ASK any boxing writer who they’d like to interview, and chances are the heavyweight champion of the world will be on the shortlist.
Journalists have made their names by writing about the champions of the sport’s glamour division, or gained entry to an exclusive club of influence and celebrity.
But there was something different about my first conversation with a heavyweight champ. Something down to earth. Something accessible and honest. Something grateful for the platform I was providing, rather than the other way round. And something… female.
Lani Daniels, you see, is the women’s world heavyweight champion.
Furthermore, she is the only one right now, and one of just five women to ever hold a “big four” belt in the biggest weight class.
To win a ‘world’ title of any description is a proud moment, and so it was for Daniels, and all the more eye-catching that it happened at heavyweight – even if it was due to circumstance rather than intent. Daniels just happened to be a heavyweight at the time, as the self-proclaimed “biggest yo-yo” has gone up and down 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 scored a unanimous decision over Samoa’s Alrie Meleisea in Auckland to win the inaugural IBF women’s heavyweight title, she scaled 180¼lbs.
It should be noted that, due to the smaller number of bigger females, most sanctioning bodies class women above 175lbs as heavyweights (Meleisea was 201½lbs). This shallower talent pool also means that, unlike the men, more pounds do not necessarily mean more dollars. And so Daniels, for both fiscal and physical reasons, may soon drop down.
“I feel my best weight is actually super-middleweight,” she says. “I’m just at heavyweight now because I gained weight when I stopped boxing [from October 2019 to April 2022], but now, with the training I do, I struggle to keep the weight on.”
She is, however, committed to at least one more heavyweight fight; a title defence 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 match more as a way to raise her profile in the hope of securing bigger fights against smaller women.
“If I could pick anyone [to fight], it would be Savannah Marshall,” she says. “She’s been my inspiration ever since I watched her in the Commonwealth Games [in 2014]. I’ve always looked up to Savannah. I like the way she carries herself. Watching her was so cool. I had this epiphany: ‘I’m gonna be a world champ one day!’. She was so good, but I thought ‘I could beat her’ – even though I’d only had one [amateur] fight!
“I’d love to fight over there [in the UK] – and if it was against Savannah, hell yes!”
For now, though, and for at least one more fight, Daniels remains a heavyweight. Yet, while her being the world’s only female heavyweight champion was the obvious hook for this story, it’s not even the most interesting thing about ‘The Smiling Assassin’.
Daniels’ story is a classic redemption tale; one of a wayward life steered in the right direction by boxing. Among its chapters are ones on addiction, weight gain, and mental health struggles, all of which were triggered 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 just 11 when he passed away,” she says. “He had leukaemia and it was rapid. He was diagnosed in July 2002 and passed away the following May. I was 14. It was a huge shock.
“I just blocked it out for 10 years,” says Daniels, now 35. “I didn’t talk about it. I couldn’t manage my emotions, so I self-medicated. Alcohol and cannabis made me feel better for the moment, but over 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 was making my own income, but my main drive was to feed my habits. Life became overwhelming. Some of it, I can’t even remember. I was under the influence more than I was not. I’d drink anything and everything, whatever was cheapest, until I blacked out. The only times I was sober was in front of my parents; I didn’t want them to see me like that. But [elsewhere] I’d be the life of the party. Nobody would have thought I was depressed. I hid my grief well. I never used harder drugs, though. I put that down to being raised by a good family with strong morals.”
Other members of that good family would have been rocked by Tukaha’s death, too, and it was the way Lani’s sister Caroline channelled her own grief in a more positive direction that ultimately 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 fight night for a cancer foundation. She wanted to do it because our little brother had passed away from cancer,” says Lani.
“I saw the benefits that had on her life – she looked happier, she lost weight, she had this glow about her – so I wanted a bit of that.
“During her training [for the charity fight], her coach noticed she had a bit of talent and thought she’d do quite well in the amateurs. I joined up and we started doing it together and went hard for four years.”
The sisters both had decent amateur runs. Caroline had “more than 20” bouts, while Lani had “about 30 and won a couple of New Zealand titles”.
