing where I need to, resting where I need to.”

Mornings at Red Line are quiet, the perfect opportunity for Meleisea to get into the zone with a session on the spin bikes. But walk into Red Line any evening and it’s the noise that hits you first – music blaring, coaches yelling, grunts of exertion, but above all – yells and whoops of encouragement.

In between fitness and boxing classes, everyone crowds around the ring in the centre of the gym to watch and cheer Meleisea, in her grey hoodie, black sports tights, dark hair in a long plait, as she spars with the gym’s male boxers.

While contesting a world title ticks off a personal goal for Meleisea, it has always been bigger than that. With her heritage written out on her thighs in a malu, a form of Sāmoan tattoo, she’s grateful for the chance she and Daniels get to represent their Pacific Island and Māori communities on the world stage. “It is big for the culture… and I am glad we get the chance to show our people what we’re capable of, even out of the dirtiest and grimiest situations.”

This weekend’s fight won’t be Daniels’ first time going for a world title. The first was in 2019. Daniels, ranked 10th in the world, went up against world number one Brazilian-born Kiwi boxer Geovana Peres for the World Boxing Organisation light heavyweight title.

Daniels lost the bout by unanimous decision. Feeling like she hadn’t taken the opportunity seriously enough, and that she had let both herself and Conway down, she returned home to Pīpīwai, where she slipped into depression.

She took an extended break from boxing, “ate and drank” herself silly, turning to alcohol as a way to cope with the dark place she had fallen into.

Her nursing training helped her recognise the signs, and she sought help and started antidepressants. After about 18 months off, she returned to the ring in 2022, winning two fights and two national titles in March and June.

In March this year, Daniels took, and won, a fight against Palmerston North professional boxer Sequita Hemingway, who both she and Meleisea defeated last year.

Everyone told coach Conway the fight was a risky move, as a loss would instantly take Daniels out of the running for the IBF title – but as Daniels hadn’t fought since last June he says she had to remove her “ring rust”. And besides, he had faith his fighter wouldn’t lose. 

After 46 years in the sport, and it being 50/50 whether Daniels fights again after Saturday, Conway says this fight is both his masterpiece and their swan-song.

Last week was what Conway calls “hell week”, which aimed to push Daniels to her limits for the last time. In her last hell week, Daniels says she injured herself during sparring, overextending both her arms and taking two strong punches to the body. 

“It was probably the only body shot I’ve ever actually felt… that was quite cool to feel, even the arms, because, who knows, it might happen on the night, and now I know what it feels like.”

The challenges of being a female boxer in a traditionally male-dominated world is something the two fighters are asked about often, but they say it doesn’t bother them. “I recognise it, and see the shortcomings of it, especially in pay equity,” says Daniels, “but I’m not into the politics side of things, so it’s not something that I focus on. It’s about my personal journey.”

Meleisea agrees, though less diplomatically: “If you told me not to box because I am a woman, I would tell you to get fucked.”

Both hope that having an IBF title fight in Auckland will open more international doors, because exposure for women’s boxing is a challenge in New Zealand.

“It is harder to get places, there’s no exposure, no one wants to talk about us… and finding matches where we don’t go around in circles,” says Meleisea. Her father, who had boxed as a teenager in Sāmoa, was the reason Meleisea took up the sport as a teenager. “We had stuff going on at home, so I was starting to act out at that age, and he saw it as a form of trying to give me some direction.”

She credits boxing with teaching her a lot; when her opponent in her first corporate fight turned out to be her best friend’s sister, she learnt boxing is nothing personal – just business. “Both of our mums sat in the crowd together and our fight pretty much tore the roof off the ABA [Auckland Boxing Association].”

Ever since that fight she’s been training with Red Line owner and head coach Vasco Kovačević, who is “quite chuffed” about Saturday’s world title bout, which his gym has organised and promoted. “It’s something I’ve always had in mind to do… no stone has been left unturned in our training and I’m confident that Alrie can execute what she needs to do,” says Kovačević.

With fights being offered or cancelled at a moment’s notice, Meleisea’s next lesson was “you don’t always get what you want, but it pays to be persistent”.

When Meleisea lost her mother in 2018 (her father had died a few years prior), she lost the positive trajectory her boxing career had been on. She stopped training and, like Daniels, sought peace in drugs and alcohol. Constantly hearing her parents’ voices in her head, she continued drinking to block them out – until she realised they were telling her what she needed to hear: “It’s your life, it’s in your control.”

Eighteen months later,  in July 2021, she got back in the ring against Sequita Hemingway and suffered the first loss of her career, but came back to defeat Hemingway last December.

Sitting in her room above the gym, with her Red Line hoodie on and tears in her eyes, Meleisea says her parents have been her source of motivation for every fight of her career. “My parents were the proudest Sāmoan people, and when I jump in there I’m there for them.”

This Saturday, she’ll carry them with her to the ring. “Then I leave them on the step, and I tell them, you watch.”

The world title bout takes place at 7pm tomorrow (May 27) at Auckland’s Eventfinda Stadium. Tickets are available here.

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