A programme, funded by Whanau Ora, has professional MMA fighter John Vake teaching Kelston Boys’ High School students the basics of the sport – by having bouts with them.
“I believe wins everyday count and the idea is to give them digestible wins to prove to them that they can win,” Mr Vake said.
Other social projects also had an opportunity to pitch for the $1.8 million on offer at a dragon den’s-style competition.
“Our mission is to empower people through fighting, inspiring them to fight other battles in their life,” Mr Vake said.
John Tamihere, a former politician who served under the Labour Party, says the programme is about inspiring social change in disadvantaged youth.
“We can measure every bang for the buck on our social return on investment and what actually works over time in shifting our people out of huge queues at children and young peoples’ service at the courts, and so on and so forth, into positive citizenship and that’s what we’ve gotta do,” Mr Tamihere said.
Backers say the competitions are a type of innovation which is needed to see lasting change.
“I feel privileged. I feel like they believe in me, and I feel like I have a responsibility to prove them right, that we’re gonna make an impact and each day, we’re gonna try,” Mr Vake said.
However, there are tensions between Labour and those who run the programme, which is currently undergoing a review.
“They appointed a Whanau Ora Minister, they released here their campaign pledge that they would double what the National Party was putting into Whanau Ora – none of that came to fruition,” Mr Tamihere said.
The Whanau Ora Minister would not be interviewed on camera, or answer written questions about the review.
Despite the tension on both sides, Mr Vake says he will continue with the bouts.
“I tell them, ‘This is an empowerment programme. You’re here to be powerful,'” Mr Vake said.