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Former All Black Keven Mealamu’s reinvention

The All Black legend’s wife Tai reveals they’ll both have butterflies when he steps inside the ring

In the 13 years that her husband Keven played for the All Blacks, Tai Mealamu watched him in action from the sidelines or on TV with her heart in her mouth.

She was excited that the powerful hooker was getting to play the game he loved at top level, but always nervous that he’d get injured if a scrum went down.

Now, seven years after Keven hung up his number two jersey, Tai is going to be experiencing those nerves again, but this time she’ll be watching her husband not on the rugby field, but in the boxing ring.

Keven, 43, is pulling on gloves to take part in a Fight For Life charity boxing match on July 21, facing up against former rugby league player turned TV presenter Wairangi Koopu. And if that goes well, he’ll be eyeing up a possible career as a professional boxer.

‘I am still in good nick and I would like to see how much further I can go’

While Tai, 42, wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else but ringside as Keven takes on this new challenge, she’s expecting it to be a nail-biting experience.

“I always used to get really nervous when Kev played rugby, especially being in the front row of the scrums. That feeling will come back when he gets in the ring, but I know how important it is to him to do this. It will be exciting though.”

Keven admits that he too has butterflies at the thought of taking part in a boxing match, but his are more about the excitement of physical competition than nerves.

“It will be my first time and it is something I have always wanted to do. When I first got the call from Monty [Betham, former rugby league player turned professional boxer] about the possibility of stepping in the ring, I started feeling those competitive butterflies that I used to get with rugby. It’s a long time since I’d had those and it was great to feel them again. They’re a great reminder of what it is like to play sport.

“I will be a bit nervous though because with an individual sport, you don’t have any teammates to lean on. I have a great coach in Monty and great support, but on the night, under the lights, it will just be me. That’ll be a challenge but I am looking forward to stepping up to that.”

Put ’em up! Keven’s Fight For Life opponent is former league star Wairangi

A long-time fan of boxing, Keven had been asked several times to take part in charity bouts when he was playing for the Auckland Blues and the All Blacks, but he could never fit it in around his rugby commitments. “I knew it would take a lot of time to prepare and at the time I was doing my darnedest to try to win a Rugby World Cup or two, so I couldn’t give it the attention it needed.”

Since retiring, Keven – who was part of the All Black World Cup winning teams in 2011 and 2015 – has run his own gym, FIT60, with Tai in South Auckland, which includes taking boxing fitness classes. But what he does on the gym floor doesn’t compare to what actually happens in the ring.

“They are very different. I’ve had to start from square one and learn a lot.”

He smiles as he recalls the first time Monty invited him to try sparring a couple of years ago. “He had Jimmy Spithill [the America’s Cup skipper] with him, and he said did I want to come and do a few rounds with them for an hour or so. After the first couple of rounds, I was puffing, and when I looked at the clock only six minutes had passed. That was a long hour! But it was a good experience and I guess as a result, Monty thought I could possibly give boxing a go.”

Keven wants to add a boxing belt to his Rugby World Cup medal haul

Keven was originally supposed to take part in Fight For Life last year, but it got pushed back several times because of Covid. That’s been a good thing because it has given him additional time to prepare. His opponent Wairangi has boxed before and is “an awesome athlete”, tells Keven. “I’ve got my work cut out for me!”

At least running a gym for the last seven years has meant that he has stayed in shape. Keven wasn’t sure what he was going to do after playing his last game for the All Blacks – which was the World Cup final in October 2015 – but getting into the fitness industry proved to be

a no-brainer.

“Tai and I had actually been looking at hospitality and we had a few opportunities, but they would have meant working in central Auckland,” recalls Keven, who lives in South Auckland with his wife and their children Samuel, 20, and Maia, 17. “We realised we would be spending most of our time sitting in traffic, so we thought, no thanks.”

Opening their gym was an organic process. Keven spent a lot of time in gyms when he was growing up as his dad Luke and uncles were bodybuilders. As a professional sportsman, gyms became a home away from home.

