George Chuvalo: 'The Toughest Of The Tough'

Chuvalo and Ali made the cover of  Sports Illustrated
Chuvalo and Ali made the cover of Sports Illustrated
By Jerry Glick: He fought everyone and anyone who meant anything in the heavyweight division in the 50’s, 60s and 70’s. No one ever knocked him down, and only Joe Frazier and George Foreman were able to stop the man who Muhammad Ali called “The Washer Woman.” Make no mistake; George Chuvalo was no washer woman. In fact he was without question the toughest of the tough; the most rugged of the top men of his day.

He faced, in a career that spanned 22 years, the aforementioned Ali, Frazier, and Foreman, plus Floyd Patterson, Jerry Quarry, Doug Jones, Cleveland Williams, Brian London, Jimmy Ellis, Ernie Terrell, Zora Folley, Mike DeJohn, Robert Cleroux, Manuel Ramos, and Oscar Bonavena. Even before he was experienced enough he was put in with ranked contenders, Howard King, Big Bob Baker, Julio Mederos, and Alex Miteff. George turned pro in 1956 winning four fights by quick KOs in one night.

This all begs the question; how is it possible that Chuvalo looks (okay, his nose is a little mushy) and sounds as though he never stepped into the ring let alone absorbed the punches of the toughest men in the world? Just ask Chuvalo for an answer to that. He has a theory that appears to have validity.

“Some guys are built for speed,” explained the former Canadian heavyweight boss. “Some guys are built for power. Your body type dictates your style, I was a walk in pitcher, and I didn’t move too much. I wanted to walk in and slug it out. I can tell you the guy who won’t take a good shot; the guy with the small head and a neck like a stack of dimes.”

He explained that fighters who had bigger heads and short powerful necks were better equipped to take a hard punch than a guy with a skinny neck and a narrow or small head. He mentioned a few examples of fighters who have had that innate ability to take punches and that list included Jake LaMotta, Tex Cobb, and himself.

“And even Ali,” he added. “He took a pretty good rap, even though he’d been down a few times.”

This year Chuvalo was honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America with the prestigious award for overcoming adversity. He won the award not for the aforementioned wars where for sure he dealt with adversity; rather he won because of a very private battle that he could not win, but he has been able to survive. He overcame as much or more in his heart than in any ring he entered or punch he absorbed.

Chuvalo lost almost all of the members of his family to the ugly faces of drug addiction and suicide.

“I had five children,” said the former world title challenger. “Four sons and a daughter; I lost my three youngest sons. I only have my oldest son alive and my only daughter who is my fifth child. She is still alive and my oldest son is still alive.”

His family history reads like a Greek tragedy.

“My youngest son, Jesse, committed suicide, he shot himself,” recounted Chuvalo. Jesse was only 20 years old in 1985. “My son got involved in a motorcycle accident. He tore off his kneecap and they re-attached it by taking out muscle from his left thigh. They put him on a very heavy narcotic called Demerol.”

They gave him Tylenol III but that didn’t take away all of the severe pain from the injury, so George spoke to the doctor who expressed concerns about long term use of a narcotic pain killer and addiction.

“The doctor said to keep him on Tylenol III and he’ll be just fine, but Jesse wasn’t just fine,” recalled Chuvalo. “He went to a party in Toronto and complained about the pain to someone and that particular someone said he had something for his pain. That was my son’s introduction to heroin. When he went home he started using it. My son had a strong personality. I don’t really know what happened but two of my other sons got involved with the drug. Not my oldest son, my number two and number three sons.”

He said that they were so addicted that they were out of control. The only saving grace for George was that this all happened after he retired from boxing so that it didn’t interfere with the pressures of having to face the top of the boxing world.

“My career was over by then,” said Chuvalo who had his last fight some six years before.

“I used most of my time in the aftermath of my career looking for my sons in drug hell holes. Jesse started using in 1984.”

His second youngest son, Georgie Lee followed Jesse into the abyss of heroin addiction which led to his arrest for robbing a drugstore to get drugs. After he got out of jail he was found dead at the age of 30 alone in a hotel room. He had overdosed on heroin after only four days of freedom. That was on October 31, 1993, Halloween. Chuvalo’s wife Lynne, 50, could take the loss no longer and ended her life as well on November 4th.

