In 2014, Dave ‘The Brown Buttabean’ Letele weighed 210kg. He couldn’t tie his shoelaces or walk five metres without breaking a sweat.
Four years on, the South Auckland native has lost 102kg and now runs Buttabean Motivation, which has helped improve the lifestyles of thousands of Kiwis.
But his journey has not been an easy one.
“I was born into a gang family. My father was the President of the Auckland chapter of the Mongrel Mob. He was imprisoned when I was five years old.
“That’s the environment that I came from, but I never used it as an excuse. I actually used where I came from as motivation to not want to be like my parents.
“I did really well at school, I studied really hard. I was one of the first people in my family to go to uni. I didn’t finish it, but for me going there was enough.”
The reason why he didn’t finish uni is a tough one to hear.
“My dad went straight for a little while, but he wanted to give us more, and he justified crime to give us nice things. When I was 21 years old, he tried his hand at gardening. What do you think he was gardening? It wasn’t tomatoes.”
It was an endeavour that didn’t last terribly long, and Dave’s dad once again found himself in prison, which had a massive impact on his life.
“When my dad got caught for that I took it really hard. I was playing league, played schoolboy Kiwis, things were going good, and then that happened. I felt a sense of abandonment, I was vulnerable.
“I went right off the rails. I quit my job, quit uni. I started living a bad lifestyle, really angry, fighting all the time.”
And all that anger culminated in one night when he and best friend David Higgins (now Joseph Parker’s promoter) were kicked out of a Mongrel Mob party and Dave beat up the bouncer, who then went to smash up Higgins’ mum’s car.
“I went home and I was so upset with everything, and I was drunk, I grabbed a knife out of the kitchen drawer and I stabbed myself in the chest. I was just over it.”
After he got out of hospital, Dave reflected on his life and thought, “this can’t be it, I know I’m destined to be more than this.”
So he moved to Australia and got his life back together, playing rugby league for North Sydney Bears, and was even contracted to Manly, but couldn’t quite crack the squad.
After his league career, Dave entered the supermarket business, and for a while things were really good.
“I came from nothing, and then I had a lot. I thought I was invincible. Ended up going into a second supermarket, and I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? And I lost it all.”
After falling back into some bad habits and putting on a lot of weight, Dave recalls the next turning point in his life.
“In January 2014, I faced a life or death cross road. I was sitting in a boxing gym after that, in the dark, and I was thinking: ‘Is this it?’ I lost my children, my partner.”
It was thanks to his old buddy David Higgins that Dave was able to get back on track and started boxing.
From there Dave’s transformation began, putting all his negative emotions into his training
“I was training all the time because I felt so bad. You always feel better afterwards, and that’s why I lost (the weight) so quick.
“A lot of people were asking me how I was doing it, so I made a Facebook group, which is where Buttabean Motivation first started.”
The Facebook evolved into real life boot camps when Dave’s father-in-law asked if he could help his friend lose some weight.
“And from that we opened it up to our group and asked if anyone wants to join. Now it’s almost 1,000 people a week come to these boot camps all over Auckland. All free community bootcamps.”
And while exercise and nutrition are a big part of the boot camps, there is more to it than that.
“The difference with our boot camp is you can have a 200kg person training alongside a really fit person. No one gets left behind. It’s a safe place.
“It’s a pretty special movement.”
One of Dave’s mantras is “No Excuses”. It’s such a strong ethos that he has it tattooed on his back.
“It’s a mindset we teach. It doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just say ‘No excuses’ and then all of a sudden there’s no excuses. It’s something that takes time.
“It’s about using your ‘why’ to get through it, and it sounds a bit airy-fairy, but it does work. If your ‘why’ is strong enough, it’ll overcome excuses.
“Our training is tough, and we all know life can suck sometimes. But if you don’t give up in here, you won’t give up in life.
“And all of a sudden, people just start thinking different, and start having resilience.”
The next step is to take Buttabean’s boot camps national with online programmes available to anyone who wants them.
“My goal is for us to be everywhere, it’s just a matter of time I think. I’ve only just launched this online thing and already seven weeks in people have lost 1,700kg.
“The government should be utilising the programme to deal with the obesity epidemic in this country.”