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Sonny Bill Williams and Andy Lee: An unlikely partnership of world champions

A move from rugby league to rugby union in 2008 sparked the New Zealand sporting legend’s interest in boxing – because he found himself a million dollars in debt.

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OUT THE BACK of St Joseph’s Boys’ impressive football premises in Sallynoggin, County Dublin is a large sports hall. Lining its walls are a dozen or so heavy bags and, on the far right-hand side as you come through the door, two boxing rings and a digital timer belonging to Monkstown Boxing Club.

Between the two rings on this particular Friday stand three men prepping an afternoon’s work: a garda, a coach, and a rugby player — or, if you were to peruse their CVs beyond the first paragraph of each: three fighters.

The coach, former middleweight world champion Andy Lee, has invited the garda, longtime national heavyweight top dog Niall Kennedy, to spar four rounds with his newest charge, Sonny Bill Williams, the two-time World Cup-winning former All Black whose hands have inflicted pain upon Irish people on more than one occasion.

Williams won a national heavyweight title during his fifth professional fight in February 2012, just four months before starring in the rugby union world champions’ 3-0 series whitewash over Declan Kidney’s Ireland. He contributed two tries to the tourists’ heaviest ever defeat, the third Test in Hamilton.

sonny-bill-williams Sonny Bill Williams crosses the whitewash against Ireland in Hamilton in 2012. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One of only two men to ever play for the All Blacks after first making it as a rugby league international for his home country, Williams retired from both oval-ball codes 11 months ago. He returned to the boxing ring after a six-and-a-half-year absence last June, surviving a second-round knockdown to narrowly outpoint journeyman Waikato Falefehi over six rounds.

Keen to further his still-fledgling boxing career, Williams flew to Manchester just before Christmas to study compatriot Joseph Parker’s fight-week preparations for what transpired to be a thrilling rematch victory over Dereck Chisora. It was there he met Limerick’s Lee, who has trained Parker since another of his fighters, world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, introduced them last year.

“Andy was a good enough man to let me in for that week”, Williams smiles, “because it’s a real intimate space.

“And I’m an avid boxing fan — Andy can tell you that now — so even though Joe didn’t put on the performance that he wanted to, I could see the little differences in the way he was fighting… Just because I’ve watched all his fights and that, y’know?

“Being able to see that materialise first-hand that week was amazing — it was just really, really good. Andy had even taken me into the ring that week. And as far as I’m concerned, at my level, there are lots of good fights out there for me; so what better way to learn, to improve, than through Andy?

“I know he’s a busy man, I know he’s a wanted man by great fighters, so I’m very grateful that he’s let me come over here and do some work with him.”

joseph-parker-and-trainer-andy-lee-left-after-the-wbo-intercontinental-heavyweight-title-fight-against-derek-chisora-at-the-ao-arena-manchester-picture-date-saturday-december-18-2021 Andy Lee and Joseph Parker. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

In reverential terms, Williams stresses that it was he who first broached the topic of working together with Lee. His trainer, visibly at pains to stem the flow of compliments coming his way, recalls it slightly differently:

“Ah, I kinda said it to you…” Lee argues. “It wasn’t a big deal. It was like, ‘Yeah, come on over…’”

Put to him that it is surprising that he would so readily work with an athlete for whom boxing has been mostly a secondary pursuit, Lee again sees things differently.

“No… No. I’d seen enough in Manchester to see the potential there and to see ways in which I could really improve him or have a positive effect.

“Like, a big part of it is the fighter, true, and what you can do with them and how much they can develop — but it’s also the personality, the person, because you’re spending so much time together.

There has to be some sort of friendship, admiration, respect… Sonny will tell you: he has seen my life here, now. I’m either with my family or I’m in the boxing gym. I don’t do much else. And to give up time with my family to go to the boxing gym with someone, there has to be something there.

“So, as much as it’s of benefit for him to come here”, Lee adds, “it’s of benefit for me to have him here because working with him is actually an enjoyable process.”

It is also a partially symbiotic process, one through which the professor can sit in on the odd lecture.

Even Williams’ warm-up for sparring, meticulous and distant from the chit-chat, is illustrative of his becoming a world-renowned sporting talent.

