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Vai's View: Vai's View: Farewell to Charles Woodworth, a champion, inside and outside the ring

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 12:27 p.m. MST

In April 1958, Pres. David O. McKay dedicated the Hamilton, New Zealand Temple. Earlier in his mission, Elder Woodworth had served on the island of Ha'apai, in the village of 'Uiha with a couple named Mosese (Moses) and Salavia Muti and their four young children. As Branch President, Brother Muti had shared with Elder Woodworth a blessing he had received under the hands of George Albert Smith, when the Apostle visited Tonga 20 years before in 1938. In the blessing, Elder Smith promised Mosese Muti that if he was faithful in his tithes, offerings and keeping his covenants, the day would come when he would be able to take his family to receive their temple blessings — "at no cost to them."

Though he was barely able to support himself as a missionary, Elder Woodworth felt a sense of duty to help the Mutis realize this blessing.

It so happened that the eighth-ranked heavyweight in the world and the champion of the South Pacific in 1958 was a Tongan named Kitione Lave, who was returning from a successful tour of Europe in which he knocked out the British champion in London in 30 seconds. Lave was a short, stout, powerful knockout artist who was deadly with either hand — think Mike Tyson. Rocky Marciano's promoter passed on Lave twice. The thinking was there was nothing for the champion to gain in fighting someone so dangerous and relatively obscure. Though Lave was in the top 10, he was virtually unknown in America.

Agents in New Zealand and Australia were trying to arrange a fight for Lave on his way home, but had no takers. That is, until a promoter happened upon Elder Woodworth while vacationing in Tonga and stumbled upon the former fighter-current Mormon missionary on the island of Niue, where he was finishing his mission. In the pre-Google Internet world, the promoter wired Woodworth's name to New Zealand, where his office did a search of Chuck's fight record, which all checked out.

Elder Woodworth wasn't all that confident he would stay alive, much less win, but he couldn't pass on the possibility of winning a purse that would ensure the Mutis' travel to New Zealand to be sealed in the temple. The idea is hard to fathom because of today's rigid missionary rules, but it was a different time and his mission president actually helped negotiate the deal.

At the weigh-in, Chuck tipped the scales at 187 pounds and the champion, Kitione Lave, was exactly 20 pounds heavier at 207. The fight drew over 15,000 fans to the rugby stadium where the All-Blacks played.

Here is the lede from the Deseret News: "Returning missionary Chuck Woodworth stopped over in Auckland long enough to pound out a decisive 12-round heavyweight victory recently over the best the South Pacific has to offer, defeating Kitione Lave of Tonga before the largest crowd in New Zealand ring history."

It was the first and only time Woodworth would ever fight in a 12-round match. Though he had limited time to train for the fight, Chuck always cited the fact that for six months leading up to the fight, he was on the island of Niue with his companion helping build a chapel on coral rock. His job each day was to dig the foundation using only a pick axe — a task that prepared him physically for the biggest fight of his life.

"My winner's share was about $1,200 American dollars," Chuck once told me.

"Enough to buy a new pair of trousers for my flight home and the rest I sent back to Ha'apai to the Mutis, which allowed them to travel to New Zealand a few months later to be sealed. All at no cost to them, just as Elder Smith had prophesied 20 years before."

Woodworth's courage to fight the most feared man in the Pacific with virtually no training and as an un-released missionary to pay for the Mutis trip to the temple is as well-known among Tongans as the Willie Handcart stories are to American Saints.

Mosese Muti later became the first Tongan called as a patriarch, blessing thousands of his countrymen. His children were all educated at BYU-Hawaii and BYU-Provo, returning to Tonga to become leaders in education, government and the Church. Two sons, Peni and Paula, served as stake presidents and the Mutis contribution to the growth of the Church is incalculable.

Following his mission, Chuck Woodworth finished grad school at the University of Utah, married a pretty co-ed at the U. named Marsha Davis, then returned to Tonga to teach at Liahona High School, the LDS-owned private school.

At about that time, my father Loni, was just enrolling as a senior at Liahona after being expelled from two public schools for fighting — dad's non-LDS status was probably why he was accepted.

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