The fight goes on

18:41, Nov 30 2012

It's August in Invercargill and Auckland-based events management guru David Higgins is in the city overseeing the running of one of his events, the Sir Graham Henry tribute.

Throughout the night at the Ascot Park Hotel the Duco Events boss has one eye on his phone, flicking through emails with an intense look.

The Sir Graham Henry Tribute is just one of many projects on the go and another is the now high-profile Fight for Life boxing event.

He leans across knowing he is sitting beside a nosy journalist and says, "If I tell you something, can you keep it quiet for the moment?"

For a journalist it's like sliding a double whisky under the nose of an alcoholic and telling him or her it's off limits.

But this was intriguing, it was hard not to agree and latch onto whatever this interesting goss could be.


Higgins explains an email had just landed. He had just received confirmation Willie Mason would sign on to fight in the Fight for Life event in December.

Mason's a big coup for the Fight for Life, and Higgins knows it.

He has everything - he is a current sporting star still playing for the Newcastle Knights in the NRL and he has a personality that polarises people - they love him or love to hate him.

The focus quickly switches to who would be a good matchup for Mason, and Higgins quizzes me as to who I would like to see him stand face to face with on December 15 in Auckland.

I rattle off a few names before Higgins says he actually does have someone in mind.

Again intrigued, I send out the fishing line to find out who.

He looks across that table and nods in the direction of Stags captain and big Highlanders frontrower Jamie Mackintosh, highlighting he was his target.

The smart operator had his theory - while not a huge star nationwide, Mackintosh has pulling power in the southern part of New Zealand and could draw in some pay-per-view customers from those parts.

Every move is an astute one from Higgins and the rest of his team at Duco Events.

Higgins wanders around the table and parks himself by Mackintosh with the question in hand.

He returns soon after, saying it wouldn't be Mackintosh going up against Mason.

While the boxers who put their hands up are well compensated financially, Mackintosh had his reservations, telling Higgins boxing wasn't for him.

In this case, Higgins did not get his man but he has four months to continue the chase. Later in the night he talks with 50-test All Black Jimmy Cowan, who is quick to put his hand up to pull on the gloves against somebody. However, commitments with his new club Gloucester in England mean the Mataura lad actually can't go through with it.

In just a few hours, I got an eye-opening glimpse into what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to delivering an event like the Fight for Life.

The end product is some superstar sportspeople going toe to toe in the boxing ring, but it's a long process to get there.

Higgins is used to the negotiating game now and admits to it actually being a bit of fun.

The first response tells it all, he says, when explaining his approach to getting a boxer.

"It's the mysterious art of asking someone, who probably never thought of having a fist fight in front of half of a million people on television, to do so. Some people are taken aback.

"You get all sorts of reactions. There are the guys that say no, they will normally say no straight away, or laugh and just say ‘it's not for me'. If they say no straight away, there's no hope. Then you get guys that are in straight away before the fee is even discussed. They're the guys that have watched it as a teenager or been aware of it and probably in their mind's eye pictured themselves in a boxing ring. You almost get a sense they are honoured to be asked and maybe wondering when they would have been asked, they'll be in like a rat up a drainpipe. Troy Flavell was one of those.

"And then there's the in-betweeners," Higgins explains.

"They um and ah a bit, they're unsure or need to go talk to the wife about it. Normally, that's a good sign, that means you can convert them with a few more phone calls. Christian Cullen was originally fence sitting and eventually agreed to do it, and I don't think he regrets it."

Higgins says his success rate is getting about one in four who they approach into the ring.

There are those that Higgins would think would be certain to take on the challenge, but when approached turn it down.

"A guy that I personally would love to see do it, who many would think might be a good fit, would be Ruben Wiki. You know, a big reputation, massive amount of first grade NRL games, obviously a very tough hard competitor, he'd be perfect. But we haven't managed to get him on board."

The Fight for Life has grown from an event where a bunch of retired sportsmen stepped into the ring in the first year in 2000 to in 2012 an event where the card is full of sportspeople still well and truly in their prime.

All Blacks, NRL stars and an Olympic gold medallist will feature this year.

With that, though, comes the challenge of also convincing their main employer that they should allow one of their players to box.

Warriors wing Manu Vatuvei was eager last year to take on the Fight for Life but his then-coach Brian McLennan was not keen.

A year on and the Warriors, and new coach Matt Elliott, have released "the beast" to compete in the 2012 event.

He will fight Olympic gold medal rower Eric Murray.

"The guys that have boxed, including Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam and others, unanimously say it's a different type of training that gives them an edge and they come back from pre-season fitter and perhaps fresher than the other guys.

