HOW BOUT THAT!
Legendary Canuck boxer George Chuvalo outlasts other ring greats – he’s 80 today
Muhammad Ali, struck by Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42, whispering and shaking in his final years, died before his 75th birthday.
Joe Frazier mumbled for most of his post-fighting life, difficult to hear, sometimes difficult to understand. He passed away at the age of 67.
Floyd Patterson, the heavyweight champion before either of them, was later diagnosed with brain damage. He lived until 71.
So many of the names that mattered most on George Chuvalo’s defining win-loss record of 93 professional fights — almost everyone except the grill salesman George Foreman — are gone. Jimmy Ellis at 74; Ernie Terrell at 75; Jerry Quarry, with severe brain damage, at 53. Cleveland Williams at 66. Buster Mathis at 69. Zora Folley at 41. Oscar Bonavena, just 34. Yvon Durelle at 78.
And here is George Chuvalo, still standing, still speaking to schools, still signing all the autographs, outlasting almost all of the champions he fought over the years, all those who pounded on him and he pounded back, all those who never were able to knock him off his feet.
He is still upright, fists out, always in position to pose for a photograph and about to do something the greatest of champions of his life — Ali, Frazier, Patterson and Sonny Liston, whom he never fought — could never claim.
George Chuvalo celebrates his 80 birthday on Tuesday with a clear mind and a softened voice, and Toronto will celebrate this monumental event in style.
A night hosted by Michael Wekerle of Dragon’s Den fame planned by some of Chuvalo’s friends, will be held at the Cadillac Lounge on Queen St. West, with tickets listed at $40 and a chance to rub shoulders will some celebrities and some who think they are celebrities.
The musical guests include Goddo’s Greg Godovitz — one Toronto legend playing for another.
It’s also expected that the understated Don Cherry will be there alongside his sidekick, Ron MacLean, and the wannabe Toronto mayor, Doug Ford. But the night is less about the music and the pseudo-celebrities and more about the multi-time Canadian champion who has defeated time and circumstance and the brain damage that has affected so many of his opponents and athletes of our sports.
Somehow, they’ve gone down for the count. He’s still standing.
Chuvalo has had a remarkable and crushing life, both sides of it having been documented so many times over the years. The most hideous defeats were not in the ring — the loss of two sons to drugs, another son to suicide, his beloved wife to suicide. Somehow, he kept on living; I have no idea how.
In the ring, he was of a generation so different than this current one, when the heavyweight championship of the world was the greatest title in sport, when boxing was mainstream and truly mattered.
He fought 20 times at Maple Leaf Gardens, nine times at the famed Madison Square Garden.
Imagine that by today’s standards. “There was nothing like (the old) Madison Square,” Chuvalo once told me. “That walk to the ring. I don’t think anything in sports compares to it.”
He fought for the WBA world championship at the Gardens — once Terrell, who became an alphabet champion in Ali’s protested absence.
He wasn’t close in going the distance twice with Ali, but he was close with Terrell, and in maybe his greatest fight, his 1965 classic with Patterson, he defeated the former champion everywhere but on the scorecards.
That bout was Ring Magazine’s fight of the year. At a time when everybody fought everybody and we all knew their names.
Chuvalo took some awful beatings — most notably against Frazier and the young slugger Foreman, who was 12 years his junior. But he always came back. He won 12 of his next 13 fights after lasting just four rounds with Smokin’ Joe. That was Chuvalo — he just kept on keeping on.
All the while he was being urged to quit, to get out before he got hurt. All of that seems so ironic now.
“They’d write that I was ‘punch drunk,’ ” Chuvalo wrote in his autobiography. “Or that I should quit before I got brain damage.
To them, I was a freak of nature, a human shock absorber. Reading the old clippings, you’d think I never did anything except get hit.”
Before Ali died, he admitted to having a certain love for Chuvalo. It was the same with Frazier. The same with Patterson. Love and admiration and respect.
Recently, in Las Vegas, I ran into the old referee Joe Cortez. I told him where I was from. He asked me the question I’ve been asked so many times before: How’s George Chuvalo doing?
“Still standing,” I said, “still standing.”
George Chuvalo’s 80th birthday will be celebrated in an event on Tuesday night at the Cadillac Lounge in Toronto.