By Liam Napier
In the midst of his turbulent and controversial ride from blunt rebel to reformed recruit, boxing was Quade Cooper's only certainty.
It was a foreign place for the former Tokoroa lad. At certain stages growing up in the humble timber town he learnt to use his fists, but, before this year, he had never been in the ring.
What began as a distraction from his uncertain future evolved into a legitimate drive. After 13 weeks of dedicated boxing training, the polarising Wallabies playmaker steps into the relative unknown next Friday on the undercard of Sonny Bill Williams' clash with Francois Botha in Brisbane.
It's been a unique path to his maiden professional fight.
Cooper's radical criticism of the "toxic" environment surrounding Robbie Deans' side put him on the outer last year. After copping a $50,461 fine from the Australian Rugby Union for his comments, he weighed up interest from rugby league and wealthy French clubs, one offer was understood to be worth € 750,000 a year.
Any wonder Cooper was, at one point, consigned to leaving his adopted homeland and walking away from Australian rugby. "The past few months have been interesting. There's been a lot going on. At one stage there I wasn't sure what sport I would be playing," he told the Sunday Star-Times.
Over the last five months he threw his efforts into boxing. He had nothing else. Initially, attempting to give as many shots to the head as he got was an outlet from making a definitive decision.
"The only thing I had set in stone was boxing," he said. "It was a difficult time in some respects, not knowing what you had in front of you for your future. You never want to move away from a place you feel very comfortable and have set up good foundations.
"It was a big decision, but when I became content with the fact I was going to leave, it was pretty tough at the time. Then, things worked out and it was a relief and a whole load off my shoulders."
After resolving his differences with the ARU, turning down French millions and committing to a two-year deal aligning him with Ewen McKenzie and Will Genia at the Reds, Cooper ensured he will remain a focus for Kiwi audiences.
The nitrous attacks on Richie McCaw are not forgotten. Many still want to see him "get sorted" - as the All Blacks captain's book predicted - by 32-year-old Muay Thai veteran Barry Dunnett, with a one-win one-loss boxing record.
"It's not really my place to worry about how it will be perceived," Cooper said of his latest foray. "This is something I'm doing for me, not for anybody else, whether they are supporting me, or against me. This is something I want to achieve. I'm not too worried about other people's opinions.
"Boxing allows you to let off some steam. It also makes you so much stronger mentally. There's nothing like having to get into the ring in front of a live audience with it being aired to thousands of people around the world and going toe-to-toe with another bloke who is hoping to knock your block off."
While his debut is scheduled for four rounds, Cooper has been doing up to eight in training, despite manager Khoder Nasser telling him to calm down.
"As soon as I get the opportunity to do it again I'd love to. Now I've got the bug for the training," he said. "It gets you in a really good space. You get really disciplined in your training and habits outside of the sport. I could easily say this is the best I've been prepared for a rugby season." Even if he gets laid out, the experiences of the past few months won't be wasted.
Cooper should be better prepared for the eventual McCaw backlash.
Tags: Quade Cooper