ASK any boxing writer who they want to interview and chances are the heavyweight champion of the world will be on the shortlist.
Journalists have made a name for themselves by writing about the champions of the sport’s glamor division, or gained entry into an exclusive club of influence and celebrity.
But there was something different about my first conversation with a heavyweight champion. Something down to earth. Something accessible and honest. Something grateful for the platform I provided, rather than the other way around. And something… female.
Lani Daniels, you see, is the Women’s Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Furthermore, she is the only one right now, and one of only five women to ever hold a “big four” belt in the largest weight class.
Winning a “world” title of any description is a proud moment, and so it was for Daniels, all the more conspicuous that it happened at heavyweight – even if it was by circumstance rather than purpose. Daniels happened to be a heavyweight at the time, as the self-proclaimed “biggest yo-yo” has gone up and down on the scales throughout her boxing career, and throughout her adult life. The 5ft 7ins New Zealander has been as high as 240lbs outside the ring, and as low as 158lbs in it. On May 27 this year, when she took a unanimous decision over Samoa’s Alrie Meleisea in Auckland to win the first IBF women’s heavyweight title, she scaled 180¼lbs.
It should be noted that due to the smaller number of larger women, most sanctioning bodies classify women over 175lbs as heavyweights (Meleisea was 201½lbs). This shallower talent pool also means that, unlike the men, more pounds don’t necessarily mean more dollars. And so Daniels, for both financial and physical reasons, may soon fall down.
“I feel like my best weight is actually super-middleweight,” she says. “I’m only heavyweight now because I gained weight when I stopped boxing [from October 2019 to April 2022]but now, with the exercise I do, I struggle to keep the weight off.”
However, she is committed to at least one more heavyweight bout; a title defense against South Africa’s Razel Mohammed on August 26 in Auckland. Daniels claims to know little about her challenger — “All I know is she’s a southpaw and she’s had five fights” — and sees the fight more as a way to raise her profile in hopes of securing bigger fights against smaller women.
“If I could choose anyone [to fight], it would be Savannah Marshall, she says. “She has been my inspiration ever since I saw her in the Commonwealth Games [in 2014]. I’ve always looked up to Savannah. I like the way she carries herself. Seeing her was so cool. I had this epiphany: ‘I’m going to be world champion one day!’. She was so good, but I thought ‘I could beat her’ – even if I only had one [amateur] fight!
“I’d like to fight over there [in the UK] – and if it was against Savannah, yes!
For now, and for at least one more fight, Daniels is still a heavyweight. Still, while her being the world’s only female heavyweight champion was the obvious hook for this story, that’s not even the most interesting thing about ‘The Smiling Assassin’.
Daniels’ story is a classic redemption story; one of a wayward life steered in the right direction by boxing. Among the chapters are chapters on addiction, weight gain and mental health issues, all of which were sparked by a harrowing opener involving the death of a child – and all of which were overcome thanks to the power of our sport.
“My little brother Tukaha was only 11 when he died,” she says. “He had leukemia and it went quickly. He was diagnosed in July 2002 and died the following May. I was 14. It was a big shock.
“I just blocked it out for 10 years,” says Daniels, now 35. “I didn’t talk about it. I couldn’t deal with my feelings, so I self-medicated. Alcohol and cannabis made me feel better at the moment, but with time it became an addiction.
“I dropped out of school when I was 15. I worked at McDonald’s and Burger King for eight years. I earned my own income, but my main drive was to feed my habits. Life became overwhelming. Some of it I don’t even remember. I was more affected than I wasn’t. I drank anything and everything, whatever was cheapest, until I blacked out. The only times I was sober were in front of my parents; I didn’t want them to see me like that. But [elsewhere] I would be the life of the party. No one would think I was depressed. I hid my grief well. However, I have never used harder substances. I put it down to being raised by a good family with strong morals.”
Other members of the good family would also have been shaken by Tukaha’s death, and it was the way Lani’s sister Caroline channeled her own grief in a more positive direction that eventually led Daniels to find boxing, and with it a way out of her turmoil.
“Caroline was a mental health nurse and the hospital had a charity match for a cancer foundation. She wanted to do it because our little brother had passed away from cancer, says Lani.
“I saw the benefits it had on her life – she looked happier, she lost weight, she had this glow about her – so I wanted some of that.
“During her training [for the charity fight], her coach noticed that she had some talent and thought she would do quite well in the amateurs. I joined and we started doing it together and went hard for four years.”
The sisters both had decent amateur runs. Caroline had “more than 20” matches, while Lani had “about 30 and won a couple of New Zealand titles”.
Lani wanted to be like Caroline outside the ring too. She returned to education and began building towards her own career as a mental health nurse. Other siblings (Lani is one of nine) were also a great help.
