INTERVIEW: Hemi Ahio says getting punched hurts more than getting stabbed, but boxing is still a lot more fun


American viewers who watched the ESPN show for George Kambosos vs Devin Haney earlier this month saw a statement win that made Haney an undisputed lightweight champion.

Earlier on that card, Marcus Browne shocked Junior Fa, and Jason Moloney notched an early stoppage of his own. But what ESPN viewers didn’t see in between, unless they happened to glance at the jumbotron over Joe Tessitore’s head when ESPN wasn’t sharing locker room glimpses of group hugs and table massages, was a one round finish for New Zealand heavyweight Hemi Ahio.

It was Ahio’s fifth straight stoppage, and 14th in just 19 professional fights. It’s an impressive run for a man who only started boxing at the age of 21, turning pro with just over a year of training to prepare him. Now, just ten years after he first took up the sport, he’s ready and eager for big fights and big opportunities.

Ahio spoke with Bad Left Hook about the unique challenges of a heavyweight in New Zealand, the things he’s picked up from seeing David Tua thrive as a sub-6’ heavyweight, and how boxing compares to getting stabbed in the chest.

He also shared his ideal fighting venue in the United States, discussed potential action-heavy eliminator fights against folk hero Alen Babic and Australian heavyweight Demsey McKean, and how much bigger he feels when in the ring, in terms of both metric and English standard weights and measures.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

We talked about you in our podcast before the Kambosos-Haney card, and I called you “a guy who might be a guy.” I meant it in a very flattering way, and I want to start out by making sure that’s how you took it. Just in case– Did you feel at all slighted by that phrasing?

Oh, no. If I did hear it, if that was the wording, I don’t believe I took any kind of offense to it. So, you’re good. You’re good, John!

That’s good to hear. I think there’s an unfair way that boxers, probably more than any other type of athlete, get sucked into a manufactured story outside of their control that paints them as either pedestrian or insignificant, or else hypes them outrageously high as early as possible to a point where it’s almost impossible to live up to outside expectations.

What are your expectations for yourself at this point in your career, and how has that evolved over the ten years you’ve spent fighting as a professional?

In terms of skill, I’ve evolved a lot over the years. I had a two year layoff where I learned some movements and ways of punching that I haven’t really gotten to show yet. In terms of where I think I’m at, I think I’m a lot bigger than most people give me credit for.

In terms of hype, I’m not really one to be worried about any type of hype that surrounds me. In any kind of way. I do what I do. If they make a fight, I give it right back. Depending on how they come at me, I give it to them accordingly. I just do what I do.

Let’s talk about your last fight. I was very excited to see you on the Kambosos-Haney undercard. But, here in the USA, ESPN’s English language feed didn’t even show your fight on the broadcast.

Oh man, yeah.

Has anyone with Top Rank, ESPN, or anywhere else explained why that happened, or given you any sort of apology for cutting you out of such a spotlight opportunity over here?

No, we didn’t get any of that from the guys behind the TV stuff. But we were told by a few guys, after we got back from New Zealand to Australia, that they tried to watch on ESPN and there were a few fights going on while commentators were talking. Fights were just in the background. So, it wasn’t just me that happened to. Unfortunately, the guys watching ESPN kind of missed out on that.

Yeah, I was one of them. I was really looking forward to it. Because you’re fun. There are a lot of talented guys out there, but you’re also entertaining. I was really looking forward to seeing you on that show, and I was really disappointed.

Well, thanks, bro. Although I did have fun in there, not as much as I would have liked. But, it was good. And I know there’s no, like, highlights out there. I tried to look my fight up to see what happened, and I couldn’t find any highlights of the fight.

Well, it didn’t last very long.

No. After the first round, he kind of faked an injury. In my eyes, he kind of faked an elbow injury to get out of it. I would have had him out of there in the second round.

That show was obviously a huge event for boxing in your part of the world. Lots of Australian and New Zealand fighters on a big stage. How far in advance did you get the offer to be a part of it? And how excited were you about the opportunity?

Up until six weeks before the fight, I was still hearing, “You could still be on the show. Just keep training. Just train.” It was around six weeks away from the fight that it was fully confirmed.

