AT 23, former 'Golden Boy of Fiji' Sakaraia Ve was in his prime. He was the boxing heartbeat of a rugby-crazy nation.
After 24 professional fights, the man from Lovoni Village, Ovalau, had a record of 23 wins with his only loss coming against Bas Deo two years earlier.
In those days, Deo was the only man who could stand up to the power, style and class of Ve.
They fought three times with Deo winning once on points, losing the second on points (both over 10 rounds) and Ve taking the third one on knockout in the 13th round of a scheduled 15-rounder.
Ve was smashing his way through the best of the best local boxers in his division. Jo Vucago, Rupeni Vutevute, Inia Catarogo and Ambika Prasad were all knocked out. Aussie trio Jeff Malcolm and Ross Eadie, Steve Dennis were also no match for the high flying Fijian.
He was now ready to step up the ladder and challenge for the Commonwealth (British Empire) welterweight title.
The Commonwealth Welterweight champion back then was 31-year-old Clyde Gray. He also held the Canadian welterweight title. A deal was negotiated and signed with Gray to receive $F12,000 and Ve $5500.
A big fight was coming to Fiji. The date was set, August 19, 1978. An estimated six to seven thousand fans were ready to converge onto the Laucala Bay Hangar.
At weigh-in time, Ve tipped the scales at 10 stone nine and a half pounds, which was about two pounds heavier than the required weight.
Gray was fine at 10 stone six and half pounds. It was then revealed by his manager John Marimuttu Ramos that Ve's weight was OK in the morning but had picked up because of the hearty lunch (steak and egg) he had prior to the weigh-in.
Ve was then given some hours to get back to around 10 stone seven which he did that night. Boxing pundits were saying that if Ve was to win his first major boxing title, then he'd have to knock out father-of-three Gray.
Gray's wife Evelyn joined her husband and the couple loved Fiji, its people and their friendliness. Evelyn had not seen Ve box, only his photo, but she did give the local media a teasing quote. When asked if she was confident her husband would win, she said 'yes' and that he'd win by knockout. When pressed further about Ve, she replied: "He's built like a house of bricks".
"But my husband is a bricklayer and he knows how to knock down a brick wall."
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Ve was all fired-up and when the bell rang for the opening round, he showed that he was going to go for the kill. He lacked reach but made up with his fast left hook and jabs. The opening round was even, so was the second. Round three went the way of Gray but Ve fought back to win the fourth round, rocking the Canadian with a solid left to the body and a right to the jaw.
Gray picked up the pieces to fight back to win the fifth round while the sixth was even. In the seventh, Ve worked on a cut to Gray's left eye and that put his opposition in trouble. Then came the eighth round. Gray smashed a hard left through Ve's guards. That hurt, but the local champ rallied on. Gray followed with another combination of shots to Ve's body and head and suddenly Ve pulled away and walked to his corner. This prompted the referee to call off the fight and award Gray a technical knockout win.
The 6000-plus fans did not know what had happened until Gray's doctor helped attend to Ve and he was later taken to the CWM Hospital.
Ve was willing to continue but unfortunately one of his false teeth had broken and its plate had shifted from its position and hurt his gums.
"Everything was going fine. I was still in great shape and I knew I had him in trouble," rued Ve afterwards.
Our champion fought his heart out but it was just not his day and he conceded that he should not have used his false teeth that day.
Gray's trainer dubbed Ve a boxer with "punching power and speed".
"Give me Ve for 12 months and I will give back to you a world champion like Jose Napoles," Gray's trainer Max Kadin offered.
Cuban-Mexican Napoles is a former welterweight champion of the world and is regarded as one of the greatest fighters of all time in that division. He is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
"Ve does not punch half as hard as he should, but what strength he has in his fists now is effective. Imagine the goal he could achieve, like a world title, if he was to develop his punching power," Kadin added.
Gray saluted Ve's courageous effort and promised him a return fight. "He is a good fighter, strong and fast and deserves a second chance," said the boxer who later went on to unsuccessfully challenge for the world welterweight title three times.
Tomorrow: The return fight