How a Fighter Channels Her Iwi's Female-Led History to Inspire the Present

Northland's Toa Ngātihine gym, and star fighter Quinita Hati, are changing the lives of local youths.

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19 September 2018, 1:33am

The punches landed in lightning threes: thwap-thwap-thwap. Liniment hung in the air above the smell of sweat left behind by the male boxers who had passed through the dressing room that night. Quinita Hati, hair plaited tight against her head, legs widely tensed so her calf muscles bulged from the top of her Lonsdale boots, matched the noise of her gloves with a harsh “sha” every time she struck the pads. Thwap-thwap-thwap. Sha-sha-sha. Her feet moved in unison with those of her trainer and partner Phil Allsopp, a combat waltz under fluorescent light. Her arms shined with sweat and oil.

From the next room, through the thin walls, came the noise of her opponent mirroring the scene: deep grunts and the severe smack of gloves as Baby “The Pitbull” Nansen ran through her pre-fight routine. Hati stared into the middle distance as the last lashings of tape were applied to her gloves, another rubbing of oil coaxed into her shoulders. Her features were set in stern concentration as she stared at the air a foot in front of her eyes; if her ears registered the aggression echoing from next door, her face didn’t.

Phil Allsopp and Quinita Hati before the fight.

“I have a prayer to my tupuna,” Hati told me of the pre-fight moment. “I just feel it. I do it on my own, I don’t do it with people or anything like that, I just do it.” We had met that morning at Toa Ngātihine Fitness Studio, the Kawakawa gym she fights out of and runs with Allsopp. Kawakawa, population 1218 at the last census, doglegs around the town’s main street; as you follow the road out, you notice a billboard proclaiming “Meth Free Kawakawa”—in hope, you get the sense, rather than fact. Locals lingered on the street wearing camo fleece tops and gumboots.

Hati was pushing a vacuum cleaner around the gym’s carpeted floor, muscles obscured by a loose-fitting Toa Ngātihine top and camo pants. Half a dozen boxing bags swung softly against one wall, the empty boxing ring—the gym’s focal point—at the end of the room. Scribe blasted from the stereo. Two Muay Thai belts, both won by Hati, hung from a display case, its shelves clustered with the gym’s trophies. “Home,” Hati says, simply, of the modest space.

Hati, 31, was born in Moerewa—10 minutes up the road if you carry on past that billboard—and still lives there with Allsopp and their three children. This part of Northland, the Waiomio Valley, was first settled by a woman named Hineamaru and her followers, who had wandered the North Island for many years before finding this spot, where kūmara grew abundantly and where there were no previous settlers to object to their presence. They became the Ngāti Hine iwi. In that pre-fight prayer, a female leader of the present reaches back along her whakapapa to commune with one of the past. “It does get passed down, and you feel it too. Every time you have a karakia or something, you just feel it.”

Moerewa.

Following Hineamaru’s example, Hati says, is just part of being a Ngāti Hine woman. “The majority of us are strong women round here, like we put our minds to it and we just go with it. It doesn’t matter if it’s fighting, or anything, it could just be you being a mother, you being a rugby player or a hard worker. It doesn’t have to be fighting. But there are heaps of females out there that strive to be the best that they can be, always pushing.”

For her, some of that success has come in the ring. Her journey into combat sport started with a desire to keep fit. Then she started having a bit of a “muck around” in the ring. Some novice Muay Thai fights came up, and—even though “I don’t really class myself as a fighter, I don’t like the idea of hitting people”—she stepped up. Her first-ever professional boxing fight, which she had a week to train for, was also the first time she had ever boxed competitively. “That was one to remember because I never ever did any boxing in my whole entire life, let alone train in it.” She lost, but fought hard, and promoters have been calling ever since.

Unlike Baby “The Pitbull” Nansen, she doesn’t have a fight name. Her mum once asked her if she was going to get one; she said, nah, didn’t need one, was happy with the name she had been given. But that hasn’t stopped others re-christening her. They call her Quinita “Hearty” Hati round these parts: she has a reputation for accepting any challenge, no matter how last minute, no matter how long the odds.

Hati and her family.

The first time she fought Baby Nansen—in just her second boxing match—she found out only that morning she’d be going up against a fighter she had idolised from afar, and that she’d be fighting for a New Zealand title. “The first time when I fought her, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m actually fighting Baby Nansen.’ I was buzzing out, but at the same time nervous as hell ‘cos I didn’t know what to expect. It’s been really good knowing I stepped foot in the ring with her. When Baby’s in the ring, you know it’s going to be a good show.”

Nansen would be fighting that night for the first time since she became the first New Zealand woman to fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden, a fight she lost. At Kerikeri’s somewhat more modest Turner Centre her rematch with Hati would be the headlining bout of the Certified Builders BOI/Far North Charity Boxing Event.