Obviously, like most fights, it’s when we’re backstage, two minutes before the fight is when everything really kicked in.

Because of US television, the time of day was a little unusual. How was the atmosphere for you as a fighter? Did it feel as big as you expected, or was it a little more subdued for being early in the day?

It was crazy. It was pretty crazy. Not the seats around us, but the stands were filled with Greeks. Obviously, those Greeks really came out for Kambosos. And it was pretty packed in those stands. I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I did, but I really enjoyed fighting in front of that big crowd. Hopefully I get to do it more often. It was fun.

I’ve heard you say before that you don’t really feel the atmosphere when you’re fighting as much as you do when you watch other guys fight. Because you’re working versus appreciating it as a viewer. Was it the same situation for that fight, or were you feeling it more because it was such a big event?

No, it’s still the same thing. When Junior Fa, walked out, I could feel the nerves more for him than for me. And I was right after, but I still felt the nerves for him more than me. It’s just a normal thing for fighters to feel. You get it under control.

But when a good friend is walking out, you’re feeling it because you can’t control what he or she does in the ring. I think that’s what causes that. Those nerves for your close friends.

Well, let me ask you about Junior Fa. You’re both heavyweights, Tongan, and from New Zealand. As I understand it, you guys are pretty close and support each other. When you have your own fight coming up right after, are you paying any attention to his tough loss to Browne? Or are you too focused on your own preparation to watch or ask after him?

We were watching the fights in the back, on the TV, the whole time. Then, when he walked out, the screen suddenly went blank. But, some of the gentlemen in the dressing room with us were watching on their phones.

I wasn’t really paying attention to it until they started yelling out, “Oh shit, Junior just lost! He just got caught!” But, I had to keep looking down anyway. Because I was right after him. So, about two minutes after that happened, I was called to get ready and get up.

I was pretty bummed. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like seeing how it happened afterwards. But, shit happens.

Junior Fa on the canvas against Lucas Browne

Junior Fa on the canvas against Lucas Browne
Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

The first time you were ever knocked down was on a first round punch to the temple. You managed to get up and win by 2nd round TKO. Can you explain what a punch like the one that hit Junior Fa on the side of his head does to your body’s willingness or ability to respond to what your brain is saying?

Junior Fa, the way he got it, was a bit different. I think he got hit more on the back of the head than on the side. But, getting punched in the temple, I can tell you from experience that the wires do not quite link up.

When I got hit on the temple, I felt the nerves just shut down. Real quick, for a split second. And I’m not sure if Junior felt the same thing or not. I haven’t really asked him about it. But it shuts you down real quick. For a split second, and for some people longer than others. I managed to get through that when it happened to me in a fight.

You’ve obviously fought on some DiBella cards, also at least once with Matchroom, and now a Top Rank co-production. Any promoter in particular that you like to hear from with fight offers?

Man, because Lou DiBella is my promoter, I like to hear from him. When he calls me up and says, “You’re gonna be fighting this guy, you’re gonna be fighting that guy.” It was good to see him. He was over there in Australia, we sat down, had a little food, I got to listen to him around the table a little bit.

But, it’s cool. Hopefully, I hear from him a lot more. From DiBella! Lou DiBella! It would be good to hear about a lot of fights. I just want to fight.

You looked a little different than usual for this show. When and why did you start growing out the beard? You look so different than what we’re used to seeing.

Oh, damn. Well, that’s to cover the baby face a little bit. It’s just getting cold. This time of year, it gets cold. And I was surprised by the weather in Melbourne. It was a lot colder than I expected. So, I thought to myself that I would just keep it. We’re just gonna run with it for a little bit until it gets warmer. Down here in this side of the world, we’re in the winter, and it’s gonna get cold for a few months.

Hemi Ahio, younger and clean-shaven

Hemi Ahio, younger and clean-shaven
Photo by Simon Watts/Getty Images

Well, you look pretty badass with that beard. It’s an intimidating look for you.

Oh, is it? Well, thank you. Now I’m gonna keep it. I’ll keep it a lot longer now.