Son Steven, 35, died of an overdose of drugs on Aug 17, 1996 in his sister’s apartment only eleven days after getting out of jail for having also robbed a drugstore.

There was one incident that did happen during his career. When his son Jesse was about 18 months old he was playing at a friend’s house when his mother walked into another room for a moment and Jesse bit a live wire.

“I was in camp for Ernie Terrell,” recalled Chuvalo. “A week before the fight, on October the 25th my wife went to see some friends close by and my son was playing with their son who was about 19 months old and they walked away for a moment and there was a lamp that was plugged in so there was a live wire and my son chewed the wire. That caused a large gaping hole on his face where the flesh fell off.”

Jesse’s face was disfigured by the accident and he was often teased in school. He fought back, but the hurt remained and he was unable to talk about the reasons that he was getting into fights at school.

“It was hard for him to say that they were making fun of his mouth,” remembered the father.

This led to more troubles with the police and eventually the other problems set in.

Today Chuvalo travels around lecturing about the perils of drug addiction. One can only assume that it is his was way of punching back. After all, that’s what fighters do; they throw counterpunches.

***All in the Family***

George Chuvalo was born on September 12, 1937 in Toronto, Canada, but his family is originally from Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia.

“My father came over on his twenty-third birthday,” he began. “He was married seven months to the day when he came here, on February the second, 1926, and he came to Canada on September the second, on his 23rd birthday.”

Ten years later Chuvalo’s mother arrived in Canada for the first time. George was named after an uncle who had been the first of his family to come to Canada and died when he was crushed by a truck carrying ore in 1935.

Originally his family name was Rasice (pronounced rah-sich), but was changed through circumstances to Chuvalo.

“My great-great grandfather would wash the sheep,” explained Chuvalo. “That was during the feudal system; he was a serf. His Turkish landlady used to say to him how well he washes the sheep. And she’d call him ‘Cuvalo’, the washer.”

Chuvalo explained that one day his great-great grandfather took off leaving his family behind. All his siblings were named Rasice, but he kept the Cuvalo moniker which morphed into Chuvalo, adding the “H” to the spelling when George’s family arrived in Canada.

***No, I Didn’t Fight Henry Cooper***

George is a Canadian. That has a far reaching meaning in boxing because it qualified him to challenge for the British Empire title, but it never happened. Why,? well the answer is best told by George in a little story that he likes to tell.

“It never happened because the Canadian Boxing Board was intimidated by the British Boxing Board,” explained Chuvalo. “The British Boxing Board would never dare to try to force Henry Cooper to fight me, and I’ve got a cute story about Henry Cooper; one day I met the Queen and Prince Phillip. This was in Redux Hall in Ottawa, Canada. Redux Hall is like the White House in Canada. Me and forty-nine other recipients of the Order of Canada, which is the highest award you can receive in Canada, were invited to a luncheon. Just prior to the luncheon we were in a rectangular shaped room where the Queen went around greeting all the recipients while the Prince was talking to someone else and I met the Queen and then the Prince who still looked handsome at 80 years old. He had his hands behind his back and I remember reading that when people have their hands behind their back it’s a sign of superiority.”

Then Chuvalo was asked by the Prince if he fought Henry Cooper, the Empire Champion. He informed the Prince that he had not, but then told him of a time just before then when he was training in England to face Joe Bygraves over there when he spotted a familiar face in the gym. “He looked like Alfred Hitchcock,” said Chuvalo. But it was Jim Wicks, Cooper’s manager.

“So I went over to him and said, ‘Mr. Wicks, George Chuvalo.’ He nods his head. I said, ‘When is Henry Cooper going to meet me in the ring?’ And Wicks says to me, ‘George, he doesn’t even want to meet you socially.’ Wicks then laughed, ‘Haw, haw, haw,’ “said Chuvalo in his best British accent.

***When I Fought Joe Frazier***

Only two men were able to stop Chuvalo. No one ever knocked him off his feet, but George Foreman and Joe Frazier managed to halt him.

“Before the fight with Frazier we wrist wrestled and I beat him with my right hand,” recalled Chuvalo with a laugh.

“So he said let’s try the left. With the left I got him down even quicker. But maybe I shouldn’t have done that, it made him train harder!”

“When I fought Frazier,” said Chuvalo. “I won the first two rounds, but then I got hit with a left hook in the second round and he closed my eye. My eye swelled up so much and there was so much blood.”

