Big-time boxing returns to Ontario

The junior featherweight title fight Friday night in Rama, Ont., between Canadian Steve Molitor and Celestino Caballero of Panama is arguably the biggest bout to take place in the province in 35 years.

The junior featherweight title fight Friday night in Rama, Ont., between Canadian Steve Molitor and Celestino Caballero of Panama is arguably the biggest bout to take place in the province in 35 years.

While Molitor has fought five times previously at the Casino Rama venue, the upcoming matchup pits champion against champion in a title unification match. The IBF and WBA titles are up for grabs.

The province of Quebec has essentially carried the sport's Canadian presence in recent decades. Roberto Duran's victory over Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 was one of the biggest boxing events of all time, let alone in Canada. More recently, the likes of the Hilton brothers, Eric Lucas and Lucian Bute have fought in Montreal against the best international fighters.

While it might be a tad optimistic to expect a resurgence in Ontario, the province has hosted its share of big bouts.

Here's a rundown of some of fights that transcended Canadian borders and gained notice in the world of boxing:

Muhammad Ali vs. George Chuvalo, Toronto, March 29, 1966

The biggest fight in Ontario started with a different opponent and venue for Ali as documented in the excellent National Film Board of Canada documentary The Last Round. Ali was wildly unpopular due to his relationship with the Nation of Islam and controversial views. There were worries about the gate receipts and safety in trying to match Ali against Ernie Terrell somewhere in the United States. Instead, Ali headed to Toronto to take on Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Ali dubbed Chuvalo "Washer Woman" to describe the way he punched, but the Canadian gave back good in pre-fight banter. He also made Ali work every minute of 15 rounds en route to losing a unanimous decision at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Sportswriters in Canada still love to repeat Ali's claim that Chuvalo was the toughest he ever fought, but the legendary champ would repeat that claim in relation to several other fighters during his career, and he wasn't sufficiently deterred to return to beat Chuvalo over 12 rounds in Vancouver in 1972.

Jose Napoles vs. Clyde Gray, Toronto, Sept. 22, 1973

While it didn't really transcend beyond boxing into the general sports world, this may have been unmatched in Ontario's history in terms of the quality of both fighters. Napoles was in the midst of his long reign as welterweight champ and would go on to the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Toronto's Gray, meanwhile was just a smidge shy of being elite, coming up short in three title tries. Gray got off the canvas in the fifth to give Napoles a competitive fight in his first title bid, losing by margins of three to six points on the scorecards in 15. Ali returned to Maple Leaf Gardens for the fight, albeit as a specator.

Floyd Patterson vs. Tom McNeeley, Toronto, Dec. 4, 1961

Patterson's last bout as champion before losing his heavyweight championship in spectacular fashion to big Sonny Liston.

McNeeley was undefeated in 23 fights but had a suspect ledger. The former Olympic champion proved that definitively, sending McNeeley to the deck seven times before ref and former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott stopped the bout in the fourth.

The undercard featured Bob Foster, who in a few years would begin a dominant seven-year reign as light-heavyweight kingpin.

McNeeley would lose half of his next 28 bouts and spawn a son, Peter, who was served up as fodder for Mike Tyson's comeback in the 1990s.

Ernie Terrell vs. George Chuvalo, Toronto, Nov. 1, 1965

The fight that Terrell won to supposedly earn him a shot against Ali. He eventually did face him, but not before Chuvalo battled Ali first. The Chuvalo-Terrell fight was for the American's World Boxing Association belt, a spurious title given Ali's undisputed status as the real champ.

The six-foot-five Terrell was simply too big for the Canadian, using his reach to win a comfortable decision. As always in his two-decade career, Chuvalo remained upright until the end.

Aaron Pryor vs. Nicky Furlano, Toronto, June 22, 1984

Pryor was arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game at the time and had beaten legend Alexis Arguello, but boxing politics and a drug problem he later admitted to were taking its toll around this time.

Pryor was disinterested for much of the bout, cruising to a lopsided 15-round decision at Varsity Stadium. Italo-Canadian Furlano earned the distinction of being the first man in 26 fights to last the distance with Pryor. Furlano, who had engaged in entertaining scraps across the country with fellow Canadian boxers, fought just once more before calling it a day.

Simon Brown vs. Shawn O'Sullivan, Toronto, June 8, 1986

Fresh off a silver medal performance in the 1984 Olympics, O'Sullivan made the still-talked-about decision to move down seven pounds in weight, a rare occurrence for a fighter turning pro.

The Cabbagetown Kid won his first 11 bouts and his handlers saw Brown, who had suffered his first loss months earlier, as the next step. Astute boxing observers smelled trouble ahead of the bout, which received a big audience on NBC in the heyday of televised boxing on weekend afternoons.

Future champ Brown pounded O'Sullivan mercilessly until he was rescued in the third. To add injury to insult, the Canadian hurt his right hand and never threatened to be a serious contender again.

George Foreman faces five, Toronto, 1975

Long before he launched a middle-aged comeback and turned into an ever-smiling pitchman and sitcom frontman, Foreman was a foreboding presence, maybe never more so than in the months following his shocking loss to Ali in Zaire in 1974.

Foreman returned to the ring against five heavyweights in three-round exhibition bouts. Promoter Don King tried to foist the event on Toronto and conned ABC into presenting it. Attendance at Maple Leaf Gardens was announced at 5,500, probably generous, and fight commentator Howard Cosell would call it an "abortive thing" and "farce." For the record, Foreman beat: Charley Polite, Boone Kirkman, Jerry Judge, Alonzo Johnson, and Terry Daniels.

Steve Molitor vs.Takalani Ndlovu, Rama, Ont., July 14, 2007

Molitor has fought across Canada since his career began in 2000, but he had to venture to England to win the International Boxing Federation title against Michael Hunter.

He defended his championship for the first time in front of a home crowd and a nationally televised audience with a KO in nine. Molitor showed his title win wasn't a fluke, flattening his South African opponent with a right hand to help end matters in the ninth.

Acelino Freitas vs. Carlos Rios & Harry Simon vs. Rodney Jones, Rama, Ont., Sept. 23, 2000

It was very strange that these bouts landed in Ontario, as neither the Brazilian Freitas (KO 9) or Simon (win 12) of Namibia had gained any kind of foothold here. Both champions were unbeaten and on the rise, and the fight was televised to a wider audience in the U.S. Unfortunately, both bouts were less than thrilling, and boxing didn't return in earnest to Casino Rama until Molitor's title win.

The Baer brothers & Jackie Callura, Toronto, Oct. 19, 1936

The real, personable Max Baer and not the strangely evil, fictionalized version depicted in Cinderella Man visited Toronto just a year after losing his heavyweight title to Russell Crowe, er, journeyman-turned-champ James Braddock. Younger brother Buddy was on the rise as a contender, but would go on to lose in two fights to the great Joe Louis, who already beaten Max.

The Baers would each win their Maple Leaf Gardens fights in two rounds against journeyman opponents.

Hamilton-born Callura would step into the ring for the second of what would be many bouts at the venue. He won his bout, later capturing a portion of the featherweight title in the 1940s.

Some other boxing champions who fought in Ontario during their careers:  Nino Benvenuti, Ken Buchanan and Panama Al Brown.