The evolution of Sonny Bill Williams

JAMIE PANDARAM
Last updated 13:43 17/01/2011
Sonny Bill Williams
Getty Images
EVOLVING: Sonny Bill Williams poses after a press conference at Tony Mundine Gym.

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He does not own a phone, has not touched alcohol in two years, and spends his evenings reading books before going to bed early.

Just who is Sonny Bill Williams?

Publicly, we know him as the athlete who enthralled and enraged the rugby league community, who impressed for Toulon and the All Blacks and who will continue his boxing evolution against Scott Lewis on January 29.

Many have marvelled at his physical gifts, not least Russell Crowe, who is interested in luring him to the Rabbitohs after this year's rugby World Cup.

But there is more to Williams than just his athletic exploits.

He might be the first man in history to be courted by the All Blacks and the only sportsmen to be simultaneously pursuing boxing and international rugby careers, but Williams also has stories to tell.

''We were driving outside of Christchurch, and ran out of gas, and all the servos were closed,'' says Williams, rubbing the canvas of the boxing ring he is seated against.

''We pulled up somewhere, and there were all these guys around, and one of them happened to be the cousin of our coach [Canterbury's Rob Penney]. He got gas for us in a pitcher. I said, 'Here is the money,' and he said, 'Don't worry, if you guys make the final of the NPC, just get me some tickets.'

''I said to him, 'No worries, make sure you tell your cousin to remind me.' Anyway, I made the All Blacks, and went away on tour and forgot all about it. And these kids sent me a letter - they had this thing going in class, 'Will he remember to send the tickets to the final?'

''Obviously I didn't. I got the letter, and I just felt so bad.

''Still to this day when I think about it, I just think, 'F---!' That shit eats you up.''

With off-field indiscretions, the most controversial exit in NRL history, a French rugby stint and European tour with the All Blacks behind him, Williams is certainly a more forthright and introspective character than before his departure from league.

''I think I'm evolving, I'm always in search of bettering myself, how I can improve as a sportsman and as a person,'' he says. ''I am my own man now, I can think for myself, whereas when I was 20, 21, I always wanted to please others. I do speak my mind a lot more than when I was younger. I guess that's just my Polynesian background. That's how we are, just sit back and try and fit in, try and make everyone else happy.

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''Now I know a lot of things in the big man's world are not what they seem, a lot of people are out for themselves and you can't always trust what someone says.''

As soon as it became apparent that Anthony Mundine and Khoder Nasser had orchestrated Williams's move from the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008, those opposed to his actions claimed he had been brainwashed by the duo.

''Just hanging around with 'Choc' and Khoder has lifted my self-esteem and my confidence levels to the point where I can speak my mind even if it does come back to bite me on the arse,'' Williams says.

''That's what I believe and what I stand for. I am my own man, and I'm proud of that. A lot of people just say things that other people want to hear, kiss arse, but at the end of the day they're not their own man.

''That's what I try and stand for. I stand up for myself or if think someone is getting treated indifferently.''

Seen by many as the player who can deliver New Zealand its first rugby World Cup since 1987, Williams was Googled more often than Kim Kardashian or Miley Cyrus by Kiwis last year - the fifth-most searched person on the annual list and the only athlete in the top 10.

But his new lifestyle is totally out of sync with his profile as one of the world's most recognisable athletes.

It started with Williams's decision to abstain from alcohol six months into his French rugby tenure.

''I've had obviously the drink-driving, the thing with Candice [Falzon] in the toilet, getting caught pissing in the alleyway, but those things have made me who I am today, I wouldn't change that,'' Williams says.

''Probably the worst thing for me, the hardest thing to overcome has been injuries, especially when I went to France and broke my leg, that was a tough pill to take. With the other things, you can kind of blank it out. The injury is there and it's so frustrating, it gets you down. If I hadn't done those mistakes I probably wouldn't have stopped drinking. It's difficult because you've had it, you've experienced those highs and having a laugh, that's why you miss it. But it's not difficult aside from that, I know I'm better off without it. I don't make stupid mistakes, my body feels better without it.

''If I hadn't made those mistakes because I was blind ... for me it's like a 360. I never used to drink until I was 18, until I played first grade for Canterbury.''

Then life started to dramatically change for the one-time Kings Cross regular.

''The first thing I cut down was no drinking, then from no drinking you cut down being out late, you're up early in the morning,'' he says.

''You get those looks from the boys like, 'What are you doing?' but they're the first ones to come up and say, 'You had a great game.'

''Now I don't have a phone ... I do a bit of reading, I love autobiographies.

''The best book, I'll recommend it to anybody, is Malcolm X's biography, there are a lot of life traits in there. I've read it about four times.''

But downtime comes only after Williams has exhausted himself in training, on the rugby field and in the boxing gym.

''After all, he is the only rugby player who has held a simultaneous career in boxing,'' he says.

''I don't like to be idle. I don't like to sit around and have croissants and cakes in France.''

- Sydney Morning Herald

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