Muhammad Ali's legacy: George Chuvalo reflects on his friendship with The Greatest

Former Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo reflects on his friendship and classic boxing matches with Muhammad Ali.

Chuvalo fought Ali twice, and later became friends with the champ

Former Canadian heavyweight boxing champion George Chuvalo became friends with Muhammad Ali after their two matches. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Former Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo is arguably best known for his two epic boxing matches against Muhammad Ali, particularly their first gruelling matchup 50 years ago in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens.

The two combatants later became friends, but Chuvalo said they never discussed their clashes in the ring when they would talk or get together.

"We never once talked about the fight. It was always about something else, 'How's the wife? How's the kids?' Stuff like that. 'Where are you living now? What are you doing?'"

Chuvalo lands a punch to the head of Ali during their boxing match in Toronto in 1966. The fight went 15 rounds with Ali winning by decision. (The Associated Press)

Chuvalo, 78, who was named an honorary pallbearer for Ali's funeral yesterday, reflected on his friend who died last week after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

"You try to kill each other in the ring and when something like this happens you feel a great amount of sympathy, of empathy for your former opponent," said Chuvalo, speaking in Toronto. 

"We fought 27 rounds together and after that we became pretty good buddies. We would talk on the phone many, many times. He was a good guy, a friend of mine and I was a friend of his, and when you lose a friend, it's tough."

Chuvalo was away when he heard about Ali's death and wasn't able to attend his funeral. He said he last saw Ali in Las Vegas for his 70th birthday gala in 2012. But the last time the pair met in Toronto was in 2002 for an event at the SkyDome that honoured Ali and helped raise money for Parkinson's.

'You have some pretty hair'

"He looked at me and he said, 'George you have some pretty hair,'" recalled Chuvalo, who still sports a thick mane of silver locks.

Ali had been set to fight Ernie Terrell on Mar. 29, 1966, in Toronto after cities and promoters in the U.S. wanted nothing to do with the Louisville, Ky., fighter following his unpopular comments against the Vietnam War.

Boxing legend remembers fighting his one-time opponent and later close friend Muhammad Ali 3:06

But Terrell bowed out, and Chuvalo, then the Canadian heavyweight champ, got the call with only 17 days to train.

Chuvalo was clearly an underdog, and most expected Ali to make short work of the Canadian fighter.

"I always had confidence in myself, whether it was deserved or not," Chuvalo said. "I thought I had a good shot to beat him."

However, Chuvalo said once the fight began, he discovered very quickly that the pre-fight hype about Ali's speed was well deserved.

'Quickest-punching fighter'

"He was the quickest-punching fighter, the quickest-moving fighter that I ever fought. And I realized that pretty soon in the fight he was pretty hard to nail with a clear punch."

He said he tried to pressure Ali as much as he could, attempting to keep him on the ropes, away from the centre of the ring. Once he had him on the ropes, he said he tried to keep him there by putting his head in Ali's chest, pressuring him so he wouldn't move.

"He's a lot tougher to hit when he's moving," he said. "I think I gave him more trouble than most guys did."
Chuvalo said he and Ali never discussed their boxing matches when they would talk or see each other. (David Donnelly/CBC)

To the shock of many sports writers and pundits, Chuvalo would go the distance with Ali, but he was outscored and lost the fight on points. However, following the match, Ali let it be known that Chuvalo was "the toughest guy I ever fought."

"It was a close hard-fought fight," Chuvalo said 

They would meet up again in the ring in Vancouver, in 1972, this time for a 12-round bout. Ali again won by decision, but Chuvalo thought he did much better this time because he had more time to train.

'We would be buddies anyway'

Chuvalo said their paths crossed quite frequently over the years.

"Funny way to make friends, you try to fight each other, try to kill each other and then you become friends," he said. "It's strange but true."

"I think if we weren't fighters we would be buddies anyway," he said. "Our personalities kind of meshed the right way. I always felt good when I saw him.

"We always had good moments together. In retrospect, I realize how important he was to me in my life and I think I made a difference in his life, to some degree."

As for Ali's boxing legacy, Chuvalo thinks he was the best heavyweight champion of all time.

"I admired him probably more than anyone else that I ever fought."

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.