The principal explanation for the Tua-man, as he likes to be called—as in "This fight is a Tuamandatory" (here's a boxer who can take a pun)—is his strange upbringing on the small island of Faleatiu, in Western Samoa. The Tuaman delights in recounting his father's unorthodox tutelage (Tuatelage?), which in any other culture would be considered abusive enough to warrant jail time but, in this case, earns only a son's undying devotion. O.K., here's the story.
"I didn't want to box," says the Tuaman, whose actual name, by the way, is Mafaufau Tavita Lio Mafaufau Sanerivi Talimatasi. ("See why I'm David Tua? There's no fight poster in the world could get that in") "Rugby or cricket, maybe. Or go to the beach. But I sure didn't want to box. The old man, though, he wanted me to box."
His father, Tuavale, the owner of a "convenience" store (think 7-Eleven with a thatched roof) and a former boxer himself, would recruit teens from the area to spar with his eight-year-old son. Every day after work, the father would promise a loaf of bread to the older boys if they gave his youngster a workout and a whipping if they didn't. "They respected Mr. Tua," the son says. "I know for a fact they were afraid of him."
The kid dreaded these sparring sessions. He was big for his age but hardly of a unique physical type on that small island. Lots of kids were big for their age. Sometimes he wouldn't come home, making up elaborate excuses about taking care of sick friends' parents, whatever he could think of. "I figured I'd sneak home when he was asleep," Tua says. "Never worked. I'd crawl into bed, and I'd hear this voice from the next room. 'Come here!' And he'd give me the strap."
Tuavale did not believe in days off, either. "I'm still hearing about that one Sunday-there were no sparring partners on Sunday—when he locked me in the house with my sister, no way out. It was my first bloody nose. And I'm tired of hearing about it from her."
But those were the good old days, as it turned out—the family relatively prosperous (David says his folks had the only car on the island, the only TV) and the fights all simple. Tua would come to miss those sundown sparring sessions when the family, seeking better opportunities for its eight children, moved the 1,800 miles to Auckland, to live in government-subsidized housing, getting by on small wages from picking pumpkins. Also, Tua was apparently surrounded by a different element than he was in the island days when he would gather friends and punch banana trees until they toppled. Now it was gang warfare, with rivals clearing out a parking lot, fighting to exhaustion, the losers having to give up their boots and leather jackets.
Tua escaped that crowd the day he followed his older brother Andrew to a boxing gym. It seemed comparatively civilized, given his previous exposure to boxing. Nobody got a strap, for one thing. It seemed natural, as well. "I had become interested in my heritage once I got to New Zealand," he says, "learning about the Samoan warrior spirit. It finally clicked for me. Why would my father make me box? Because it was my destiny."
He began entering tournaments, fighting, as always, out of his weight class. When it came time for his first junior championship competition, in 1989, there was no other middleweight for him to fight, so Tua moved up to intermediate-class heavyweight by hiding a toolbox inside his jacket during the weigh-in. The 16-year-old Tua knocked out his opponent in the first round. It only looked as if he used a blunt instrument from the toolbox (Tuabox?).
Tua made New Zealand's 1992 Olympic team but, losing to Nigeria's David Izon, did not get a gold medal springboard into the pros. (He settled for bronze.) Main Events gathered him up, packed him off to New Jersey, but brought him along slowly, without much fanfare or cash. "My first four, five fights," the Tuamanator says, "all the money went to my phone bill."
Tua was becoming a homesick basket case, rooming with four other boxers, eating strange food, missing the family prayers. "This was a lot rougher and dirtier than I thought it would be," he says. "I wanted to go home. I told my father, I can't do this anymore. I could be back on the beach."