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22 SEPTEMBER 2014

Where am I? Home Columns Paul Upham
 

From Brookvale Oval to Big Time Boxing in Las Vegas, Hollywood “Hoppa” Means Business


John Hopoate in Las Vegas
John Hopoate in Las Vegas

By Paul Upham

It is a long three-hour drive from Canberra to Sydney at the best of times. Even longer when you are a boxer who has lost by 1st round knockout. It was just after midnight on April 14, 2007 and John “Hoppa” Hopoate was giving serious thought to his future as a boxer. After a crushing loss in 89 seconds, was this the end of a fledgling boxing career for the former rugby league star?

After a controversial and disputed six round points lost to Brian Fitzgerald in Manly only two weeks earlier, the first of his career, Hopoate travelled to the Erindale Vikings Club at Wanniassa in the Australian Capital Territory to get his career back on track. While it was only the eighth fight of his career, Hopoate was facing a boxing debutant in two-time Australian kickboxing champion “Banging” Ben Edwards.

The two boxers went at it wildly from the opening bell. Hopoate was dropped twice and got sat on his backside by a left hook, before referee Paul Grima waved off the contest.

Despite Edwards’ prior ring combat experience, it was an upset in the boxing ring. It still is. Edwards hasn’t gone on to set the world on fire as a boxer. He has yet to fight again and his record stands at 1 fight, 1 win and 1 knockout.

For Hopoate, the loss in Canberra was a turning point in his career. He realised that he could not just charge forward like he was on the rugby league playing field at Brookvale Oval in Manly and simply rely on his power and hand speed to get the win. Now was the time to commit to learning the science of boxing.

“He was so embarrassed he didn’t say a single word for the whole trip,” Hopoate’s trainer/manager David Millward said of the car trip back from Canberra. “Hoppa’s a very proud man and he doesn’t take these losses lightly.”

At the time, many sceptics were wrong in labelling Hopoate’s boxing matches as a misguided attempt to cash in on his ‘bad boy’ rugby league fame.

Fast forward two years, one month and one week later and John Hopoate is ready to make his international debut in the USA, facing former WBC heavyweight world champion Oliver “Atomic Bull” McCall over ten rounds this coming Friday night May 22 at The Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas for the vacant IBA Intercontinental title. In anyone’s estimation, it has been a stunning turnaround from his trip to the canvas in Canberra.

Asked if he could ever have dreamed of fighting someone like McCall in Las Vegas in 2009, Hopoate answered with an honest single word. “Never,” he replied. “Six months ago, I could never have thought of this. I would have thought I was not good enough. But it has come along for me so quick.”

In hindsight, Millward’s comments at the time of Hopoate’s stoppage loss to Edwards were extremely accurate.

“Both fighters were just going ballistic,” Millward told the Sunday Telegraph. “But it’s by no means the end for him. He’ll actually learn a lot from it. He now realises he’s got to be a smarter fighter and he also realises he has to work harder.”

The evidence was at hand for the huge media contingent whom attended the City of Sydney PCYC in Woolloomooloo on May 5 for his final press conference, before heading to the USA for the McCall fight. A lean, mean Hopoate sparred close friend and fellow heavyweight Solomon Haumono, before undergoing some unusual abdominal and fitness work involving a martial arts Kendo stick.

The long wooden weapon smacking onto Hopoate’s chiselled mid-section, wielded by Millward, stunned those in attendance who had never seen the technique used before. The graphic vision made all of that night’s Australian television network news reports. The grimace on Hopoate’s face as he fell to his knees proved to everyone that this was not a flashy training session with no substance. Hopoate meant business in his new career as a boxer.

“I’m very happy with that type of training,” explained Hopoate. “I am fitter than I have ever been. I am the most committed I have ever been to training. That is the kind of training I do to get the right fitness. There is pain from the stick and you have to fight through it.”

Millward has been pushing Hopoate through three training sessions per day in preparation for the toughest fight of his relatively inexperienced career so far.

Asked what it felt like to hit Hopoate with the stick, Millward replied, “It’s great, because he doesn’t whinge and if he does whinge, he gets the stick more. He understands the reality of what happens in the ring and he knows that if he gets knocked down, he has to get back up again.”

It is a constant theme in Hopoate’s life.

In March 2005 at the age of 31, Hopoate was forced to retire from the sport of rugby league when he was suspended for 17 weeks after a shoulder charge on opposing player Keith Galloway went wrong and resulted in him being found guilty of elbowing the Cronulla player in the head.

It was the final of many suspensions, which hampered Hopoate’s thirteen-year career. Most notably, Hopoate will always be remembered for one of the more bizarre suspensions in rugby league history. In March 2001, Hopoate was banned for 12 weeks after being found guilty of “interfering” with opponents’ backsides during tackles. In his defence, Hopoate claimed he was only trying to unsettle the opposition players by giving them “wedgies” with their underwear, but the judiciary would not be swayed.

For a sport that has the vast majority of its popularity on the east coast of Australia, in New Zealand and in the northern parts of England, the suspension was suddenly headline news around the world. While he is not proud of the slur on his name, Hopoate does not hide from the furore and even at his recent Sydney press conference, tried to put a positive spin on it.

