For more than a decade, boxing was everything Orange southpaw Sam Ah-See knew.
Seemingly a world champion-in-waiting, from the outside he always seemed invincible and his career looked like it was only going one way - up.
Then, Ah-See sent shockwaves through the community, abruptly announcing his retirement from the sport just weeks before an Australasian title fight.
Ah-See’s story, and decision, is filled with physical, mental and financial battles.
It’s a tale riddled with insecurity, tragedy, manipulation, dazzling highs and debilitating lows.
But it’s also one that ends on a positive note, with a decision he thinks can have a positive impact on the boxing and wider communities.
Together with Central Western Daily sports reporter Matt Findlay, Ah-See candidly tells his story.
As a fighter, Sam Ah-See is everything you’d expect him to be but so much more at the same time.
Prodigiously talented bordering on freakish with almost unbelievable speed at his disposal, the 26-year-old was branded one of Australia’s next big things from an early age.
He always had the record to back it up too.
He embodied the egotistical, supremely confident aura – which sometimes bordered on arrogance – seen so often through history, all of the world’s best had it. Even Ali, he had swimming pools full of it.
But that’s not really Sam Ah-See.
It was a show, a persona, one which every fighter needs to make it to the top. One which your author has seen so often during pre and post-fight coverage.
The real Sam Ah-See is the one you see outside the ring. The caring, selfless, fiercely loyal and proudly Indigenous man. That’s the side you’d see when the gloves came off, if you ran into him down the street or at the pub.
A genuine person who would always take the time of day to find out how you were, and what was going on. An intensely likable person, who relished his standing as a role model in the community.
The two couldn't be further apart.
For so long the 26-year-old was Sam Ah-See the boxer, and the game wore thin on him.
So much so, he retired.
That decision is one he didn’t come to lightly. He battled hard with it but ultimately chose devotion to his family and a future outside the ring over the elusive chance at a world title.
For Ah-See, it was a no-brainer.
“In a nutshell, I grew up and started seeing clearly. Basically I came to the realisation that I wasn’t going to make a living from boxing,” he explained.
“In my career I had nothing to show [from the hard work]. To make a living from boxing you have to be great. I’m not great. I know I was good, very talented and had potential but I lacked something.
“If I was as good as people were saying I was, I would’ve had financial backing from sponsors willing to invest in me, but I didn’t.
“The fact of the matter could’ve been, maybe I just wasn’t good enough. maybe people saw something that made them realise they didn’t want to invest in me.
“It’s just as simple as that. It didn’t happen for me and I’m okay with it, but I couldn’t waste my time with the sport any more.
“I’m 26 years old, back living with my mum and I have a five-year-old daughter to support, the clock is ticking and I need to invest my time into something where I can get a return. I didn’t feel it was coming from boxing.”
But to truly grasp everything which pushed Ah-See to call time on his glittering, undefeated career, you need to head all the way back to 2010 – the year he turned professional.
In a decorated amateur career Ah-See finished with a 73-9 record and claimed a number of NSW and Australian belts along the way, winning more medals and awards here and overseas than you could poke a stick at.
He represented his country at the Commonwealth Youth Games and Amateur International Boxing Association World Junior Boxing Championships – both in 2008 – earned a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport and was named Orange’s junior sportsperson of the year as well.
Then in 2010, aged 19, he turned professional, kick-starting his career with a knockout win over 37-year-old journeyman Frank Droulias. That bout lasted just 88 seconds, a trend which continued through Ah-See’s next two fights.
He followed his debut win by knocking out Shawn Martin in his first main event bout and then floored Mhelvin Hernandez too.
Both those knockouts came in the first round, the second of which was on the undercard for Danny Green’s International Boxing Organisation (IBO) cruiserweight world title fight against BJ Flores.
His fourth fight, on one of Anthony Mundine’s undercards, became the only blot on his professional record after it ended in a draw. He and Indonesian opponent Aswin Cabuy had a sickening head clash in the third round and it was called.
