MMA: Former rugby prospect John Brewin finds fulfilment in cage

John Brewin was heading down a path well-trodden by many promising young Kiwi sportsmen before him.

A schoolboy rugby stand-out off the back of the scrum for Auckland's Kings College first XV, he'd worked his way up the rugby rankings to U21 representative roles with Auckland and had his sights set on a spot on the province's 'B' squad, as a stepping stone into the first-class team.

Alongside that athletic prowess came the natural academic gifts you might expect from the son of a principal and a senior researcher. Brewin had translated those into a scholarship to Auckland University, undertaking a Bachelor's degree in Maori studies and criminology.

While the situation seemed ideal on the surface, Brewin was living in a "safety net" that he started to realise was holding him back. At the same time, he was slipping into an unwelcome stereotype.

"I was just a full-on, boofhead, meathead rugby player," Brewin told Newshub. "Just lift weights and drink piss and eat shit.

"Hang with my boys and get into fights on the weekends on a Saturday night - that was my lifestyle."

Training part-time at Auckland MMA, he decided to turn his part-time love affair with martial arts into a full-blown passion, building on the natural instincts gained from a lifetime of rugby.

"I'd always watch combat sports and thought 'this is the realest competition, this is what it's all about'. Even when I was playing rugby, I'd think I want to be the most physical, the most masculine, the most dominating player.

"The repetitions of physical contact, aggression, adrenaline. I've done kapa haka my whole life and every single time I walked out to do that or rugby, I was fully going to war."

Abandoning both an enrolment in a Masters programme and a well-paid corporate job, Brewin sought to discover riches elsewhere in life and to find that special fulfilment that comes with living outside of your comfort zone.

"Things would come easy to me in weird ways, almost to the point where it undermined my belief in hard work and the value of it. I wasn't grinding, pushing, breaking down walls, getting through plateaus and making sacrifices.

"I could pass all my uni papers without putting my best foot forward at all. I didn't get a sense of accomplishment from it because of that."

Brewin was a star at Auckland's King College.
Brewin was a star at Auckland's King College. Photo credit: Getty

Fast-forward five years and Brewin has found that feeling as a professional mixed martial arts fighter, after recently penning a multi-fight deal with Brave FC - a young, but rapidly-rising Middle East-based promotion.

The rangey stand-up specialist has made an encouraging 4-1 start to his career, including two emphatic knock-outs and a Fight-of-the-Night performance in his lone decision loss.

On Friday, he'll look to claim another scalp in Manila, where he squares off with Irishman Cian Cowley, a sparring partner and accomplice of Conor McGregor during his infamous bus attack in October 2018.

The turning point for Brewin's career about-face came in 2017. What began as a Thailand holiday ended in a month-long stint at Bali MMA Indonesia. 

Auckland MMA teammate and NZ ONE Championship lightweight contender Ev Ting had asked for his help preparing and cornering him for an upcoming title fight in Malaysia.

MMA: Former rugby prospect John Brewin finds fulfilment in cage

Learning under Kiwi striking coach Mike Ikilei at Bali MMA - one of Asia's most renowned martial arts hotbeds -  Brewin was able to see first-hand the dedication that full-time professional fighting required.

"I saw the guys in Kuala Lumpur and how they got ready, but now I'm training with them and actually seeing how they're living. That's when I started making plans to actually make that my lifestyle.

"I saw some guys who I knew my training partners back home could beat and I could beat these guys".

That led to an invitation from Ikilei to relocate to Bali, which he promptly accepted. Now living and training in paradise, Brewin has wholeheartedly committed to his dream, and the lessons from the uncertain existence of a fighter trying to prove himself have come thick and fast.

"You can try to figure out a path to financial security, but there's really no way to game the system like that. It's all out of your control.

"The only thing you can do is just go in as hard as you possibly can in whatever you're doing and you'll figure out a smart way eventually.

"I don't even think I was fighting for myself 100 percent until I turned pro and it was like, 'this is me now. I need to get this money or I'm not going to eat'."

That meant taking risks like flying to Australia for a one-off bout, where a win bonus would barely cover his airfare.

MMA: Former rugby prospect John Brewin finds fulfilment in cage
Photo credit: Supplied

Now, with the relative security of a four-fight contract signed and sealed, Brewin wants to build a platform that allows him to show others the values those experiences taught him.

"If you do it and you really believe in yourself, then it's going to work out. There's nothing that's taught me that more than fighting.

"That's what opened my eyes and taught me this massive lesson. I had all this doubt in my head, but it was the doubt that comes with not giving 100 percent to things, because there's a safety net in not giving 100 percent to things.

"But that's when you get the most out of life - when you put yourself into those challenging situations."

Still passionate about the plight of the more marginalised sections of society from his days as Pacific and Māori youth mentor, Brewin wants to see combat sports more readily available as an outlet for troubled youth.

He believes it's an ideal means for violent at-risk teens to re-wire those tendencies.

MMA: Former rugby prospect John Brewin finds fulfilment in cage

"Māori and Polynesian people are so undersold in combat sports - the natural talent that lies in some of these communities is just ridiculous. The funding and the institutional support just isn't there.

"You would affect so many more people, if you went into some of these communities and directed them towards it, as opposed to forcing them into school programmes."

Brewin may be in his infancy as a professional fighter, but he's proof that not all lessons are learned in a classroom or lecture theatre. Just 25 years old, his best is still years away.

"These last couple of years in MMA have taught me more than my whole life. I don't think I've accomplished massive things in this sport - I'm just in a really good place."

"I really want to see how far this self-belief and drive and 100 percent commitment and mentality can take me, represent New Zealand and Māori fighters the best that I can."


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