Kiwi boxer David “The Brown Buttabean” Letele’s life story reads like the ultimate rags-to-riches fairytale.
His father was a jailbird and, growing up in Australia, separated from his siblings in New Zealand, Dave was surrounded by violence, crime and gangs.
His promising league career was cut short by broken bones, so he switched to boxing, which saw him travel the world and later establish a successful supermarket enterprise. What followed was a battle with morbid obesity, a messy break-up and the collapse of his lucrative business.
But as he wraps his muscular arms around 29-year-old make-up artist Koreen Morrell on our Woman’s Day shoot, there’s little doubt the pro boxer, who once tipped the scales at 210kg, is in his best place yet – fighting fit, deeply in love ... and engaged.
“I was sure I wanted to marry Koreen from two weeks after I met her,” grins the 37-year-old Aucklander, beaming at his fiancée as she shows off her square-cut diamond ring. “She just took a bit of convincing!”
The pair met at a boxing match back in November 2014, when Koreen’s friend asked if they could take a picture with Dave. He had made a name for himself as Joseph Parker’s heavyweight sidekick – a hefty, cartoonish boxing villain, famous for his aggressive shout-outs.
Only months earlier, the half-Maori, half-Samoan sportsman had reluctantly returned to New Zealand from Australia, following a nasty split with the mother of his three children, William, 14, Tavita, nine, and Fabian, six.
“I was a mess,” he admits. “I was depressed, and always out of breath and sweating – even tying my shoelaces was hard. I just felt yuck and I certainly didn’t look in the mirror much!”
Koreen thought nothing of her snap with the chubby boxer, who had recently begun a gruelling weight-loss regime. But when someone posted the pic on Facebook and tagged her, Dave wasted no time getting in touch.
Having recently come out of a “toxic” relationship herself, Koreen was cautious, but over the course of a few months, she fell madly in love. “I had no money, so I couldn’t wine and dine her,” tells Dave. “Instead, we’d go for long walks and do things that didn’t cost much. I loved the fact she didn’t care about material things. It meant we had something real.”
Koreen adds, “Dave’s positivity and dedication were so inspiring. It made me want to achieve my own fitness goals of becoming a body builder.” Incredibly, within 10 weeks, she’d dropped more than 10kg and was participating in national competitions.
Then, last August, after a defeat in the ring, Dave received an email that would change his life. He recalls, “A guy sent me a message saying, ‘I’ll send you some rope to hang yourself with.’ It was devastating, but Koreen supported me so much. I knew then that I had to marry her.”
In January, atop Mount Maunganui, a nervous Dave, who’d already asked Koreen’s dad for his blessing, finally proposed, getting down on one knee as his amused girlfriend pronounced him “a geek” before giving him a resounding yes.
Dave grins, “The ring cost me what I’d make in a fight, but it was worth every cent.”
Since then, the pair have joined forces in work as well as love. Salon owner Koreen helps Dave run four fitness bootcamps a week, plus a busy Facebook page. “Justin Bieber has Beliebers – I have Buttabeaners!” grins Dave.
“The exercises are based around using your own body weight, rather than fancy gym equipment.”
Charging just a gold coin to cover basic costs and attracting 50 to 100 people a time, mostly from struggling Pacific Island families where obesity is a problem, the pair have seen some startling transformations.
Over the past few months, several Buttabeaners have dropped more than 40kg. “My payment is seeing people change their lives,” says Dave.
While he has dropped more than 90kg in less than two years and gained a gorgeous fiancée, Dave is still a way off feeling body-confident. He admits, “I definitely feel a lot better when I look in the mirror these days, but now I’m focused on trying to tone up – the full turnaround.”
But Koreen insists, “When I see pics of Dave in the early days, I can’t believe it – he’s a completely different man.”
The couple are gearing up for an island-themed 2017 wedding on Waiheke. With his love life and his body in peak condition, it's clear everything's coming up Dave!
"I’ve gone from rags to riches to rags – and hopefully I’m on my way back to riches," he smiled. "Whatever happens, I’ll be doing it with Koreen by my side.”