It came after several sparring sessions with Mundine himself, which Ah-See labelled “a blessing and a curse” at the time because it allowed him to get used to an orthodox opponent.
Aswin is a southpaw.
Ah-See didn’t make any mistake when the two met in a rematch four months later, in February of 2012, claiming a unanimous points decision to continue his undefeated run.
By this point, Ah-See had also taken on Mick Akkaway as a trainer. He started his career with Jake Kenney.
Later in 2012 he scored TKO wins over Alex Ah Tong and Mike Wanprasert and then took down Filipino Joel Dela Cruz in early 2013 in a third successive technical knockout.
Ah-See labelled the Dela Cruz win the most impressive of his career until that point, considering the Filipino brawler had previously gone toe-to-toe with Lenny Zappavigna, a former IBO lightweight world champion.
Following that win, negotiations for a national title shot against Shannon ‘Shaggy’ King kicked off.
He was forced to take two more bouts before that fight happened though, knocking off Arnel Tinampay for the first time at Dubbo in September 2013 and then demolishing New Zealand journeyman Daniel Maxwell in November, despite having an injured hand and bruised ribs too.
A month later his title bout against King was confirmed, the Brisbane-based Australian National Boxing Federation champion agreed to fight in Orange too.
The title bout was confirmed for Friday, February 21 at Orange Function Centre.
THE COVETED TITLE WIN
The fire was stoked early, with King saying, bluntly, “I don’t even know what [Ah-See] looks like, nor do I care ... I’m coming [to Orange] to knock him out”.
It was a fierce verbal battle, with Ah-See suggesting King was “as slow as a sloth”.
Although he didn’t complete his goal of stopping King, Ah-See did win to become just the second man to win an Australian title fight in Orange after Billy Moeller – a boxer to whom many drew comparisons with Ah-See.
In an absorbing battle in front of a packed Orange Function Centre crowd, Ah-See withstood the brutal power of King to win over two-thirds of the judging panel 93-97, 97-94 and 96-92.
"It's been years in the making," Ah-See said at the time.
"It'll go down in history. I'm really happy."
WATCH: The highlights from Ah-See’s national title victory over Shannon King in Orange
The previously-undefeated King wasn’t entirely pleased with the decision, especially being awarded an eight-count in the bout, but said he was happy for Ah-See.
What wasn’t revealed was that Ah-See’s share of the purse for that fight was just $4,000. He’d made next to nothing since he turned professional, a trend that would continue right up until he retired.
“I never fought for the money, my biggest pay was $5,000,” Ah-See clarified.
“I fought because I felt I could beat anyone. But I had to be smart, I have mouths to feed, I have a daughter.
“I wasn’t making money and I wasn’t business-savvy, I was a yes man. I never argued about a purse, I always took the first offer.
“No one cares about Australian boxing, it’s a dying sport, all we care about is football unless you’re Mundine or Green. That’s just how it is, there’s no money, no support.
“The mainstream media don’t do enough, ask any average person to name two Aussie boxers and they’ll say Mundine and Green.
“As the old saying goes, ‘it’s about the bigger picture’. Time was ticking and next minute I was 25, back living at my parents’ with nothing. It was a slap in the face, and my desire to keep my career in the ring was fading.”
THE SUCCESS CONTINUES
Despite the reservations Ah-See took an incredible opportunity, and headed to Los Angeles for the first time following the win, to work with Justin Fortune – one of Manny Pacquiao’s coaches – then thumped the previously-undefeated Mike Esgandari in Melbourne upon returning.
He took Amor Tino down four months later, in October 2014, despite being knocked down in the second round.
Then, once again in Orange, Ah-See faced Tinampay for the second time, ultimately his last fight before Saturday’s shock retirement.
