He earned international fame fighting in cages but these days Soa “The Hulk” Palelei can be found tackling the very important issue of mental health on mine sites around WA.
Palelei, who retired from mixed martial arts in 2015 after 27 fights and 22 wins (including four in the prestigious UFC), experienced homelessness and physical abuse as a child and dealt with depression throughout his fighting career.
His very noticeable 193-centimetre, 120-kilogram frame is now a regular sight at mining operations, which he visits in his role as a mental health ambassador for Macmahon’s Strong Minds, Strong Mines program.
“The first thing people ask me about on mine sites is my career. But also why I do what I do in the mental health space,” Palelei said.
“It’s something I’m passionate about...I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety, so I know first-hand when I do talk about it and that people can relate to me and my story.”
Palelei was a recent guest on A Resourceful Life, a YouTube series aimed at addressing the topic of mental health in mining, which is a collaboration between Lifeline WA and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia.
He told host Brad Hogg that his experiences through childhood and in The Octagon had provided valuable insights he now uses in his current role.
“I used to get punched in the face for a living – so that will give you anxiety and stress,” Palelei explained.
“But it’s a sport that I chose...and it’s something that’s helped me through depression and anxiety and also to deal with my childhood, going through physical abuse.
“I’ve got to pat myself on the back, where I’ve gone to and where I’ve come from...living under a house, praying that I was going to be something or be somebody.
“The most important thing [in mental health] is knowledge and power and [Strong Minds, Strong Mines] connects that with physical fitness because there’s a direct link between physical fitness and mental health.
“Working out increases serotonin increases brain endorphins. Those benefits are what we educate people about.”
Despite his life experience, Palelei says arriving on site for the first time two years ago as part of his Macmahon role was an “eye-opener.”
“I’ve been on the dump trucks, high up in the air and that’s pretty cool,” he said.
“I remember as a kid playing with these Tonka Trucks and to get to sit in one of them [in real life] is pretty good.
“[Mining] is very different from a 9-5 job. [You] get up at very early hours, maybe 3.30-4 am, and then you’re on-site at 5 am for a pre-start safety briefing.
“By the time you end the day that’s like a 13 or 14-hour day. Credit to the people on-site, what they do is impressive.”
Palelei said it was vital mine workers, particularly those working FIFO, made plans around fitness and diets.
“You’re working long hours and you’re away from your family. Whether you’re doing 2-and-1 or 4-and-1, whatever swing you’re doing it’s not a holiday,” Palelei said.
“People think you are going up on-site, you are getting all the food you want and your bed is getting made.
“But not really – the environment is tough and they are working long hours. That’s what a lot of people [outside the industry] don’t get.
“You need to make a plan at the end of the day on why you are up there and what you are doing and include fitness in that.
“When somebody has a plan up on-site they do less drinking and more fitness work and lead a more healthy lifestyle.”