Sonny Bill vs T-Rex: Why SBW Could Lose to Chauncy Welliverby Peter Malcouronne
On paper it’s more complicated. Chauncy Welliver is no five-fight bum brought in to fall over on cue. A veteran of 70 bouts, with 55 wins, he’s never been knocked out. He’s never even been knocked down.
A couple of years ago, they say, he was a couple of fights off fighting for the heavyweight title. Fighting a Klitschko! The WBC ranked him fifth in the world. And – weirdly, because you’ve probably never heard of him – he was fighting as a New Zealander. He was rated our best heavyweight – ranked above Tua, above Cameron and way, way, way above SBW.
Metro contributing writer Peter Malcouronne introduces the fighter he’s been friends with for years.
This is an edited extract from "The Man Who Laughed at Sonny Bill" in the March 2015 issue of Metro. Photos by Adrian Malloch.
Mid-November 2014 in Melbourne. For the past week all the talk in town – this self-styled “most sports-mad city on the planet” – is about Choc. Anthony Mundine, the four-time former world boxing champ – the Mouth, the Muslim, the Most Hated Man in Australia – is supposed to be pounded into retirement by a brilliant, unbeaten Russian 11 years his junior.
But that’s not my fight. I’m walking down Batman Ave towards Hisense Arena, trying to see through tear-streaked eyes, trying to breathe through what feels like a set of socks in my throat. I plug into a podcast on the Battle of Jutland but don’t hear a word. Because I fear I’m going to see my friend, Chauncy Welliver – The Hillyard Hammer – get killed in the ring.
He’s fighting Lucas “Big Daddy” Browne, a former MMA champ. Browne – 1.93m (six foot four) and 125kg – is tattooed muscle and menace. He’s said to have the hardest right hand in boxing, harder (some say) than Mike Tyson. His record’s 21 fights – 21 wins, 19 by KO. His knockout highlights on YouTube are frightening. He’s the guy now ranked fifth in the world.
And my guy? Well, he’s lost four of his last six fights. He’s weighed in at 145kg – about 40kg overweight. He hasn’t trained for this fight. He flew in last night and, when I caught up with him at his hotel, was jetlagged, woozy and frighteningly fatalistic. He was the loudest guy in the room – he always is – but this time it’s because no one else was talking. They all knew the score.
It’s called the meat-wagon. Once The Contender, Chauncy was now making up the numbers – a notch on the belt, a journeyman to be knocked out. Only I know Chauncy. I know how much pride he has and I know that his chin – a wonder of boxing – won’t let him fall over.
And I also know this. A guy who hasn’t trained, who hasn’t fought a decent fight in years, who’s dead tired, grossy overweight, who has a dicky knee and bad hip and can’t dance away; who has tiny T Rex arms (his reach is less than mine – and I’m a mere 173cm tall) and, for a heavyweight, no real punching power – and who has spent most of the past year besotting on Facebook over his wife and baby daughter – is in serious trouble.
This is a target, a great ponderous target, who can’t run and who can’t hit hard enough to keep Big Daddy back. And – dammit – he’s not going to fall over and take the money as old washed-up pros are meant to. So there’s only one possible outcome. He will be smashed.
I get to Hisense. I’m downstairs, sitting in a changing room with Chauncy, his sparring partner and mate, Freddie Miller, who happens to be a mightily impressive Afro-American, and a bloke from Sydney who stepped in yesterday to be his trainer. There’s a couple of undercard fights before his – he could be out there fighting in five minutes or 50.
Anyone who’s seen a Rocky movie has an idea of the pre-fight rituals. Your hands are wrapped. You do some pad work – “Pop, Pop, Pop." You get a sweat up. You get in the zone.
But it’s not like this with Chauncy. Not this time. He cracks jokes. Asks me about my brothers. About my son. More jokes. I try to laugh – try not to let my feelings show. Come on – this ain’t about me! But my heart’s thudding, my hands are shaking.
