George Chuvalo is still on his feet
Never mind that he’s 40, overweight and a might-have-been, or that he’s back in the ring mainly to plug a new soft drink. The man has class
The trouble was hardly anyone showed up. The press conference to announce the March 7,1977, fight between heavyweights George Chuvalo and Bobby (“Pretty Boy”) Felstein was held in the posh motel ambience of Toronto’s downtown Floliday Inn on December 3. The two trays of canapés and the three silver chafing dishes cradling some indeterminate pasta casseroles were laid out neatly next to the cutlery and paper napkins and the makeshift bar had seven bottles—rye. gin, vodka, scotch, vermouth and red and white Canadian wine—all lined up next to one another waiting for a thirsty press contingent.
A fellow from the suburban Mississauga News did arrive. A consultant from the CBC’s local French station, CJBC, appeared and placed his 200-plus pounds of St. Urbain Street bulk, draped with amulets and necklaces, on one of the little folding chairs lining the room, and proceeded to punctuate the stillness with heckling.
“Ain’t nobody coming, eh.” he shouted to the nervously pacing promoters. There was no one present from the three major Toronto newspapers, so all the attention was focused by default on one press heavyweight, local CBC broadcaster Brian Williams. Williams, who carefully avoided the bar, stood stoically on the sidelines gnawing sporadically at the crackers with shrimp paste, gearing himself up for what to him the situation obviously called for— some tough questioning. The promoters of the fight sat stiffly at one end of the room like the parents at a mixed faith marriage—in attendance for the children’s sake, but wearing black. Chuvalo and Felstein circled the food warily, sucking in their stomachs and ample portions of pasta. As he paused at the doorway of the suite, George Chuvalo grumbled sotto voce. “Jesus,” he said, “this is some halfassed press conference. They called it for 12.30 to 3.30 p.m. What kind of a dumb thing to do is that?”
“How do you expect us to take this fight seriously?” asked an intense Brian Williams, looking from the paunchy 40-yearold Chuvalo, who last fought more than two years ago, to the soft white contours of Felstein, 34, spilling out between the jacket and pants of his burgundy leisure suit, telling more about his three years of fighting
inactivity than any sports column.
“Boxing is getting a rotten name because of fights like this,” continued Williams. “Mickey Mouse stuff. These men ought to have retired fights ago.” “Shit.” seconded the bilingual CJBC consultant, now draped across the bar. “Do you people know what this fight is really about?”
It seemed clear he didn’t. Fighters and promoters looked at one another. They had money to make and deals that stretched far beyond the water-andspittle-soaked corners of a boxing ring. The comeback of George Chuvalo? Well, that was of some interest to George himself and of some minor short-term concern to his promoters, but only a moment in the larger scheme of things. Ánd to Canadians, the return of George Chuvalo. our best heavyweight ever, should mean something else as well. It is a sign of what boxing has come to in this country and of w'hat to look at if you want to understand not just the symptoms that ulcerate boxing—the mobsters. the rounders and the con men—but more importantly, the disease itself that has all but wiped out the sport in English Canada.
He was our Great Canadian Hope. George Chuvalo, the flat-faced, high
cheek-boned son of Herzegovinian parents whose forefathers had survived the massacres of the Turks, the hostilities of the Serbs, and made it from Yugoslavia to the relative paradise of Toronto’s west end. His mother was so good at plucking chickens that her boss let her bring her only son to the chicken-processing factory where she worked. So it was that Irving Ungerman, the poultry czar of Ontario, came to rock George Chuvalo’s baby carriage.
By 17. Chuvalo was Canadian amateur heavyweight champion. At 21 he was a professional and the Canadian heavyweight champion. But being heavyweight champion brings in something slightly below the salary of your average chicken plucker in a country like Canada, where boxing is generally viewed as an affliction only marginally less undesirable than embezzling and clearly a notch below honest unemployment. Chuvalo just didn’t have the connections or the cash to move into the big leagues and promote himself. So in 1964 Ungerman became his manager. Fueled by a desire to see not only George’s name in lights but his own as well, he went about spending the money necessary to break into the big time. The big purses. The big names. Joe Frazier. Mohammad Ali, Sonny Liston. As much as $65,000 a fight for Chuvalo and little more than expenses going to Ungerman, together with the adrenalin rush of being in there talking it up and negotiating with the Beautiful Black Cats.
