The champion boxer missed out on the Commonwealth Games but landed his dream role. Photo / Supplied
Not many doctors prepare for surgery with a bout of boxing, but that’s what Zak Martin can often be found doing while getting into character as Dr. Rahu Parata on Shortland Street.
“I shadow-box in a corner before ‘action’ is called,” the boxing champ and actor tells Woman’s Day. “Some people look at me like, ‘What’s he doing?’ Sometimes other actors give it a go or just laugh at me! It just helps so much with getting out of my head, especially before big scenes.”
It’s bittersweet that Zak’s practicing punches in Ferndale. If all had gone according to plan, the 23-year-old would instead be in Birmingham right now, representing Aotearoa in boxing at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. However, years of training and dedication crumbled after a heartbreaking injury forced Zak to withdraw.
“I was devastated,” he admits. “I still feel emotional talking about it because it was so hard. Everything for the last two years was geared towards the Games. My coach Jeff Stutt kept reiterating, ‘Zak, you have many years ahead to represent New Zealand. Don’t beat yourself up.’ He was awesome when I was feeling those demons.”
Neither boxing nor acting were on Zak’s radar while growing up in Sydney, and then West Auckland, where he became hooked on rugby and kapa haka.
But sport runs in the family – his cousin Elle Temu just joined the Silver Ferns, his maternal grandfather Stan Martin played rugby league and his late paternal granddad Mike Anneff was an award-winning boxer – and while his father left the family when Zak was 10 , Mike remained a strong influence.
He introduced Zak to boxing at 15, but his mum Michelle barred him from professional fights until he turned 18. By then, Zak’s boxing dreams had surpassed his passion for footy, so he quit rugby, joined a boxing gym and won his first professional bout . “I caught the bug!”
It wasn’t long before he was winning awards at the Golden Gloves and eyeing up the Commonwealth Games. Hearing he’d made the preliminary cut last October, Zak was thrilled but cautious, given he had suffered a wrist injury in a fight just months prior.
Determined to make it to Birmingham, he took a recommended steroid injection that enabled him to continue training. However, shortly before attending a January training camp to try to make the Games squad, the injection wore off, pain returned and Zak chose surgery to heal his wrist, rather than the short-term solution of further steroid shots.
He was grappling with having sacrificed his shot at the Games when he auditioned for and was then cast on Shortland Street.
Zak had already been pursuing acting alongside boxing after landing his first role in Whakaata Māori’s Ahikāroa at 18. He did some acting workshops and appeared in the mini-series Jonah, then spent 2021 touring schools with a theater show, while boxing in his downtime.
With mixed Ngāti Ruanui, Pākehā, Italian and Bulgarian heritage, Zak was “over the moon” with the opportunity to portray a Māori character on Shorty and is excited to film episodes for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori.
He teases that Rahu’s bubbling connection with Dr Esther Samuels, played by Ngahuia Piripi, will develop in coming episodes, but naturally, “there’s some obstacles”.
While he laughs off the idea of being Ferndale’s latest eye candy, Zak – who says he’s single and “focusing on me” – admits he enjoyed being recognized by surfers in Tauranga recently, and says he’d love to return to Australia to work on Home And Away.
In the meantime, he plans to continue juggling boxing and Shorty, and will also go back to working as a boxing trainer once his wrist heals. Regardless of whether he’s able to attend the Commonwealth Games in 2026, he’ll continue his sport.
“I couldn’t live without both boxing and acting,” says Zak, who will be cheering on Kiwi boxer Wendell Stanley at the Games. “Both are therapeutic, physically and mentally.”
Zak notes that there are silver linings to his injury, like having more time to reconnect with friends and whānau, and to hone his acting craft. He wishes he could talk to his granddad Mike, who passed in 2016, about his boxing journey, but he knows he would be proud.
“Boxing enhanced our relationship,” he recalls. “It would be awesome to get back into the garage and train with him again.”
As for his worried mum? “She’s always supportive, but she’s stoked about Shortland Street because it means boxing’s not on the cards right now,” laughs Zak, adding that his 19-year-old brother Jake has followed him into the sport.
“Jake’s getting in the ring soon, so one of us is out, but the other’s heading in!”