“He has as much as me — probably more than me, actually — in terms of high-performance knowledge and professionalism,” Lee says of Williams. “That mindset… He’s transferring a lot of things that he learned over all of those years in rugby into boxing. I can see it especially in his preparation.”

leeds-uk-2nd-february-2020-former-world-cup-winning-all-black-sonny-bill-williams-enters-the-pitch-for-warm-up-priors-to-his-rugby-league-super-league-debut-for-toronto-wolfpack-at-a-sell-out-head 'Sonny'. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Later, after his sparring and training session are complete, Williams meets a Junior Schools rugby player, Darragh, from Blackrock College, who has been granted permission to meet one of his heroes. Darragh, on crutches, suffered an ACL tear last September, ruling him out of JCT action.

After finding out more about him, Williams explains to the young back row what it was like to play at Lansdowne Road for the opposition, going as far as to burst into a chorus of ‘Ireland’s Call’. (“I’ve tried telling him that’s not our actual national anthem,” Lee winces).

Bookending Williams’ chat with Darragh, though, is the Kiwi’s advice for the younger player on his injury specifically. Williams performs detailed demonstrations of a couple of exercises which he says should aid the recovery process. He doesn’t sugar-coat it: it’s going to be an arduous bout of rehab. But work hard at it every day, he says — no exceptions — and Darragh will be back on the pitch before he knows it.

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***

Andy Lee doesn’t curate a specific gym playlist. Instead, he searches for something as vague as “’80s rock, or whatever” and let’s Spotify set the soundtrack to his fighters’ sessions via a portable bluetooth speaker.

‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ by U2 segues into ‘Start Me Up’ by the Stones, and that in turn into ‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Springsteen. Sonny Bill Williams and Niall Kennedy begin to rhythmically wind up their warm-ups and gear up for controlled battle.

Their four rounds will be purely preparative: Williams, 8-0(3KOs) as a professional boxer will on 23 March fight for a ninth time in Sydney, where he now lives with his wife, Alana, and their four young children. His opponent will be the legendarily abrasive former AFL star Barry Hall, whom Irish readers might recall for his impassioned contribution to a couple of International Rules series: he became the bane of Graham Canty’s existence — and vice versa — Down Under in 2003, and captained the Aussies during their infamous visit to these shores in 2006.

Hall’s 0-0-1 record belies his threat in the opposite corner: he was an underage amateur boxing champion once upon a time but, more pertinently, the draw he earned in his only pro fight in November 2019 was against Paul Gallen (then 9-0, 5KOs), a former NRL Premiership winner and New South Wales State of Origin captain who until recently probably harboured loftier boxing ambitions than even Williams himself.

graham-canty-with-barry-hall Graham Canty staring down Barry Hall, Williams' next opponent, during the 2003 International Rules series. Source: INPHO

Williams’ dance partner for this particular day in Dublin, meanwhile, Niall Kennedy, boasts a professional record of 14-2-1, 9KOs. The Gorey garda, revered in Irish boxing and beyond for his kindness and mental-health activism, has been inactive in boxing terms since last August but has answered the call to help Williams and, in turn, to dust off some of his own cobwebs.

“Have you a headguard?” Lee asks Williams. “No, do you have one for me?” Williams replies. Lee strolls over to a gearbag near where Kennedy is having his i’s dotted and his T’s crossed by George Clack, an Irish Rail worker who puts much of his spare time into their local Gorey Boxing Club.

“Which ring?” Kennedy asks Lee. “Ah, we’ll use the big one,” Lee says, nodding towards the fuller-sized squared circle on the entrance side of the sports hall.

The fighters oblige, climbing the steps attached to the canvas at opposite corners.

Suffice to say it’s difficult to recall what music was playing in the background when a six-foot-three, 225-pound policeman and a six-foot-three, 240-pound All Black began to trade leather.

IMG_2462 Williams, left, and Niall Kennedy, right.

A sparring session is not a fight, but it’s hardly yoga at the same time. Williams’ and Kennedy’s four rounds have their spicy moments: Lee shouts a couple of times for “calm” in the second with both men loading up and landing; while, in the fourth, Kennedy prods Williams with a seemingly contemptuous no-look jab, making light of one of Lee’s instructions as he does it.

