In the space of seven years, Paulo Aokuso has gone from a total boxing novice to an Olympian.
After a glittering amateur career which culminated in a trip to Tokyo last year, Aokuso turned pro and made his debut in April where he won the vacant Australasian light heavyweight title with a TKO victory over Michael Van Nimwegen.
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With Aokuso’s first title defence locked in against Robert Berridge on June 29 in Brisbane, the 25-year-old is hoping to continue his rise all the way to the top.
Not a bad journey for a kid from Mount Druitt, especially when, by his own admission, he could’ve gone “the other way” in his youth.
“Growing up in Mount Druitt, I always see it as a good community,” Aokuso told foxsports.com.au.
“Everyone helps each other, everyone’s supportive.
“A lot of other stuff goes on in Mount Druitt, but at the same time, I wasn’t really brought around that. I could’ve went the other way, but instead I chose to stay on the right path and stay focused on my sport and school.”
Aokuso is under no illusion that to the average outsider, Mount Druitt has a “negative” perception.
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But you’ll struggle to find someone as proud as he is about the streets that steeled him into the heavy-handed light heavyweight he is today.
“People think, ‘Oh, Mount Druitt, they do this and that,’” Aokuso said.
“But for me, growing up and still being in Mount Druitt, I love this place. Everyone grinds here and no-one likes to lose. Everyone here is for the community.”
Aokuso is one of several prominent sporting stars changing the image of Mount Druitt and installing even more pride into the residents about where they come from.
He points to several Panthers players like Brian To’o and Stephen Crichton as examples.
There’s also UFC heavyweight sensation Tai ‘Bam Bam’ Tuivasa as well as rap group Onefour who have shot to fame.
For Aokuso, being a part of this supposed new wave of stars to come from the area is something many would never have thought possible.
“For me to experience this with other athletes from Mount Druitt and even be a part of it, it’s massive,” Aokuso said.
“Who would have thought that from a small town, from a small city, that we’d be getting a lot of famous athletes.
“We’re basically the best in the sport. The best in rugby league, the best in UFC. I’m about to put it up in boxing.”
It’s rather surprising then that as a kid, Aokuso was “never into boxing.”
Playing rugby league and running down the tunnel for an NRL team was “always the dream.”
But when the fire for rugby league died out in his late teens and left Aokuso not knowing what to do with himself.
It was his old man Kigilau who gave his son a new lease of life by taking him to a boxing gym at age 17.
Initially, Kigilau didn’t think Paulo had it in him to be a “good boxer.”
It’s a completely different story now.
“He never really thought I would be a good boxer because becoming a boxer is really hard,” Aokuso said.
“You need to not just be physically tough, but mentally tough as well. My dad didn’t really see it in me, but as I kept training and got better and better, he started seeing the change in me and was like, ‘I think boxing is for you.’”
It was after his son’s first fight that flicked the switch in Kigilau’s mind and led him to believe his son could enjoy success between the ropes.
And from that moment on, Aokuso never looked back.
“My dad saw I had it in me and from then on, we just kept fighting,” Aokuso said.
“Every second week, every third week. We were fighting the best of the best in Australia already in my first year of boxing and I feel that’s what made me progress faster.”
As Aokuso continues to build his boxing career, there’s countless motivating factors pushing him to do one more rep or one more round in training sessions when the gas tank is running empty.
Sure, the financial benefits are there and not exactly hidden in plain sight.
So too is the glory and adoration from cheering fans who gather to watch him go to war when he steps between the ropes.
But it’s a constant reminder from perhaps the two most important people in his life that drives Aokuso beyond his known limits: his parents.
“They’ve always reminded me that we come from nothing,” Aokuso said.
“For them to remind me every single day, it makes me work harder. Seeing my mum and dad work a 9-5 job every single day, it motivates me to be a better person and be a better sportsman.
“Then later down the track, I can help them financially.”