A Tua deforce to make the blood run cold

The David Tua interview: Samoan warrior in mould of Frazier and Tyson is a genuine threat to Lewis

Lennox Lewis has never encountered anyone quite like David Tua before. He is short, squat and sumo-like, has the hardest punch of any heavyweight around, paints, writes poetry, plays the guitar and has a hairstyle that stands up in a crowd. He also wears a skirt.

Lennox Lewis has never encountered anyone quite like David Tua before. He is short, squat and sumo-like, has the hardest punch of any heavyweight around, paints, writes poetry, plays the guitar and has a hairstyle that stands up in a crowd. He also wears a skirt.

Way out in the Nevada Desert, away from the jangling jungle of Las Vegas, Tua is preparing for his challenge to Lewis on 11 November. He calls it his date with destiny.

Chalked on a board in the gymnasium of the white-painted ranch- house where he has been training this past month are three equations: "speed + power = KO; power + speed = KO; destiny + will = KO".

For Tua the formula is a daily reminder that he is just one punch away from the heavyweight championship of the world. And that punch, a wicked, rapidly-delivered left hook, really is something special, weaned not on traditional punchbags but on the solid trunks of banana trees back home on the small Pacific island of Faleatiu, which belongs to Western Samoa where Tua grew up and where, he says, his heart remains.

"My dad was a boxer, though he liked to fight but not to train," says Tua. "I really had no choice but to become one too. It is the warrior blood in me, I suppose. When I was a kid he used to stand me in front of the banana trees and make me hit them until the roots came out of the ground, and they crashed down. Pow, pow, pow!"

Born Davita Manfaufau Sanerifi, the powerhouse from Polynesia thankfully changed his first name to David when he moved with his family as an 11-year-old to New Zealand and later, when he turned professional, took the first three letters of his father's first name to become Tua. As David Tua he is now theNo 1 contender for the 35-year-old Lewis' World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles, bringing with him to Las Vegas credentials which include 32 knockouts in 38 fights with just one points defeat. He enters the ring at the Mandalay Bay Hotel on a 13-fight winning roll, the last eight by KOs.

But it is on the road from Mandalay, towards the shadow of Mount Charleston, where Tua has set up a camp that could not be in greater contrast to the neon nightmare of the casino-crammed gambling citadel 30 miles away. The ranch, owned by a friend of Tua's Kiwi manager, Kevin Barry, gives the fighter and his six-strong entourage the seclusion and solitude they seek. It has a big game menagerie, a white grand piano stands in the hallway, and parked incongruously by the side of the ring is a 1965 black-and-silver Excalibur sports car once owned by Sammy Davis Jnr.

When he is not sparring, skipping or running through the desert at dusk, Tua spends much time playing table tennis with his Samoan friend Marcelino "The Chief" Masoe, three times an Olympian and an accomplished middleweight. They meditate together, dressed in the original Samoan sarong, and swap banter in the Polynesian dialect as they whack the ball to and fro with gusto.

Though the 28-year-old Tua stands only 5ft 10in, he is nearly 18st and built like the proverbial brick outhouse. He may be vertically challenged for a heavyweight, but his bizarre coiffure certainly is not. He grows it upright, Don King-fashion, and reckons it will add half a dozen inches to his height when he steps into the ring.

Over breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and eggs prepared by his personal chef, also from New Zealand, Tua talked wistfully of his Polynesian roots and of his early difficult years growing up as a teenager in a less- than-salubrious suburb of South Auckland. He was always getting into scraps, so one of his seven brothers took him to a local gym and persuaded him to take up boxing to keep out of trouble. Because he couldn't get many amateur fights, he also played rugby, reaching representative Under-21 level as a back, and was on his way to becoming an All Black when he was called up for the world amateur boxing championships in Sydney in 1991. There he encountered a Cuban named Felix Savon, and was stopped in just 18 seconds. "I was terrified by this big guy. I didn't really want to fight him because he was Savon and I was just a raw kid. I was out of his class."

A year later, however, wiser, stronger and more experienced, Tua fancied his chances of revenge in the Barcelona Olympics. But he never got to meet Savon again because in the semi-finals he lost to a Nigerian, taking home a bronze medal that was the first of any description to be won in the Games by a Polynesian. Savon went on to take the first of his three golds.

Tua's subsequent professional career has been explosive, spoilt only by a close points defeat against a talented Nigerian, Ike Ibeachi, now languishing in a mental home and facing sexual assault charges. Tua is said to possess a left hook that is the best since Joe Frazier's, powered by his 19in biceps. Lewis, he predicts, won't know what hits him.

"I have respect for Lewis. He has been a good champion, but who has he been fighting? C'mon, man. With his last two opponents all he had to do was look at them. Michael Grant stood right in front of him and leaned into that right hand, and Frans Botha seemed to be saying, 'Come on, hit me. I'm trying to make you look good'. But credit to Lewis. He's strung together three or four good punches and at the end of the day he's got the big W - the win."

That big W, reckons Tua, will be alongside his name next month, though in terms of physical stature the bout may seem something of a mis-match.

"He's 6ft 5in and I'm 5ft 10in,"says Tua. "I'm thinking of getting some platform shoes. But that's an advantage for me. Lewis always looks good against tall guys because all he has to do is punch straight. With me he'll need to reach down, but I'll be inside that jab, my head level with his chest and my eye fixed on the target, his chin."

Like most contenders, Tua talks a good and often amusing fight, but there is also a disturbing serenity and inner confidence about him which should concern the Lewis camp. He cracks his knuckles ominously: "I'm not trying to psych Lewis or hype up the fight. I know he is looking beyond me. His [people think I'm just a one-handed fighter.We'll see, we'll see" He chuckles: "Heh heh, heh, heh. Before the fight I will call on the spirit of my ancestors, who were warriors, and they will be with me. I'm speaking from my heart when I say my destiny will be fulfilled."

Tua enquired politely about Audley Harrison, no doubt thinking of future possible business, though he did not see the Olympic super-heavyweight final on television here because the delayed showing did not fit in with his training schedule.

As a connoisseur of the tonsorial art - his hairstyle, which caused Don King to do a double-take, is the product of constant washing in lemon juice, an old Samoan custom, he says - he would appreciate Har-rison's rainbow plaits, as he does Lewis' dreadlocks. One of them is due a bad hair day.

However, Tua was captivated by Cathy Freeman. "She was awesome, inspirational. I deeply felt what she was going through. I thought a lot about racial problems as a kid growing up in New Zealand, but my parents said, 'Why are you getting worked up? Just concentrate on your boxing'. So that's what I did, but the time will come."

Tua talks of voices in his dreams calling him back to the island, and he says he will return one day, perhaps to go into politics. "People are moving away from their roots, and that's bad. I know I have to go back. Samoa is where my heart is, and perhaps my future, too, I have a beautiful son, aged two and a half, and I want him to grow up there. But right now I have to do what I have to do."

Tua has been compared not only to Frazier, but to Mike Tyson. They fight under the same promotional banner and Tyson professes he is a Tua fan. "David is dangerously underestimated. He will seriously threaten Lewis," Tyson says. "He is angry, mean and hungry. He's got that look in his eye like he's ready to kill someone."

Tua seems surprised by the compliment, and when reminded how the ear-muncher ranted about ripping out Lewis' heart, feeding it to him and eating his children, he grins. "Mike's a gentleman but sometimes he shows his emotion in strange ways."

As it happens, Tua knows rather more than Tyson about man-eating. Long ago his ancestors were cannibals, and Tua says they used to snack on the occasional missionary. On 11 November he plans to have Lewis for breakfast. Or at least make his hair stand on end.