N recent years, British rings have been full of foreign boxers and they provide the backbone for very many of the small hall shows held up and down the country. Most of these boxers come from Eastern Europe and they are nearly all ‘journeymen’ with long losing records. Back in the 1950s, many UK bills also included foreign fighters, from all over Europe and the Commonwealth, but the standard of import back then was far higher than is the case today. A typical bill at Earls Court, where Freddie Mills was the promoter, might easily include a Belgian, a Frenchman, a South African and a Ghanaian. Men like Roy Ankrah, Dave Sands, Duilio Loi and Yolande Pompey could be seen alongside the top-flight Londoners of that period. The dressing rooms were like a mini version of the United Nations.
One such man, who came over to the UK in 1955, was the heavyweight Kitione Lave, known to UK fight fans as “The Tongan Terror”, and to New Zealanders and Australians, where he had previously blazed a trail during 1953 and 1954, as “The Tongan Torpedo”.
The Queen of Tonga arrived in Britain for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 and she caused a sensation during the Royal Procession due to her exuberance, warmth and highly colourful clothing. The British public warmed to her and there was something of a fashion for all things Tongan. When Kitione arrived in 1955 he did so with the backing of his queen, and great things were expected from him. His world came crashing down very quickly when he was hammered by Johnny Williams, the ex-British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion, in Sparkbrook, Birmingham. Lave was floored three times and stopped in the first round. The contest was described by BN as “almost farcical.” Surely there could be no way back for him.
Kitione slowly rebuilt his reputation with a crushing one-round victory over Manny Burgo in a low-key contest in West Hartlepool. He followed this up with quick wins over Eddie Hearn (Battersea) and Nosher Powell, although sandwiched in between these two victories was a points loss to another high-quality heavyweight, Joe Bygraves.
The Tongan was then invited back to Sparkbrook for a 10-rounder against another ex-British and Commonwealth heavyweight champion, Jack Gardner, and this time the roles were reversed. According to BN: “In a disastrous first round, Gardner was dropped for two counts of ‘five’ and ‘nine’ from rights to the jaw. His left eye was gashed and he was punched from pillar to post. At no time during the contest did he look like the winner.” Unfortunately, the referee did not agree, for at the end of the bout it was Gardner’s hand that was raised, much to the astonishment of the crowd.
Two more quick wins against European opposition led to Lave taking on another ex-champion at heavyweight, Don Cockell, who was having his second contest since being mauled by Rocky Marciano the previous year. Cockell had been matched with Gardner for the vacant British heavyweight title and both men were boxing on this bill at Earls Court in warm-up contests. Both were to lose badly. Lave simply slaughtered Cockell, dropping him six times in the two rounds that the contest lasted. Gardner was similarly dealt with by Bygraves, this contest also terminating in the second round. Never before had two men matched for the British heavyweight title been so humiliated, and they both immediately retired, paving the way for Joe Erskine to pick up the vacant crown.
As a reward, Lave and Bygraves were matched for the vacant Commonwealth title but, at full distance, Lave was well behind. He soldiered on for a good few more years boxing in both Europe and the States, but he never quite pushed his way into the world top 10. He will be remembered, like his queen, for the excitement that he brought to Britain in those drab post-war years.