After heading to Fortune’s gym for the second time in February of 2015 – where the world-renowned trainer labelled him the best young talent in Australia – Ah-See’s camp confirmed the Tinampay rematch for July, a much-coveted one for the Filipino.
Since Ah-See’s split decision win in 2013 Tinampay had been gunning for the Orange southpaw. Tinampay was desperate to knock him out.
Prior to the fight Ah-See had sparred Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez in America – who at the time had only lost to Floyd Mayweather – and returned in the best shape of his life and with new trainer Lincoln Hudson on board too.
In short, Ah-See won the fight easily, taking control early and never letting to go to win 80-72, 78-76, 78-73, unanimously.
But, it was revealed shortly after he shouldn’t have even been fighting, he’d broken his hand the week before. Hudson revealed “if the fight wasn’t in Orange we would’ve pulled the pin”.
Not long after, he was inducted into the Orange Sporting Hall of Fame.
WATCH: Ah-See speaks immediately after being inducted into the Orange Sporting Hall of Fame
Unbeknownst to anyone but him, that broken hand was one of the catalysts for Ah-See’s lengthy battle, physically and mentally.
THE STRUGGLE AND THE TRAGEDY
If you look carefully, you’ll notice a serious decline Ah-See’s career. Not in the ring, no, he just kept getting better there.
But the fights dried up.
Ah-see never had any issues getting fights in the early stages of his career, there was always journeymen and fellow up-and-comers willing to test themselves against him.
But after claiming an Australian title, something the average punter would think would catapult his career into the stratosphere, Ah-See found it tougher and tougher to get into the ring.
“If you can’t sell tickets you can’t get a fight. Why would a promoter put you on if he’s going to lose money?” Ah-See asked, rhetorically.
“That’s why I was never active. The budget for an average fight for me was around $5,000. If I couldn’t find $5,000 worth of ticket sales I couldn’t fight.
“I’m from Orange, that’s where my supporters are, I don’t know enough people in Sydney to sell that many tickets.
“When I fought in Orange it was great because the tickets sell in Orange, but in Sydney, a lot of the time I’d basically just be asking people for money.
“That’s not me, it’s not in my make-up. I hate asking people for anything.
“You could have an investor who’s willing to cover those costs, but I never had that. So a lot of the time, I went without fights.”
After the Tinampay rematch, that magnified.
Ah-See was supposed to fight in February of 2016, but it was cancelled.
Just after the fight in February was cancelled, Ah-See’s close friend Terry Brown went missing on the north coast, eventually the search was called off.
Brown’s death hit Ah-See hard.
He hadn’t fought in over a year, he was struggling financially and also dealing with the death of one of his best friends.
But he’d already been battling with the idea of hopping back in the ring long before those setbacks, before the Tinampay rematch in fact.
The now 26-year-old had suffered “uncomfortable emotions” leading into that fight, but pushed ahead and put the emotions down to “pressure, nerves and confusion”
“After the (Tinampay) fight I wasn't complaining too much that I had a broken hand because I knew deep down I wasn't 100 per cent keen on jumping back in the ring anyway, I had a few things going on in my head that I wasn’t sure about,” Ah-See explained.
“The [February 2016] fight got cancelled, this time in the preparation I didn't experience any uncomfortable emotions. I was actually excited for this fight, truly happy, and when the fight got cancelled I cried, but in a weird way I didn't really care either, which doesn’t make sense I know.
“I tried to get a fight even though by this stage I couldn't really be bothered, which again doesn’t make sense, but I think I was just disappointed from the first fight being cancelled and that I was over dieting, it's hard to keep motivated for a fight without an actual fight.
“I didn't end up getting another fight.”
By this stage, Ah-See’s financial struggles and disillusionment with the sport had pushed him to the brink.
He’d started questioning everything, whether the time and effort he was putting into his dream of a world title was genuinely worth it.
“I was living in Sydney, on the dole, delivering pizzas two nights a week,” he explained.
