Haymakers while Sonny shines
IT'S late on a Monday night at a boxing gym on the fringe of the city. The infamous Auckland humidity has reached that crippling level where you just want to sit still.
And, for the most part, everyone is. Everyone, that is, except for Sonny Bill Williams.
There is no rest for New Zealand's most talked about athlete.
It's the rugby off-season and he's supposed to be on holiday. But with a pro fight coming up against Aussie heavyweight Scott Lewis this Saturday night on the Gold Coast, a holiday is the last thing on his mind.
A few members of the public watch on at the gym, mesmerised as the giant, shirtless Williams tirelessly thwacks his boxing gloves into a bag, punishing it as sweat flies off his face and onto the floor, a la Rocky Balboa.
Training finishes, Williams drapes a towel over his head and gulps down a bottle of Powerade.
A brave member of the public slowly wanders over.
"Good luck for the fight, Sonny. I'll watch it on pay-per-view," he says.
"You'll get your money's worth, brother," Williams responds before cracking into a smile. "Oh, and if I lose, I'll give you your 20 bucks back!"
Some would call it arrogance, others confidence, but for Williams his buoyant attitude is simply a reflection of a private satisfaction that the hard work is almost done and that show time is fast approaching.
When he steps inside the ropes later this week, it will be his first fight since July last year, when he came up against the aptly named Ryan "Hulk" Hogan.
Williams easily knocked over the out-of-sorts, tubby Hogan. But rather than bask in the glory of a job well done he was fuming and vowed never to fight an "easy beat" again.
His people listened and instead of the Pillsbury Doughboy this time around he's got an opponent whose claim to fame is that he knocked out league bruiser Carl Webb – no mean feat.
"I'm definitely approaching this fight with a real intensity. That's how you've got to be, bro," Williams says. "I'm leaving no stone unturned.
"He's had seven good weeks' notice and apparently he's got a couple of sponsors on board who have helped him to take some time off work to focus solely on this fight.
"From what I hear, he's going to come out all guns blazing and he'll be banking on me not being able to do the rounds."
Back to Monday night and after eight rounds on the bag and two on the speed ball, it feels as if the training session is coming to an end. It's not.
Seconds later, former Warriors skipper-turned-pro boxer Monty Betham – who has been keeping a watchful eye over the session – wraps his big mitts around a leaden medicine ball.
Williams stands a metre-and-a-half away from him, flexes those giant abdominal muscles that make the Kiwi ladies swoon, and scarcely makes a sound as Betham heaves the ball into his stomach.
Over and over again, the leathery object whacks him in the stomach before falling limply onto the floor in the same way that Hogan hit the canvas last year.
Anyone who suggests Williams isn't serious about his secondary profession would be well served to see him in action at the gym.
"About a year and a half ago, when I first put on the gloves for a proper training session, I felt really unco-ordinated," he says.
"I thought it was too hard.
"But after my first fight I had this real buzz going on and it lit a fire within me.
"Now, man, I love it. I try not to miss a big fight and I'm watching the sport all the time.
"It's in my blood."
To the critics, Williams' decision to don the gloves – in a rugby World Cup year, no less – shows a distinct lack of wisdom.
He's an All Black, after all, and All Blacks play rugby – they don't box.
But the man himself has another explanation. While he might be breaking new ground as a professional athlete in two sports, any boxing training has only been taken up with the intention of helping him become a better rugby player.
"It's a big year, man. Everyone knows the World Cup's just around the corner – it's the big picture," he says.
"All of this, it's all leading towards, firstly, having a good Super Rugby season for the Crusaders and then, obviously, trying to get back in the All Blacks.
"This is the biggest year of my life, without a doubt.
"I've got a lot of goals and a lot of things I want to achieve.
"Obviously, I want to add boxing to my repertoire as well – I want to show that I can fight.
"But I also want to show that I can carry on my form from rugby last year.
"I'm just really looking forward to new challenges.
"As for doing two professional sports, it is, I guess, a bit unprecedented. But I think that's what drives me, too.
"I don't just want to be your average sportsman. I want to push the boundaries and, obviously, I'm going to have my knockers but I couldn't care less.
"I'm doing what makes me happy and it's exciting. I'm showing that things are possible."
The rhetoric of an athlete who wants to challenge the status quo is nothing new.
Williams' close friend – make that brother – Anthony Mundine made a career out of getting his message across with the bluntness of a sledgehammer.
Williams has, in many respects, learnt – and continues to learn – from the best, and not just in boxing.
Just this week Mundine, who famously paid $A750,000 to get Williams out of his Bulldogs contract, jetted into Auckland for a fleeting visit to check on his good friend's training.
He liked what he saw.
"Certain athletes just have such ability that they can cross codes or sports," former league pro-turned-boxer Mundine says.
"Sonny is one of those.
"He has exceptional hand-eye co-ordination and his work ethic, determination, desire and ambition are huge.
"Whatever he wants to do, he can.
"Not in the rugby league or rugby union circles can I say I've ever seen anybody of his stature or with his skills and drive to be the best.
"I've yet to see anyone match that, so he's a pioneer in that sense."
Williams is a sporting superstar – and has been since he was a teenager.
But he's still human. And being human means he's nervous about the year ahead.
It starts with his boxing bout on the Gold Coast and ends, he hopes, with glory at a certain rugby tournament in late October.
"I remember being so nervous when I arrived back in New Zealand last year. Man, I didn't even know where I was," he says.
"I didn't know if I could crack it but now I think that's where I got a bit of respect because I backed myself and pretty much went, `f--- it, I'm going to come back and have a crack'.
"I didn't know if I was good enough but I knew that I had to try.
"Obviously, things worked out and went pretty much like a movie script last year. But in saying that, that's last year.
"This is 2011 now. It's a massive year. There are a lot of things on the agenda but I know with my determination and my drive – and, God willing, I stay injury-free – I'll be sweet."