But the good-natured essence of a session like this is accentuated after the final beep sounds from the timer.

Kennedy, who had worn what was in retrospect a scarcely believable poker face to that point, embraces Williams and gushes that “it was an absolute honour” to meet an athlete whom he has greatly admired for years. He tells his sparring partner that he is both “a beast” and “a gentleman”.

Minutes later, after Williams completes a few more rounds on a heavy bag and Kennedy does the same on the pads with Clack, the drenched fighters reconvene at ringside for a more detailed debrief of their 12-minute knock-around.

Kennedy leads the conversation. He compliments Williams’ crisp jab, the torque in some of his shots, his footwork and his general upper-body strength. It suddenly became very obvious to him, he says, how Williams managed to make shite of so many defensive lines across both rugby codes.

There is plenty of constructive criticism too, though, and it’s plain to see that this is what Williams really wants to hear. Kennedy and Lee discuss the importance of body language when a fighter begins to tire; how it is imperative to at least feint and convince your opponent that you’re still plotting a significant attack even if your brain is screaming for the bell.

Williams soaks in every word, nodding but not voicing much beyond the extent to which he appreciates Kennedy’s help on both sides of the ropes and his intention to keep working, improving.

“And listen, you’re with the right man,” a still-breathless Kennedy tells Williams, nodding towards Lee. “He stopped me when we were amateurs, at Boy 1…”

Williams looks to Lee, who nods sheepishly.

Kennedy recalls how he was told he should walk through this new kid, Lee, who was listed as having fought less than a handful of bouts at their Irish schoolboy level. “‘Sure who the hell was this fella?’” Kennedy laughs.

“I was two-time English champion,” smiles Lee, who was born to Irish parents in London and moved to Limerick only when he was 14.

Williams is in stitches.

A few more war stories are exchanged before another sparring session is tentatively arranged for the following week. Kennedy, jokingly claiming it’s for his wife, asks Williams if he can grab a picture with him in the meantime before he hits the road back to Wexford.

“Of course, bro,” says Williams, who springs from his perch at the edge of the ring and wraps a hulking arm around his new pal.

“Stop tensing, ya cunt!” Kennedy laughs as they pose for the shot. “Do you not think you look good enough already?”

IMG_2478 Williams and Kennedy.

***

“I can’t believe it, bro,” Williams says. “I swear, I can’t believe it.” He glances into his rear-view mirror at the journalist in his backseat, and then across at his trainer on the passenger side of his rental car.

I had mentioned to Lee earlier that it must be nice for Williams to train in relative anonymity in Dublin, only for Lee to inform me with a wry shake of his head that the former All Black is being “mobbed everywhere he goes.”

“Yesterday,” Williams elaborates, “I had a facemask on and a hat on, and I went and just got a coffee at a café, and a brother’s like, ‘Sonny Bill!’

“But I guess it’s just the age of social media in any case… He was like, ‘Oh, I checked on Instagram and I thought it was you; I’d seen you were in Ireland!’” Williams laughs.

He’s not annoyed to be recognised. Quite the opposite, in fact.

I loved playing here, honestly. I got mad respect here… It’s crazy because I haven’t played rugby for a year or so but I guess the Irish public must just remember when we gave youse a hiding by 50 points that day in Hamilton…

It was actually 60-0, but he enjoys the barb too much to interrupt him.

sonny-bill-williams-passes-as-gordon-darcy-and-keith-earls-move-in Williams flicks a pass beyond Gordon D'Arcy and Keith Earls in 2012. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I don’t miss playing rugby,” Williams says, turning for Dún Laoghaire upon Lee’s pointing. “I enjoy watching the big games but I’m not there flicking it on, or it’s not a constant on my TV. I’ve got four young kids and now, the boxing is taking up a bit of time, so…

“I do especially enjoy seeing the people who come from where I come from excelling on that field. Because I know how much it means to them, not just to themselves but to their families.

