Only one man stands between George Chuvalo and what he wants most, the heavyweight championship of the world. He’s Canada’s best hope since Tommy Burns, but in every bout he gambles with oblivion

ALISON GRANT October 2 1965


Only one man stands between George Chuvalo and what he wants most, the heavyweight championship of the world. He’s Canada’s best hope since Tommy Burns, but in every bout he gambles with oblivion

ALISON GRANT October 2 1965


Only one man stands between George Chuvalo and what he wants most, the heavyweight championship of the world. He’s Canada’s best hope since Tommy Burns, but in every bout he gambles with oblivion


TUESDAY, NOON: George Chuvalo steps on the scales in Regina’s Laird gym and the weights register 212 pounds. He’s a dark - haired, chunky, pale-faced man with a square head and beefy shoulders. In thirty-four hours he will be fighting an unknown named Dave Bailey. If he loses, it could mean oblivion; if he wins, he may go on to the heavyweight championship of the world.

Chuvalo, who three years ago gave up the ring to sell used cars, is Canada’s first hope of getting the heavyweight title in more than half a century. He is probably the best heavyweight this country has had since spunky Tommy Burns took the championship in 1906, and he is the only white man in the top five challengers.

With Sonny Liston relegated to skid row, and Floyd Patterson carrying a glass jaw into his comeback frays, Chuvalo, say his partisans, is by far the most serious contender and the only man who can be guaranteed to put up a tough fight against the champion. Cassius Clay, or Mohammed Ali as he has called himself since joining the Black Muslims.

In many respects. Chuvalo resembles Liston in his style of fighting. He’s a rugged, plodding, slow-moving slugger, but unlike Liston, Chuvalo has never been knocked down or out in his career — let alone in one minute of the first round, as was Liston in his return bout with Clay earlier this year.

12.15 P.M. Dave Bailey, a sleepyeyed Negro, whose claim to distinction is that he sparred three hundred rounds with Clay, lounges against a ringside seat watching Chuvalo at the scales. Bailey wears a Clay T-shirt that bears a drawing of a butterfly and a bee and is labeled, in the immortal words of poet Clay, “Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee.” Chuvalo steps from the scales. His jaw, developed by chewing bubble gum assiduously, looks as though a sledge hammer would bounce from it. His neck is thick, produced by swaying from side to side while he stands on his head for five minutes each night. The knuckles on his broad hands are swollen. His hips are slim, his waist narrow, his stomach heavily muscled.

As a kid, Chuvalo used to stick out that stomach because he thought it made him look tougher—in Toronto’s rough and hungry west end, where he lived, even a poor strategy was better than none at all. His parents are still there. His father, a Croatian immigrant, earns about fifty-seven dollars a week at a packinghouse, while his mother plucks chickens for two and a half cents a bird, at the poultry firm owned by Chuvalo’s manager, Irv Ungerman.

There were no cars or luxuries for the family, though unlike some of their neighbors they always had enough to eat. George shared a bed with his younger sister until he was twelve. The upstairs of their house was always rented.

George began boxing in his neighborhood. at St. Mary’s Polish Roman Catholic Church. There, when he was fifteen, an opponent butted him and the gash healed into a permanent scar under his left eye.

His schooling suffered when he started fighting. Chuvalo now regrets quitting in grade 12. but at seventeen, when he won the Canadian amateur championship and had an offer to represent Canada at the Olympics, it seemed sensible. The need for money ended his amateur career and his chance to go to the Olympics. At eighteen he turned professional by knocking out four men in twelve minutes and thirty-six seconds at the Jack Dempsey heavyweight elimination tournament in Toronto. His amateur record of eighteen w'ins. twelve of them knockouts, and only one loss on a split decision, seemed to have laid the ground for a meteoric rise.

1.30 P.M. Chuvalo orders tea with lemon and a medium-rare steak for lunch but makes it clear that steak isn’t one of his favorite foods.

As a professional, more conscious of the need for good training habits, he became particular about his eating. He still is. He refuses to eat pork before a fight, avoiding milk because, he says, it produces phlegm (he takes calcium pills instead) and delighting in chicken and lamb. Tea. he says, quenches thirst faster and is easier on the nerves than coffee.

Chuvalo has extended his food fetishes to his w'ife on occasion. When she was soon to have their first child, Chuvalo ran across a book that advised soybean sauce and milk for expectant mothers. His w'ife, who had developed a pregnant thirst for beer, drank a few glasses of George’s concoction, was violently ill. and returned to her preference.

A few years ago, Chuvalo had no choice between steak and lamb — he was living on hotdogs. He looks back at his first six years in the pain and sweat and heartbreak of the professional ring and blames his hardships on his training. (An easy example was the humiliating thrashing he took at the hands of an old veteran named Pat McMurtry during a Madison Square Garden TV bout in 1958—Chuvalo’s first real chance to move into the big time.)

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His record under Toronto promoters Deacon Allen and Tommy McBeigh reads: twenty-one victories, fifteen by knockouts, six losses and one draw — though most of the fights were against undistinguished boxers.

