Fili Maka - A Fighting Spirit
Why do athletes travel from all over the North Island to a small boxing gym in Wellsford? To train with its legendary founder, Wellsford Boxing head coach Fili Maka.
Fili has several awards to his name and is currently coaching three New Zealand champions. But the road to get there has not been easy.
Fili came to Auckland from Tonga on a scholarship as a teenager, playing rugby and boxing on the side. But in 1996 Fili’s life was changed forever by a freak accident. While working as a mechanic, a car fell on top of him, putting him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“It was really tough. I had a young family, my oldest was only five when it happened,” he says.
Instead of giving up, Fili got on with his life, living it the best he could. When his eleven-year-old daughter Magan wanted to try boxing, he started coaching her from the wheelchair, and found his calling. Soon he started training more family members.
“My nephew came from the Islands and stayed with me in Auckland. He started getting into street gangs and got into trouble, so I decided to take him to the gym, and boxing changed his life. He became really successful, got out of trouble and ended up representing New Zealand. It was an amazing turnaround,” Fili says.
Eventually, Fili and his family left Auckland behind for Tomarata, a small township north-east of Wellsford, between Pakiri and Te Arai.
The area is known for Tomarata Lake, one of three sand dune lakes that are beautifully set between hills and forestry and are popular for swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking and other water activities. But Fili and his family were not that familiar with the area before they moved up.
“I didn't know anyone – I had just decided I wanted to be one hour out of Auckland! In my experience however, Tomarata is a great place to bring up family, especially young kids,” Fili says.
Once the family was settled in, Fili opened Wellsford Boxing Gym and Fitness, which is now based in the old A&P Building.
“The building had not been used for many years, but my wife Myra and I have done our best to update it, put in new carpet and make it suitable for boxing. We worked hard to make it happen.
“There's never been a boxing gym in Wellsford before and we’ve been told it's one of the best things that happened to the community,” Fili says.
As for his daughter Magan Maka, she is now one of the most successful boxers in the history of New Zealand: five times New Zealand champion, multiple Golden Gloves winner and on the Commonwealth and Olympic teams.
“She was one of the two female fighters who made history by representing New Zealand at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. This was the first time that women’s boxing was allowed to feature in the Games,” Fili says, beaming with pride.
Magan has represented New Zealand all over the world. At the recent Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast Fili was coaching Tonga, so Magan decided to join her father and also represented Tonga.
Not only did Magan make it on the team, she was given the great honour of being their flag-bearer, leading the Tongan athletes into the stadium for the opening ceremony.
“It was probably one of the proudest moments of my life, receiving that call from Tonga Olympic Committee," says Fili.
You don't often see a boxing-coach in a wheelchair, but Fili believes everything happens for a reason.
“It can be hard, to be honest. But who knows what would have happened in my life if I hadn't end up in a wheelchair - would I still be changing other people's lives?
“Seeing the difference I make is a blessing. Helping a teen who’s been in trouble get their bearings and turn their life around or hearing from a parent whose kid has become more confident in their body and in their life. That’s what keeps me going.
“Without the help and support of my wife and family I wouldn't be able to pursue my passion for boxing,” Fili says.
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