A lot of the times, just like myself, we grow up and no one in our families are in a position of influence or have a high-income job. So, for them to make it is great for their families financially but I think it also has a splash-on effect; maybe subconsciously showing people from our backgrounds that there are ways to achieve great things. Like, for example, Bundee Aki and James Lowe: it’s great to see them come over here and give it a crack and excel and get good contracts, well paid, and make something for themselves and for their families. I think that’s what I enjoy most about rugby.

Bearing all of that in mind, when Williams says that his love for boxing “came out of necessity, really”, one might be forgiven for presuming that he had to physically equip himself to survive the Auckland suburb of Mount Albert in which he was raised. Similar tales are purveyed by the majority of the sport’s participants, after all.

But where Williams is concerned, that’s not quite the case.

“I watched David Tua and stuff growing up, Mike Tyson, but I wasn’t a massive boxing fan,” he says.

“When I took off from Australia to France” — Williams left the NRL’s Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs for Toulon in 2008 — “I broke my contract. I had to pay a million dollars to get out of it.

So, I was a million dollars in debt — but the people who helped me to pay it were boxing guys. Obviously, though, I had to pay them back!

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It was rugby-league-star-turned-professional-boxer Anthony Mundine, a friend of Williams’, who advised his fellow defector to box on his undercard in Brisbane in May 2009 to clear six figures from his debt.

“So, it was through necessity, and then… Well, to begin with, I was a little bit of a fish out of water,” Williams says. “I didn’t even know how to throw a jab or a one-two, y’know? But I hang my hat on hard work and dedication. ‘I may not be there now but I will test the waters as much as I can.’ And that’s where the love affair began.

sonny-bill-williams Williams in action for Toulon against Connacht in the 2009/10 Challenge Cup semi-final. Source: James Crombie

“Y’know, I was fighting a few guys off the street and all that”, Williams says, “but getting in the ring and that whole experience… There’s something about it.

There’s something about boxing. It was so daunting for me but it was so captivating. It was so like, ‘Wow.’ After a fight I’d be like, ‘I got through it — I want to do that again. But I don’t want to. But I do!’ You know?

“That’s when I started really studying it, watching fights, and loving the process of schooling up on how boxers are as people, as men.”

Williams’ universality as an athlete in both New Zealand and Australia are probably best summarised by the following two facts: firstly, Terry Devlin, the trainer of his third professional opponent, Scott Lewis, had already named his youngest son after Williams by the time they first crossed paths in Gold Coast in January 2011. Secondly, Williams’ bout with Lewis was the first of three fights permitted in his contract with the NZRU at a time when the All Blacks were priming for a home World Cup later that same year.

His fourth pro bout — the second of that contractual quirk — took place on a Crusaders bye week in June ’11. With it, Williams raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Christchurch earthquake appeal, directly donating $100,000 from his own pocket.

Still, it has to be asked: how the hell did he manage to finesse that deal in the first place?

“You know, I’d put it like this, like: there’s got to be substance there,” Williams says.

“Like, if you can produce the goods, then you have bargaining power if that makes sense?

“Thank God, being in the position of having done what I’ve done in sport, I get questions all the time from extended family or family: ‘Could you do this or this or this or that,’” he continues, vaguely alluding to requests for him to pull strings for younger players. “And I always say, ‘Look, it’s up to the kid first. It doesn’t matter who their agent is. If the kid can produce the goods, they’re going to have more bargaining power.’

“At the end of the day, when I boxed back then while under contract with New Zealand, a lot of people thought I was worth $100 million…but I had to pay off some debts! So, I just worked it into my contract. That was it.

And the thing for me is… It’s quite sad because I did it once and I felt like I was stepping out of line. ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ Because there’s all that type of media in New Zealand, like… So, I think I only ever boxed once during the season; I kept doing it when the season was finished or I used it as [supplementary pre-season training]. But looking back, I wish I had done it a bit more to tell you the truth.

sonny-bill-williams-l-and-andy-ellis-of-new-zealands-crusaders-celebrate-a-try-against-south-africas-sharks-during-their-super-15-rugby-match-in-nelson-june-25-2011-reutersanthony-phelps-new-z Williams and Crusaders team-mate Andy Ellis celebrating a try in June 2011, just over two weeks after Williams' fourth pro fight. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

I ask him if he feels as though portions of the rugby public — or publics, in the case of this union and league star — never truly embraced him; if the sport’s traditionalists might have taken umbrage with his being something of a dissident.

