Despite twice missing out on the pinnacle of his sport, Emmett Gradwell has no regrets about his boxing career.
The five-time New Zealand boxing champion will return to the town where it all began next month to be inducted into the Waitaki Boys’ High School Sports Hall of Fame.
Gradwell, who left Waitaki Boys’ in 1994, started boxing when he was 8 years old.
His father found him a boxing coach, Ave Luxon, and Gradwell immediately took to the sport, winning his first New Zealand title at age 12.
“Ave really looked after, and cared for, his boxers. I would not have achieved what I have done without him,” Gradwell said.
“His emphasis was always on defence, protecting yourself at all times moving in and out of the danger zone.”
A talented all-round sportsman, representing Waitaki Boys’ at athletics, rugby and cricket, Gradwell became the youngest member of the New Zealand senior boxing team, at age 17.
“The school had a good balance between study and extracurricular activities.
“Other than the many good friendships I formed with other students, my personal highlight was being the top academic physical education student in my last year.”
After leaving Waitaki Boys’ and moving to Dunedin to study at the Sports Institute of Otago, Gradwell overcame a broken jaw and the death of his long-time coach Luxon to become the first boxer to win titles at the South Island and North Island Golden Gloves and be awarded the most scientific boxer (overall fighter of the tournament) at both events.
In 1998, Gradwell moved to Auckland to study exercise science and sports management, continuing boxing under the tutelage of Dr John McKay.
That year, he beat several Commonwealth Games boxers to become the New Zealand welterweight champion, and was awarded the prestigious Jamieson Belt, for the most scientific boxer at the New Zealand Boxing Championships.
Looming large was the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but Gradwell lost his fight in the qualifying tournament to a two-time Australian Olympian.
“The thing with boxing is there is only one tournament you must win to qualify for the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games.
“It is a bit hard to get past. I should really have been there.”
The loss came as a shock to Gradwell and he stopped boxing for three years.
“At the time I thought nothing would beat the Sydney Olympics, so I left my job in a gym and ended up in a bank.”
Gradwell still works in finance but, with a sense of unfinished business, he got back into the ring and became the number one New Zealand middleweight going into the qualifying tournament for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
Again, the luck of the draw did not go Gradwell’s way.
“I was the only boxer out of 125 that had to fight four times.”
He lost the final on a points decision to a fighter he had beaten two months earlier.
“It was just unfortunate it came down to that, but I have no regrets.
“It is subjective and sometimes you just don’t get the decision.”
Gradwell now lives in Tauranga with his family.
“I’m bringing my oldest son, who is 8, the same age when I was when I got into boxing.
“He is a sports nut, so I want to show him that environment.”