“I’ve done the maths. You could work at McDonald’s five days a week and eight hours a day for one year and you’d make as much as I did in (the last) five years boxing.
“(The praise), I lapped all that shit up for years until now but reality kicks in, life slaps you in the face and you mature. You see the bigger picture, you see what life is really about.
“Money ain’t everything, but try living on the dole for four years delivering pizzas two nights a week … with a five-year-old daughter. When friends ask you to go out for dinner, you can’t afford it. They want to go and have a few drinks you have to say ‘nah, I’m in training’.
“You know how many Christmases I missed out on? How many birthdays, lunches, dinners, coffees, everything. I missed out on quality time with family and friends.
“I still had this desire, this drive to be someone and do something but I lived in a cloud of doubt.
“You’re 26, still on the dole, your car’s breaking down and you can’t afford to fix it but you’ve got everyone in your ear saying ‘you’re going to be a world champion, you’re going to be a world champion’. Am I?
“When I’d go into camp I’d stop talking to people, I cut people out. That’s what I had to do, separate myself and go into the zone. I spent three years doing that for very little, because people had laid these expectations on me and told me [I could do anything].
“Don’t get me wrong, all the pats on the back are good when you’re an insecure, sensitive, shy, no confidence teenager with a pimply face.
“(The praise), I lapped all that shit up for years until now but reality kicks in, life slaps you in the face and you mature. You see the bigger picture, you see what life is really about.
“So one night I left the place that I was staying at in Sydney and drove back to Orange and thought to myself ‘I'm done’. I really felt I was done with boxing, even though I couldn’t fully admit it yet.”
At 26 with no degree or trade and no real experience in the workforce, Ah-See didn’t want to “end up with nothing” but he was also terrified of dying wondering. He didn’t want to wonder ‘what if’ should he call it quits.
After moving back to Orange he describes his mental state as a continuous loop of self-doubt, a limbo of sorts.
After a few weeks, he began fielding questions from people in the community regarding his next fight, when he’d be returning.
He’d tell them he was taking a break, although he was set to line up on the Solomon Haumono-Joseph Parker undercard in July – slated as “the biggest trans-Tasman fight in boxing history”.
He was forced to pull out of that fight thanks to a rotator cuff strain.
Two months before that, in May of 2016, his father Sam senior had been diagnosed with cancer and given 18 months to live.
“I said to myself, how many more signs do you need? I used [Sam senior’s diagnosis and Brown’s death] as excuses to avoid to real issue,” Ah-See said.
“At least with my dad sick it looked like I was back in Orange to look after him and not that I quit, but that's bullshit, I moved back and wanted to retire before I found out about him.
“As the year went on I continued believing my own bullshit, I was going to rest out the year also depending on dad, so I would work around that and take [boxing] seriously when the situation with dad had gone away, so the same old story continued.”
Sam senior passed away in February of this year.
THE COMEBACK AND THE DECISIVE MOMENT
“Discussions with my manager had already been in progress, so there was no messing around with me getting back in the ring. I announced my comeback on February 26,” Ah-See said.
He still wasn’t 100 per cent on the decision though, but he was “willing to give it a shot”.
He had a third opportunity to head to Los Angeles to train with Fortune, and took it without a second thought.
The last two times he’d been he’d loved it, Ah-See thought, so why would he turn down such an amazing chance?
Especially considering the bout he’d taken, on May 6 against Anthony Taylor for the vacant IBF Australasian welterweight title, was to be a curtain raiser for the Joseph Parker-Hughie Fury world title bout.
It was a fight that, should Ah-See win, would give him a world rating and push him one step closer to a world title shot.
Then the emotion crept back in, those uncomfortable thoughts he can’t explain, which tended to hit at night.
“The only reason you’ll get that shot is because the champion knows they can beat you. It’s all manipulated. The guys with the bigger money have the power, they have the say,” Ah-See said.