Like all fighters, Chauncy exudes confidence. I guess you have to, especially when you’re on the abattoir ramp. “Hey… it’s just another fight… he’s nothing special… sure he hits hard, but first he’s gotta catch me. I’ll tie him up and wear him down – I’ll frustrate the hell out of him. And then I’ll get him in the later rounds blah blah.”
Does he believe any of this? He certainly seems to. He’s ridiculously relaxed. Almost unfocused. There are no pads so he does a minute or two of slow motion shadow boxing. That’s it. That’s his warm-up. That’s crazy. Fuck, he’s going to be KILLED out there. I can’t bear it. I don’t want to watch this.
Then his trainer asks me to help. Need you in the corner, he says. It’s easy. At the end of each round, just jump into the ring, reach in, pull Chauncy’s mouthguard out, rinse it, then pop it back in. That’s it. Simple, eh?
I don’t tell him that I’ve had to clench my hands shut because they’re shaking so hard. How can a man without fingers take out a mouthguard?
Of course, I croak. No worries. Awesome.
A TV guy with monster headphones shoves our door open. Five minutes. Some poor African lightweight has been knocked out and now it’s our turn.
We start the walk. I’ve got a bucket and some water, I think. I’m not sure where to stand, so I tuck in behind Chauncy and Freddie. At least Freddie looks the part: more than once I’ll hear people wonder why Freddie’s not fighting instead of Chauncy. He looks 10 times the fighter.
I wish I remembered the next bit more clearly, but I know someone announced Chauncy – announced us – and now we’re walking through a maze of tables (five grand each) – to the ring. It’s a 50-metre walk, no more, but it takes forever and I feel 11,000 eyes boring in and try to work out how the hell I’ve found myself here when, 90 minutes ago, I was at work, writing promotional material for a bank.
Again, it’s not about me.
“Fucking knock the fucking fat fuck OUT,” a voice shouts. “What a fucking joke,” says another. There’s a bit of that – a bit of drunkish convict wit – but not as much as you might think. The thinking classes dismiss boxing as sanctioned violence and paint boxing fans as a medieval mob, but the truth’s more complex. There’s courage – real, raw bravery – inside every fighter here, and most fans see that. Get it. Respect it.
And now, here comes Big Daddy. He’s roared into the ring and he looks – bloody terrifying, actually. He steps inside the ropes, does the shadow punching and dance thing, then has his robe taken off. Rolls his neck around, rolls his shoulders, and then – he’s just showing off now – gets one pec, tribal tattooed, to twitch about on its own. This is not going to end well.
Chauncy’s in the ring too. Still got his loose-fitting hockey shirt on. The ref brings them together and runs through the rules. They touch gloves. And then, at the last, just before the bell rings, Chauncy’s trainer takes his shirt off. I hear the sniggers; I hear the gasps. “Fuck, he’s got bigger nungas than my Missus!”
Thirty seconds into the fight and Chauncy’s still alive. To general bewilderment, he’s even clipped Big Daddy a couple of time across the snout. He’s dancing, seems much lighter on his feet than I remember.
One minute, then two. What's the best-case scenario here? I started off just wanting him to live. But now I'm thinking... he can do better. Now I see why, not that long ago, he was a contender. Now I’m being reminded that boxing is about more than mere appearance.
For a heavyweight, Chauncy’s short – 185cm (just over six foot) – and he surely has the most unprepossessing physique in all boxing. He’s underpowered and his knock-out percentage is laughably low. And he’s overweight.
But he has heart – there’s no doubting that – and a God-given ability to take a punch to the chin, to take a fury of punches and still stand, to clear his head when he’s been hit and things have gone “pock” inside like a lightbulb blowing. If you can take that for 10, 20 punches and throw some back, then you’re in this. You’re a chance.
In the heavyweight division, full of frauds, bums and chumps and busted old champs, there’s always a chance for a hard-jawed journeyman to battle his way to the top. It helped that Chauncy has a bustling, all-action style that fans love – with such short arms, his only option is to bore in, get inside, and throw as many punches as he can.
A fearful – and thrilling – prospect when you don’t have much punching power: you’re gonna get battered as you fight your way into range. In this tattered, fading game clogged with ponderous lugs who scrag and hold, and clutch and wrestle, an attritional fighter who guarantees war whenever he steps into the ring is gold.
