Murray plunging into unknown against 'Beast'

Last updated 05:00 09/12/2012
Eric Murray
Lawrence Smith/Fairfax NZ
FACING THE BEAST: Olympic rowing gold medallist Eric Murray takes on league veteran Manu Vatuvei in Fight for Life.

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When Eric Murray lines up at the start of a rowing race, he feels in total control. He's done the work, over and over again, and knows exactly how it is going to play out.

He feels reassured by that knowledge.

But when the Olympic gold medallist steps in the ring for Fight for Life next Saturday night, he will be taking a serious plunge into an abyss called the unknown. That, more than any physical threat, has Murray feeling somewhat anxious ahead of his heavyweight boxing encounter with "The Beast", rugby league giant Manu Vatuvei, of the Warriors.

Not scared, mind. Despite some misgivings from his rowing brethren, Murray is in this thing to win. No matter the size or reputation of his opponent.

"Bloody oath," he grins, that handlebar moustache twitching like a hyperactive caterpillar. "I'd love to go in there and win it. The only thing is normally in rowing you take the luck and hope element out of it. You train as hard as you can so all the probabilities are in your favour.

"With this, I've never had a boxing match before. It's completely new. This is like turning up for rowing for the first time going ‘I do not know what is going to happen here'. You've got to be prepared for anything and everything. That's what training is about. No matter the sport, you have to be prepared for everything."

If Murray sounds like he's in a good spot, that's because he is. He's anxious and a little nervous, but also energised and invigorated by the challenge of extending that drive for perfection he and Hamish Bond achieved in the coxless pair in London, and seeing if it translates in a different arena.

"Rowing's really not a contact sport," explains Murray when asked about his biggest challenges. "It's really just the fact you're in close presence with someone who's trying to kill you . . . the first time I was sparring it was ‘holy shit, someone is trying to sock me and put me on my arse'.

"There are principles with the training you take in - the hard work, the technique. But really there's no endurance involved. This is two-minute rounds of fast action, touching each other up, bang, bang! It's so different from rowing, it's been cool to learn about it."

It's interesting to gauge rowing's reaction.

"He's either very brave or very stupid," reckons single sculler and fellow Olympic gold medallist Mahe Drysdale. "We'll find out soon enough. But I completely understand why he's doing it. It's a different challenge, completely out of his comfort zone. When you achieve your goals, you want to see what else you can achieve."

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Bond, with whom Murray makes sweet music over 2km in a pair, is also intrigued. He jokes at a rowing function that he'll be in the third row for the fight, where "I should be able to catch Eric's mouthguard as it goes flying by".

But Bond is also genuinely impressed with Murray's courage, if not entirely convinced that his big ticker, work ethic and bravado can overcome a fellow with Vatuvei's size and background.

Murray understands the doubts, but admits intrigue got the better of him after rebuffing initial attempts to match him with The Beast. "People are saying they've put you up against one of the biggest guys in rugby league, one of the hardest, toughest men. Why would you get in the ring with him?

"For me it's a big challenge. I've always seen Fight for Life as something I'd love to be involved in.

"But I didn't just say: ‘Yes I'll fight Manu', I went and did some training first, told them who they wanted to match me up against and asked how I'd go. They said ‘right, we've got 10 weeks, you've got good learning skills, we reckon you'll be all right'."

Murray has been training under Rick Ellis at Hamilton's Ringside Gym. Often Ellis, who guided Liam Messam to his victory over Wendell Sailor a year ago, calls time on a session and Murray will demand to go longer, and harder. Murray was once in a made-for-TV competition with former league international Mark "Horse" Bourneville that saw the pair don gloves for the final round of the event.

"He tried to kill me, tried to knock the socks off me," recalls the Olympian.

"But I managed to hold my own in the ring with him. He's been a big driver in this and has told me all along: ‘You should be able to hold your own in Fight for Life.' "

For those who recall Bourneville's, er, proficiency in the ring, this indicates that Murray might not be the mug some of his rowing mates figure him as. Maybe that golden glow hasn't faded just yet.

- Sunday Star Times

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