"Certainly, the Warriors management and (chief executive) Wayne Scurrah have acknowledged that in allowing Manu Vatuvei to do it. And, over time, people will realise that actually it is not as risky as one might think."

With the game of recruiting boxers does come a risk for Higgins and his team. They offer what it takes to get competitors in the ring, but need to be comfortable that those names will create the interest to make them money by selling the pay-per-view deal through Sky or tickets to the live event.

"It's well over a million dollars," he said about the costs. "We are the underwriting risk taker, we pay every cost. It's a commercial event, everyone is paid. Every participant, every supplier, everyone that makes a contribution is paid. And we are responsible for paying everyone to the tune of well, well over a million dollars and so there's definitely risks involved."

Here is a man though who likes to throw himself into risky situations.

In 2009, he stumped up $1m to get Shane Cameron and David Tua in the ring together even before one corporate table was sold. Many labelled him mad and on a one-way track to bankruptcy because of it.

The fight, as Higgins had predicted, ended up capturing the nation and a large payday followed through a massive pay-per-view pickup.

"The irony is my first step into boxing was the biggest boxing event in New Zealand history, times three. But, fortunately, it worked out; it was a success on every level. It was a good baptism of fire in the art of boxing promotion."

One of those who publicly questioned whether Higgins could really make a Tua-Cameron fight work with a $1m purse was Dean Lonergan, an events promoter himself who has had his ups and downs, which included fending off creditors some years back when he stumped up $1m for a circus venture that ended up a flop.

Lonergan has worked hard to claw his way back in the risky industry of event management and he is now in partnership with Higgins at Duco Events. They now put on the Fight for Life together.

The partnership was born after Higgins contracted Lonergan to help sell corporate tables for the Cameron-Tua fight.

The charity boxing event was the former Kiwis league international's brainchild and it came about in 2000, initially to help a mate whose house had burnt down.

"He had no insurance and he was really in the crap for money. I was wondering what we could do to help him out. I thought why don't we run a boxing night. It took me six, maybe eight weeks to put it together. I fought on that, my mate Mark Bourneville fought on it and actually the bloke whose house burned down fought on it. We managed to raise $50,000 on that night. It was one of the biggest buzzes of my life, to be honest, just to be able to do something for someone."

In the crowd that night was the chairman of the Yellow Suicide Prevention Ribbon Trust.

He was impressed with what he had seen and asked Lonergan if he would put a fundraiser on for them.

"I thought the only way I'll do it is if I can raise him up to a million dollars and we can put it on TV. So I said, ‘yeah, I'll give it a crack' and that year we put it all together," Lonergan recalls.

"The first one was Mark Graham versus Buck Shelford, and there was Mel Meninga and Kevin Borovich. I fought Buck Anderson, there was Tea Ropati and Frank Bunce, Mark Bourneville and Stevey McDowell."

Initially, TV3 was reluctant to agree to screen the event but after some convincing, it showed it live, and it turned out to be one of the top 10 viewed events in history on television in New Zealand.

The first televised Fight for Life coincided with Lonergan losing his job at the Warriors where he was the club's sponsorship and marketing manager.

He decided to start a cleaning company but as the time requirements of putting on Fight for Life grew Lonergan decided to shut his cleaning company and focus on putting on the boxing event.

"After I did it for the first year, Yellow Ribbon were keen to carry on, but I said I just can't do this for nothing, I've got to get paid to do it. So I got paid to do the second one and, for whatever reason, I copped a bit of criticism on the back end of it, the fact I actually got paid to produce it. But after that it all seemed to go away and we just got on with it.

"It's a lot more commercialised now because of some of the drama I went through in my past. Four or five years ago I ran a couple of events where we did them on behalf of charities and we ring fenced the risk. I remember running one night where I personally lost a million dollars on a gig and the charity picked up 50 to 100 grand, I can't afford to take a loss like that. So I take a far more commercial view of doing things now-days, simply because I nearly went bankrupt doing this and it's never going to happen again."

Lonergan says between $3.5m and $4m has gone to charity through the Fight for Life, with the Prostate Cancer Foundation being the benefactor this year.

Lonergan and Higgins both say they don't need the charity element to the Fight for Life, believing it would work as a standalone entertainment package.

Higgins said that factor made criticism of them making money out of the event annoying.

"It's easy to sit back on the couch and throw stones at people having a crack. Before I was involved with Deano, I think he was on the end of some unfair criticism from time to time, and from people who had no clue about risks and efforts involved in doing something like this. Perhaps they themselves had never raised any money for anything."

The Southland Times