What is it about anniversaries and poetry?
No matter how harsh or savage the event being commemorated, there’s always a beautiful verse to fit the occasion. Dainty language is a sure giveaway for things that terrify us. So when we rhapsodize about “the sweet science” of boxing, when poems flow like a crimson river from a pummeled nose, it should be a hint to us all that the going is about to get seriously brutal.
March 29 is a date to remember for brutality and beauty — a watershed anniversary in Canadian boxing history. Exactly 50 years previous, to the day, bloodshed and meaning mingled in a truly epic brawl. It was a fight, as they say, that was bigger than fighting.
On that night, in Maple Leaf Gardens, George Chuvalo went toe to toe with Muhammad Ali, in a contest that was so controversial, so loaded with meaning, so endlessly punishing, that Canadians have needed this full 50 years to get an honest appreciation of what exactly happened during those 15 rounds.
Boxing on the ropes
Every boxing match is a clash of two stories. An intersection of two lives. What made this matchup so meaningful was that both lives, Chuvalo’s and Ali’s, were in a state of complete turmoil at the moment their meeting took place.
Both men had become so emblematic, so freighted with the expectations and disappointments of their respective nations. Their families, their livelihoods, and in Ali’s case, his freedom itself, was very much on the line.
Boxers have always been desperate athletes. But never were two so publicly desperate as Chuvalo and Ali in 1966. And lest we forget, their entire sport was in a terrible state at that moment. Over the previous decades, professional boxing had devolved into a shameful mess of rigged matches, crooked agreements and intimidation.
Ali, the previous year, had boxed Sonny Liston. Accusations swirled that the fight was a pre-arranged farce, that Liston took a swan dive in the first round. Liston’s biographer, Nick Tosches took the measure of Sonny’s collapse.
"The halting, unnatural, and awkward choreography of a man who is performing a fall rather than the sundering spontaneity of a man knocked down unawares…the fight was not merely a fix…it was a flaunted fix."
Chuvalo was ringside, booing louder than anyone. He was incensed at Sonny's collapse: a Liston win would have put Chuvalo in line for a heavyweight title fight himself. George joined the surly crowd that surged into the ring when the Liston fight went belly up.
It did not help matters that everyone knew Sonny Liston’s contract had been owned since 1959 by Mafiosi Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo (reputed to be the guy who got Bugsy Siegal murdered).
Liston was already discredited in boxing fans’ eyes…now Ali was tainted for having been party to the sham.
Chuvalo had nothing so overt to regret from his previous bouts, but even his 1965 fight with Ernie Terrell was rumoured to have mob involvement.
Chuvalo went the distance in that bloody encounter but he always claimed that fight referee Sammy Lufstpring had been threatened. The message was: either Chicago’s Ernie Terrell wins over Chuvalo, or the ref gets a long swim in Lake Michigan.
Further muddying the waters, the organizations that sanction professional boxing were now busily infighting over Muhammad Ali. In 1966, the World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his title after he joined the Nation of Islam.
The World Boxing Council still called Ali the heavyweight champ. Whatever the posturing achieved in boxing’s backrooms, it only sowed confusion among fans.
Chuvalo’s last shot
At least there was no confusion in Chuvalo’s camp. Their man was Canadian heavyweight champion, period. He had defended the title since 1958, usually with first-round knockouts. No doubt about it, George Chuvalo had clarity of purpose. His dedication to the sport was legendary.
His workouts were endless and overwhelmingly gruelling. At 28, he was 216-pounds of grit. He had never been knocked out. Never taken a step back in the ring. Never caught the break that would put him in a world championship bout.
George Chuvalo was no stranger to the hard life. He was the child of Croat immigrants, raised in the Junction, when that was still a tough part of Toronto. His dad was a stern disciplinarian.
The kind of stern that comes from years on the killing room floor at Canada Packers. His mum plucked chickens at a penny a bird. Whatever else George’s childhood did to prep him for the ring, it certainly put him at ease in the presence of blood.