“The only reason they’ll pick you for a world title fight is because you have a very slim chance of winning. That’s why the you see all of us Aussie fighters going overseas, we’ve had 14 Aussies fight for world titles in the last two years and 12 of them got knocked out.
“I could invest another three or four years into making that happen, maybe for nothing or maybe just to say I fought for a world title.”
Ah-See still went to America, he’s still there now, but suffered “a mini-meltdown” on the plane over there.
Once the training started he felt better though, he kept himself busy but the emotions, the doubt, continued to creep back into his mind.
“The more I thought about coming back and fighting in the future it was getting stronger, so I called the old girl for a chat because I couldn't stop my mind being on a constant loop questioning boxing, so we came up with a plan that after the fight in May I would retire,” Ah-See explained.
He headed to training the next morning, fresh. But, the decisive moment came in the fifth round of his spar.
“I got tired and I said to myself ‘stuff this I don't even care anyway’. I didn't have trigger to keep pushing and my performance went down hill from that moment,” he explained.
“I kept sparring and even though I went really well, the thought that came in worried me and made things clearer. I wasnt going to go into a fight like that because that's when you end up getting hurt, so I made the call.”
Ah-See officially announced his career was over via social media one week ago, retiring undefeated with a 13-0-1 professional record.
THE FUTURE WITHOUT BOXING
Ah-See’s demeanour changes when he starts speaking about his future without professional boxing, a palpable relief sneaks into his voice and his excitement is genuine.
It’s as if the weight of the world has come off his shoulders.
“I’ve got a good job now, doing something that I’m passionate about. I’m doing youth work now and I love it,” he explains.
“I truly believe my future is with the kids. I believe I’ve got a good story and I’m looking forward to sharing my experience and spreading positivity through the community. I love Orange, I love my home town, I don’t even miss Sydney.
“I’ve got security, I’ve got a pretty decent amount in savings now. I can do other things. I can do whatever I want and that is a great feeling.”
More than anything, Ah-See is focused on family. Something he hasn’t been able to put 100 per cent of his effort into.
“I’m looking forward to keeping life simple, I’m looking forward to being able to take my mum out for dinner, lunch, whatever. My number one goal is to take mum overseas,” he said.
“I’m planning on taking her on a trip towards the end of the year and I’m excited for it.
“I don’t want my mum to working forever, she’s already struggling and she’s already burnt out.
“I need to build my relationship with my daughter. When I was in Sydney there was times I could only see her once a month or twice a month.
“[I’m looking forward to] doing things that actually matter. I want my time and effort to go into something that will have a positive impact.
“I want to spend time with the people I care about. I’ve lost a mate, I’ve lost my old boy … do I stay in the game and miss out on time with people who care about me just to be able to say ‘oh, I fought for a world title’, something that might not even happen?
“It’s a love-hate thing (with boxing). I’ll always love it, I’ll always be involved in it. I’ll always throw punches in a shed on the bag, it’ll never leave me, [I’m just over] the business of it and the baggage that comes with it.
“I don’t give a shit about [the world title goal anymore]. I’m excited for the future.
“Was there a lot of doubt that I was really as good as I was perceived to be? Of course.
“If there was one person who knew how far I could go it was me but let’s just say I wouldn’t like to gamble spending the rest of my life chasing that world title and miss out on the meantime.
“(Before retiring) I felt like I to do all of this shit just to be an influential person, to make people proud of me, to have a voice.
“If I won a world title and came back to Orange I could probably be a very influential person, but if I have to win that world title to be influential, what is that saying to our kids?
“What expectations is that putting on our kids?
“You have to win, you have to do something extravagant to have an influence?
“That’s bullshit. Why don’t we look up to Jill and Bob who are working a nine-to-five and have a nice family?
“Boxing made me who I am today and gave me chances I would never have had the opportunity to take without it.
“Most importantly it’s taught me life lessons I’ll cherish (but) my true self is shining through.
“I feel like I’m making up for lost time.”