My Story From crime to community and fat to fit
Dave Letele’s incredible life has taken him from footy to failure, crime to community, fat to fit and riches to rags — and back again. Today, he is an award-winning community leader and life coach who, as the face of Buttabean Motivation, helps literally thousands of ordinary people achieve their goals. He provides targeted health and fitness programmes, helps young people find jobs, and runs a foodshare for those in need. But it wasn’t always like that. He has overcome poverty, obesity, intergenerational trauma, depression, the lure of a life of crime and his own demons. Like Dave says, “I’ve been at the bottom and I’ve been at the top, and everywhere in between … If I can do it, you can. No excuses. This is his story.
One morning in March 2014, I woke up and wondered just how the hell I’d got here. I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a one-room sleep-out at a community home in South Auckland, with rapists and drug addicts as my neighbours. I’d borrowed my niece’s bed, but I’d broken it because I was so fat. I weighed over 210 kilograms, and that poor bed just couldn’t take it any more. I knew just how it felt. I was deeply depressed and had just arrived back from Australia, where my life had disintegrated.
It had started well. I’d played rugby league in Australia and overseas and I’d been a successful businessman, owning and running a couple of supermarkets. But I got too ambitious, and I ended up getting involved in something I shouldn’t have to keep the money coming in. I had to hustle to make ends meet, so I went back to the ways I knew growing up. It was a dumb move.
Over just a few short years I went from being a fit rugby league player to a fat shopkeeper, fuelled by pies and fizzy drinks from my store. I was working over a hundred hours a week, trying to stay on top of things. Something had to give.
My relationship with my partner broke down because I was too busy working and didn’t spend enough time with her and our sons. In the end, I had to leave them all behind. I’d gone from having everything I had ever wanted to having nothing. I hated it.
I was really depressed, crying all the time, missing my kids — I hated my life. I had no money, and just the clothes I’d arrived in from Australia. I couldn’t believe the situation I found myself in. I stared up at the ceiling, thinking, This can’t be it. This can’t be my life.
Chapter 1: Becoming the Brown Buttabean
Going from nothing, to having a lot, and back to nothing again was really humbling. I had no idea what I was going to do, and then one of my oldest friends, Dave Higgins, a boxing promoter who owns Duco Events, offered me a lifeline. He wanted to throw me in the boxing ring to give me a goal. He thought it would give me something to train for and help me lose some weight. He wanted to give me a purpose.
I jumped at the chance. I got off that single mattress and I started walking, every day, morning and night. I borrowed a car and drove to One Tree Hill/Maungakiekie in central Auckland and started walking up the road to the summit. I can’t remember how long it took me, but I must have looked a sight, huffing and puffing up that road. At that stage even walking across a room made me wheeze, so you can imagine the sweaty mess I was. But I got up, and I went for a walk. That’s all I did. I just started moving again.
I always encourage anyone who is going through tough times to get outside and take a walk. Exercise is such a great form of therapy. While you’re walking, while you’re exercising, you’re not thinking about anything else. All you’re thinking about is getting up that hill. You’re not thinking about how crap your life is, you’re not thinking about lockdowns, you’re not thinking about paying bills, or school . . . you’re just thinking about getting to that next lamp post or finishing that set. I really want to encourage you to do that.
I trained really hard. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I just got stuck in. Then Dave invited me to go with him and his team from Duco Events to Oberhausen, Germany, for the world heavyweight championship.
DH: Wladimir Klitschko was fighting an Australian–Sāmoan boxer, Alex Leapai, and we managed to negotiate Joseph Parker, who was quite young back then, a spot on the undercard.
I had to go to Germany. David had only just got back to New Zealand, and I remember thinking I really didn’t want to leave him on his own. I thought, Bugger it, why don’t we take him along? But the airfares were so expensive, so I told David he had to fly economy . . . I wasn’t made of money. Lufthansa, we later learned, had very slim economy seats. I didn’t feel sorry for David, I felt sorry for the passengers either side of him in the cabin — he couldn’t really fit in the seats. He spilled over the top like a giant muffin.
I guess going to Germany was something to help him get out of his own head. At the undercard weigh-in, the president of the German Boxing Association was fascinated by David, because he was such a big unit and, to them, a bit exotic. They wanted to weigh him, too.
So, they made a bit of a spectacle of it and put him on the scales. It was one of those old scales with the weights, and it pretty much maxed out straight away. The president said, ‘Oooh — how exciting,’ and the Germans were all amazed. David played it up, like King Kong in New York. It was all good fun, but I’m sure David — part of him — knew he’d become a bit of a spectacle.
It was amazing. They couldn’t get over how fat I was, and they wanted to chuck me on the scales. I wanted to know, too, because all the scales I jumped on just said ERROR, so I didn’t know what I weighed. But I knew I’d lost weight because my clothes were fitting better. When I got on the scales and it said I weighed 178 kilos, I was so happy because I’d been over 200 kilos!