Hati lost the first time she fought Nansen, but her pro-boxing record—before that night’s fight: one win, one draw, three losses (“Something like that”)—doesn’t seem that important to her. When I asked what her record was she had to ask a passing member of the gym: you get the sense that the real fight, for her, isn’t even in the ring. “My main focus is the kids, my youth, because out there they’re all our babies. You don’t want to see any of them get hurt, or even do things that they shouldn’t be doing, so you try and introduce them into this kind of lifestyle.”

The AFFCO plant outside Moerewa.

It’s the old story of the Far North: few jobs, few opportunities for honest work. Moerewa’s only real employer is the big AFFCO meat-processing plant that hulks on the outskirts of town, cars sprinkled throughout its car park. There’s some forestry work around, too, but not too much else. In June this year, during Operation Ghost, police arrested 22 people from a host of Northland towns—Kawakawa and Moerewa included—on drugs charges, seizing meth and guns and cash. The morning of the fight, I watched three police cars, sirens ablaze, whistle through the faded town within ten minutes of each other—past the cavernous, stale-beer-smelling Klondike Tavern, past the Ngāti Hine Forestry Trust, past a group of teenage boys gathered in a street-side patch of sun in front of the dairy.

“I really do it just to be a role model for our younger ones,” Hati says. “Just so they see it is possible that if you put your mind to it, you know, you can achieve things out there. We have quite a few young fighters coming through.”

RJ Lawrence, 23, is the youngest of three sons. He’s a crayfisherman, but when he’s not at sea he spends his days as a labourer, working with his brother—and, now, training. That night he would fight for the first time.

When his grandfather died recently, Lawrence sunk into depression. There had been drugs in his past, but he got “sick of that scene and wanted to focus on my happiness and finding myself”. When we met he was staying with a Toa Ngātihine member close to the gym so he could train single-mindedly for his debut fight. He wore big dark glasses, a cap pulled low, and had crooked front teeth. He’d only been training for two months but his depression had lifted. “I just like the physical pain… it feels good, it’s better than emotional pain… I needed to find something to try help me find a bit of happiness—something positive, you know, so I jumped on board and haven’t looked back ever since, really.”

RJ Lawrence in the ring.

Toa Ngātihine, he says, is more than a place to train. “Toa” means “to win”, and the gym helps its members do just that. “Everyone motivates each other, everyone picks each other up—that’s what keeps me going. Everyone’s real supportive we don’t talk each other down or try and be better than one another. We try and be better than the person we used to be, you know—try and better ourselves.”

Clayton Halliday, 23, was also fighting that night. He grew up on a farm half an hour inland but went to school in Moerewa. He first came to the gym to learn how to “handle himself better” when something went down—not, he hinted, an uncommon occurrence. “There’s drugs, there’s unemployment, there’s bad habits. People have developed all these bad habits—it just gets passed down, all these bad habits of smoking and drinking and drugs.” When you fall into that cycle, he says, “you start to accept things that you wouldn’t usually find acceptable. Unacceptable behaviour becomes the norm.” The gym, he said, had helped him clear that behaviour from his life.

His is one of discipline now, of cold showers, eating right, midwinter swims in the nearby river. “Cold as hell, but it’s all in the name of becoming tough. Toughen you up, gives you a tougher mentality and strengthens your immune system. All of that man, it all comes into it.”

Clayton Halliday.

The controlled violence of the ring helps him stay away from violence out of it—rather than handling himself better in the martial sense he first meant it, he’s learning how to handle those white-hot emotions that can lead to trouble in the first place. “I’m still working on that and getting to a point where people stepping you out or whatever and you’re scared to walk away ‘cos there’s this doubt in your mind like you need to prove to yourself that you can bash this person.”

Thirty-two-year-old Rahema Hook’s journey to the ring started with a walk. She suffered from depression and her weight had ballooned to 117 kilograms after giving birth to her third child and she found the only way to manage her mental health was with exercise. She started walking every day and dropped 20 kilograms. Hati asked her to come and train with the Toa team. “It kept going from there. Just coming to training; then the fighting when it came, that was a rush.”

She lost her brother to suicide, and now cares for his children too. In the past she has suffered from domestic violence, and she says that that problem, as well as issues with drugs, are spread throughout her wider family.

She wants to be a role model for that family. And now her 14-year-old—a “very challenging boy that boy”—trains and fights with Toa Ngātihine. She pointed out his photo on the gym wall behind us. “One of the challenges was to get them to be as motivated as I am and get them not to be in that statistic with the drugs, with the challenges that we face outside of the gym… You can have a life. You don’t have to go down that road.”

Hati (left) and Baby "The Pitbull" Nansen.

Hati emerged from her dressing room. The security guards had given up on keeping people from crowding the ramps the fighters used to get to the ring, and Hati—fluorescent green flashing from her black trunks—jogged through a sea of rowdy Toa Ngātihine-t-shirted supporters, the backroom smell of liniment trailing her through a commingled cloud of bourboned breath and ciggie smoke wafting in from outside. Her mum was there (“Anxious,” she replied when I asked how she felt) and her dad—more than a few drinks deep, more than a few teeth missing—had been rolling a smoke outside. Was he proud? “Hard bro, hard.”