“Well, I think to an extent, you always feel like an outsider,” he says.

I’m a Polynesian and to top it off I’m a Muslim as well. So, you always have that kind of deep-down feeling that you are an outsider — but at the same time, that doesn’t stop you from giving it a crack and being authentic and being a good person, y’know?

“I always hang my hat on that: just be a good person. But it was hard because, you know, we’re humans. We feel things. I felt the criticism. I can feel it. But when I was playing rugby, I worked on actually getting to understand myself better. I put things in place where that stuff wasn’t in my face or at the forefront of my mind. I concentrated on more wholesome things, things that were going to both benefit me on the field and benefit me as a person.

“There’s always going to be that [external feedback]. There’s always going to be someone who says something good about you, always someone who says something bad about you. Always.

“I suppose, working that out helped me to stay on the path, stay strong. And, obviously, my faith has been a real help as well,” adds Williams, whose conversion to Islam in 2009 famously proved his salvation from a substance-fueled period of darkness.

“One of the biggest things I’ve learned from being here, especially from Andy, is that like, yeah, you can go and do great things but the greatest thing is family, faith, that type of stuff,” Williams continues. “It’s kind of going back to that ‘wholesome’ approach. I’ve loved my time here and God willing, I’ll be back with my family.”

Whether or not that will be for a boxing training camp with Lee may be determined on 23 March back in his adopted home of Sydney.

Williams has never tasted defeat in the ring but he’s far from delusional.

I know my level, you know what I mean? I know my level. I’m not here saying, ‘I’m gonna be a world champion’ or whatnot. But the way the world of boxing is at the moment, there’s a lot of good fights out there for me. There’s Barry Hall next but I know in the rugby community, across rugby-playing countries, there are a few good boxers out there who are on my level. I feel like I want to do it for a couple of years just to scratch that itch. And if I can keep improving the way that I feel like I can under the guidance of Andy, and getting that good work in, then why not give it a good crack?

“It’s just a good way to kind of transition out of sport”, he says, “and it’s just a cool journey, bro, y’know?

“What did we talk about last night again, Andy”, he asks Lee, “where you said that you’re always like, ‘Oh, I just want to have a nice house, a nice ol’ car,’ but then it’s like, ‘I want some of that suffering as well’, y’know?”

Williams chuckles, glancing across to the man in the passenger seat.

Lee, nodding, elaborates: “I don’t know if he really realised it when I put it in those plain and simple terms but I was saying, like… ‘Sonny, you’re obviously a rugby legend, you’re financially secure, you have a good family…’ Like, he could be just at home, living the most comfortable life, satisfied with what he achieved but no: he’s decided to put himself in a situation where he’s going to fight this guy who’s very awkward, very tricky, who was a [junior] amateur champion, who’s six-foot-four and weighs over a hundred kilos; and he’s going to do it on pay-per-view TV — where he lives! It’s going to be shown all over the world instantly and whatever happens within that fight is going to last forever on YouTube, in fight reports — it’s going to be seen forever.

“So….”

After a hefty silence, both men burst into laughter.

“D’you know what I mean?” Lee continues, still laughing.

“And he’s the only person who has put himself in this position! It’s not like he’s being forced to do it.

“That’s what makes him special: that he’s taking on the challenge. And that’s what will make the victory sweeter as well.”

IMG_2472 Williams and Lee at work.

“But for me,” says Williams, pausing his thought as he exits a roundabout. “Like, all of this, yeah, is about learning about boxing, learning as a fighter; but for me it’s also about the journey as well, being able to be here in Ireland. I’m here learning off Andy: one of the best, yes, but also just a great guy. I’m in Ireland getting to know him, meeting his lovely wife, his beautiful kids and that like… It makes me grateful just to be where my feet are, y’know?

“Being in the gym with guys like Joe Parker and Tyson Fury (in England); being over here… It makes me realise that everyone is just normal people but we’re able to do exceptional things.”

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