Anatomy of a championship: how Chuvalo won by losing

The Clay-Chuvalo match was labeled the nonfight of the century. A close-up report on how a “bum” became a hero

JOHN ROBERTSON May 14 1966

Anatomy of a championship: how Chuvalo won by losing

The Clay-Chuvalo match was labeled the nonfight of the century. A close-up report on how a “bum” became a hero

JOHN ROBERTSON May 14 1966

Anatomy of a championship: how Chuvalo won by losing

The Clay-Chuvalo match was labeled the nonfight of the century. A close-up report on how a “bum” became a hero

JOHN ROBERTSON

MITCHELL CHUVALO is only six years old. and is far too young to be reading the sports pages, or to understand why anyone would call his daddy a punching bag — and an unworthy one at that — before he fought Cassius Clay.

But Mitch was there that night in Maple Leaf Gardens, and he saw those devastating punches welt and disfigure his father’s face and make the blood run in twin rivulets from his matted hair.

Perhaps it was cruel to expose Mitch to this, but I watched him squirm excitedly in his seat during the last round, and I heard him implore the referee to get out of the way. during one clinch, so his dad could sock this guy Clay a good one.

After the final bell, while thousands of grown men stood and applauded the unbelievable, almost-incredible courage of his father, Mitch tugged his mother’s hand toward the corner of the ring where the trainers and seconds were ministering to the man he was so proud of, even in defeat.

A friendly hand hoisted him up onto the ring apron, outside the ropes. George saw him and bent his head over the top rope so Mitch could reach up and grip both sides of the towel that encircled his sweaty, bewhiskered face. And there, in front of almost fourteen thousand people, they embraced, man to man.

Pride gushed from the boy’s eyes, and for the first time that night, George Chuvalo gave way to his own emotions and blinked back tears.

Flanked by his manager, Irving Ungerman, and his trainer, Theo McWhorter, the man almost everyone had branded an unfit challenger ducked through the ropes and tottered wearily down the steps, into the beckoning arms of his pretty, redheaded wife Lynne. His mother, who had refused to even look at the ring for most of the evening, so she wouldn’t have to see as well as hear those punches crunch against the face and body of her son, reached past Lynne and caressed the back of George’s head with a hand that trembled more with relief than pride.

Referee Jack Silvers and the two judges had unanimously declared Clay (alias Muhammad Ali) the winner, and quite justly so. But to Mitchell, Lynne, Mrs. Chuvaio and thousands of others there that night, there was no loser. Even the men along press row who had been nonbelievers until George had battled and bled for fifteen rounds to win them over, flung down their pencils and cheered him at the end.

As I jostled my way to the press interview room through the throng that was still surging toward ringside, other reporters closed ranks in

front and behind me and discussed the fight.

“The man’s not human,” one said of Chuvalo. “Clay must have hit him five hundred times. He never even flinched.” A British voice said, “It was like watching a chap banging on a pub door at closing time. But Chuvalo took it all, and he might just have saved boxing in the process.”

This was a crow-eating time for the three hundred and sixty boxing reporters, most of whom had traveled with mixed feelings to Toronto to cover what many of them considered the biggest championship farce in the lurid history of heavyweight boxing.

CHUVALO HAD LOST three of his last four major fights. His only impressive credential was that although he’d lost eleven of his forty-seven bouts, he’d never been knocked down. But this said more for his courage and stamina than for his ability.

Clay's image in the United States had deteriorated to the point where he had been forced by public opinion to take his title out of the country to defend it. It was bad enough, all along, to be associated with the Black Muslims, but he had really capped everything with his now-famous crack about his draft status: “I

ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Congs.”

At the same time, no one questioned Clay’s fighting ability. He had knocked out eighteen opponents in twenty-two pro fights, and had humiliated two former world champions, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston.

So the fight shaped up as a fourth-rate affair, pitting a champion considered too unpopular to fight in his own country against a challenger who

had been labeled an unworthy opponent by almost everybody. Sam Leitch of the London Daily Mirror, a leading British sports authority, took a cue from his editor and demanded a world boycott of the bout. Leitch’s story was headlined: “THE BOSS IS RIGHT . . . I HAVE CANCELED MY TRIP.” Typical of United States press reaction was the barb tossed by columnist Arthur Daley of the New York Times. He told his readers: “They are charging $100 ringside here for a fight that isn’t worth 30 cents.” And sports editor Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star had phoned his department all the way from Florida and ordered, “Don’t even suggest in any of your advance stories that Chuvalo has a chance, because you and I both know he hasn’t.” But on fight night, Chuvalo was to punch holes in their pessimism. After a little-league buildup, he turned in a big-league performance. I saw it from second-row ringside. As I looked up through the ropes 13,900 fans in the Gardens were shrieking with excitement as Chuvalo plodded out of his corner at the opening bell and took six punishing jabs before he landed a solid left hook to Clay’s midsection. But then for round after round he kept doggedly carrying the fight to Clay, who stubbornly refused to back off, throwing faster and often more telling punches at the Canadian champion. It seemed inevitable that Chuvalo would go down. But he absorbed the punishment unflinchingly for the full fifteen rounds.

