Eric Murray's wife had her doubts, and she didn't even know who Manu Vatuvei was.
The champion rower (previous fight experience, "a bit of scrapping" at Pukekoke High) told Jackie Murray a few weeks ago that he planned to sign on to meet the New Zealand Warriors league star, known as The Beast, at December's Fight for Life.
"She said ‘if you want to do it, you can do it'," he recounts, smiling broadly. "She actually had no idea who Manu was until she saw a picture of him when she googled, and then she said ‘oh well, he's probably going to give you a bit of a hiding'. I said ‘hopefully not'."
Vatuvei learned, accidentally, on Friday who his opponent would be and seemed unperturbed. Leaving Auckland's Boxing Alley gym after a session with trainer Monty Betham, he shook hands with Murray, arriving for a photoshoot, at the gym door.
Told he'd just met his opponent, Vatuvei said: "It's going to be tough. He's a big boy; I'll have to train hard to win this." Meanwhile, fight promoter David Higgins was telling his co-promoter Dean Lonergan on the phone: "That was a bit awkward."
But Higgins rallied to spruik Murray's chances against Vatuvei. "The call went out to various current All Blacks and several were keen and now are nowhere to be seen and Mr Murray put his hand up and said ‘I'd love to fight Manu Vatuvei'," he said.
In Murray's favour is his reputation as a phenomenally hard trainer and his appearance on a television show in 2006, hosted by the Amazing Race's Phil Keoghan which purported to find New Zealand's toughest man.
Murray beat a freezing worker, a bodybuilder, an Atlantic rower, a sheep shearer and former league international and four-time Fight for Life contender Mark "Horse" Bourneville.
The two met in the final event, when organisers tried to substitute wrestling for boxing in recognition of Bourneville's pugilistic experience, but Murray insisted on fighting.
Bourneville had the upper hand, but said Murray won everything else. "I always thought he would be good [for this]," said Bourneville.
"He's really well-balanced and he's big and strong. He has the biggest heart and the biggest engine in New Zealand . . . there's no question he will do the work. It's just how much boxing technique he can get in six weeks. I have mentioned my concerns to him . . . but he just shrugs his shoulders, he's unfazed."
Murray is well aware most money is likely to be on Vatuvei, who will weigh in about 10kg heavier. "I've got to take the luck element out of it and be bloody well prepared," he said.
"I am under no illusion what I've got to do. Technique gets you 90 per cent of the way, so as long as I can be pretty proficient, I think I might be able to hold my own. He looks a pretty fierce guy . . . bit I think I am a pretty hard man myself."
- Sunday Star Times
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