Elsewhere, sitting at the ringside tables, were Kerikeri locals, women dressed up—big hair, fake pearls and feathers—in 1930s-inspired finery, the men in collared shirts. When Hati and Nansen met in the ring, there was something discordant about two toned athletes, products of discipline and deprivation, as entertainment for the hundreds of people who had been energetically drinking—enabled by a busy team of “Thirst Aid Attendants” scurrying from table to table exchanging booze for empties—all evening through the preceding 11 fights.

It had been a difficult night for the Toa team. Both Lawrence—boyish in the ring, with eyes unshielded and his hair flopping, tā moko creeping down his entire bared right arm—and Halliday—fighting barefoot and brutal—had lost their fights, both unanimously on points. But the enthusiasm of the Toa support team remained undimmed. As the bell rang for the first of four rounds, cries of “Let’s go Quin” crowded the air.

Hati pushed forward; Nansen weaved. American writer Joyce Carol Oates, in an essay on Mike Tyson, called these the “quicksilver seconds, when far more happens than the eye, let alone the verbalizing consciousness, can absorb”. In the back-and-forth, corner-to-corner hustle across the blue-floored ring, the two—Hati ceding a kilogram in weight to her antagonist, the white tassels hanging from Nansen’s waistline falling over muscle-inflated thighs—were reduced to the fact of their bodies: reach, power, endurance, skill. The flailing arms and bone-tired final-round stumbling of the earlier amateur fights was now a display of punches meatily absorbed, blows landing with an organic impact far different in timbre and consequence from those I had watched in the backroom spar session.

In the second round, a head-clash caught Hati under her eye; Nansen backed off, and said an audible “sorry” as Hati shook off the pain to press forward once again. A cut opened above Nansen’s left eye. I first spotted a drip of blood on Hati’s bicep, and then watched as, during the fourth and final round, Nansen’s white tank top turned progressively pinker. Behind, a chant went up: “Toa! Toa! Toa!” The round ended with a frantic exchange, which, as soon as the bell sounded, segued straight into a hug.

That hug only ended when it was time to announce the winner. The two fighters stood, a glove each in the hands of the white-shirted referee. It was a split decision, Nansen’s blue glove pulled aloft in victory. The hug resumed.

The next morning, Hati and Allsopp reclined in their lounge in front of Sunday morning cartoons, entwined in the embraces of their children. Outside, a couple of Allsopp’s hunting dogs lay in the sun on the back of a ute, lifting their heads lazily at my intrusion. Hati had some swelling under her left eye—that head-clash—but was otherwise uninjured. She was pretty happy with how she boxed: she had given it everything, she said. And, as she would tell the other Toa fighters who had lost the previous night, “I say to everyone: whoever steps foot in the ring is always a winner, whether you win or lose. You’re always going to be a winner because you’re stepping in there alone. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

I asked Allsopp, a quietly spoken man, gentle but with a forceful mana, about the impact of Hati as a role model for her community. “She’s a leader for these young girls; it gives them inspiration… She’s from Moerewa, just a little old town. She gives us all a little bit of hope maybe.” That the leadership comes from a woman is only natural in Ngāti Hine country. “Well, for Ngāti Hine, that’s our ancestor, Hineamaru. It’s in our blood; it’s in our bloodlines... It’s in us, it’s embedded.”

Under that leadership Toa Ngāti Hine, which started with Allsopp training in his garage eight or so years ago, and moved through a succession of school halls until it found its permanent Kawakawa home, is about much more than just fighting. “It’s what we’ve created and the people. That’s it. And we’re more than just fighters, our supporters, they just follow us wherever and that’s the ultimate. The support, that whānau, to me that’s what it’s about. And that’s what people connect with.”

I said goodbye, and drove north, to Kaeo, a tiny town near the mangrove-choked outer reaches of the Whangaroa Harbour. An Auckland University study found it one of the most deprived places in the country. I had noticed Gracie Gym down a back road, and wanted to check it out. Ken Edwards, dressed in a sky blue jujitsu gi, greeted me with a hongi, and basically reiterated the story I had been told many times over the weekend: of local lives changed, of those changes rippling through the community. A couple of kids frolicked on the mat. “It’s making those changes,” Edwards said, “changing that culture. People, especially in low socio-economic areas, you are a product of your environment; you can’t change that, but you can change yourself.”

A local mum joined the conversation. Her teenage daughter, she said, had made several suicide attempts, but had then found the gym and training and fighting and it had helped turn her life around. One more life changed for the better. And that—not winning titles, not the fighting—is the real kaupapa behind this little Kaeo gym, just as it underpins Toa Ngātihine. As Edwards said: “He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.”

What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, the people, the people.

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