New Zealand boxing great Billy Graham on growing up hungry and battling dyslexia

UNICEF
Boxing personality Billy Graham talks to Unicef NZ about his difficult upbringing in New Zealand.

Why aren't Kiwi kids getting enough time to play? Boxing legend Billy Graham speaks to Unicef NZ about his childhood and why play is so important.

I was a handful as a young fella. Nobody knew what to do with me.

I grew up in Naenae, Lower Hutt. The hills were our sledge tracks, our trolleys and our Shanghai fights.

My mates and I pulled thick gorse from the ground and carved out tracks in the hills. We'd wait until the rain came pouring down. Then we'd go flying down the hill – through the mud and the slush.

By the time I was eight, I was rolling up my father's army uniform from the 26th battalion, stuffing stones in the pockets and heading up to the hills with his helmet on.

We didn't come home until it was dark and we were hungry.

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My family was large – there were eight of us living in a two-bedroom house. We thought that was normal. We thought being hungry was normal.

I had boils all over me, like little bullet holes. My diet was poor and my sleep was always disturbed. I used to sniff all the time. I always had a cold and other mums didn't want me in their homes.

Boxing legend Billy Graham says New Zealand must do more to bring children out of income poverty.
SHELLEY KNOWLES/UNICEF
Boxing legend Billy Graham says New Zealand must do more to bring children out of income poverty.

I hated school. I was put in special classes because they thought I was slow. It wasn't until years later that I was diagnosed with dyslexia.

The police would pick me up off the streets at all hours of the night. They were going to lock me up in Epuni Boys' Home but I was too young, so a local cop took me to Dick Dunn's gym instead.

The gym had a smell of an old, dirty floor that had never been cleaned. There were no windows, it was just a big tin shell, but I loved it. We didn't have anything fancy. Liniment was used when we were sore and our muscles were tight.

I had long arms and fast hands. That was an asset. Here I was allowed to fight without getting into trouble! I was eight years old and no-one had ever really liked me before. But Dick Dunn the boxing coach did. He believed I could make it.

By the time I was 16, I was New Zealand senior champion and fighting men 10 years older than me.

I became a light-welterweight boxing champion in New Zealand and Australia.

I'd hate to think where I would be if it hadn't been for boxing. I could have really gone the wrong way. Only a handful of people turned my life around.

It wasn't until years later that I realised how much my boxing coach had done for me. He always invited me over for dinner, even when there wasn't much food to spare.

All kids need support. In 2006 I set up the Naenae Boxing Academy for our youth. We have five academies around New Zealand. But it's not just about teaching kids boxing.

When you're a kid and you're hungry, it puts you in a bad temper. We've got a fridge that's always full of food because we know how tough it is for some families.

Unicef NZ says that 290,000 New Zealand children – around 27 per cent of kids – are living in income poverty. That's not OK and we have to do better.

Although my childhood was tough, I had freedom to play. I knew my neighbourhood. I knew the best spots for blackberries and sledge tracks.

Billy Graham, left, has stressed the need for children to have the freedom to play outside while they grow up.
SHELLEY KNOWLES/UNICEF
Billy Graham, left, has stressed the need for children to have the freedom to play outside while they grow up.

Parents need to let go of their kids, so they can explore. Of course bad things can happen. Kids are going to make mistakes. I've been in the wrong place at the wrong time plenty of times. But you do something once, and you don't do it again.

A few years back we had about twenty kids playing in the trees. A concerned citizen showed up at the Boxing Academy and told all the kids to get down. Instead of making the kids come down, I took a photo of them playing in the trees and sent it to the council.

Of course kids can get hurt in trees but they learn through their mistakes. They need to find their own limits and experience the joy of freedom.

Every child needs to play.

This article was supplied as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZ. Unicef stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. Find out more at unicef.org.nz