“They (critics) are still going to say I was the most suspended player in rugby league history,” suggested Hopoate, “but in saying that, I did take the game global with my finger antics. The NRL should have paid me for taking the game global, no one knew who they were.”

Similarly, Hopoate regrets the circumstances of how his rugby league career ended in 2005, but acknowledges that no matter what he does in the future, as a boxer or otherwise, he will always be remembered as a ‘bad boy’ of the sport.

“That is always going to be there,” said Hopoate, “even if I were to become a priest or a bishop. I am still going to be John Hopoate - the most suspended player in rugby league history. I don’t think it will ever go away.”

What is often forgotten is that there was a time when the Tongan born Hopoate was considered one of the most devastating ball running wingers in rugby league. He played 209 first grade games in the National Rugby League (NRL) between 1993 and 2005, scoring 87 tries. He also represented NSW in State of Origin football and represented Australia in two Test matches in 1995, scoring 3 tries.

But with wife Brenda, the unemployed Hopoate had a large family of eight children to support and times were now tough as he came to terms with the end of his professional league career, the only form of income he had ever known since the age of 19.

As a former player himself and trainer for the Manly Sea Eagles, David Millward was well known to Hopoate. The idea of becoming a boxer appealed to the now retired rugby league player and he approached Millward to train him.

“When I first started, I said I would have five fights and see how I go,” revealed Hopoate. “I started training and I thought I was useless. But here I am now, I have a chance in Las Vegas.”

Millward knew what he had on his hands, an elite athlete with the perfect combination of strength, raw power and fast heavyweight hands, if he could only get Hopoate to embrace the science of boxing.

“People think boxing is just walk forward and punch” observed Hopoate, “but there are all the angles you need to use. There are all these little things that make a fight. You need to have your head right. If your head is not right, the battle is lost.”

While Hopoate admits that he was never one to really push himself to his absolute limits in training for rugby league, as a boxer he quickly learned that there was no one else in the ring to do the work for him. Millward wasn’t always happy with Hopoate’s performances in the ring during his fights, but he has been pleased with his dedication to the gym.

“John is unbelievably tough and he never complains,” said Millward. “Since he finished football, he has never questioned any technique I gave him.”

Hopoate 11-2 (11) now looks back at his two career defeats as part of the learning process, which has allowed him to secure such an opportunity with McCall. No doubt, the American and his team would have looked upon Hopoate’s record and lack of experience as being a chance for the former world champion to get rid of some ring rust, on the way to much bigger fights.

“I didn’t have an amateur background in boxing,” conceded Hopoate, “so all of my fights up until now have been my amateur fights. This is the start of my career. Oliver McCall, he has been around and he was the heavyweight champion of the world. He was Mike Tyson’s sparring partner. So, what else can you say about him? He is getting on in age, but he still has all that experience. His would be a good name to have on my record as a win. Especially with the guys he has fought.”

Back at the Woolloomooloo PCYC on May 5, the media interest in Hopoate was amazing. Only Australian boxers such as Jeff Fenech, Kostya Tszyu and another former rugby league player in Anthony Mundine had attracted similar levels of media personnel for a single press conference.

“I couldn’t believe it,” admitted Hopoate. “I never thought there would be this many people. This is the kind of response that big name fighters get. I was very surprised. You don’t even get this much at an after match press conference for an NRL game. This is good. I am not a big media man, but I did enjoy today.”

John Hopoate in Hollywood
John Hopoate in Hollywood
While his rugby league notoriety assisted him, Millward correctly observed that since Hopoate had won the Australian heavyweight title against Aussie folk hero “Big” Bob Mirovic in a brutal, gutsy battle on September 10, 2008, there had been a new level of respect forthcoming for him.

“The public perception on him has changed,” noted Millward. “People stop him in the street for a photo or an autograph now and they say, ‘there’s Hoppa the fighter.’”

“I think that (the respect) came along after I beat Bob Mirovic,” agreed Hopoate. “Until I beat Bob, all of my fights had finished early. No one gave me a chance to win. They thought that if Bob got me into the fifth round, then I was finished.”

The dramatic 9th round TKO victory over Mirovic also dramatically increased Hopoate’s own confidence in himself as a boxer.

“I have noticed a change in him since he beat Bob Mirovic,” said Millward. “John believes in himself as a boxer. He really believes in himself. Before, he may have questioned himself in boxing and wondered whether he was ever going to go anywhere in the sport. Now, he is a completely different fighter.”

Those new levels of confidence will be important for Hopoate if he is to beat 44 year-old McCall 51-9 (36).

Like 34 year-old Hopoate, McCall has had many ups and downs in his career. After sensationally knocking out Lennox Lewis in two rounds to win the WBC world title in September 1994 in London, McCall defeated Larry Holmes on points, before losing the belt to popular Brit Frank Bruno in September 1995. A series of out of the ring problems with drinking and substance abuse followed. The “Atomic Bull” was famously arrested one night after throwing a Christmas tree through a hotel lobby window. The only identification police officers found on him that night in his back pocket was an uncashed cheque for US$1 million from promoter Don King.