I was so happy I started jumping around, saying, ‘Yeah! Fuck yeah! I’m THE MAN! No one can beat me — I’m the toughest man in the world!’ and everyone was laughing at me. That’s when Dave Higgins had the idea of rolling me out as the next circus act. Duco already had little people fighting, and celebrity fights — they’re what’s known as circus acts — and so I became their next circus act.
DH: Shortly after we came back from Germany, we had Joseph Parker fighting Brian Minto in Manukau, Auckland. I remember thinking, David likes to fight. He’s clearly got a lot of anger in him, and frustration, and he’s a bit of a showman, he’s got good one-liners and the gift of the gab. If I put him on the undercard of this Parker fight, it’ll give him a goal. He’ll have two or three weeks to train, and he’ll be on national TV, so he’ll want to look as good as he can — he’ll train hard. It gave him a goal, the motivation not to disgrace himself on national TV, and some cash in his pocket to send back to his family. That’s how it started.
We found him an opponent, who happened to be Manu Vatuvei’s brother, Lopini. We announced it, and David turned up the volume straight away. He put on a show, calling out Lopini, and the public saw it as a bit of a circus. There was a lot of criticism and sledging, and hatred poured out towards David. His reaction was to give it back and get wound up.
But he did train. He trained the house down — and he must have lost 20 or 30 kilos by then — but he barely won the fight. It was quite comical — at one point he was lying over his opponent like a wrestler, doing the one-two three count. It was funny. Some of the public and boxing community thought he was great entertainment, but most thought he was an idiot and a disgrace to boxing.
It was only three two-minute rounds with headgear and gloves. We’re safety conscious, so when we put people who aren’t professional boxers in the ring, there are certain rules we follow.
The fight served its purpose. He lost some weight. At that time Joseph Parker was fighting every few weeks, so we thought we’d do it again. We lined him up another fight. A lot of this played out publicly on social media, which David was using to promote the fight. And then he lost more weight and developed more haters.
He needed a name. There was a famous American boxer called Butterbean, who fought before Mike Tyson’s fights. He was a white American with a bald head, and he was short, squat and obese. His real name was Eric Esch. He was like a circus act, a comical figure. He’d have two- to three-round fights but he could knock people out. He’d dress in shorts with the American flag on, and he had a cult following. Most people hated him, and some people loved him — he was certainly getting noticed. I don’t know where his name came from.
I think my brother Andrew, David and I were throwing around ring names and we said, ‘Gee, you could be the Brown Butterbean because you’re like Butterbean but you’re brown.’ And it was kinda tongue-in-cheek to begin with.
But he adopted it and adapted the spelling as well. He said, ‘I’m the Brown Buttabean,’ and people would ask, ‘What the hell is that? What does that mean?’ Some people who knew boxing would connect it back to the American Butterbean and others would wonder what was going on.
Not too many people would be able to front such silliness, but David could. Most people would be too squeamish, or embarrassed, but David owned it, and had almost no shame in that respect. Sure enough, fight by fight, the Brown Buttabean developed a larger and larger following, and David kept losing weight.
The whole premise was based on being a wrestling bad guy. Just like The Rock. I just had to be this real bad guy. Say whatever I wanted. Do whatever I wanted. Only speak about myself in the third person . . . so I was a caricature of an arrogant American ‘bad guy’ wrestler.
‘The Buttabean does what he wants, says what he wants, and goes wherever he likes!’
Even in my social media I’d talk about myself in the third person: ‘Don’t ever look at the Buttabean like that! The Buttabean is HUNGRY!’ Dave hooked me up with Mark Bedford, who coached me for the fight. Mark looked after all of Duco’s circus acts and celebrity athletes — especially the league players. We bonded instantly.
I understood that I was playing a character, but it got out of hand. At the press conference for the first fight, everyone was laughing, and we started stirring. I called out South Auckland, which caused a massive reaction, because I was fighting Lopini ‘Horse’ Vatuvei, Manu’s brother. He’d just got out of prison — and he’s a gangster and a feared guy. And here’s me, this big fat guy, with a broad Aussie accent, saying, ‘I’m going to rip your head off and do the world a favour!’
And people here just didn’t get it. But the strange thing is, in the Islands, they got it. They got the humour, but in New Zealand people were private messaging me, saying, ‘We’re going to shoot you on sight’, or ‘You’re a disgrace to our people’. The worst one I got was: ‘We’re going to send you a rope so you can hang your family with it.’
Bear in mind that, at this point, I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a community home sleep-out, completely depressed, without my kids, and hating my life. I basically wanted to die — and on top of this, I was getting this constant hate on social media. It was so bad.
But I just used it as fuel. In my mind I always pictured my kids. My purpose and my ‘why’ was my children. To get them back. To be a better example. That’s all I focused on.