Chuvalo was in love with boxing from the get go. Workouts consumed him. By the time he was 15 he weighed in at a rock-hard 198 pounds. At 18, he had thumped every boxer he could find. His reputation was already forming. Tough. Determined. Workmanlike. Fearless. Unidirectional.
If he got hit hard, he went in closer. Respected but finished off opponents. Never stepped back. Absorbed punishment. Dished out more. By 1956, George was chosen to represent Canada at the Olympic Games. It would have been a life’s goal for most athletes, but for Chuvalo, finances trumped laurels.
He turned pro instead. George was 18, absurdly young to become a professional, but he needed every penny he could earn. He should have hung back, stayed amateur, trained some more nuance into his game. He knew it. Everyone knew it. But that was not the path George Chuvalo’s life took.
By 1963 Chuvalo had worked his way up to a big fight…one that cemented his heavyweight contender status. The bout was in Muhammad Ali’s hometown, Louisville, Ky. Chuvalo versus the lanky heavyweight Mike DeJohn. Round 1, Chuvalo came out hard. DeJohn got hurt. Chuvalo went harder. Second round was a scene that still horrifies to this day. Chuvalo punched DeJohn til he went slack.
DeJohn was bent backwards over the ropes, half outside the ring. Chuvalo kept punching like a steamshovel at the partly conscious man. It’s hard to watch. Blows crashed onto the body that was draped, dangling in front of Chuvalo.
It got worse. Three times the ref picked DeJohn up off the canvas, revived him, then began the standing count. The fight continued. DeJohn got every break in the books, and then some, but Chuvalo beat him stone cold. It was a shocking punishment that Chuvalo unleashed on the No. 6 fighter in the world.
Ali had a contract in place to fight the winner of the Chuvalo-DeJohn bout. He watched the fight closely. No one ever called Ali a coward, but he was no masochist, either. After he digested Chuvalo’s work in the ring, Muhammad Ali thought better of that contract.
He decided he would have no part of a Chuvalo match. He bowed out. Pent up anticipation of a fight between the two began. Even if it was only in George’s mind.
No Ali...not yet
Denied a shot at Ali, George Chuvalo settled for another major bout. There was no ignoring this one. Madison Square Garden. The pinnacle of the boxing world. The most hyped match of the year. George battled Floyd Patterson. Ring Magazine, the bible of boxing, called it the greatest fight of 1965.
Boxing historian Bert Sugar was there, he called it simply “A war.” Legendary Canadian sportswriter Milt Dunnell said it was Chuvalo’s best fight ever. Everyone agreed, it was a thrilling slugfest. A heroic clash. Almost enough to erase the taint of boxing’s recent thrown matches.
It was a great fight for Chuvalo, but Patterson won the decision. Chuvalo had endured the fight of a lifetime, impressed a lot of fans and critics, but at 26-years-old, he was no longer a young boxer.
He wasn’t rich enough to quit the game. Wasn’t satisfied with being merely the greatest Canadian fighter of his age. And he was no longer on the short list of opponents Ali was willing to face.
Chuvalo was stuck. He was happily married. Kids and all. But professionally? He could hear the career clock ticking like thunder.
The greatest at his lowest
He was the most recognized human on the planet. He told the cameras loud and clear that he was “the greatest.” He was on the verge of becoming the greatest heavyweight of his era. Maybe the greatest ever.
In the 1960s, Cassius Clay was so fast that his opponents sometimes looked defenceless. He snapped out punches that rocked good fighters in seconds flat. He sometimes popped fighters in the face before they could even begin to raise a glove in defence. When they counterattacked, Clay ducked punches like a mongoose. And he had a psychological game that was devastating, too.
Golden gloves all over the place. Olympic gold at Rome. The man’s wit was a weapon in itself. Ali once said, “I am so fast I could hit you before God gets the news.” You could hear teeth grinding across the entire Bible Belt.
