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

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 12:46 a.m. MDT

Elder Charles Woodworth as a missionary on the Tongan island of Ha'apai. Months after this photo, Woodworth would make international news in the ring. () Elder Charles Woodworth as a missionary on the Tongan island of Ha'apai. Months after this photo, Woodworth would make international news in the ring. ()

One of the great, yet unknown men of this generation passed away last Sunday evening. His name was Charles Woodworth.

Woodworth was 79 and will be buried next Wednesday in Lindon, Utah. His obituary will appear in Sunday's and Monday's Deseret News.

I've known Chuck and Marsha Woodworth since I was a boy and his story is worthy of his legendary status among the Tongan people.

Chuck grew up in post-war Missouri, raised by a single mother, along with his five siblings. It was a hardscrabble life where children didn't just help with the chores, but the older ones, like Chuck and his older brother Richard, worked to help their mother pay the bills.

The national Golden Gloves boxing tournament was created in 1937, preceding the youth sports leagues that dominate suburbia today. There were no movie theaters, malls, a Boys & Girls Club or Little League teams in Joplin, Mo., to create childhood memories — just a musty, old gym with a boxing ring, mismatched gloves, a few jump ropes and a heavy bag. Joplin's second-story gym belonged to a fella named John Grau, who owned the auto parts store underneath the gym.

Chuck Woodworth, left, who helped convert my father in Tonga 50 years ago and Bob Dull, right, a man I met and helped convert 30 years ago as a missionary.  The two men were paired as home teaching companions in Lindon, Utah without knowing of the other's connection to me. () Chuck Woodworth, left, who helped convert my father in Tonga 50 years ago and Bob Dull, right, a man I met and helped convert 30 years ago as a missionary. The two men were paired as home teaching companions in Lindon, Utah without knowing of the other's connection to me. ()

That's where the Woodworth boys spent their free time.

With no other form of entertainment, the Chuck and Richard Woodworth got pretty good with their fists. Born two years apart and tired of their constant fighting, their mother bought them each a pair of boxing gloves hoping they'd learn to fight fair and learn some discipline.

In the 1950s, before Title 9, boxing was a popular collegiate sport and most of the top schools like Notre Dame, the Ivies and the service academies fielded teams and many offered scholarships. Chuck Woodworth was good enough to attract some offers but his heart was set on going to Utah to attend BYU. Because BYU didn't have a boxing team, Chuck paid his tuition, books, room and board by boxing at club events along the Wasatch Front.

If he was lucky, he'd make $100, but most of the time it would be $10-20 for a three- to four-round match. Once, Chuck was the main attraction as a light heavyweight in the brand new George Albert Smith Fieldhouse on a card that also featured football player Famika Anae, a heavyweight on the undercard, whose sons would play football at BYU decades later.

Chuck and Marsha Woodworth and their posterity. () Chuck and Marsha Woodworth and their posterity. ()

While at BYU, Chuck shared a room with a young man from Idaho named John Groberg. When Groberg received his mission call to Tonga, the idea of following his friend to serve the Lord intrigued Chuck. Naively, he thought that if he simply submitted his paperwork, he too would get to go to Tonga with his pal. He didn't realize the Tongan government only allowed a total of eight American LDS missionaries in the country a year.

Typically, only two or three a year were ever called to Tonga from the States to maintain the government's quota, making it one of the rarest mission calls in the Church. Despite the odds, Chuck received his call to the Tonga Nuku'alofa Mission a year after Groberg. Chuck was 22, already graduated from BYU and had gotten a year of graduate school in at the University of Utah when his call came in 1955. For two-and-a-half years as a missionary (foreign Elders at that time served an extra six months because of the language barrier), Elder Woodworth never sparred, skipped rope or laced up gloves, fully committing himself to the work. Boxing seemed to be behind him.

President & Sister Woodworth sending 3 of their missionaries home from Tonga to States in 1973. () President & Sister Woodworth sending 3 of their missionaries home from Tonga to States in 1973. ()

However, as his mission wound down, he was offered a unique opportunity to return to the ring that would make him a legend in Tonga and throughout the Pacific.

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.

Elder Chuck Woodworth, unreleased as a missionary, in a match with Tongan heavyweight Kitione Lave, the Pacific champion and No. 8 in the world. () Elder Chuck Woodworth, unreleased as a missionary, in a match with Tongan heavyweight Kitione Lave, the Pacific champion and No. 8 in the world. ()

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.

The Deseret News story of the fight was international news and carried on the AP wires. () The Deseret News story of the fight was international news and carried on the AP wires. ()

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."

Loni Sikahema as a young fighter () Loni Sikahema as a young fighter ()

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."

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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.

Loni Sikahema winning a fight () Loni Sikahema winning a fight ()

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.

Chuck told me he was drawn to my dad because he was a fighter but also because he was not LDS. Chuck Woodworth taught my dad two things and in this order: boxing and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Boxing is what drew my dad to Chuck and that bond made him receptive to the gospel.

When we immigrated to the States, my dad's hope was to train me to become heavyweight champion of the world. We moved to Mesa, Ariz., because the Woodworths were living in Tempe where Chuck was teaching at McClintock High School. Dad's master plan involved Chuck helping with my coaching and training.

Chuck Woodworth earned BYU tuition in the 50?s with his boxing skills. () Chuck Woodworth earned BYU tuition in the 50?s with his boxing skills. ()

Six months after our arrival, however, our plan was foiled when the Woodworths were called by Pres. N. Eldon Tanner to return to Tonga to serve as mission president.

We basically lost touch with the Woodworths until three years ago. A man I had taught and baptized in South Dakota named Bob Dull lived in Lindon, Utah, in the Woodworths' LDS ward. A high priest group leader paired them as home teaching companions. Neither knew the other had a connection to me — until news of my charity fight with Jose Canseco made the Deseret News in the summer of 2008. Bob Dull and Chuck Woodworth came east for the fight and we've been re-connected ever since.

Chuck Woodworth was a great man. He and Marsha raised wonderful children, all educated at BYU. In fact, one of his kids, Jed, is a Harvard grad and can be found on the jacket of Richard Bushman's book on Joseph Smith, "Rough Stone Rolling." Jed Woodworth has second billing as a researcher for Bushman's biography on the Prophet.

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Chuck was a family therapist, specializing in helping battered women. He spoke so soft you had to lean in. He was so meek and humble, you'd never know he was a pugilist. But as a boy, I was witness to some of his toughness. Before leaving for Tonga as a mission president, he and dad used to lace up the gloves and spar on his carport in Tempe. Chuck was probably 37 and dad was 30, both fit. I was given a stopwatch and told to time them for three-minute rounds and one minute of rest. Sometimes I lost track, I was so immersed in their sparring sessions — toe-to-toe, throwing haymakers.

Neighbors would gather from all around to watch. Afterwards, they hugged and laughed like the best friends they were.

May you find your reward, Chuck.

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A great warrior is gone.

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