I pictured the last look my son gave me before I left Australia. His face was so sad and he had tears in his eyes. He knew it would be a while before we would see each other again, and I just remembered that look. I remembered how it felt, too, because I’d been there myself. I had some of their clothes with me, and, from time to time, I’d just pick them up and smell them, and that brought the kids immediately back to me. That’s what drove me.
Most nights I would cry myself to sleep. I didn’t have much hope. I didn’t know where I was going. But I was working and exercising, and while I was exercising, I didn’t have to think about how shit my life was. I tried to exercise a lot.
I knew the Brown Buttabean persona was working when I saw how many people were paying to watch me fight. Duco was delighted with the ticket sales and pay-per-views for my fights — because I’d caused such a stir, people wanted to see me get wasted. They kept putting me on shows, and each time I’d have to stir up more controversy. I understood that I had to do really outlandish things — like cause fights and throw chairs or turn up with a massive entourage of people — in order to get on television.
But it wasn’t all that was going on at the time. When I started walking, I set up a Facebook page to record my thoughts. It was like my online diary, and I just recorded what was going on as I trained and walked. People started to follow me, and I kept the page private, because, after the boxing started, the haters came looking, too.
People started getting in touch, asking, ‘Hey, what’s your secret, bro? How come you’re losing weight?’ And I would tell them to come and join me. So that’s why I started my private BBM Facebook page — it was the place where I could vent and just be myself. Everywhere else I was a dick. I played the Brown Buttabean character in and out of the ring. On my other social media, I was never ‘off’ — I was always ‘on’. I had to grow my social media followers, which added value to Duco. They gave me the opportunity, but I made it my own, and went as hard as I could to be that person.
DH: Something fascinating started to happen. Other people who were struggling with weight problems started contacting David on Facebook saying: ‘Hey bro, awesome what you’re doing, man, losing weight. Can I come and train with you?’ or ‘What’s your diet plan?’ or ‘Bro, I weighed what you did. I didn’t think it was possible to come back from that, but you’ve inspired me.’ And then, slowly, fight by fight, although there was still that core group of haters, people started respecting him.
There was a turning point where, by fight six or seven, he’d gotten down to around 150 kilos. People started to respect that he’d done what he said, and he’d turned things around. David was quite generous with his time, so he would often try to help other people by giving advice or studying up on weight loss or mental health — it was all tied together. Eventually, David developed a big following by a section of society that was often forgotten or not catered to — people who had fallen through the cracks. It turned into a movement.
When I started doing the bootcamps, I was living with my father-in-law, and he had a mate who was quite overweight and wanted a hand with training so he could keep up with his dog. We were living out west, so we met at the Trusts Arena,and I thought perhaps someone from our Facebook group would like to come, too. So, I put the call out, and that’s how we started. At the first session we had three people, and since then it’s just morphed into this huge movement. Dave Higgins has been alongside us from the start.
DH: When David started Buttabean Motivation, it really was quite altruistic. Nobody had to pay. It was set up so people could donate a gold coin if they could. He was getting up at all hours, helping people. I remember going along one morning. It was freezing cold, sleeting, at One Tree Hill. There was a person who could hardly walk, and David had his arm around this person, not judging, positively helping them up One Tree Hill. Step by step. It was quite heartwarming. I thought, Wow! It was never planned that way, it just happened.
With Buttabean Motivation I could be myself. I was mentoring people with everything that I’d learned and I was with them on their journey. A lot of the time, I found they didn’t have positive people around them, so that’s why I created BBM, so we could always be surrounded by positivity.
The reason why it’s successful is because what we do works — we see results. Everything I teach has come from my experience. And I know it works because it’s worked for me, and it works for so many others.
With BBM I’m giving people the tools to live a healthy lifestyle, forever. It’s not about doing a short-term challenge, and once that challenge is finished you go back to your old way of living. BBM takes people — who may never have done this type of thing before — through a course, and they are given the tools to be able to maintain that new lifestyle. And whenever people fall off the wagon — because we all do, nobody’s perfect — they use the tools to get back on track.
I want to help as many people as possible. It’s not just about the weight loss. I want to help people get their lives together. From my own experience, obesity and depression all come from something. And I find when we fix these things, and start living a healthy lifestyle, then everything else falls into place. That’s my goal — for BBM to be everywhere and to help as many people as possible.
To be able to help one person change their life is amazing. But when you’re able to do that for thousands, that’s an unreal feeling. That’s my motivation every day. I wake up and I think of my family, and then I think of others. I think that if I’m helping one person, I’m not just helping them, I’m helping their family, too.
Sometimes I think about all the people who would be going hungry now, or who would have passed away from diabetes or other preventable diseases if I had given up back in 2014. It’s a really sobering thought. Since then, so many people have taken that first step on their journey to health.
Sometimes it feels like you can’t change anything in your life to make it better, but you can. And sometimes it’s as simple as going for a walk. It can do wonders for you — mentally and physically.
Hope you enjoyed this preview. Borrow a copy from your nearest library, treat yourself and buy a copy from your local bookshop or gift it to somebody special.