He was handsome. Hilarious. Fearless. What could possibly go wrong?
Three things, as it turned out. Simultaneously. And none of them would endear him to the powers that be in boxing. First, Cassius Clay met the Nation of Islam.
The year was 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay, heavyweight champion, became Muhammad Ali. For American journalism, American society itself, it was an unsettling, confusing development. Ali appeared alongside Malcolm X on the nightly news, backed by rows of unsmiling black men in impeccable suits.
Who were these stern young men, with their radical ideas about African American identity? It was as though Ali, in his conversion, was repudiating most of what white America held dear. Boxing promoters were not alone in getting a nervous feeling about Louisville’s most famous son.
Second and third. A wave of race riots swept through America. Harlem, Philadelphia, and Watts were aflame during 1965. Worse violence was still to come in Detroit and Chicago, and dozens more cities. White flight began in earnest.
The Vietnam War got underway. Uncle Sam wanted Muhammad Ali to join the fight. At this moment in history, Ali stated, for the record, “I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Muhammad Ali had already troubled middle America with his talk about Islam. But adding a note of racial resentment to his anti-war stance? And becoming a figure of leadership in a principled conscientious objectors’ position?
With that phrase alone, Ali managed to seriously piss off the US government, veterans associations, and the old guard, in one swoop.
A perfect storm
Race, religion, and military matters.
It was a perfect storm. The establishment, as they called it in the 1960s, developed a creeping fear and loathing of Muhammad Ali.
Time Magazine surveyed black soldiers in Vietnam. Ken Bantum, a black Air Force sergeant, spoke for many when he said, "I think the black man in Vietnam is definitely fighting two enemies, and he should only be at home fighting one."
Ali now faced the serious prospect of going to jail if he refused the draft. But who knew what a decision to imprison Ali might provoke on the volatile streets?
And in the midst of all this, it bears repeating, Muhammad Ali was still in the peak of his prime, trying to be the greatest boxer ever.
But as he took stock amid this turmoil, Ali discovered that backers and promoters were racing for the exits. So into that void stepped NFL running back and black rights advocate, Jim Brown, leading a consortium of black boxing promoters.
The Nation of Islam had money in the game now, too. Ali’s right to fight became a cause that transcended the sport.
For African Americans, it was a first foray into ownership of some of the riches boxing entailed, but there had to be a fight to pry that treasure chest open.
Fight no other city would touch
Muhammad Ali’s backers announced their intention to fight Ernie Terrell in Chicago. The Illinois State Attorney took a measure of the anti-Ali sentiment and refused to allow the bout. The mayors of more than 200 American cities quickly followed suit.
Nobody asked them to, but they announced that they wouldn’t sanction an Ali contest, either. With profits and eligible venues disappearing fast, the promoters realized that there was nowhere in the USA they could hold the fight. They reached out in desperation and struck a deal in Montreal, at the Forum. Mayor Jean Drapeau was on board.
Then he got a message from the American Veteran’s Association: “If you allow Ali to fight in Montreal, we will boycott Expo 1967.” Drapeau backed out. With nothing more to lose, the promoters took a meeting with Toronto’s favourite villain, Harold Ballard.
He had recently sold tickets for two Beatles concerts, despite only one show being scheduled, so hasty deal making was no problem for Hal. The fight was quickly booked in Maple Leaf Gardens. Dunnell, a Toronto Star columnist, made note of a prominent dissenter:
“Conn Smythe, the man who built Maple Leaf Gardens, was a veteran of two wars and he just couldn’t understand somebody turning down induction into the army. He resigns as director of the Gardens and never enters the building again.”
Finally, the date and the venue were set: March 29, 1966. Ernie Terrell versus Muhammad Ali in Toronto. Sportswriters were levelling truly venomous attacks at Ali. The champ was as devalued a fighter as the greatest boxer of his age could possibly be. Then disaster struck. Again. Ernie Terrell bowed out of the fight. Now the backers really got the flop sweats. Everybody would lose their shirts if a fight didn’t happen.
