When Alina Peach first met her now-husband Isaac – the trainer behind New Zealand's top-ranked boxers – it was the opposite of love at first sight.
She was in her early twenties and working at a boxing gym on Auckland's North Shore, where Isaac trained with former Boxing New Zealand national coach Dr John McKay.
After enjoying the box fit classes, Alina then started training with John too, which meant she and Isaac would often have to run around the track together.
Recalls Alina, "He was the only professional boxer at the gym and he just seemed really arrogant. We hated each other at the start and I dreaded training with Isaac. We didn't speak to each other for six months!
"Then one day, Isaac said to me, 'Do you want to spar on Saturday?' And I questioned why he suddenly wanted to help me with my boxing.
"But the other girls in the gym were like, 'Oh, he's so hot,' so I started seeing him in a different light and thought to myself, 'Yeah, maybe he is a bit attractive and he is kind of funny.'"
What started as a slow burn quickly ignited into love and the fitness-loving pair had a whirlwind engagement.
"The only obstacle initially was worrying what my mum would think of him," laughs Alina at the memory.
"She's Japanese and quite traditional, and doesn't like tattoos, so I worried about what she would think of this skinhead, tattooed, sweary boyfriend I was bringing home! But she loved him instantly and they like to gang up on me together."
Now married for 11 years and raising their four children – Zen, eight, Rocco, seven, Jett, five, and two-year-old Apollo – the couple have made headlines for taking Mea Motu under their wing and transforming her life from a mother in the grips of domestic violence to world champion.
Mea, a 33-year-old mother-of-five, is the reigning and defending IBO Super Bantamweight World Champion, who has taken the New Zealand boxing scene by storm. But it's the behind-the-scenes support – teaching life skills, instilling self-confidence and managing media enquiries – that Alina quietly works her magic with up-and-coming boxers.
Alina trained as a nurse who started her career at Middlemore Hospital's emergency department, so is used to listening to people and being intuitively perceptive about what the bigger picture is.
"You're taught to holistically care for patients," she explains. "It's not just their physical ailments. As a nurse, you have to gently find out what else is going on in their life.
"So what Isaac and I do now is try and fix the other stuff too – financially, socially, housing, family."
Gaining Mea's trust was an organic process, shares Alina, 35.
When Isaac, 41, initially invited the abuse survivor to train with Peach Boxing, she understandably "had her walls up" and didn't share her entire life story. They all just spent a lot of time together and Mea quickly became family.
"A few months in, I said to her, 'Straight up, what did your former husband do to you?' And she told me all the horrific details," says Alina. "I sat there and bawled my eyes out. From then on, she shared everything and I think that's when she gained trust in us.
"We told her, 'We'll protect you and you're never going to go through that again. We're going to teach you to enjoy life and how to live properly.'"
Alina admits it's been a real eye-opener for her to learn how women who have been trapped in cycles of abuse live.
"Mea's a year younger than me, but she didn't know how to open a bank account, how to get insurance on a car or how to pay rent… just normal, practical life skills.
"But nobody had shown her and they don't teach it at school. Now she's set up her own business, and is learning how to operate that and we're teaching her how to do taxes, invoices and have got her an accountant.
"Now she's got a whole other career outside of boxing, doing speaking engagements, which is her niche. She's so good at it and earning good money."
Alina believes by Mea sharing her empowering story, it can make a real difference to others' lives.
"Especially in New Zealand, with our gang culture and domestic violence, it's so important other women hear her story and know that if you are or have been in that situation, that's not the end of the road for you.
"If you can get out of it, then that doesn't define you. Look what she's now done with her life.
"That's not saying everybody has to go and become world champion or do amazing things that make headlines, but just to be able to survive that and live a normal happy life is such an amazing thing."
Alina now runs Mea's strength and conditioning training, and has taken over as her manager, all of it bringing the pair even closer.
"Oh, she gave me a whole other power," Mea says of Alina. "She just put the icing on top of the cake. I built a bond with her… I don't open to random people, but I felt comfortable opening up to her."
The other family member who quickly won over Mea's heart has been the couple's young son Zen. He attends news conferences with Mea and likes getting in the ring corner at televised matches to pass on advice.
While Alina initially thought Zen's influence with Mea was a "joke", she has come to realise just how important the tag-team is.
"We simply thought Mea was being kind entertaining Zen and going along with it," the amazed mum tells. "So we were like, 'Thanks Mea for letting Zen do the padding with you', but then next minute she's sitting there listening to him really seriously. And I realised they were 100 percent for real.
"The funny thing is, Zen was actually not wrong in his own critiques," smiles Alina.
"His advice to her was, 'Stay on the inside and have your guard really high.' Then during her last televised fight, he was shouting, 'Come on, Mea, you've got this, girl!'
"It's been so good for his confidence and talking to adults, because at the first fight camp if a reporter came over with a microphone to ask him a question, Zen could barely get a sentence out. Now he's all about it. I've noticed a big change in him."
Younger son Rocco has started coming to fight events, but prefers hanging out in the store-room, climbing on equipment.
The next up-and-coming boxer to watch – "He'll be the next world champion too," boasts Alina – is Isaac's plumbing apprentice Jerome Pampellone.
"We've helped set him up with a mortgage broker and organised an accountant so he could try and buy his first house. We try to set our boxers up so they can succeed beyond their boxing years.
"Isaac plumbs full-time, then coaches in the evening. Our goal is to get Isaac off the tools and be able to dedicate all his time to the fighters – but we need sponsors and support to make that viable."
As Alina chats to the Weekly from the family's gorgeous farm-style house overlooking the Waitākere Ranges, she reveals that she's been a reluctant participant in the juggernaut of running national boxing promotions.
"All of this has been huge for me," she shares. "I've come along reluctantly on the ride with Isaac because none of this was planned.
"He started out on our back deck a few houses ago, just training his brother and Jerome, who was a neighbour. And we never intended for him to become this well-known coach with a big gym. It's just evolved into that.
"When I had the three kids under four, I was deep in the trenches of motherhood and it was a big struggle for me because I resented him giving all his time to other people. But I've come out the other side."
Alina says the turning point came when she started going out to their onsite purpose-built gym to join in boxing and became more involved with training others. She quips that she never wanted to become a pro boxer herself because, "I don't want a banged-up face!"
"Peach Boxing got bigger and bigger, and Isaac needed more help. So I began helping him with trainings and bought in to the dream of changing people's lives.
"He's taught me everything about giving and of being of service to others," enthuses Alina. "There's the old saying 'he'd give the shirt off his back', which sums up Isaac. It astounds me how much he goes above and beyond to help people. That's his gift."
Mea Motu's next title defence is on December 2 at Whangārei's McKay Stadium.
If you need help escaping domestic abuse, free call 0508 744 633. If you are in immediate danger, call 111.
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