Ungerman and Chuvalo. They came close, but they never quite made it to the top. They were always one fight away from the big payday, the wipe-out with the million-dollar purse and the closed circuit TV rights worth a few more million with the ringside mink-and-sequin dudes betting sweet money. If he had beaten Ernie Terrell. If he had won against Patterson.
All the same, he was ours. The first Canadian boxer to be in the running. A man who couldn’t, wouldn't be knocked down. “A punching bag,” said Ring magazine, not entirely without a note of respect for the Canadian fighter who seemed impervious to pain, whose thighs would wobble and knees buckle, seem indeed to turn to jelly, but who then would move forward again, even when, as in the fight with
Frazier, one eyeball had been knocked out of its socket and the other eye was a slit so that all he could see was a flickering shadow. “Quit in a fight?” says Chuvalo. “You never quit. That’s the most humiliating thing in the whole world.”
He made money, too. “About $500,000, maybe a little more,” says Ungerman, trying to add up Chuvalo’s income in 10 years of fighting. Not bad for a kid with a grade 12 education. And in spite of the 95 fights (76 wins—including about 70 knockouts—17 losses, and two draws), all he had to show for it was a couple of small scars beneath one eye and around the bridge of his nose, faded and masked by swarthy
Herzegovinian coloring. No stumbling speech, slurred words, just the quick staccato talk common to prizefighters who seem to feel a compulsion to speak in double time just in case they get knocked out before completing a sentence.
Still, the money situation was always uncertain. Chuvalo was a top heavyweight— at his peak during the Sixties Ring magazine rated him number three in the world—but in North American pro boxing it doesn’t really count unless you’re number one. A dentist, a lawyer, even a hockey or basketball player can get by just being good, but in boxing you don’t make it as a contender. Half a million bucks looks nice
made in just 10 years, but it spreads pretty thin over the next 20 or 30 when going 15 rounds is 13 too many, and when, if you’re not at the top, you’re nowhere. Except maybe back at the Holiday Inn at a smalltime press conference being sneered at by people who were not even leading contenders in their own profession.
“We tried to set George up in business so he should have something when his boxing days were over,” says Ungerman. “A group of us opened up George Chuvalo’s Caravan nightclub and restaurant with George as co-host and 20% owner. But it didn’t work out. The wrong kind of people started hanging around George and he was always picking up the tab for their food and drinks, signing the bills, and not putting the money back into the house. I had to close the place after 14 months.”
There were other businesses started by Chuvalo himself. A stationery firm that imported pens and supplies, called Office World Supplies, rented space in a plaza owned by Ungerman and went under when, according to Ungerman, some cheques signed by associates of Chuvalo’s bounced better than a double-ended punching bag and left Ungerman holding the pens and a lot of blank paper. There were also some companies in which lawyer Larry Stone acted as adviser. (Stone, a most competent lawyer according to his peers, was not necessarily the best investment lawyer Chuvalo might have chosen. In 1974 he was suspended for one year for investing his clients’ funds in companies in which he had a substantial interest and whose liabilities exceeded their assets.) In March, 1976, Chuvalo was ordered to appear at a judgment debtor examination as an officer of George Chuvalo Enterprises. “I’m alright financially,” says George today with a shrug. “I have some real estate of my own and a terrific deal selling land [he got his broker’s license last year] at a small place where I get 100% commission. But, you know, when it comes to my companies, I have a few businesses, and I never own 100% of them. Maybe 20% of this one, 25% of that and sometimes my associates aren’t so good. You know how the people in this business are.”
