IT WILL please some people to learn that when Sonny Bill Williams walked out on a $2 million, five-year contract in Sydney, flew to France in secret and decided to play for a team owned by a multi-millionaire, he found himself at his lowest ebb. Back in Australia, he was being taunted as ”Money Bill”, or if you were particularly clever, ”$onny Bill”, the man who had swapped loyalty for lucre.
“It wasn’t about money,” Williams says. “Although everyone said it was. I felt like I was being abused by the authorities and had to make a stand for myself.”
So he borrowed $750,000 from his friend Anthony Mundine to buy his way out of his contractual obligations in Australia and redirect his career on his own terms.
“And at that point,” Williams says. “I had nothing to lose. I had no money, I was in debt. It was the lowest of the lows.”
Five years later, Williams is an All Blacks world champion, boxing professionally, making a return to his first sport, rugby league. He has reached this career zenith, it could be argued, by taking a ground-breaking approach in which he refuses to tug a forelock to sport’s powerbrokers.
Emboldened by his experience in French rugby, Williams only signs short-term contracts – and negotiates fiercely, not least for the freedom to box.
His new approach to the business of sport has been influential. When he demanded “flexibility” from the NZRU, other players followed; when he made it clear that rugby league authorities could not dictate his off-season activities, others wanted dispensation to earn bucks in Japanese rugby during their downtime.
Deep inside, Williams says, he remains the shy Samoan boy. “You have to force yourself not to be, because you hate to admit it, but the world is sometimes not a nice place.”
So how did this man rewrite all the rules of the sports business?
You might re-direct the question to Williams’s manager, Khoder Nasser, the Sydney-raised son of Lebanese Muslims, once described in a News Ltd paper as a man with ”no basic values” who had turned footballers into mercenaries.
Nasser fell into sports management by chance; after befriending a young Mundine, then a brilliant if outspoken league star for St George, he was anointed Mundine’s manager despite a CV that stretched to stints in a cafe and a chemist. Nasser says he’s simply fortunate, a sports fanatic living the dream. “I get to be in an intimate position to watch it all unravel,” he says. “Dead serious, I am extremely lucky. I find myself in an extremely privileged position.”
Yet he is a fearsome and unusual negotiator. Nasser works alone, acts for only a handful of clients. Doesn’t own a computer. Prefers a handshake to contracts, even with his own clients. Says he isn’t interested in sponsors, fringe benefits and other fripperies, but simply “works out a number” and concentrates on it.
“Everyone can search for a better and better deal. Where does it end? You look at the contract, you think, ‘I am getting screwed here, I’ve got to push a bit more here’. I think, ‘I am happy, he’s happy’, that’s it.”
Nasser thinks most sports organisations are greedy, have a “siege mentality” and want to “cheat” regular athletes of what they are worth. He says agents would be redundant if the authorities were honest. “But in the world of business, people sometimes think it is better to rob the other person.” At this, he essays a manic grin – while this is his first interview in more than two years, Nasser enjoys being provocative.
Nasser sees his small roster – he represents only Williams, Wallabies star Quade Cooper and, until a split last year over a failed US boxing promotion, Mundine – as a positive, arguing agents with multiple clients collude with administrators.
It also suits him because he says his approach works only because he represents exceptional athletes. Otherwise, ”they walk all over you”.
Williams dumped his first manager, Gavin Orr, and knew Nasser socially from hanging out at Boxa, a Sydney cafe Nasser co-owns with Mundine, and asked him to take over his affairs. Critics chart this as the point Williams began to rebel; he went on to infamously walk out on the Bulldogs and flee to France over a contract dispute.
”People go on about him [Nasser] being money-hungry, but he’s doing all right for himself, he honestly doesn’t need me,” Williams says. “He may rub a lot of people up the wrong way, but he’s always straight to the point: yes or no. Other managers like to bargain and use clubs. We say yes or no. We can do it, or we can’t. That’s what I love. Go ask the NZRU, we have always been straight up with them.”
