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Smiling Assassin gunning for WBO world title

Te Arani Moana Daniels (aka Lani) might just about be the least likely person to seek fame and potentially fortune by punching people in the face.

A mental health nurse and church youth leader, whose first reaction to conflict is to seek to calm things down and walk away, the bespectacled Daniels doesn’t exactly project as a physical threat.

Beware of appearances – and the quiet, slightly shy types, is the message there. Because Daniels is, in fact, a two-belt New Zealand professional boxing champion who, on March 30, will be one of two Kiwis attempting to emulate Joseph Parker and claim a WBO world boxing title.

Daniels doesn’t go by the moniker 'The Smiling Assassin' for nothing.

She might be ridiculously nice for a boxer, but the 30-year-old, who got into boxing to lose weight, doesn’t lack confidence. Of her shot at the vacant WBO light heavyweight title against the rugged expat Brazilian Geovana Peres – a fighter who beat her by split decision over 10 hotly contested rounds last March – she says: “I will win.”

That isn’t arrogance, she is quick to point out.

“You have to think like that. Any form of doubt going in there and you probably lose,” she says.

Daniels’ confidence may be well-founded. Having linked with top Auckland trainer John ‘The Rebel’ Conway, she is receiving first-class boxing instruction for the first time. And she has also got truly into the condition required to sustain an assault for a 10-round title fight.

The last time the pair met in the ring, Daniels was, she admits, happy just to have survived the distance.

“I’d never been conditioned as such. I’d relied on natural ability to get through.”

It was that ability that drew her to Conway – or vice versa. While helping out with some coaching at a friend’s gym in Moerewa, Conway met Daniels’ cousin Taysha Kingi

“You should see my cousin fight,” Kingi insisted.

It was the sort of story Conway has heard a million times if he’s heard it once: the super-talented relative or mate he just had to check out.

In Daniels’ case, the tip was spot on. Conway travelled to Whangarei to watch Daniels fight against the former WBA No. 1 contender Perez. When he arrived, Daniels asked if he would wrap her hands for the bout.

“That’s when it dawned on me that she didn’t really have a proper trainer as such,” Conway says.

“She pretty much had no coach, no tactics and no conditioning. For her to have got as far as she had was quite incredible. You could see the X-factor there. The potential was huge.”

Geovana Peres (left) defeated Lani Daniels by split decision over 10 rounds when the pair first met a year ago. Photo: supplied

If Daniels was a little rough around the edges as a boxer, it is perhaps no real surprise.

The 30-year-old hails the tiny Northland townlet of Pipiwai - a predominantly Māori marae-based community 38 kilometres southeast of Whangarei.

Inspired by her sister (Daniels is the sixth in a family of nine kids) taking on a corporate bout to raise money for prostate cancer awareness, she got into boxing to lose weight.

“I could see the benefits it had in her life. I wanted to jump on her boat,” Daniels says.

Her father, Mike, a retired forestry worker, built a small gym on the family property that has now become a hub for a boxing-mad community. There are plenty of armchair experts around, but not so many top-quality coaches.

“They are excited about it and they offer you advice. I have heaps of those: ‘You need to go and knock her out in the first round’,” laughs Daniels.

In Pipiwai there’s a school up to intermediate, a chapel and marae. And that’s about it.

“Everyone is whānau pretty much. It's quite cool. Everyone knows everyone,” says Daniels.

The nearest shop is 20 minutes away – and that’s a service station.

“It is in the wops, kind of. We back onto the bush. Pretty much every night this week people have come up to go possum hunting out the back. We just make our own fun, really. Build huts," Daniels says.

“It’s a cool-as lifestyle. No shops. So you have to make sure you get stuff in town. And you learn to make do with what you have got.”

Like her sister Caroline (also a boxer) and mother, Agnes, Daniels is a nurse, specialising in children’s mental health.

If that sounds like a potentially draining, tough occupation, Daniels sure doesn’t see it that way.

“Not really. I love it. It is just being there for the kids to have someone to trust and talk to, to be able to speak about what they are going through. I have heaps of fun with my kids," she says.

“Sometimes I don’t even feel like I am a nurse. I think it's about being a person first and building that connection.”

She doubles down as church youth leader, running mid-week activities for young girls.

“They just love it. And they inspire me as much as I inspire them.”

So there you have it – by week, pretty much a saint. But, come Thursday evening, Daniels will be on the road down to Auckland, preparing for a Friday-Sunday stretch of schooling up in the noble art of punching people.

“That took a while to get used to, mentally,” she admits. “But it is part of it and it is something I want to do. I guess it's about achieving my goal, putting my mind to something and following through." 

Put simply, boxing is a sport.

“I look at it like that as opposed to ‘I am hurting someone’.”

Her opponents, she says, “are on the same page”.

“They are trying to take my head off just as much. We enter [the ring] knowing the risks. It is not like I am going to get into it with someone on the street. I would never, ever… if I am confronted with any form of conflict, my first thing is to try to settle and be okay and walk away.”

It may be a cliché but it is also true that, of all sports, boxing has perhaps the greatest potential to transform lives.

If she wins on March 30, Daniels will join a select group of Kiwis to have claimed a bona-fide boxing world title. The WBO title she and Peres are fighting for is the equivalent belt to that claimed by Joseph Parker in his historic victory over Andy Ruiz in Auckland in 2017.

Parker sent her a text wishing her luck for her training. She didn’t reply because she thought it was a practical joke being played by her cousins.

“He is cool,” she says of Parker – recalling that she once stopped in at a Burger King to get an autograph from him.

“To think that I am fighting at the same level doesn’t seem real. He is still way up there. But he is choice.”

The list of WBO men’s champions is a who’s who of boxing royalty: Anthony Joshua, Oleksandr Usyk, Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko.

In less than a month, barring a draw, either the name Daniels or Peres will be on that list. The opportunities that would come with that – including title defences against the best female boxers on the planet – is not something she has given much thought.

“I’m just keeping my eyes on the 30th of March," she says. “It’s about mindfulness, staying in the moment.”

The people of Pipiwai, though, aren’t required to show any such restraint. Excitement is building. Daniels expects well over 50 whānau to travel down for the fight at Auckland’s SKY CITY ballroom.

“I’ve got huge whānau support. They are just so proud.”

The event’s promoter, Bruce Glozier, arrives near the end of this interview carrying the sparkling WBO title belt in a display case.

Daniels’ first impressions: “It’s pink! And it is little.”

Is she tempted to try it on for size?

“I’ll wait to March 30 and put it on then,” she says.

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