George explained why he believes his eye was so fragile that night.

“I fought a month prior to that. I fought a guy named Archie Ray. I knocked him out with a body punch. When I knocked the wind out of him with the body-punch he jackknifed and his head came down and hit my cheek bone. My eye was swelling up, and I went back into the gym and started sparring too soon and my eye kept blowing up in the gym. So when I fought Joe I was damaged goods.”

George was stopped after suffering swelling to his eyes and finally a left hook to that damaged orb. Chuvalo’s eye socket had been broken by the left hook of Frazier’s ending the fight at 0:16 of round four in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

***Ali’s Not Coming Back, So Fight Foreman***

“I fought George and the irony of that fight was, my manager kept saying Ali’s not coming back,” recalled Chuvalo. “I said we’re number four (ranked) at the time. I had knocked out Jerry Quarry; Teddy Brenner (Madison Square Garden match-maker) came up to me and wanted me to fight Quarry again. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I already beat him but I’ll fight him again.’ I knew it would be a good payday; seventy-five or a hundred grand. Besides Ali’s coming back and the first guy he’s going to pick will probably be me because we already had a tough fight and I would be a natural.”

Natural or not, circumstances would occur that put George on another track, one that would lead to Foreman.

“As luck would have it I fought Quarry in 1969, December the 12th; I remember Teddy Brenner coming up to the ring and he wanted me to fight in New York again. It would fuel his ego if I did. I said if I’m smart I’ll keep my position and fight Ali when he comes back. ‘He’s not going to come back; he’s not going to come back.’ I said I hear he’s coming back.”

Brenner wanted him to have a rematch with Quarry. He told Brenner that he won’t gain anything in such a dangerous fight by beating Quarry again, being that the California Irishman was so popular in New York, but if the money is right he would do it. Well according to Chuvalo, “He wanted me to fight for peanuts, so I said I’m not going to fight.”

Later on that year George was offered George Foreman.

“They offered me George Forman later on in the year. I kept saying Ali’s coming back and they kept saying no he’s not,” said Chuvalo. “I fight Foreman; I lose the fight, and then about a week later Muhammad Ali’s coming back and who’s he fighting? Jerry Quarry. I tried to think like a manager, but my manager (Irving Ungerman) wasn’t thinking like a manager.”

***Too Soon for His Own Good***

Born a generation or two too early for the bigger paydays, Chuvalo said that today the politics of boxing is better than it was when he was a contender for the heavyweight throne.

“The politics are much more favorable today,” he assessed. “They’re making a lot more money, due to the advent of television with pay per view and all that. It improved the attendance of a fight because it gets viewed all over the world. If a fight is hot enough and gets seen around the world you can make some serious money.”

Safety is a major issue in today’s boxing, but that’s not how it was when George was trading leather.

“I was a piece of meat in the old days,” admitted Chuvalo. “They stop fights a lot quicker today.”

***The Threat***

He said that his biggest disappointment was not getting the decision over Ernie Terrell in their WBA Heavyweight Title fight in 1965 in, of all places for Chuvalo to lose a controversial decision, The Maple Leaf Gardens, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

On his way to the fight with his manager, Irving Ungerman doing the driving, Chuvalo was perplexed by his behavior.

“My manager looked like Jack Ruby,” added Chuvalo. “He looked like a mobster, which he wasn’t. I sat in the front seat of the car with Irving, and my trainer was in the back; a skinny black guy who looked like he could grace the cover of a blues album; a little bebop hat, a little cigar and a mustache. With Irving in the front and him in the back, they’re both smoking cigars! I said I have a fight today, put your cigars out. They put them out. Anyway, we’re driving along Lake Ontario when I hear smack. My manager is hitting the dash. I look over and he smashes it again. I said hey, what’s the matter with you? He said I’m nervous. I’m the one fighting, I’m supposed to be nervous, not you, I said.”

After the fight, which Chuvalo readily admits was a stinker; his corner was crowded with media while Terrell, the defending champion was all alone. Chuvalo was sure that he deserved the decision, notwithstanding the fact that it was his home town as well, but he was in for a disappointment. It was the tall, jab and grab styled fighter, Terrell, who was declared the winner.

