Monday, 23 February 2015

George Naufahu of Tonga, boxer, trainer and a well-respected Chesterfield character

George Naufahu, one of that fine group of Tongans who came to Britain in the mid nineteen-fifties, died on February 13th aged 88. The victim of a stroke, George’s passing will be greatly mourned not only by the  many people associated with the game in and around Chesterfield, but also by many who remember him in his native Tonga, ten thousand miles away. He is to be buried today at the Salem Methodist Independent Chapel in Chesterfield.
George arrived in Britain in 1956 aged 29.   He joined the same stable as his compatriot Kitione Lave and trained initially at the Cantley Saw Mills Gymnasium near Doncaster. He weighed fourteen and a half stone and he claimed to have had 50 amateur and 38 professional contests prior to making his British debut.

For his first UK contest he took on Brian London, the future British Heavyweight champion, in July 1956 at the Engineers Club Grounds in West Hartlepool. London was on the comeback trail after recently being hammered in one round by Henry Cooper and it was an extremely tough contest for George to undertake. ‘Boxing News’ commented that George “has a deceptive style, is adept at slipping and riding punches and he packs a good punch in his right hand”. He gamely stood up to some rough punishment against London, was never off his feet, and he hurt the Britisher in both the second and the fourth rounds. Despite this the referee halted the contest in round four as George had become very tired and was on the receiving end of rather too many damaging blows.

Like Kitione Lave, George was sometimes known as the ‘Tongan Terror’ and after his career ended in 1958 he settled in Chesterfield and coached boxers for very many years. His good friend Nick Atu has penned the following words in his memory and they well convey the warmth and respect that I know George was held in by all who knew him, both within the game and also amongst the Chesterfield community within which he spent so many years:

George, whose real name was Melekiseteki Tapueluelu Naufahu, started his boxing career in his birthplace of Tonga in the Pacific and fought his way to be the Heavyweight Champion of the South Pacific in his early 20s before embarking on a professional career in Tonga, New Zealand and then in the UK, where he proudly gained British citizenship and made his home in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

George was of a powerful build, a genuine hard man and a natural athlete and sportsman. He could move fast, punch fast and could take a punch. In 1953 and 1954 he fought extensively in New Zealand, including famously winning in two rounds by knock out against the 7 foot tall Jim Hall in the Newmarket Olympic Pool in Auckland. In 1956 he was invited to box in the UK by Bruce Woodstock. At the time Queen Salote of Tonga told George that when he moved to the UK he fought for Tonga and carried the Tongan flag in his heart at all times. With this pride George always fought to win by knockout and in fact, attitudes meant in those days that it was probably the only way he, as a Tongan, could win. George always felt though that by 29 years old he was fighting in the UK past his best but he still managed some notable wins including, in 1956 against Cliff Purnell, who George knocked out in 2. The same year he lost to Brian London, who had just been a contender with Henry Cooper and would go on to fight Ali for the world title.

After retiring from the ring himself, George became a trainer of note. Boxers he coached included Chris Devine, a European Amateur Championship medallist, and Johnny Halafihi, who drew with Mike Holt for the British Empire title.

George put his boxing skills to good use outside the ring too when he became the respected head of security at various northern Nightclubs, including the Aquarius, where he worked from its opening in 1972 to its closure in 1996. Life was never dull for George, who was even shot once!

He leaves behind many children and grandchildren, including four daughters and two sons in the UK, two sons and two daughters in the States, a daughter in New Zealand and, knowing George, maybe a few others elsewhere.

Nick did tell me that George once sparred with Rocky Marciano, around the time that a match between Marciano and Lave was being mooted. According to those who saw the session George gave the champion plenty to think about and his aggressive style, so typical of the Tongans at that time, may have caused Rocky to think again about taking on Lave, for the bout never happened and Rocky remained in retirement.
Such is the esteem in which George is held, the Queen of Tonga is understood to be flying in to the UK to attend his funeral.

May he rest in peace.