Commonwealth Games 2014: Tongan boxer hopes to defy odds

Boxing has always been at the heart of Tonga's culture.

When British explorer Captain Cook visited the islands in the summer of 1777, members of his crew watched as local men and women displayed their fighting skills. A few boastful Brits even challenged the Tongans, but were soon defeated.

"It is in our culture - the image of toughness and invincibility," says Sione Manu Finau, the secretary general of the Tonga Boxing Association.

"It is the way we see a man should be. It is already in every Tongan to be a boxer."

Queen's Baton Relay: Tonga

Tonga, a country of just over 100,000 people, has celebrated boxing success in recent years with Uaine Fa (+91kg category) and Lomalito Moala (60kg) both winning bronze medals at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi three years ago.

Before that, the history books recount the achievements of Kitione Lave, nicknamed 'The Tongan Torpedo' - and a popular figure in New Zealand, where he lived for much of his life - and Olympic silver and Commonwealth bronze medallist Paea Wolfgramm.

But the problem for Tonga is the boxing greats rarely stay long in their home country, with many moving across to New Zealand to develop.

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Mark Beaumont

Adventurer Mark Beaumont reports on the Queen's Baton Relay: Glasgow 2014 as it makes its way to all 70 nations and territories of the Commonwealth. With regular reports online, on radio and on television, the next documentary is on Saturday, 21 December at 14:30 GMT on BBC News Channel

One man aiming to be the next big thing in Tongan boxing is Finau's son Osika, a 21-year-old welterweight who is hoping to make the team for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year.

Osika Finau started to box at school at the age of 12, but he stopped fighting when his coach moved away from the area. He started again when he attended a match with his father two years ago.

"There was a guy there who was the champion for seven years in the welterweight division," says Osika.

"His trainer recognised me. He told me I could fight with this guy, but I said no as I hadn't trained and I know how important it is to train before you go in the ring.

"He insisted on telling me to go in. In Tonga, if you back out of a challenge that means you are a coward.

"I said yes. I went in, wore the gloves, and the guy beat the hell out of me."

Far from walking away from the sport for a second time, Osika used the experience in a positive way.

He challenged the champion the following week, and was beaten up again. The same happened the next week.

But he would not give up. On the fourth attempt, his determination finally paid off and victory was his.

Osika took a break from training last week to take part in the Queen's Baton Relay , the main event in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games.

The baton, which carries a message from the Queen and is a symbol of the shared values of the Commonwealth, is travelling around its 70 nations and territories.

The problem for the young boxer is the lack of facilities in his home country.

The only permanent boxing ring in Tonga.

The only permanent boxing ring in Tonga is in disrepair

His father Sione highlights the poor standard of equipment, pointing out that boxers share one punching bag and some skipping ropes. He adds that the country's only permanent boxing ring - in the capital Nuku'alofa - is in serious need of repairing, at an estimated cost of T$16,000 (£5,200).

With no specialist gyms or equipment, it is unlikely Osika will make it to the higher echelons of the sport if he stays in Tonga.

He would like to move, but money is a barrier. He came up against more experienced opposition in New Zealand in an exhibition tournament in July and lost to local fighter Bowyn Morgan.

It was another wake-up call, and he became even more determined. He is convinced he has what it takes to make the Tonga Commonwealth team.

The Tongan National Olympic Committee, the body responsible for the country's participation in the Commonwealth Games, said the boxing competitors for Glasgow will be chosen following a national championship in January in Auckland, New Zealand.

Osika looks to foreign shores to improve, but that is unlikely to happen any time soon. If he is to qualify for Glasgow, he will have to do it the hard way - without the benefits of training in the larger Oceanic nations.

Mark Beaumont in action against Osika

Mark Beaumont in action against Osika

He says: "To develop, I have to fight and spar with people who are better than me. In Tonga, you hardly get anyone to spar or fight with. When I went to New Zealand in July, I saw the things that Tongans don't have.

"We are very poor. We don't have the money for everything.

"It doesn't matter what you have. What matters to me is what I know I can do. They have two arms, two legs and one heart. I have the same.

"The only thing I want is to become the first Tongan to win a gold medal in the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games.

"My first step is to win the national championship. I am really desperate for that position. I will do what it takes."

Sione, meanwhile, hopes for a day that Tonga can retain its talent on its own shores.

He added: "Realistically, we can't do anything about it. They (foreign-based Tongan boxers) should be better with all the equipment and support they have, but we believe a local boxer can be as good or better.

"I believe we can train and develop a boxer from Tonga and go all the way."

For now, that is a dream. But it is a dream that could be fulfilled next summer if Osika Finau gets his way.

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