“I’m disappointed,” said Chuvalo. “In the dressing room afterwards I said to Irving, ‘Why were you so upset before the fight?’ He said ‘I was threatened.’ ‘Who threatened you?’ ‘Bernie Glickman (Terrell’s manager).’ ‘Who’s Bernie Glickman?’ He was the front man for Tony Accardo, big mob boss in Chicago. Tony Accardo couldn’t get a license. Why?, because he had a criminal record. Bernie was clean but he was a tough talking guy. What happened was Bernie went to see Irving at his chicken processing plant and told him if George wins the fight you will end up in a cement box in Lake Ontario and your wife will take all your chicken business. To Irving’s credit he didn’t say anything before the fight but he did have that disturbing behavior. I’ve never seen him like that before. That’s why he was banging the dash. He didn’t want to tell me what it was but it was bothering him. The referee, Sammy Luftspring, told me the same thing, he was threatened too.”

Although he admits that he never did talk to them, but given the fact that he was so sure he had won the fight, he is certain to this day that the judges were threatened as well.

***Muhammad Ali, Of Course***

When Ali defended his title against Sonny Liston in a rematch of his title winning fight, Ali was stripped for taking that fight. An automatic rematch was against the WBA rules. They matched veteran contender Eddie Machen with Terrell for their vacant crown with Terrell winning the belt.

So now the title was split between the real champ, Ali, and a pretender; that would be Terrible Terrell as he was known. Ernie was an honest fighter who had some unsavory people on his team, but he was further hampered by having been an active fighter during the Ali years.

After having problems finding a venue in the US where Ali was disliked because of his position on the Viet Nam war, a unification fight with Terrell was set for Quebec, but it was not to be.

“A lot of people saw him (Ali) as a traitor, a coward, a cheat,’ recalled Chuvalo. “They didn’t like him. So where did they put the fight; in Quebec.”

But Chuvalo was in for a surprise.

“Seventeen days before the fight I get a call,” said Chuvalo. “Who is it? Mike Malitz; he must have been working with Bob Arum, I guess. I’m at my manager’s office and he (Malitz) said to me, ‘George, do you want to fight Muhammad Ali in seventeen days?’ He said Ernie Terrell pulled out of the fight do you want to fight in seventeen days? I said hold on Mike. I’ll call my wife on the other line and I’ll see if I’m free that night. If I am I’ll fight. I called my wife; I said honey, what are we doing on the 29th, in seventeen days? Are we going to the movies or dancing or whatever? She said, ‘No, nothing is happening. Why are you asking?’ I said because you’re going to the fights to watch me. She asked who I was fighting, and I said Muhammad Ali. I hung up and picked up the other line and said to Mike it’s okay, the fight’s on.”

Chuvalo said that he remembers the Terrell situation this way; Ernie wasn’t happy with the front money, but George didn’t sound too convinced of Terrell’s reason for backing out.

“He complained about training expenses or some baloney like that,” said Chuvalo. “What happened was Bernie Glickman was in the hospital at that time in Chicago beaten within an inch of his life. Why was he beaten within an inch of his life? He went from there to a mental institution where he lost his life. He never saw the light of day again. He was questioned by the police but never said who beat him up. Let me try to figure this out for myself; he must have gone to see Herbert Muhammad (Ali’s manager) and threatened Herbert Muhammad much the same way that he threatened Irving Ungerman. If Ali wins he ends up in Lake Michigan. All Herbert Muhammad had to do was snap his fingers and all his Islamic guys are right there and bing-bam-boom that’s it. And that’s why I got the fight with Ali.”

***Who Was His Favorite Fighter? You’ll Never Guess***

“There were so many great fighters,” he said telling me who he most admired. No it wasn’t Ali, and it wasn’t Smokin’ Joe either.

“I think Ray Robinson was the greatest,” assessed George. “I think most people would say that. As far as who was my favorite, I don’t know. I remember watching a fighter named Eduardo Lausse (top 1950s middleweight), a one shot knockout artist. Joe Louis was great to watch. He looked regal, the way he fought. He was an excellent finisher. He was great to watch.”

***Today in the Life***

Today Chuvalo lives with his second wife, Joanne, in Toronto and talks to anyone who is interested in an education about addiction or boxing. He knows both very intimately.

December 1, 2010
Chuvalo in his prime
Chuvalo in his prime
George Chuvalo as he is today
George Chuvalo as he is today
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