BRITISH heavyweight boxers were terrified of the ‘Tongan Terror’ Kitione Lave in the 1950s, but at the heart of the devastating fighting machine was a big softie.
Lave, a strapping six feet Tongan heavyweight in his early twenties, arrived in Doncaster in 1955. A fearless, hard-hitting fighter, he’d made contact from New Zealand with Doncaster’s heavyweight champion Bruce Woodcock, who would become his manager. Lave’s intention was to make a name for himself in Britain.
He almost didn’t get here at all as his wife, Patricia (nee Gee), explains:
“He left New Zealand on an Italian boat and upon landing in Italy realised that he had ran out of money.
“Somebody leant him the money for his fare to England. Anyway, I don’t think they ever expected to see that money again, but Kitione was an honest man and he got the person’s address and saved up and eventually paid the money back. That was the sort of man he was.”
Patricia, originally from Balby, first met Kitione at an international club for recently arrived immigrants, where she was helping out family friends.
“He didn’t know anybody at that stage and his English wasn’t great. Of course, he was the only Tongan there, explained Patricia, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1971.
“We then met by chance in a restaurant and he came over to talk to me. But I couldn’t really tell what he was saying and he got frustrated and said ‘You speak no English!’ to me!”
But a relationship eventually flourished and the pair were married inside a year.
Inside of the ring, Kitione was a much feared and avoided opponent. His first fight in England couldn’t have gone worse though. He was knocked out in the first round of a fight against British champion Johnny Williams in Birmingham.
But Kitione soon made amends. And in the same year recorded his most famous victory, a knockout win over Don Cockell, who only a year prior to that fight had gone nine rounds with the great undefeated world champion Rocky Marciano.
“I was there for the Cockell fight, continued Patricia.
“I was only seventeen or eighteen at the time and it was intimidating going to London and I was the only one there supporting Kitione.
“I was very, very nervous but there was no need to be because by the second round Cockell was on his backside!”
Like many a fighter, though, his career probably went on too long. He retired young, aged 30 in 1964, but had crammed 72 fights in (professionally and on record) all over the globe. He won 51 times, drew twice and lost 18 times. In later life, he suffered from dementia and Parkinsons before his eventual death in 2006.
“It was sad. He didn’t like boxing because of the unfairness of it all and he did have too many fights.
“His memory wasn’t great towards the end of his life but he had kept a diary of his career right from being a teenager and I have translated that into the 1960s.”
Whilst in Doncaster, Kitione served in the RAF, ran a gym at the base, a nightclub in Sheffield and also played half a dozen games for Doncaster’s rugby league team, a sport his grandson Steven and Frank excel in (Steven also enjoyed a spell with Doncaster in the late 90s).
He later took up professional wrestling in New Zealand and met his hero Marciano.
As for his proudest achievement, unfortunately that arrived posthumously, but it was an honour he’d have appreciated greatly.
“He was the first ever inductee into the Tongan sporting hall of fame and he would have been very, very proud of that. They had already inducted him but did a re-hanging when I went over there. I said a few words in English, had Kitione been alive he’d have been talking for hours!
“It’s one thing to be accepted by your own people. When you make it as an artist or as a writer, it never seems to be at home.
“He was a big softie and he was always trying to help other people. Nothing was too much for him and he trusted everybody, he was a very honest person.”