In theory, this is – this was – a real-life Rocky story. How a man with no discernable physical gifts, but blessed with the heart of an ox and a chin of steel, could go all the way. But that was three years, four losses, and 40 kilos ago.
Back to Big Daddy.
“Mouthguard! Fuckin’ mouthguard. Wake up!” Freddie Miller shakes his head. Shit. The first round’s over. I’ve missed my mark. I climb through the ropes: they’re much tighter than I was expecting and I almost get pinged back out. I stick my hand inside Chauncy’s mouth – his breath’s hot and wet, like when you feed a horse when you’re a kid.
I squeeze water over the mouthguard, but leave a large pool in the corner of the mat. Shit. That’s a lot of water – and it’s pooling and seeping. Am I supposed to do that? Looks bloody slippery. I look across the ring. Big Daddy’s mouthguard guy knows what he’s doing. Caught it all in a bucket.
“Out. Out. Corners out.” It’s the ref. I wait to let Freddie and Rodney go first. “C’mon. Out. Get out. Get out.” I then – and I’m not playing up the slapstick routine here – stumble over the Ring Girl.
Round Two. Again, Chauncy hardly gets hit. It’s a miracle! The smart-tabled jeerers are shrugging. Nodding. This fat kid can fight. He’s avoided humiliation. And I’m starting to have fanciful thoughts, because now it’s the third and he’s winning it.
All the way until 20 seconds from the end when he walks into a right hand.
Rodney does everything he can at the end of the round. He stops the bleeding and presses an enswell – a piece of cold iron – onto his cheekbone. But in the 90 seconds Chauncy’s on the chair, his left eye swells tightly shut.
Now he’s fighting with one eye. He cocks his head to see, but opens himself up for more thudding right hands. At one point, he turns his back on Big Daddy and the ref steps in. Somehow he makes it to the bell, but the end is not far away.
The ring doctor holds Chauncy’s head in his hands. Pushes gently on his cheek. Chauncy yelps. It’s over. “Faaaark,” Chauncy screams.
But he's alive. He still has never been knocked down. He clowns his way back through the crowd and the same people who were calling him a fat shit now run up for selfies. And I'm left more muddled than ever, wondering what could’ve been. If he could've just slipped that punch in the eye-socket... if he'd trained properly... if he'd even trained at all... if he'd flown in a couple of days earlier…
And now it’s three months later and here comes Sonny Bill. Who is no bigger than Big Daddy Lucas Browne and can’t punch anything like as hard.
As I’d made my way to Hisense, I’d tried to work out why Chauncy was still fighting. There’s no realistic chance of a title anymore. Why – for just $30,000 – was he risking so much? It’s not the money; he’s set a gym up back home in Spokane that’s doing well. His baby girl’s about to turn one. He doesn’t need this.
But he loves the attention. For a guy with a suspected fractured cheek socket, he was positively manic after the Browne fight. Fist-bumping Anthony Mundine, goofing around with some ambulance guy… and then there he is talking BS with Mick Gatto. You know, Mick FUCKING Gatto, the “professional mediator” who’s the inspiration for Underworld. Melbourne’s main mobster (just quietly).
And here’s the thing – he’s a fighter. Sure, he’s never been an enthusiastic trainer, but he’s the world’s biggest boxing nerd. Ask him and he’ll to recite the 46 linear heavyweight champions since 1876 – John J. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano etc – in order. He loves this game.
That’s why, last December, again with no notice, he flew to Moscow to fight Alexander “The Great” Ustinov, the colossal Belarussian who ended David Tua’s career. Chauncy lost, but he went the distance.
And it’s why, despite appearances, he’ll push SBW hard. He’ll look like a joke, but he won’t fight like one. Those watching will come away knowing this fat kid can fight. And wondering what he might have been.
Peter Malcouronne will cover the fight for Metro and his full feature article on Chauncy Welliver will appear in the next issue of the magazine, on sale February 19.
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