Under a sodium glare and spectator stares, the Clendon Community Centre became the unlikely site of a unique comeback, of sorts, for former NZ Thai Boxing Champion Eddy 'The Heat' Tongalahi. Patiently waiting for a delayed starting bell, the modest crowd were given a surprise treat with the sudden announcement that 'The Heat' and Davor Matarugic - a student of Tonglahi's - would fight an exhibition match in the interim. What followed was a fascinatingly technical and hard-hitting bout that set the tone for a night of flashy-fierce Muay Thai fights.
Lee Gar South Auckland had matched the fighters well, and were leaving nothing to chance when it came to entertainment. Rhys Cooper, from the aptly named Sa Ming Jai Gym (Brave Warrior Heart Gym), and Sam Ashley (Beyond Gym) jolted the crowd out of their seats and drew a slew of shouts that signaled the beginning of the matches. Cooper took the fight with some awesome push kicks and knees that brought an unanimous decision in his favour. Throwing volleys of knees like they were jabs, Tamara (Sa Ming Jai Gym) maintained the good name of the gym with an unanimous win over a big-hearted and busy Kiwi Kirkwood (Puma Gym) who, despite having only three months training under her belt, held her own under the consistent knee-barrage.
The fierce and the fancy were combined in the fifth fight of the evening with Robert Peniamina (GI Lee Gar) tackling a strong and clean kicking Nicola Yerkovich (Puma). Impressing the crowd with his shimmying, shucking entry dance, Yerkovich's loose-limbed approach wasn't enough to overcome the well-placed combinations of Peniamina in an unanimous decision. Keeping it unanimous, Ti'i Nanai (Johan's Gym) got off on the right foot by putting the eight-count on Vea Tuafale (GI Lee Gar) in the first round. Following that up with some ferocious hits and tangled limbs, Nanai defeated a well-supported Tuafale in front of a swathe of cheering faces.
As the night drew on, the fighters appeared more and more evenly matched: the second and third to last bouts were fought hard to a draw between Joe Brown (SMAC) and Josh Haenga (Roundhouse Kickboxing), and Harvey Lee Gar (North Shore Lee Gar) and Ambrose Mataio (Cambodian Kickboxing) respectively.
That left the main event of the night, and the most interesting ring entry of the show. One hundred and one kilogram fighter Omar Onepapa Gabriel (Johan's Gym) was called out to the canvas on the haunting, dusky wings of the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer). A soulful 'Allahu Akbar!!' (God is the greatest) echoed around the hall, setting spines a-tingling and, possibly, confusing the less spiritually inclined with its impact. Head covered by a keffiyeh (traditional Arab headdress) the devout Gabriel came out to a surge of applause. "I do this for God, and the honesty he represents," he explains. After a brief read of the Koran, it was birthday boy Mika Maliefulu's (Balmoral Lee Gar) turn to take centre ring; what followed was without a doubt the highlight of the evening as the two fleet-footed and heavy-handed fighters waged war on each other over three gruelling rounds. In the end there could be only one winner, and Maliefulu got what may have been his birthday wish with an unanimous decision that ended the night in good spirits.