Seventeen days before the match was supposed to happen, George Chuvalo got a phone call from Ali’s people. Seventeen days to prepare for a world heavyweight bout?! By any modern measure, an impossibly, laughably tiny window to prepare. So, of course, Chuvalo agreed. Opportunity knocked. Chuvalo answered.
The boxing writers had piled on Ali in the run-up to the Terrell fight, but now they were just as eager to dismiss the Canadian contender. The odds were massively on Ali for the win.
'Toughest guy I ever fought'
Chuvalo was absolutely correct. The experts underestimated the Canadian. Muhammad Ali’s camp knew that Chuvalo was going to be a handful. But they had no idea Ali was about to square off with the hardest man he would ever fight. Period.
From the opening bell, it was clear that Ali was going to outscore Chuvalo. Nobody on earth could match the 24-year-old for pure speed. Chuvalo landed some quality punches, but Ali outboxed him, round after round.
What nobody could believe though, was how strong Chuvalo remained. As the fight worked its way into the 12th, 13th and 14th rounds, it became clear that Ali was not going to rock Chuvalo, but he was going to beat him on points, unless Chuvalo could dig deep enough to land a few sledgehammers on Ali. The slugfest defined itself. There were now two possible outcomes: Ali on points or Chuvalo with a KO.
The 14th round. Chuvalo came at Ali with an attack the legendary fight caller Don Dunphy described as “wild as a night in the Yukon.” Ali responded with punishing blows to Chuvalo’s body. With three minutes to go, they were exhausted, but both fighters were still standing.
Somewhere toward the middle of the final round, it seemed to suddenly dawn on Chuvalo: he had maybe one minute left to win or lose the whole shot. It had been an absolutely gruelling battle, but Chuvalo gathered himself, then simply erupted. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Four punishing lefts in a row, all to Ali’s jaw. Then a right, a hard one, square to Ali’s head. Dunphy shouts over the radio: "Chuvalo may have hurt Clay! Chuvalo may have hurt Clay!"
The crowd was electrified. On its feet. An upset suddenly in the air. But Chuvalo was cooked. Not an ounce left. Ali survived the final seconds. The world champ retained his title.
Immediately after the fight, and for the rest of his career, Ali would tell everyone about George Chuvalo.
“He’s the toughest guy I ever fought.” Chuvalo himself pointed out that although Ali won that fight, fair and square, when it was all said and done…Ali spent the remains of the night in hospital, while Chuvalo himself went dancing with his wife.
Muhammad Ali was 24, at the peak of his fitness. Chuvalo, four years older, was nearing the end of his best days. The two of them fought the biggest fight that ever took place on Canadian soil.
Beyond the final round
In the years that followed, Ali continued to fight and also began to suffer publicly and infamously from Parkinson’s Disease.
There are questions about how much the brain trauma of boxing contributed to the onset of Ali’s symptoms, but in his struggle and endurance, Muhammad Ali has become a living emblem of dignity in the face of declining physical ability.
What Chuvalo suffered is more like something from Greek mythology. One by one, he lost his three beloved sons and then his adored and adoring wife to overdose, suicide and addiction.
The deaths of the four people closest to him were staggering blows — the toughest man in boxing was overwhelmed. Bedridden by the sheer cruelty of fate.
But Chuvalo drew on endless reserves of perseverance and has emerged as an eloquent anti-drug advocate and public speaker.
In the ensuing years, Chuvalo and Ali have both shown exemplary grace and strength amid setbacks that would be unimaginable to most. March 29, 2016 should be a date to reflect on the power these men found within themselves to transcend their times.
They stood up against each other, they stood up against the status quo. They stood up against poverty and racial and religious bigotry, and then they stood up against harrowing fates. There’s no end to the poetry in that legacy.
(Large photos courtesy Associated Press, Canadian Press, CBC Sports and the National Film Board)