He did, however, win the Canadian heavyweight title. It was after he had lost it for the second time to Bob Cleroux of Montreal, and after he was disqualified for butting an unranked fighter named Joe Erskine, that Chuvalo decided he would give up the uncertainties of fighting and plunge into the vicissitudes of what proved for him a still tougher racket — selling used cars.

He had been averaging about one hundred and fifteen dollars a week in the ring; he soon discovered that peddling cars was less lucrative. So he decided he would leave Deacon Allen, who still had him under contract, and start out fresh. He borrowed five thousand dollars from an assortment of people including Burns Stanley, a taxation lawyer at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, bought out his contract with Allen, and began training under Theodore McWhorter in Detroit. About eighteen months ago Toronto poultry processor Ungerman joined the team as manager.

“When you’re heavyweight champion,” says the trainer, “you’re king of all”


Chuvalo’s record improved. Of fifteen fights under the new management, he won twelve — eleven by knockouts and one on points. He drew one and lost two — one of them against former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Ring magazine reported that Chuvalo had given Patterson a “rugged time.”

7 P.M. Tension begins building. Ungerman arrives in Regina by plane from Toronto and begins a seemingly unending series of secret conferences with promoter Nick Zubray.

Ungerman, who owns a three-million-dollar poultry business in Toronto as well as having investments in real estate, is not hiding his money. He puffs at cigars, wears an enormous diamond on one finger and turns out in classy clothes. A title fight would pay Chuvalo a quarter of a million dollars just to step into the ring. After expenses, about one third of that would go to Ungerman and his associates. Called Apollo Promotions, after the Greek god of manly youth and beauty, the syndicate comprises Irv’s brother Karl, fellow poultry entrepreneur Moe Wasser, Mel Newman, a furniture merchant, and Aaron Sokolsky, who operates restaurants.

1 1 P.M. Chuvalo is still awake. He’s starting to get edgy now, for he knows that one lucky punch from Bailey could end his hopes for the title and

the comfort he's trying to provide for his wife and four sons. During training, Chuvalo is in bed by 10 p.m. He runs for forty-five minutes, starting at 5 a.m., returns to bed. and eats breakfast at about 11 a.m. After three hours’ relaxation, he heads for the gym. There, amid the sweat, the smell of wintergreen and the shouts and groans of other fighters, he will punch the heavy bag for stamina, the speed bag for co-ordination, exercise on a bicycle and skip rope. He also shadow-boxes and toughens his stomach muscles by having a medicine ball thrown at his stomach. On the pitching end of the ball is the squirrel-like, perpetually toothless, Theodore McWhorter who each day, wearing a porkpie hat and padded vest (through taste rather than for protection), will don gloves and enter the ring. He holds up his gloved hands for Chuvalo to hit — the exercise is intended to sharpen Chuvalo and improve his combinations. The result resembles a B-grade Hollywood comedy, with the 212-pound Chuvalo lunging, straining, grunting and bulling his way around the ring, appearing to chase 130-pound Theodore—looking somewhat like a moose in pursuit of a Pekinese. Then Chuvalo turns his fists to his sparring partner, who earns twenty - five dollars a day for the privilege of being hit by a top-flight fighter.

Theodore has been with Chuvalo since 1962, and for the first eight months trained him without pay. The pair have a more emotional than professional relationship. “We don’t have no protector, there's just me and George,” Theodore says. Both are fighting toward the championship for a simple reason, according to Theodore: “Maybe I’m talking too fast because it gets inside of me, but when you're heavyweight champion, you’re greater than President Johnson, you’re worth millions of dollars, you’re king of all.”

WEDNESDAY NOON: Barney Ross, welterweight champion of the world in the 1930s, laments the state of boxing today. He is in Regina to referee the fight. Most of his day will be spent in trying to avoid Chuvalo, so the figit 1er won't he upset. Eating lunch in the coffee shop. Ross predicts that Chuvalo will make it “all the way.’’

Other ex-champions have said much the same. Jack Dempsey, who refereed George’s first professional fight, told Chuvalo that if he. Dempsey, had possessed Chuvalo’s fighting equipment when he was eighteen, he would have won the title before he did. at twenty - four. More recently. Rocky Marciano for a time considered man-

aging Chuvalo. or at least lending his name to the Toronto boy's cause, but the deal fell through.

Canada's sports writers are more skeptical. They argue that the reason Chuvalo ranks high is that the current crop of pugs have done for boxing what many people feel the Beatles did for the MBE. Typically, Milt Dunnell. sports editor of the Toronto Daily Star, predicts failure for Chuvalo if he does get a title fight. "He's always been a one-handed fighter,”

Dunnell says. Jim Coleman, columnist-at-large for the Sont ham Press, agrees: “I've never regarded Chuvalo as championship material.” Many of the writers, however, were staunch admirers of Deacon Allen and fault Chuvalo for his disputes and eventual separation from the Deacon.

2 P.M. Chuvalo finishes lunch, and heads for a movie. Monday he saw an Elvis Presley film; Tuesday, a Prank Sinatra movie; and today he

intends to see the Three Stooges. He sits in the dark theatre, sheltered front the autograph seekers and the clinging crop of sports writers mobilized for the big fight. In Toronto. Mrs. Chuvalo is alone with the children.

