The lionheart: Alex Leapai, 34, boxer
A former truck driver from Logan City, Queensland, Alex Leapai has a professional record of 30 wins (24 by knockout), four losses and three draws. In Germany on April 26 he fights Wladimir Klitschko, the longest reigning IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight champion in history, for the world heavyweight title. Leapai is the first Australian boxer to challenge for the unified heavyweight title since 1908.
Richard Cooke One of the things that’s made Klitschko so successful is keeping his opponents to a limited range.
Alex Leapai Yeah, well, he does do a lot of the holding. It is his style and it’s a little bit of a boring style, but me and Noel [Thornberry, his trainer], we’re working on little things for that. Hopefully, the ref we get is an equal ref because we’re there to box, we’re not there to hold. I want to turn this into a fight – a real fight, not a wrestling match.
RC Other fighters must be wary that you’re one of the hardest punchers in world boxing.
AL A lot of guys are bigger than me, and they try to make it hard for me to get inside, but once I’m inside the fight’s over. Everybody’s got their own style, but I don’t think it’s got to do with any heavy punching. If you land any punch on anybody’s chin, he’ll feel it and for sure if I land one on Klitschko’s chin, mate, his game plan will go out the window and he’ll fight to survive. So I know they’ll be watching out for that, but whatever he’s got I’ll be ready.
RC What is your style?
AL Mike Tyson and David Tua all mixed together, and Alex Leapai, you know, with a little twist. I throw punches from different angles and you don’t see a lot of heavyweights throwing these punches. Like the Samoan bowler – the big overhand, once it goes up it comes down really bad, and with bad intentions.
RC Klitschko has a lot of reason to feel passionate about representing the Ukraine right now.
AL I support the Klitschkos in what they do: anybody that goes out there and puts his life on the line for his people, his country, deserves respect. It’s the same as my people in Samoa, Australia and New Zealand – I’ll be carrying three flags on the night and letting them know that this is where I come from, this side of the world. Hopefully I can make our countries proud of me at what we do. By the end of the day it’s just going to be me and Wladimir Klitschko.
RC You’ve been through some tough times, made some mistakes [with drugs and alcohol, and a conviction for assault]. This moment must have felt very far away.
AL There are times there you get that temptation, you know. Well, I just looked at my parents and my kids and the reason why I’m doing this – I don’t want to go back to that life. So the only way to do it was just stay away from all that stuff and focus on my kids and my parents. I’ve got the opportunity now to set them up and do some good, not just for them but for myself to prove to them I can change.
RC Solomon Haumono and Wendell Sailor were both watching you spar today, and I know that you’ve sparred with Sonny Bill Williams in the past. You don’t play rugby league anymore but it follows you.
AL Gordie [Gorden Tallis] was there yesterday, too. A lot of these footy players love boxing and they all wish they could be a heavyweight champion or whatever. But it’s not as easy as they think it is, it’s not as easy.
RC There’s something you always remember before a fight, isn’t there?
AL Standing in court and seeing Mum and Dad break down. Mum and Dad brought us to Australia for a good education and a good job and set us up for a future, so we could stand on our own feet. But here I was getting ready to go to jail, and looking across to see Mum and Dad break down was the hardest point for me. That was the turning point. Every time I think about it I get a little emotional. That’s why it’s so important for me to win, to prove to my friends and everyone else. I might get a bit slack and I look at Mum and Dad and it gives me a boost. I love my parents and this fight’s for them and my wife and kids.
RC What’s in your prayers?
AL I always pray that God protects both fighters. Because he’s another human being, too, who’s just trying to do the right thing for his family and his country, his people. I pray no one gets seriously hurt and everything goes good and just pray to Him for strength; give me strength to win this.
RC You’re humble and sympathetic to your opponent. But in the ring you have to hurt him.
AL I’ve just got to bring the worst out of me. I look back at why I’m doing this and I mean the family, what my parents went through and my wife and kids, I look at them and it brings the lion out of me, and this fight, you’ll see it, you’ll see a fighter you’ve never seen. It’ll be good.
RC Does the knockout punch feel different?
AL You can’t just go in there and try to throw the knockout punch. You’ve got to set it up and sometimes it comes in a combination. But the time will come. I’m pretty good at timing those big punches, so when it does happen the whole world will see it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "The lionheart". Subscribe here.