“I had already decided before I started boxing that I was going to make changes, but it was my sisters who really helped me with that,” she says. “My family has always been supportive. They could see how I lived and knew I could do better. My two older sisters really stepped up and made sure I did because I lacked confidence.
“I did a basic course, because I had dropped out of school and it was easy, so I didn’t change much in terms of my lifestyle. I passed the basic subject and started a nursing education. I thought I could still party and study, but I failed my first semester. It was the eye opener. I needed to change. I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be a loser’.
“Around the same time Caroline started boxing, then I started it. I weighed about 110kg and I was embarrassed that I let myself go, as I was sporty growing up. I found that I really loved boxing.”
Daniel’s boxing career progressed alongside her studies and she graduated in both senses, gaining a Bachelor of Nursing from the Waikato Institute of Technology in 2016 and turning pro the following year.
She won the New Zealand light-heavyweight title in only her second paid fight, while also working as a mental health nurse at Whangerei Hospital. And while boxing instilled in her the physical discipline she needed to overcome her addiction, her job provided an avenue to overcome the emotional side of the grief she still struggled with.
“Physically I was in really good shape, but I still had a lot of self-doubt, so I worked a lot on my mental well-being,” she says. “I met a counselor that was given through my job. It was like a blackboard for my thoughts and I didn’t have to censor what I said. I was used to talking to my family [about my grief]but I couldn’t be 100 percent honest with them as I was worried about how they were feeling.
“Just having a neutral person to be honest and open with and knowing you’re not going to hurt anyone else really helped. My problem is I worry about everyone else.
“My advice to anyone struggling is to just reach out and talk, even though I know that’s the hardest part. Find guidelines; there is a lot out there. Do some ‘shopping around’ – you may not get the perfect fit right away, but there is something out there for everyone. Do not give up.”
Daniels certainly hasn’t given up – although she has been tempted to walk away from boxing a couple of times.
The first time was in October 2019 after a three-fight winless streak – two draws against a journeywoman following a defeat to Brazilian-born Kiwi Geovana Peres for the WBO 175lbs belt.
“Peres was good; she was hungry, she wanted it, says Daniels. “The fight was good and I got a lot of good feedback, but I didn’t stick to my game plan. I didn’t give it the respect it deserved. I deserved to lose, but it was boring to lose. It made me a little depressed, really.”
For a woman prone to depression, it was not a good mindset to bring into a boxing ring. Then followed the two draws against Tessa Tualevao, who could claim just one win on her record, and Daniels admits: “I think she beat me in the last one. I wasn’t there mentally; I was in decline. I needed a break to clear my mind.”
That break lasted two and a half years, and was clearly just what Daniels needed, as she has won all four fights since her return in April 2022, including the IBF title fight last time out.
Not bad, considering that for a while Daniels thought she was done with boxing—until that familiar opponent, weight gain, showed up for another round.
“I had started to put the weight back on,” she says. “I wasn’t going to fight again, but I sat there at 100kg and called my trainer [John Conway] and said “I need a fight”. This time it lit a fire under me and I see it as a career now.”
Daniels is now a part-time nurse so she can devote more time to training, and in the wake of winning the IBF belt has secured a three-fight contract with D & L Events, a major promoter in Australia and New Zealand. But this only came after another flirtation with retirement.
“After winning the ‘world’ title I felt I had achieved everything and I thought about making a living. I lived in the gym, literally, only got paid when I fought and I was a little homesick, she says of basing herself in big city Auckland, coming from a small village 125 miles away.
“I was born and raised in Pipiwai. It is largely a Maori community, everyone knows everyone, she says. “It’s quite isolated. There is not much for the youth to do, there is not much work. It is mainly agriculture.”
Remember how Frank Bruno was carried through London on an open bus and cheered by thousands after he won the WBC heavyweight title in 1996?
Well, they did things a little differently in Pipiwai (population 234) when Daniels came home with the belt.
“I was brought in on a tractor!” she laughs!
“Actually it was pretty cool, the parade. It was great, it was packed. There was a traditional Maori welcome, we did a haka, there were speeches, and there were loads of kids, which was the highlight.”
Although she has no children of her own, Daniel loves her children. She loves her dozens of nieces and nephews, works with children in her daily life, and when she’s home she trains them at Tukaha Boxing and Fitness, the village gym named after her late brother (Tukaha means “stand strong” in Maori). She wanted to do more in her community, which is why she thought about hanging up her gloves, until she realized that it was actually more beneficial to keep fighting.
“I just wanted to go home and give something back,” she says, “but then I reflected on it and thought if I can commit two more years to boxing, maybe I can help my community more in the long run. It can inspire more people, and inspire our children too.
“My boxing has always been focused on becoming a better me and now people can see that this success is the result of a fight.”
There are so many boxing stories and they never cease to be compelling. It is a pleasure, as a boxing writer, to be able to tell them – and even more so when they involve the heavyweight champion of the world.
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