Lynne Chuvalo worries about George’s fighting, and once broke out in shingles before a fight. She’s a highly strung woman, who worked as a hairdresser’s apprentice until, at seventeen. she married George.

Their life together hasn’t been easy. "We used to live on macaroni and cheese.” she says. "Many times I just had a quarter and couldn’t decide whether to get a loaf of bread or quart of milk. When George was living on hot dogs in Detroit, when he lirst joined Theodore, my mother kept up payments on our house.”

Lynne objected at first to his boxing, but now, with money coming in —Chuvalo bought their present house from his twenty-five-thousand-dollar fee for the Patterson fight—she wants him to continue, to make enough money to set up a hotel business. She says it is getting hard for George to stay in condition and, as he gets older, it will take even more out of him.

Before his bigger fights, Chuvalo can be away from home for up to two months. Lynne and the children — Mitchell, six; Stevie, five; Georgie, three; and Jesse, eighteen months —may visit briefly at training camp, but that is all the family life they have.

4 P.M. Chuvalo returns to the hotel, eats a steak dinner and goes to his room for a rest. In Toronto, Mrs. Chuvalo is taking the children to see Cinderella at a drive-in. She feels it will keep her mind off the fight for at least a few hours.

Ungerman wanted to talk about the fight. “George has to watch for butting,” he said, “because a cut means you’re out for thirty days and that could cost between five and ten thousand dollars. Then, too, we might lose a shot at Clay. Clay’s manager wrote to Zubray saying he couldn’t understand us accepting this fight. But we had to. It keeps George fresh if we get someone good to test him. Our only condition was to insist on an outside referee to be sure our opponent doesn’t get away with anything.”

The Chuvalo camp figured that anything less than a knockout would lower Chuvalo's prestige. “We can't afford to diddle with Bailey,” said Ungerman. “We have to knock him out.”

8.30 P.M. Chuvalo arrives at the dressing room. It is a bare, large, cold room, and in the centre of the floor is a rough, green bench. George will spend the next hour lying on it.

"It’s good to get to the fight early,” Ungerman said. “He hears the roar of the crowd and sees the others who were beaten coming in. It gets him tense, like a good racehorse.”

Outside, the preliminaries were almost over. Johnny Featherman has just punched George Trectop Murphy around the ring. Murphy's eyes were glazed. He staggers and the crowd is lusting for more. 9.30 P.M. Chuvalo’s rest is over. He begins to limber up. He starts dressing. putting on his left glove and left shoe first. He puts on a white terrycloth robe, with its sleeves split to allow passage for his red gloves. He walks the eighty yards to the ring.

The crowd began cheering as soon as he appeared. “I never hear them.” Chuvalo told me later. “I’m trained to listen to my manager. That's all I hear, except for the general roar.”

There was a strange quality of exhilaration in the air, and a bit of fright, as though we were all participating in some forbidden and dangerous pastime. The blood that had spattered down onto the press table was no shock. Yet what does Chuvalo, the gentle father of four young children, the resident of a middle-class suburb of Toronto, think of while he’s in the ring?

"My job is to kill the guy,” he said. “If I don't put him out. he could hurt me. 1 tell him to stay down, stay down. 1 just want to get him out of there fast.”

Chuvalo was unshaven (“It makes me look meaner”). His body glistened with cocoa butter to prevent cuts, and he wished the fight was over.

Bailey never had a chance. “Play with it.” yelled Theodore from ringside. Ungerman. looking for all the world like a poultry baron, echoed the instruction to jab. Chuvalo hacked onto the mat. He slipped and fell. “That’s the new canvas,” Ungerman said to no one in particular.

Both fighters snorted. There was the smacking sound of leather on flesh and the thirsty cries of the crowd. By the second round, small ruddy patches began to show around Chuvalo’s shoulders where he'd been hit. His eyes stared unwaveringly at Bailey —he’d been trained not to blink when a punch is thrown.

For the first twenty-eight seconds of the third round. Chuvalo blistered punches to Bailey’s belly, head and jaw. Bailey collapsed to the canvas. Barney Ross didn’t bother to count.

Later, outside the dressing room, a group of people stood talking to Bailey and his manager. Jimmy Dc Piano, from Philadelphia. Caught up in an overwhelming fascination with the fighter’s body, they touched the biceps. shoulders and stomach of the man who had been in the ring, with much the same objectivity as a customer who feels a tomato in a store.

The preliminary fighters went into Chuvalo’s dressing room to congratulate him. One of the last was a fighter named Bob Avery who was out of condition and lost when he was too exhausted to continue his fight. He wore jeans, a high-school football jacket, and carried a satchel.

He came out a few minutes later and asked a member of the crowd the directions to the front entrance of the arena. He walked alone through the darkened hall, past the ring where he had been beaten, and into the night.

Chuvalo is a fighter who has been down. He’s lost fights, and he's won. Tonight he was a winner; tomorrow he could lose, and a number of losses mean a return to the anonymity and frustration that once was his. Chuvalo knows all about Bob Avery and the countless others like him.