January 12th, 2013
Gangs, Prison, and Redemption
Sports, even ones that includes hand-to-hand combat, provide an escape route for those who have nowhere to go. This is the journey of one man, from gang life to prison and addiction, and how it led to his salvation in becoming a Muay Thai champion with a promising MMA career.
Pane Haraki grew up in Hastings, New Zealand and when you meet him, it’s tough to see how he could have a wicked bone in his body. By all accounts, a sincere and generous person, it has taken years of prison time and several other factors to get him where he is today.
Someone who liked school growing up and had the encouragement of teachers, Haraki longed for a career in professional rugby – his first love. Playing both rugby union and rugby league, he saw his friends getting professional contracts and knew he could do it.
But the gang life was too much.
“My dad was the president of a gang for 30 years, so for the majority of my life my dad was the leader of a gang,” Haraki says, “I walked around with a chip on my shoulder.”
Since the age of 17, Haraki had been in jail every year of his life until he was 23– all for burglaries or assaults. Each time, he would do a stint for a few months or weeks and get right back into the gang.
“We had our gang that would go around and fight other gangs, do drugs, steal cars, rob people – just all the bad stuff,” Haraki admits.
Even with all of this going on, the big Maori doesn’t blame anyone. When your father is the leader of a gang, it becomes your family. His three uncles, countless cousins, as well as Haraki’s own brother were all hooked.
“Dad would drop us off at school in custom hot rods. The whole school would come out and watch him drop us off at school,” Haraki says with a smile, remembering a time when his father was his hero. That was a long time ago.
At 23 years-old, Haraki’s father came up to him and his uncle for help. The job was simple, go and beat someone up – though no one told Haraki.
“A girl (my father) had been seeing for years was seeing another guy. We basically beat him up. My dad never told me what we were going to do so I felt a little bit tricked,” he says, “It was basically over a woman.”
With all three men in police custody, it took three months until their sentencing. His father and uncle were sentenced to three months and were basically let out the day they were sentenced.
But they made an example of Haraki due to his father’s prestige in the gang. Haraki was originally sentenced to three years which he cut down to two years and four months on appeal.
Haraki ended up serving 18 months, spending two birthdays in prison.
“I sort of lost respect for my dad since then. I never really trusted him after that,” Haraki says, “I was bitter, but in saying that I was more dissappointed in myself.”
While in prison he met a man in jail from a biker club in Auckland who was also a former heavyweight Muay Thai champion in New Zealand. The two became friends and, upon Haraki’s release, went to Auckland for work.
“When I went out (to Auckland) he showed me a different world of the bike club scene,” Haraki says, “I didn’t join them, but just hung out a lot with them.”
When word of his association with a biker club got back to Hastings, life became a bit worrying for Haraki. Whenever he came back home, trouble wouldn’t be far away.
“I thought I needed to protect myself so I went to this local gym and started training muay thai,” Haraki says. After a year, at the age of 26, Haraki would fight in his first professional bout – winning his first two via knockout.
After five fights, Haraki switched gyms and went back to Auckland to feed his addiction to Muay Thai and something else.
Back in Auckland, on one of the first nights after he was released from prison, he was sitting around a table of some of the biggest drug dealers in New Zealand as a joint laced with methamphetamine was passed around.
“My mate said to me ‘you don’t want to do this’. Then it came to me again and I thought ‘why not?’ so I did it,” Haraki recalls. This moment led to an addiciton that would last until he was 30-years-old.
From the looks of things, everything was going well. Haraki was starting to pull himself away from the gang life, training full-time in Muay Thai and fighting professionaly. He even had a job that, admittedly did not pay much, but was enough for him to get him off the streets and into a home by himself.
But he had developed a bad addiction to meth and things were about to get worse.
Two weeks after his daughter Acacia was born, and shortly after his 30th birthday, Haraki was sent back to prison on an assault charge. The beginning of his sentence was the roughest, as the withdrawals of his meth addiction and the fact that he left his little girl weighed on him.
“In the cell I felt that I was going to commit suicide and I knew from then on that I could never do drugs again because they were going to kill me. Few people know how it feels to be truly hopeless,” Haraki says.
Amongst the bars and his small cot, Haraki began the process of forgiving himself of his past, reflecting on his mistakes, and even began reading the bible – from front to back – in about eight months. Something that he feels gave him strength during his prison sentence.
When Haraki was released from prison for what would be the final time, he refocused his efforts on school and his fight career. He moved back to the Hastings – Napier area and began training Muay Thai heavily. All the while working odd jobs and training others to make ends meet to support his baby daughter.
Haraki fought several times, amassing an 11-5 Muay Thai recording New Zealand and eventually winning a Heavyweight Championship title in 2012. His past would sometimes rear it’s ugly head, like when he was denied entry into Australia to compete because of lied about his jail record.
Still, Haraki enrolled in a university to get his diploma and become a fitness instructor and strength and conditioning coach, possibly for rugby players and other fighters. He was studying at the local library when he got a text that would change things once again.
His father had been battling heart cancer for some time, and a triple bypass surgery was not enough to save him. Haraki was setting up funeral arrangement when he got into an argument with his brother that turned into a full scale fistfight in his father’s house.
“When (my father) was sick my brother never went to see him, not once,” Haraki, who broke his finger in the fight, says. “ This was really heated because I think he had been drinking heavily, dad had just passed away.”
After the funeral, Haraki could not strike as easily with his broken finger and switched over to MMA to learn the ground game and takedowns. His rugby skills came in handy and soon he had several fights lined up in the new sport.
With a 3-2 MMA record and several Muay Thai fights around the world, Haraki was able to attain an AMCO title at Bangla Boxing Stadium in Phuket, Thailand.
Haraki tried out for the MMA team at Tiger Muay Thai & MMA Training Camp Phuket, Thailand and, although was not picked up, still has a promising future training with several of the other athletes who competed.
“It’s been a real privilege to be chosen to take part in the scholarship, trianing with Roger Huerta, Brian Ebersole, Fernando, good coaches that got good experience and really nice guys. I know I’ve always got a home at Tiger,” he says.
Haraki believes he is destined to do two things in life other than fight: 1) own a gym, 2) help others get out of the gang life, especially youth.
For now, he is focused on his fight career and providing for his daughter back in New Zealand.
“Surround yourself with good people. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everything you go through, there is always a reason and way to come down that path, never give up on your dreams and hopes,” he says.