Let’s dig into your background a little. I’m excited for this question, because I don’t get to ask it of many people. How do you describe getting stabbed in the chest?

Ha! Um, less fun than getting punched in the face. But it does hurt more getting punched in the face. So, it’s nothing too, uh… I don’t know what to say about that. [Laughs]

Just to explain: Before you started training as a fighter, you were waiting for a bus. A group of guys asked you what neighborhood you were from, didn’t like your answer, they attacked you, and you got stabbed.

I read an article from the New Zealand Herald that made it sound like the incident was one of the things that got you started training as a professional boxer. Is that true? Or did they just sort of smash those two facts together?

No, they just kind of mashed that together. It was years before that. But, I’ve always liked fighting. I’m lucky, nothing too major happened to me in that incident. Now, I’m just glad I’m getting to fight more than getting messed with. [Laughs]

You got started boxing relatively late in life at 21. Started training in 2012, had your first professional fight in October of 2013. Looking back on it now, any regrets about jumping right into a pro career? Or are you glad you got through the early stages right away?

No regrets whatsoever. I’ve enjoyed every single moment that I’ve had. Even learning on the job, just learning every time I get in the ring.

I’m learning how to relax. When I started, I learned how to push out everyone else, all the eyes that are on you. And even now I’m still learning. In the last fight that we just had, I’m learning to enjoy a big crowd. It’s the energy that they give, I learned how to play with it. Bouncing back and forth, using it. I’m enjoying it.

You’ve said elsewhere that when you started training, you had to learn jabs because all you threw naturally were hooks.

Yeah, I was more of a square, face-forward, two legs square, hands like this… [Laughs]

The hooks work for you, though! How much of your approach is trying to incorporate more fundamentals versus going with your natural instincts and power?

At the heavyweight division, everyone has got power. So, I just utilize a lot of little things that I’ve learned. Try to sneak little punches in there, because I enjoy annoying people with little punches that sting them.

I’m still learning to put everything together. Let’s just put it like that. And every one of these fights, the bigger they come, the more I get to show. Hopefully the next few fights will start being the bigger names, bigger guys, bigger bangers that come to us.

You’re working in a region of the world where a lot of the talent pool fights at much smaller weight classes. As a heavyweight, it seems like you don’t have as smooth a development path as you might in the US or the UK.

Do step-up opportunities come along the way you want? Or do you have to sometimes spin your wheels a little and then jump up a little higher and faster than you’d ideally want?

Because everybody hits heavy in the heavyweights, it’s kind of different. But, I know what you mean. We don’t have as many heavyweights, like how every gym in the States might have five good heavyweights to work with. Over here, we have maybe three or four really good heavyweights to work with.

But, we do enjoy playing and working with the smaller guys. It keeps our eyes sharp. We’re able to use our hand-eye coordination to get in there and get out. Different ways that the lighter weight guys fight that we can utilize against the bigger guys.

So, you can still train, there just aren’t as many pros available there for you.

Not as many heavyweight pros, no.

There are two other current heavyweights in New Zealand that have risen to the world contender level in Joe Parker and Junior Fa. Does it make things easier or harder for you to move up through the levels with other New Zealand guys who have their resumes and ability in your weight class?

There’s only a few of us. And the last card, there was me, Junior Fa, and David Nyika all in there. I think it’s about the promoters trying to see who they want to fit in.

In terms of Junior Fa, most of the things I’ve learned were from him. When I first started boxing, he was the guy beating the shit out of me. So, I learned a lot, little head movements, little subtle things, all from him.

Joe Parker, I’ve met a few times, but I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with him in the ring. But, if one of these days we can all be on the same card, that would be a beautiful thing. I’m looking forward to the day that does happen. Because we have a lot of fighters on this side of the world that are real high level. It’s just hard for us to get the exposure. But, I’m glad Joseph Parker has gotten through. He’s really paved the way for the guys coming up now.

As far as getting opportunities, making it on big cards, we just take it as it comes, really.