Lani wanted to be like Caroline outside of the ring, too. She returned to education and started building towards her own career as a mental health nurse. Other siblings (Lani is one of nine) were also a great help.
“I’d already decided before I started boxing I was going to make changes, but it was my sisters who really helped me do it,” she says. “My family have always been supportive. They could see how I was living and knew I could do better. My two older sisters really stepped up and made sure I did it, because I lacked confidence.
“I did a foundation course, because I’d dropped out of school, and that was easy, so I didn’t change much in terms of my lifestyle. I passed the foundation course and started a nursing degree. I thought I could still party and study, but I failed my first semester. That was the eye-opener. I needed to change. I thought ‘oh my god, I’m gonna be a loser’.
“Around the same time, Caroline started boxing, then I started it. I was about 110kg and I was embarrassed I’d let myself go, as I was sporty growing up. I found I just really, really loved boxing.”
Daniels’ boxing career progressed in tandem with her studies, and she graduated in both senses, earning a Bachelor of Nursing from Waikato Institute of Technology in 2016 and turning pro the next year.
She won the New Zealand light-heavyweight title in just her second paid bout, while also working as a mental health nurse at Whangerei Hospital. And, while boxing instilled in her the physical discipline she required to beat her addictions, her day job provided a pathway to overcoming 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 wellbeing,” she says. “I was seeing a counsellor provided through my job. It was like a whiteboard for my thoughts, and I didn’t have to censor what I was saying. I was used to speaking with my family [about my grief], but I couldn’t be 100 per cent honest with them as I was worried about how they were feeling.
“Just having a neutral person to be honest and open with, and to know you’re not going to hurt someone else, that really helped. My problem is I worry about everyone else.
“My advice to anyone who’s struggling is just to reach out and speak, although I know that’s the hardest part. Find support lines; there are a lot out there. Do a bit of ‘shopping’ – you might not get the perfect fit right away, but there’s someone out there for everybody. Don’t give up.”
Daniels certainly hasn’t given up – though a couple of times she’s been tempted to walk away from boxing.
The first time was in October 2019 following a string of three bouts without a win – 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 heaps of good feedback, but I didn’t stick to my fight plan. I didn’t give it the respect it deserved. I deserved to lose, but it sucked losing. It made me a bit depressed, really.”
For a woman prone to depression, it was not a good mindset to carry into a boxing ring. There 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 a decline. I needed a break to sort my mind out.”
That break lasted for two and a half years, and evidently was just what Daniels needed, as she has won all four bouts since coming back in April 2022, including the IBF title fight last time out.
Not bad, considering Daniels for a while thought she was done with boxing – until that familiar opponent, weight gain, showed up for another round.
“I’d started putting weight back on,” she says. “I wasn’t planning to fight again, but I was sitting there at 100kg and rang my coach [John Conway] and said ‘I need a fight’. This time it lit a fire under me and I’m looking at it as a career now.”
Daniels is now nursing part-time 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’d achieved everything, and I was thinking in terms of making a living. I was living in the gym, literally, only getting paid when I fight, and I was a bit homesick,” she says of basing herself in the big city of Auckland, when she comes from a tiny village 125 miles away.
“I was born and raised in Pipiwai. It’s a mostly Maori community, everyone knows everyone,” she says. “It’s quite isolated. There’s not much for the youth to do, there’s not much work. It’s mainly agriculture.”
Remember how Frank Bruno was carried through London on an open-top 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 her belt.
“I was brought in on a tractor!” she laughs!
“Actually, it was pretty cool, the parade. It was awesome, it was packed. There was a traditional Maori welcoming, we did a haka, there were speeches, and there were heaps of kids, which was the highlight.”
Though she doesn’t have any of her own, Daniels loves children. She dotes on her dozens of nieces and nephews, works with kids in her day job, and when she’s at home she coaches 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 was thinking of hanging up the gloves, until she realised fighting on might actually be more beneficial.
“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, I may be able help my community more in the long run. It could inspire more people, and inspire our kids as well.
“My boxing has always been focused on becoming a better me, and now people can see this success is the outcome of a struggle.”
So many boxing stories are, and they never cease to be compelling. It’s 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.