In February 1997 in a rematch with Lewis for the vacant WBC belt, McCall suffered an inglorious meltdown in the ring where he refused to fight and wept openly, prompting referee Mills Lane to stop the match in round 5.

“McCall has had a few problems in his career,” said Hopoate. “It is a fight between two controversial blokes. That’s what it comes down to. But I am there to fight and I am there to win.”

Hopoate travelled to Los Angeles and spent time with his sister in Anaheim as he broke new ground in his preparation for McCall.

Working out at the Fortune Gym on Sunset Boulevard, Hopoate continued his development with impressive performances in sparring sessions against Americans Lionel Butler and former WBO world heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster.

Former Australian heavyweight and successful Los Angeles based trainer Justin Fortune was impressed with what Hopoate brought to his busy gym.

“John was real good,” said Fortune. “He just did some huge stuff sparring with Lamon. He was pulling some angles on Lamon Brewster that heavyweights just don’t do. He listened and he responded straight away. His fitness is great. He works very well. He couldn’t get better sparring leading into this fight with McCall.”

Trainer Millward could not find the words to describe how happy he was with Hopoate’s efforts in a new training environment.

“John’s angles were very impressive,” he gushed. “His jab was strong. He didn’t get hit a lot. He was throwing punches from everywhere. Lamon Brewster was shocked at how quick John was.”

Hopoate had some concerns as to how he would be treated going into his LA sparring, but the assistance he received from Brewster and Butler quickly dispelled his doubts.

“It was excellent for me,” Hopoate told SecondsOut. “Lamon was just a real gentleman. There is no mug about him. Both Lamon and Lionel have been helping me out, telling me what to do and what not to do. I feel my strength and speed is matching up well with these guys, but I can see their experience in the ring. Just in getting through the rounds. When I was getting tired, they were just pushing me through it. It has been great sparring. My speed has been up to it. When I was doing my angles, I was right up there with them. It has just been a learning curve for me.”

Sparring is sparring though and Hopoate realises that he will be in a real fight on Friday night, against a man who in his prime had one of the most lethal right hands in heavyweight boxing.

“I have seen his last few fights and his right hand is still pretty lethal,” admitted Hopoate. “The fights that he lost were to guys who put a bit of pressure on him. That sort of suits my style. That will be my game plan, to put the pressure on. He has the experience. It is just the little things, the holding and pushing away. You have to try not to get frustrated. These levels guys have been around and know all the tricks. I have to just try and overcome it.

“I think I have got him on age. A lot of people say I have got good power. I think I am more committed. He has not fought for a year or so. McCall may have a lot of experience, but I don’t think he will be able to take some of my power at his age. After the training I have been doing, I am prepared for this fight.”

Even for the people who are close to him and know him really well, Hopoate is a hard man to categorise such are the many strings to his personality.

“Hoppa is an unusual kind of guy,” admits Millward.

The rugby league ‘bad boy’ tag reputation sits alongside his family man role. You don’t raise eight children without having a special love for family. The leader of his church youth group, Hopoate’s 17 year-old eldest son William, last year signed a A$300,000 deal to play rugby league with the Manly Sea Eagles.

After his media workout in Sydney, Hopoate openly paraded around in a hooded “Dora the Explorer” sleeveless towel. The much loved cartoon character is a favourite of many of Hopoate’s younger children, so Hopoate thought it was a great way to embrace an important figure in their lives.

On the flip side, promising to wear it into the ring before his fight, Hopoate also knows it will put some extra questions marks in the mind of McCall.

“It’s also another ploy for McCall to look at me and think, ‘Who is this poof coming over to fight me?’ He will be very surprised,” laughed Hopoate.

All jokes aside, Hopoate realises what a step-up he is taking in this fight and what a win will mean for his career.

“It is true. I can step up a few levels very quickly,” he said. “If I win this fight, so many doors will open for me. I am pretty happy to be going over there to fight McCall in Las Vegas. Growing up, I watched guys like Mike Tyson fighting in Las Vegas. You would dream about things like this. I am blessed to be given the opportunity to go over there and fight.”

“I think for anyone from Australian sport who goes to compete in America,” said Millward, “it is always going to be a big step up. John believes in himself and I believe in him.”

While he believes that he has done everything possible to be ready for this vital match with McCall, a religious Hopoate is still hoping on a little help from a higher power upstairs.

“This fight means everything to me and my family,” said Hopoate. “This is the sort of fight you dream of. I never thought it would happen to me. When the opportunity came along, I jumped at it. I am very confident, but everything is left in God’s hands, he has the ultimate plan. Whatever plan he has for me, I hope I can win.”


Paul Upham
Content Editor


* The Oliver McCall vs. John Hopoate match and undercard will be streamed exclusively live on-line around the world by www.SecondsOut.com.au.

Purchase McCall-Hopoate now on-line at SecondsOut.com.au. CLICK HERE. for more details.


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