Parker is 6’4” and Fa is 6’5”. So, stylistically, you have to take on heavyweight challenges in a very different way because you’re six feet tall. You’ve mentioned a different prominent New Zealander as something of a model or template for your potential success. So, tell me about what a guy like David Tua showed you about how successful you could be as a heavyweight that’s “only” six feet tall.

He’s a model in the way he moves forward, the way he bridges the gap with jabs. His head movement… I don’t really use that head movement that I’ve learned over the years as much as I should be. But, David Tua, what I’ve learned from him is the way he steps, those little stutter steps. When he needs to lunge, he has those jabs that keep busy, soft soft soft, hard hard, different tempos and weights off the punch.

I’m still learning, but I’m definitely trying to get away from where I started. People saying, “Similar style to Tyson,” I’m trying to get away from that. And Tua, I took a little bit from him with punches and angles off of punches. Not a lot of similarities in terms of styles, but some things in terms of punches, in terms of movement.

I went to check if you’ve ever fought here in the United States before, and I was very surprised to see it’s already happened twice. But, it happened in Salt Lake City, Utah and Columbus, Ohio. Are you interested in fighting over here again, and is there anywhere like New York City or Las Vegas where you’ve dreamed of fighting?

Madison Square Garden is a place everyone wants to be, and I’m definitely one of them. That would definitely be on my list of places to fight. Hopefully, when it does happen, it’ll be a war. That would be beautiful. I would enjoy having a big fight out there.

What’s next for you? 31 is still young enough to have several good years as a heavyweight. You have some good time left in your career.

What are you hoping to do over the next year or so, and what’s the long term plan for getting your name up there around the world with Parker and Fa?

I don’t really have a plan to get up the ranking game. The only thing I’m hopeful for is to fight everybody on that top 50 list. The main guy everyone has been tagging me along with on Instagram would be the Croatian Savage.

Filip Hrgovic? Or, Alen Babic?

Alen. Alen Babic. A lot of people have been telling me we need to see it. If it ever does happen, I’d love to see it. I think Eddie Hearn has him, maybe he and Lou DiBella can talk that one up. I’d be keen to get in there. He’s obviously a big hitter.

Who else are the heavyweights I’ve been looking at… Tony Yoka, I know he lost recently. But I would love to get in there in front of the French. Just everybody. Everybody. I know they’re all looking at me like I’m a smaller guy, but I would love to get in there with the really big boys and start slugging it out. Or, if they want to get technical, I’ll get technical with them.

Well, there’s a name I wanted to ask you about. And, remember, I’m on the other side of the world. So, if this is a guy that’s already come up a lot for you, or if there’s some reason I don’t know about why it wouldn’t or shouldn’t happen, I apologize in advance. I’m ignorant on this one, but I’m asking because I’m curious.

There’s a guy in Australia, Demsey McKean. He’s 6’6”, otherwise you two are a lot alike. He’s only two months younger than you, he also didn’t have much of an amateur background. Started late and went pro right away. He calls out a lot of prominent heavyweights in that part of the world… Has there ever been a possibility of a fight with him?

I’ve heard about him. I was asked about him about two years ago. The answer still remains the same: Yes. I would love to get in there with Demsey.

You’re not ignorant. If you are, then I am as well. Because I’d love to get in there with Demsey. And yeah, he’s 6’6”. But, every time I get into a fight, I feel like I’m 6’8”, about 180 kg. I’m able to hang in there with these big boys. He’s a southpaw, and I know a little bit about southpaws. Yeah, I would love to get in there with Demsey McKean.

Australian heavyweight Demsey McKean

Australian heavyweight Demsey McKean
Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Kilograms… You threw me with the kilograms. Remember, I’m in America. They raised us to believe that the metric system is some sort of plot by the godless communists. So, I’m listening to you and trying to calculate what you told me.

Well then, when I’m fighting, I feel like I’m 7 foot, 350 pounds.

Okay. Thank you from me, and from all the Americans that will be reading this.

Any last words or final thoughts about what people should know about you and what the future might hold?

I know I’m not out there too much, but if you guys get me, hustle Lou DiBella to get me over to the States. Throw me in there. I’m ready for the deep waters. Even though I don’t swim too well, I can drown some guys.

Check me out. Check me out. This is what we do.

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