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Down went Clay. “Did it look real?”

His face bled and rose in grotesque lumps, but even in the final moments Chuvalo was punching back. By the time the judges awarded the decision to Clay, Chuvalo had already won something Clay had lost long before, if he’d ever had it: the respect of everyone who saw or heard the fight.

Ironically, it was Clay who came closer than anyone to predicting the exact trend of the fight. He had insisted throughout training camp that Chuvalo would probably take him (he full fifteen rounds and prove to be his toughest opponent ever. But most sportswriters and fans suspected his motives. Tickets bad been going badly at the (iardens. and the once-vast network of closed-circuit television outlets in Canada and the United States had dwindled to a handful. All TV rights were controlled by Main Bout Inc., which is dominated by Black Muslim interests. Was Clay just talking to help sell tickets?

My first clue that he was. occurred eleven days before the fight while watching him spar at his Toronto Athletic Club training headquarters, a compact but clean little gym located above a body-and-fender shop on Ossington Avenue. In the third round of a scheduled eight-round session with sparring mate Jimmy Ellis. Clay was knocked to the canvas by an innocuous-looking left hook. He rolled over on his back, blinking up at the popping flash bulbs, and then got up and stomped out of the ring, muttering. “Run, run, run away . . . and live to fight another day.”

“I got tired,” he told me later, in his dressing room. “I got stunned, and

decided to quit.” Then after he had accepted my offer of a ride back to his motel, I heard him lean over in the car and ask his manager, Angelo Dundee, "Did it look real? Will it help sell tickets? Did the wire services get a picture of it?”

Clay's entourage — three sparring partners, two bodyguards, a valet, a trainer, a masseur. Dundee and two Muslim cooks — were quartered in a motel near the Toronto lakeshore. The moment we got out of the car. Clay charged ahead into the motel dining room. When I caught up with him, he was sitting at a table, consuming a head of lettuce and a quart pitcher of orange juice.

“Listen to this poem,” he said, thumping his glass on the table. “I'll say it too quick for you to write it down: ‘The politician is not my Shepherd ... I shall not want ... He leadeth me down the path to publicity ... He maketh me fight out of my own country ... I shall fear no newspapermen . . . My Cadillac gas tank runneth over . . .’ ” 1 missed a few lines but he would not repeat them. “Politicians are bad enough. I don’t want those preachers against me. too.”

Five teenaged boys approached the table, introduced themselves to Clay and asked permission to interview him for their high-school paper. “Sit right on down.” he said.

Dundee had already warned me not to ask Clay about his tiff with the draft board — it was too touchy for the champ. So I leaned forward expectantly when one high-school kill asked him bluntly, “Would you consider going to Vietnam to box exhibitions?” Dundee nudged me and whispered. “He won't answer.”

“Don’t paint me up as no monster now!” Clay called out

But Clay said, “Maybe 1 would . . . for $10,000 a day. If they're spendin' $160 million a day on the war. they can pay me a little $10,000 . . .” “Gawd," said Dundee.

“I would join the army only if Elijah Muhammad told me to. He knows everything.” Clay went on. He pointed out the window. “See that lake out there? Elijah knows why it don't spill over. He knows how' much the earth weighs . . . and the moon. too. You don’t learn that stuff in school. I’m an Asiatic black man. That was hundreds of years ago, before some plantation owner gave my family this name ‘Clay.’ I’m Muhammad Ali now'. And Em nobody’s slave.”

After several more questions, the students filed toward the door, and Clay called after them. "Don't paint me up as no monster now!”

“See." said Dundee. “He has time for everybody.”

Clay pranced down the sidewalk toward his motel room, singing to himself. and shadow-boxing. "I gotta dance . . . |jab. jab] ... to keep from cryin' . . . ]jab. jab] ... I gotta dance . . . |jab. jab] ... to keep from cryin'.”

The next afternoon, old-time movie comedian Stepin Fetchit. decked out in a leopardskin sports coat, was warming up the crowd at the Toronto A.C. the way a second-rate comic will warm up a TV studio audience. It intrigued me, because I had often read about old Step's role as Clay's personal court jester. If you could believe Step's glossy camp brochure, he was much more than that. He had brought Clay the secret of old Negro heavyweight Jack Johnson's famed "anchor punch." That was the one Clav used

to knock out Sonny Liston in Lewiston. Maine. Veteran newspapermen claim it's still a secret.