So I asked NZRU chief executive Steve Tew how he found negotiating with Nasser. ”Everyone in here found Khoder very straight up, which was refreshing,” Tew says. ”Obviously, he has a different way of doing things. He has a very clear view of what he wants for his clients and he puts it on the table. We had very efficient negotiations; no mucking around. He’s very easy to deal with: he tells you what he wants.”
Tew says Williams wasn’t the only beneficiary of the NZRU’s ”flexibility” which he says is forced upon the union by the ”structural disadvantage” of having less money than everyone else. ”You know,” he says, “we let the captain of the All Blacks fly a high-performance glider, which is not without risk either.”
But, says one sports official who enjoyed less successful dealings with Nasser, of course he’d say all that. “Tew has to say he is a genius, but he is the most annoying bugger to deal with. Being difficult does not equal genius.”
Yes, he’s awkward. Williams’ official return to league this season was delayed for five weeks because Nasser refused to sign up to the National Rugby League’s mandatory agent accreditation scheme. The eventual compromise was a public claim that Williams had done his own deal. Nasser hates the NRL, calls them “a bunch of antiquated people who have no foresight”.
The hatred stems from the NRL’s unwillingness to be as “flexible” as Tew and company. Nasser has a dream. That he could sign Williams to a league club, who would offer time off to play for the All Blacks and box when he wished. Why not? ”I’d like to ask them, does any player make as much money as they were willing to give to the CEO of the NRL?” That a banker, David Smith, got that job at a $1.2 million salary, riles him. ”Look at the wonderful state the world is in because of bankers.”
When he arrived in France, Williams was almost immediately injured. Compartment syndrome, in which bone grows into muscle, is a deeply painful lower-leg injury, which predominantly strikes Polynesian athletes. Williams found he could run for just 20 minutes. So he began taking painkillers just to train. He doubted he would ever succeed at rugby. But the anonymity of life in southern France gave him a new perspective. Having lived only in Sydney and Auckland and gone further afield only to Britain on a rugby league tour, he realised that the world extended beyond sport.
“I had to grow up,” he says. “I had to fight some pretty tough demons.” He says he found religion, found peace, found form, and found he was wanted. He could have stayed in France beyond his two years, and been well paid for it. “I could have had a pretty good life out there,” he says. But this renaissance had given him the confidence to ignore any false sense of security, to take another punt, a huge salary cut, and come home to New Zealand. “It was a massive risk – but what if I accomplish something? It’s massive rewards as well. And things rolled from there. You still have your ups and downs. But I was a lot mentally stronger.”
During the depression he agreed to return to rugby league in 2013 with the Sydney Roosters on a handshake deal, seeing it as an escape route if rugby failed. When it didn’t, he refused to back out. “A lot of people won’t believe that,” Williams says, “because of the way I left the Bulldogs. But there, I felt like I had a deal and they [reneged]. I don’t want to sound brash, but you can’t sugarcoat it.” The Bulldogs, he says, also shaped him. “But not in the sense people think. That it’s about money. It’s quite the opposite.” But he says, somewhat sorrowfully, he has long since given up on trying to influence public opinion.
Combine the experience of good (France) and the bad (Sydney), and Williams believes it made him strong enough to keep choosing challenge over comfort – and to tell people what he’s worth. “What I think about,” he says, “is what is, A: going to get the best out of me, B: where I am going to be happy and, C: pretty much back to A. I know I’ve got to perform, so if you put yourself into situations where you have to perform, it is risky – you can sit back and bank on what you did last year, or you can take the risk and do something.”
Nasser is spruiking now. He’s awkward, but he’s also a charmer. Convivial. He wants this story to be about the boxing. Williams fights the veteran South African Francois Botha in Brisbane on Friday, his sixth pro fight, roughly Nasser’s 50th show.
Boxing began as fun for Williams, but now shapes as a possible long-term career. He denies any long-term plan. Nasser has one, but won’t say what it is.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.