Dave Letele is a former professional New Zealand boxer turned health coach and community leader. His story is one of overcoming the odds, having been at the top, forging a successful rugby league career, owning a couple of supermarkets and more, and then losing everything, including not being able to see his kids. He became depressed and overweight, and upon a return visit to his hometown Auckland, was faced with a harsh reality of do or die.
His boxing character Brown Buttabean was a smack-talking loudmouth that fans loved to hate. His circus act of a boxing journey started at 178 kilos (over 390 lbs) and burst onto the New Zealand boxing scene in 2014 where he fast developed a cult-like following as he called out local tough guys all over the country.
After a string of wins, and losing half his body weight thanks to his dedication to the gym, he has turned his life around and is now helping hundreds of thousands of Kiwis become fitter, healthier, and putting food on the table for many in need through his charitable organisation Buttabean Motivation.
We caught up with the recently crowned New Zealand local hero of the Year 2022 to hear more about his boxing journey and other amazing achievements.
Q: How did you get into boxing?
DL: I got into boxing really by accident I guess. I was over in Germany for a Joseph Parker fight against Marcelo Nascimento - my friend and Duco Events owner David Higgins brought me over as he was so worried about my life, as he didnt like leaving me alone at that time as I was very depressed.
Over in Germany, the head of German boxing had never seen such a large, tattooed Islander before. He wanted to see what I weighed - and I did too as every time I jumped on a scale back home it said ERROR, so I wanted to know what I weighed. They dragged me up like an elephant by the trunk, threw me on the scale and I was 178 kilos. Everyones reaction was like wow this guy is so fat, but I was just so happy as I had realised how much weight I had lost since my return home to New Zealand from Australia.
So while I was on stage, I was so happy I started showing off saying yeah, Im the man, Im the man, Ill take on anyone! Everyone else was laughing but Higgins had an idea. He said Heres what were going to do, were going to call you the Brown Buttabean after Eric Esch the American boxer.. Eric Butterbean Esch was a large white guy, and I was a large brown guy, so they called me the Brown Buttabean. And thats how I got into boxing - really just as a way to get my health back.
Q: Did you have a say in your new alias Brown Buttabean?
No. I actually wanted to change it early on after a few fights, I didn't like the name but Higgins said no as it had built brand equity so we couldnt change it. Who wouldve ever thought it would lead to what I am doing now, the group called Buttabean Motivation that is literally helping hundreds of thousands of people.
Q: How has boxing changed and influenced your life?
Boxing really just gave me a focus. My life was a mess, I was in very bad shape physically but even worse mentally. I was very depressed and boxing gave me an outlet and something to focus on in order for me to get my life back together. Boxing really did save my life. It gave me a positive outlet, something to focus on other than how much my life sucked at the time.
Boxing itself was amazing but what came with it in the character I played wasnt so amazing - but I used it to my advantage. It was the only way I could earn money, it was my job and I played this character to the best of my ability inside and outside the ring. My why was to get my children back and thats all I was thinking about. I didnt care if everyone hated me, I thought so be it.
Its more so now when I look back I cringe at some of the videos and wish I could delete these, but it really is part of the journey, and Im not embarrassed as from that was born this amazing group (BBM).
Q: Are you still boxing and what else do you do to keep fit?
Yes, I still do boxing training a couple of times per week. Boxing is like an anchor to our training, and is something we always do. Its still really tough, not only physically but mentally. My coach John The Rebel Conway always says Bean, go into that uncomfortable place and get used to it - just be comfortable being uncomfortable. I feel like boxing is one of the only sports that can really get you there.
Its also great for our bigger crew because its low impact on our knees and our joints but its still really tough. Boxing still plays an integral part in our training routine at BBM.
Q: How do you integrate boxing into the BBM program and what changes have you seen in others because of this?
Boxing is a big part of our training programmes, especially for our From the Couch programme which is a programme helping people with long term health conditions, who are 200-300+ kilos. The cool thing about boxing is that you can setup a seat next to a boxing bag and train, so we have people sitting down doing boxing and as they progress then suddenly theyre up doing boxing - not only on the bags, but on the pads. Its a great way to start your fitness journey, and you can gradually build it up.
Q: Tell us more about all of the initiatives that youre working on.
There is a whole host of things that we do at BBM. We have a youth programme which focuses on youths that are not at school or work, who are at a crossroads - like many people who start boxing when they are at a crossroads in their life - so we help surround them with positivity.
We then have an employment programme, again to help people who havent worked for a long time and who have lost all motivation. We try to get them into healthy habits, to get them up and going into work, to help them focus on a positive mindset.
We also have our From the Couch programme for our 200 - 300 kilo plus community members, getting them to just start some form of fitness by just moving. And our Food Share, which has literally fed hundreds of thousands of people, especially through Covid lockdown.
So there is so much that we do and then we have our regular boot camps which is where we started, just running a fitness group which has now morphed into a total wrap around group with all of these different social services and is something that is helping so many people.
Its like all the people who were around me in the beginning, helping me out - now I am paying it forward and helping others.
Q: How do you find the energy to do everything you do?
I dont do it alone. I have a great wife, a great family and an amazing team and our why is always our people. My why when I started was getting my children back and being a great example for them. Providing for my family and my wife is still my why now, but it has extended to helping as many people as I can. Living with that purpose is really what drives me everyday.
Q: Tell us something we may not know about you?
Most people know everything about me as Im pretty open with my life. However I have just taken up dancing [laughs].
Q: Tell us about your Dancing with the Stars journey.
Its a great mainstream platform to highlight the issues that are going on which is what I am doing it for, to raise awareness for our work and to raise funds for the work we do. There are also so many other great charities that are being supported through this (Dancing with the Stars) and thats what its all about.
Q: Is there a similarity between the footwork in dancing to the footwork in the ring?
[laughs] That is a common mistake that everyone is making , especially with me because they say youre a good boxer so you should have good footwork but then I tell them that I wasnt a good boxer [laughs]. But one thing I do have is a great work ethic, as I did with boxing - even though I was a circus act I took it very seriously and trained really hard, which is the same as I am doing now with dancing, just applying myself.
Q: As a boxer and fight fan, what has been the most exciting fight that youve watched?
I only really watch Joe Parker or Tyson Fury. I really enjoyed the Tyson Fury fight with Wilder and the Joseph Parker fight against Chisora.
I should also say the Joshua v Parker fight which I went to over in Cardiff, it was unbelievable. I still play the song Seven Nation Army at boxing training and sing Ooh Anthony Joshu-aaah [laughs].
Q: What has being a professional athlete taught you that you can take into everyday life?
Just never giving up and having the work ethic. For me, I always meet people who are strong, fitter, faster, but I never want to be outworked. Thats what I say to all of our group members - some of our members have lost over 100 kilos plus, just like myself - and you can never replicate what it takes to do that, so there will never be anyone that can outwork us. That is the attitude that we take into life which has come from all types of different training, both rugby league and boxing, and I live that way with NO EXCUSES.
Q: We have two exciting fights coming up in May, Taylor vs Serrano and Canelo vs Bivol. Who are you rooting for and why?
I definitely like Taylor, I think shes amazing and shes been great for the sport. It will be great to see her on the main stage at Madison Square Garden.
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