As Step went through his routine. I moved around the ring beside Sam Saxon, a ranking Muslim and Clay's chief bodyguard. Clay was talking about the fight to a number of newspapermen and Saxon was interrupting

to get in another Muslim commercial.

"Tell them how we have white Muslims. too." said Sam. “Tell them about our pure way of life . . ."

Just then Step's voice blared throughout the hall as he milked the punch line of a stale joke about men on the moon sending messages to earth: "Never mind about the dogs and men

in funny suits," he cackled. “Send us up some broads."

Sam Saxon, the puritanical Muslim, winced.

The workout was routine stuff, and after it was over. I again drove Clay back to his motel. On the way, I asked him how often he prayed.

"Five times a day," he said. “And 1 don't smoke, drink, swear or make love to girls. I divorced my wife and paid her $173,000 alimony because she wouldn't cover up her bare knees."

Chuvalo: “I’d like another crack at him. I’ve earned it”

A moment later we stopped at a red light and he nudged me. "Hey." he said. “Pull up just a hit.” A pide was obstructing his view of two young women waiting at a bus stop. "I gotta go down to that Yonge Street tonight and get me a look at some of those foxes.” he said enthusiastically.

"Sure he likes the foxes," said Dun-

dee. "What the hell. The kid's only human like you and me."

The l.ansdowne Athletic Club, where George Chuvalo was training, was not in the best of physical condition, as gymnasiums go. On my first visit, their front doorknob came off in my hand. I gave it to the attendant at the top of the stairs. "Not again," he sighed.

I crossed the bare floor, past a sign that said, “Don't Spit In The Water Pails." and found refuge against a stack of empty soft-drink cases. The sparring was already in progress, and Cicorge Chuvalo seemed at his bestial best as he plunged his f 'rehead into the breastbone of his spar-mate Hubert Hilton, delivering a vicious

uppercut to the Hilton solar plexus.

“That would smart.” a bystander remarked. "But aside from it being a low blow. Cieorge is still telegraphing his head butts." A roar erupted as Chuvalo floored Hilton with a chopping left.

Later Hilton talked to reporters. "A knockdown?” he exclaimed. “Heck. 1 just reached for a rope and it wasn't there. I could belt this stiff out anytime I want."

But a much better boxer was soon to try and fail.

Sitting off in a corner, a husky, round - faced Negro was solemnly watching the workout. He was Drew (Bundini) Brown. Clay’s former trainer, who had volunteered to help Chuvalo attempt to dethrone his former pupil. I asked him why. He glowered.

"They run me out of their camp because I wouldn’t become a Muslim.” he said. "That's why they got rid of Clay's wife Sonji. too. Clay should have been boxing’s savior, but he has become its executioner. Those Muslims turn him on and off like a neon sign. He don't know what he believes in. So I'm here to help Chuvalo, to try to save boxing.”

The fight had been over for almost twenty minutes, and in the press room at Maple Leaf Gardens the reporters glanced irritably at their watches. They had deadlines to meet, and they were waiting for Chuvalo and Clay to emerge from their dressing rooms.

Chuvalo and his manager, Irving Ungerman. elbowed their way inside, (ieorge's nose was bent and swollen. His eyes were bluish slits, and a patch of skin was missing from his forehead. Many of the same men who had publicly labeled him as unworthy of a title shot, now looked sheepishly at him as he moved to the platform.

"Were you ever in trouble?” someone asked, incredulously.

"He never hurt me.” said George, through swollen lips. "I'd like another crack at him. 1 feel I've earned it."

There were more questions. Yes. he thought Clay was the fastest heavyweight he'd ever fought: but. no. he didn't punch as hard as some others he'd fought. When the questions trailed off. Chuvalo excused himself and began moving slowly out of the room. Some of the same men who had called him unworthy before the fight were applauding him niw.

Chuvalo paused at the door, then turned back to face them. For the first time, his battered impassive face was forming a grin. “Listen, you guys, you're all invited back to the Prince George Hotel. The party's on us."

A few minutes later Clay came in, flanked by three Muslim friends. He was wearing evening clothes in midnight blue, and he adjusted his bow tie as he hopped up on the platform. He was unmarked.

"I warned you.” he said. "But you wouldn't listen. Chuvalo is the toughest man I've ever fought. Tougher’n Liston. Patterson. Jones and all the rest. His head is the hardest thing I've ever hit.” As evidence, he held up his swollen fists.

When the interview was over, his bodyguards cleared the way for him through the throng: "Give him room. Ciive him a three-foot path ...”

It was more than Chuvalo had given him all night. ★