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Doug Robinson: From Tonga to the NFL: Vai Sikahema beating the odds

Ex-Cougar fights through life to honor grandfather’s legacy

Published: Friday, Oct. 8 2010 7:11 p.m. MDT

Former BYU football player Vai Sikahema looks out and reminisces at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

First in a three-part series

Vai Sikahema tried to warn him. An agent representing Jose Canseco, the former Major League Baseball slugger, called to propose a boxing match between Sikahema and Canseco. Sikahema, the BYU graduate and former professional football player who is now a popular TV sportscaster in Philadelphia, thought the fight was a bad idea.

"You called the wrong guy," Sikahema told the agent. "He's got no chance."

This was the summer of 2008. Sikahema was 45 years old by then and hadn't played football in 15 years or boxed in 31 years. Canseco, famous for home runs, his bodybuilder physique and his admitted use of steroids, was a year younger and much bigger and still trying to hang onto his baseball career in the bush leagues. Divorces and legal issues had beset him with financial difficulties, which is why he turned to boxing.

"You don't want to do this," Sikahema continued. "Canseco is going to be in trouble."

The agent was surprised. How big are you, he asked?

"5-8. 200."

"Well, Canseco is 6-4, 250."

"I'm telling you he's in trouble. Does he know what a Tongan is?"

"No."

"Well, he'll find out. I come from a warrior culture and we fight till one of us is lying on the ground. I grew up boxing."

"Canseco has five black belts."

"OK, we'll see."

Canseco and his backers didn't know that boxing was the reason Sikahema had come to this country in the first place. They didn't know that his father had brought his family from Tonga to live in a hellish hot garage in Arizona so he could train his son to be a fighter. They didn't know that he spent his youth boxing around the West, living out of the back of a pickup truck, and that he might have fulfilled his father's plans for him if he hadn't discovered something better. There was one other thing they didn't know: His father had trained him specifically to fight big men, because he knew all his opponents would be bigger than his son. He had been taught to weather blows to get inside, then pummel the body and unload that left hook.

The fight was arranged for Atlantic City. The Philly media jumped on it. Channel 10 — Sikahema's employer — ran special half-hour programs on the bout. Sikahema knew a defeat would risk his considerable popularity in a fight town like Philly, but he wasn't worried. If he appeared overmatched to most observers, his victory would be considered that much better. As a local leader of the Mormon church, he was more worried about how the fight would be perceived by fellow church members than by Canseco.

"This guy is big and a bruiser," Sikahema's cousin, Danny Humphrey, told him. "If you go out there and get beat up, it's bad. There's your TV career and your position in the (church) stake presidency. What will it be like if you show up at church with black eyes?"

"I'm not worried about winning," said Sikahema. "I just want to make sure it's the right message to send to the youth of our church."

Humphrey sounded another warning in the locker room before the fight — "Vai, this guy is huge. All he needs is to hit you with one punch."

"He's not going to touch this face," said Sikahema.

Canseco went down the first time just 30 seconds into the fight. Sikahema burrowed in close, dropped low and came up with a hard left hook that had all of his weight behind it. Canseco went down the second time with an overhand right and stayed down. The fight had lasted 1 minute, 37 seconds.

Sikahema donated $5,000 of his winnings to the family of a slain police officer.

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