‘He used to send me a single red rose to Dunedin every week’

“When he was in his last year playing rugby, he started out helping our brothers and sisters with their training,” explains Tai. “They were trying to get healthier and paying personal trainers $50 an hour, so he wrote out training sessions for them while he was away on tour. We started doing the workouts at home with the kids, then other friends and family joined us, so we invaded Kev’s barn, which he never used because he was away so much.

“Soon we had 20 people training with us and we started thinking that maybe we should open a gym. So we did.”

They converted a former panelbeaters’ in Takanini into the premises for FIT60 and while family members still use it – including Tai’s dad Sam Tupou, who works out five days a week – it has proved popular with a wide variety of locals. Their clients range from top athletes to novices who’ve started working out for the first time in their lives.

“It’s a great community,” enthuses Tai. “We get mums bringing in their babies in prams, people who come to catch up with their friends as well as train.”

“We try to make it a safe space for people, no matter their fitness or ability,” adds Keven. “Tai’s a great people person and really good at welcoming people. We try our best to give them a sense of belonging.”

Keven is in charge of training, while Tai does the administration and social media. Getting used to working together was initially a challenge for the couple, who have been married for 20 years next January.

“It took us a while to get used to how to run a business together,” admits Tai. “Now we know what each of us is good at, so we stick to that, but it was interesting at the start! We just try not to tell each other what to do.”

The pair have been together since Tai was 19 and Keven was 20. They met on the dance floor of a bar in Tai’s hometown of Dunedin when Keven was there for an NPC match in his first year of playing for Auckland.

“It was actually the same place that my parents met,” says Tai. “He asked me to dance…”

“Apparently,” interrupts Keven.

“He did!” laughs Tai. “We’ve pretty much been together ever since.”

They had a long-distance relationship to begin with and right from the start Keven wasn’t shy about showing Tai how he felt.

“He used to send me a single red rose to Dunedin every week,” reveals Tai. “Even if he only had $50 left, he’d walk from Mangere to work in Papatoetoe [where he was an apprentice sign writer] so he could send me my rose every week.”

After nearly two decades of marriage, Keven is still a diehard romantic. He frequently posts selfies of him and Tai on Instagram, with beautiful captions like, “Blessed with the best – my love”, such as quotes from the Bible, like “Love never gives up”. Tai also shares photos of them, captioned, “Appreciate you” and, “Love I get to love you”.

They agree that marriage takes work, and when Keven was away a lot with the All Blacks and the Auckland Blues, they had to make sure they had quality time together when he was home.

“Now we get to spend a lot of time together, we still have to make sure we connect,” says Keven. “You can’t just take things for granted.”

The pair will be celebrating 20 years of marriage with their kids Samuel and Maia

Family is their priority, and they try to do lots of things with Samuel and Maia while they still can – they’re conscious of the fact that it won’t be long before they both fly the nest. Samuel is looking into returning to studying next year after his year out after leaving school got extended thanks to Covid. Maia, in her last year of secondary school, is planning on becoming a teacher.

Keven is also kept busy in his role as an elected member of Auckland Council’s Papakura Local Board. He’s coming to the end of his first term and will stand again in this year’s elections.

“I wanted to be a voice for people in my community and I have really enjoyed it, although it’s been frustrating sometimes because Covid has meant I often couldn’t meet people face to face. I’m hoping to be able to do more of thatif I get elected again.”

In the meantime, he is making sure he finds time to train for Fight For Life. The proceeds will go to Mike King’s I Am Hope charity, which funds counselling for young people experiencing mental health issues. It’s a cause Keven feels passionate about.

And Fight For Life might not be the only time we get to see Keven in the ring.

“I think I will keep boxing for a while after this,” he says. “Not for long, maybe 18 months or so, but I am still in good nick and I would like to see how much further I can go.”

Contesting the New Zealand heavyweight title would be a dream come true – it would be very special to be able to add the champion’s belt to his two gold Rugby World Cup winner’s medals.

“It would be something to aspire to, so I will see how things go!”

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