As Rugby Players Turn Boxers, Both Sports Lose

It's been a disappointing week in rugby fights. I mean, this Georgia vs. Belgium dustup is OK. But when I hear "Big Rugby Brawl" I expect a something a little more brutal and/or eye gougey. Maybe this weekend's Vegas Sevens will deliver some handbags. But no rugby fight could match today's Aussie action for weird. Two boxing matches, featuring two rugby internationals vs. an insurance salesman and a dude who's been knocked out by Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko.

Last we heard from Sonny Bill Williams and Quade Cooper, they were squaring off in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and we kind of hated them. Friday night (early morning in the USA) they shared the ring in Brisbane, with Cooper's professional boxing debut (pronounced day-boo Down Under) the undercard for Williams's WBA International Heavyweight Title fight against South African Francois "The White Buffalo" Botha. How did this happen?

Sonny Bill Williams has been boxing for a couple of years. Before the Rugby World Cup, he won a fight to become New Zealand Heavyweight Champion, which is so cute it should be on a poster in Murray's office next to Bret and Jemaine. His rugby (both league and union) and boxing careers seemed to be pushing each other toward irrelevance, despite obvious talent. But last year he got serious about rugby and absolutely dominated the Southern Hemisphere's top club competition, winning the Super 15 Championship with the Waikato Chiefs. So naturally, he immediately left New Zealand to play in Japan, then moved to Australia and switched back to league, all the while training for his title fight in the offseason. It was weird.

Meanwhile, his good mate Quade Cooper tore his ACL in the 3rd place game of the World Cup and started rehabbing in the ring with Sonny Bill's trainer (Anthony Mundine, a former rugby player himself). The Williams influence must have rubbed off, as Cooper's offseason looked a lot like a Sonny Bill special. Cooper flirted with switching to league to play with his buddy and got in a Twitter fight with Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, before finally announcing his return to club and country. (Once he serves a three-match suspension.) But not before taking to the ring for the first time.

Cooper won his bout with a first-round knockout against an insurance agent and erstwhile muay Thai fighter named Barry Dunnett. Dunnett spent the lead-up to the fight railing against "code hoppers" (think multisport athletes) like Cooper and Williams, ruining it for the dedicated boxers. Dunnett went down after three straight undefended rights. It wasn't particularly sweet science.

Sonny Bill didn't have it so easy. His match against former non-bum, steroid user, kickboxer, and current Butterbean impersonator Francois Botha was scheduled to go 12 rounds, but a last-minute decision decreased it to 10. That saved Williams—the White Buffalo appeared to be dominating, and Williams was struggling to stay on his feet by the end of the 10th. Then, because boxing is boxing, even when involving rugby players in the Southern Hemisphere, Sonny Bill somehow won on points. The crowd booed, Botha (48-9-3) made noises like an African buffalo in anger and lust, and Sonny Bill Williams (6-0) is your New WBA International Heavyweight Champion.

Williams's Sydney Roosters kick off their NRL season March 7th. Cooper's Queensland Reds open up against the ACT Brumbies next Saturday. Yeah, we don't know either.