HILO — A full-blooded Tongan, Samson Po’uha was born in Los Angeles on June 2, 1971, but within a week he moved to Utah with his Mormon family. It was there the youngster learned to become a man of God, in the image of his father.
One of his earliest memories is sitting in the family garage in St. George, Utah, and looking up at pair of boxing shoes hanging on a nail. Sam thought he was maybe 5 years-old at the time. His father, a former South Pacific champion who had 45 professional bouts, had worn them in the ring and they remained a physical reminder of the past.
The young man took the shoes down, tried them on, asked what they were for and his father explained.
“I want to be a boxer,” Samson said. When his father asked why, the child responded, “because I want to be like you.”
The shoes were taken back. His father returned them to their spot, hanging on the nail.
“That’s not a good enough reason,” his father said. “Think about it more then tell me why you want to box.”
A few days later, maybe a week, Samson got his father alone again and told him he realized he wanted to box, “Because I want to be the best, the very best.”
His father smiled. To this day, Samson remembers what his father told him.
“That’s the right reason. I will show you, I will teach you,” said Sione Po’uha, “I’ll teach you how to be a champion, but first, to be a champion, you must understand what it means. To be a champion, you have to live like a champion. Champions inspire, they teach, they help others, they are compassionate and humble and they bring that to the world.”
He remembers being in the car with his mom and dad, and dad would pull over at a certain spot he liked and get out. Mom slid over to the driver’s seat and they watched dad go jogging away.
It all worked, everything fell into place, for a while.
Po’uha won the national Golden Gloves title in 1991, then backed it up in ’92 with an AAU national championship in the super heavyweight division.
A Hilo resident who moved here almost 20 years ago to be closer to the family of his wife, Mahealani Kua — of the rooted in the Hawaiian Homestead land of Keaukaha in a religiously-based Kua family— Pohua is a little wiser than he was at various times as a professional boxer.
You’ve heard those old boxing game cliches about the guy who was on track for a title shot, only to sabotage himself somehow?
A lot of those stories sound like cliches because they are true, and there’s a strain of truth in every cliche.
Po’uha had a first marriage that eventually fell apart, but then, after turning pro, a lot of things seemed to come undone for him. It wasn’t that he ran his career into a ditch, he was still a rising contender, but when he drifted away from his father’s tutelage to take on pro trainers connected to promoters, things began to slide.
They didn’t make him work like dad made him work. Those were 10-12 hour days, “more often than not,” he said.
“It was amazing to me all that we did. My dad had me jumping rope for an hour, hitting the speed bag for an hour, hitting the heavy bag for an hour, spar with this guy for an hour, go run, then stretch, it went on and on and on.”
And it made him a contender. He began his pro career Nov. 25, 1992, with a first round knockout of Steve Cortez, which was followed by 12 consecutive wins with only three of those opponents making it past the second round.
Pouha was big, 6-foot-2 and his weight was an issue, in a couple of ways. He fought everywhere from 240 to 300 pounds and those fluctuations in weight described how he let his career get off schedule.
“A lot of regrets,’ Pouha said, “I slacked off too much, I went away from the training I learned, all the lessons I had from my dad, I thought I could do it without him.
“I put it this way,” he said, “I quit on my dad, but my dad never quit on me.”
His first loss was an example. He got out of shape against the oversized 300-pound pro Craig Payne, living off a 1983 Golden Gloves title he won against a young boxer named Mike Tyson. Payne also defeated Teofilo Stevenson, the Cuban legend as an amateur, but his professional career was one of a willing opponent.
But Po’uha wasn’t ready, took a nasty cut and Payne won a sixth round TKO.
“I didn’t really realize how experienced he was,” Pouha said of Payne. “I hit him with everything I had, good shots, just what I was trying to do, and he looked back at me and smiled.”
That got him back training more seriously, but he could still make money as a sparring partner. There were times he’d get $8,000 a week to spar with George Foreman and Riddick Bowe’s camp once paid $20,000 a month.
But he wanted a title opportunity of his own and at least the possibility of that seemed brighter when he got a bout with rising star Andrew Golota. Uncertain, he contacted his father while training for Golota and the message was grim.
“My dad said ‘It looks like you are either training to knock someone out or get knocked out, not to box like I showed you. Let’s see if you can knock this guy out.”
The fight was broadcast on USA Network, and you can look it up on You Tube, but it isn’t pretty. Po’uha (15-1), took on Golota (23-0), a heavyweight contender who would earn four title bouts, and Po’uha appeared to be ahead on points with an early barrage of body blows that were taking the fight away from Golota, but in the 5th round, Golota, in a clinch, took a bite out of Po’uha’s neck, right at the jugular, and everything changed.
“I had almost spent myself,” Po’uha said, “I was hitting him with everything and it was all working but when he bit me, I kind of went into shock, never had anything like that happen or had not even heard of such a thing.”
Po’uha was dazed, uncertain, Golota’s tactic wasn’t seen by the referee and, seizing the advantage, Golota was revitalized, gained the edge and the fight was stopped after five, a win for Golota.
Golota later admitted he was in trouble and had never been hit that hard in his life. Golota later got his title fights, but was disqualified twice against Riddick Bowe for low blows, each time.
All things considered, it was good career for Sam Po’uha in the ring, 20-5 with 18 knockouts but, while a fan favorite, he never got his title shot.
Mahealani has researched head injuries, the kind boxers get over time, and she is always testing him with questions, details, challenging his memory.
“We think everything’s OK,” she said, “he’s a happy man, a good man.”
He works in security these days, and if you see him, you will notice that welcoming smile that lets you know he came through some stormy times, as every professional boxer does, but he has come to a peaceful harbor in Hilo.
And at the end, he was not wrong to want to be like his father.
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