How are the people in this business? George Chuvalo is in training for his March 7 fight in Toronto’s Lansdowne Youth Athletic Club. The name is somewhat euphemistic since the only “youths” ever likely to frequent the club are Chuvalo’s eight-year-old daughter and a Slavic-faced fighter who looks exactly like a young Chuvalo and now sits playing cards at the back of the gym. This kid, it is claimed, could have been a great fighter, but his contract is said to be held by “the boys from Hamilton,” a euphemism for the mob. When this young fighter ran out on a New York fight no one in Canada would touch him with a 90-foot pole. “I said I want to hear that you’re free of your Hamilton connections before I’ll arrange a
fight for you,” says Irving Ungerman. The kid goes back to playing cards. Breaking such contracts in tennis or golf would be a matter of polite discussion among lawyers. In boxing it’s not just the contracts that might get broken.
The Lansdowne gym is one of two or three professional gyms in Toronto and it’s there that Chuvalo has always trained. The gym is above an auto body shop that never appears to be open, but the smell of gasoline fumes permeates every floor of the building. Once upon a time the gym had windows, but now they have been bricked up and covered with posters of boxers, nudes and rock stars. In the yellow electric light of the Lansdowne it’s always night. Chuvalo began training for his comeback in November. His erratic exercises did little to disturb the decorous card games being played at the back of the gym next to the pool table, supervised by the shrewd eye of the gym’s manager, Albert (“Birtie”) Mignacco, and the gym’s co-founder, John Daurio. George would lug in his equipment, spend 20 minutes or so in three rounds with a punching bag and a bit of skipping and knee jerks that looked highly unlikely to make much of a dent in the near 270-pound frame he was hauling around (three weeks after training started he had put on about five pounds).
In the old days, it was rumored that the gym kept afloat financially by fronting for gambling and bookmaking, but now
things are pretty quiet and Mignacco, whose lengthy record stretches back to 1941, hasn’t had a conviction for bookmaking since 1962 ( although the police laid charges in 1964 and 1965, these were withdrawn). When Chuvalo finishes his workout, Birtie limps over to him just to say hello and deliver a couple of messages. Birtie is a short man in his fifties with a mild exterior and an agreeable manner. He says he hurt his leg on the fire escape— the only back way out of the gym. “Tripping over bullets,” says one insider, alluding to a 1974 incident in which two men approached Mignacco outside his home and left him with a present of three slugs—two in his leg and one in his lung. The gym’s comanager, John Daurio, remains behind the boxing ring overseeing the card games which have continued nonstop during Chuvalo’s workout and will carry on for another few hours. Known as Johnny Dee, Daurio’s press coverage has had even more colorful highlights than Mignacco’s. In 1960, for example, he was charged with planning to disfigure a nightclub entertainer by throwing acid in her face. He claimed that it was all part of a publicity stunt, and the charges were dropped.
Having sweated, wheezed and snorted his way through the 20-minute training session, Chuvalo gets ready to leave the gym and make a few deals. For Chuvalo, life is deals. The $2,000 Sansui stereo rig in his house is a “deal” in return for showing
up to sign autographs at a local DodgeChrysler dealership where an old friend, former boxer “Irish” Tommy Burns, works (though that particular deal is somewhat soured by Mrs. Chuvalo’s propensity for wrapping deal-cars around lampposts); the jeans he wants to go and buy for his kids are “deals” at a wholesaler out in the east end and the muffled conversations held in doorways, showrooms or on telephones—all rendered mysterious by a boxing patois incomprehensible to the uninitiated—are deals. The fight on March 7 is another deal, and Chuvalo is personally working on the right angles. But he’s worried about the promoters. This time Ungerman has checked out. He’s not involved with Chuvalo’s comeback; as far as he’s concerned, Chuvalo shouldn’t be boxing anymore and, besides, he’s worried about the people getting involved in this particular deal.
Whoever these people are, they fill the vacuum created by the wholesale abandonment of boxing by responsible members of the community. Amateur boxing programs, the breeding ground for professional fighters, have dried up in Canada. High schools, colleges, the YMCA, Kiwanis clubs and police associations have all dropped or are cutting back on any regular boxing programs. Whatever the reason, it was not for lack of enthusiasm on the part of young, would-be boxers. When a local
Toronto television station, CITY-TV, sponsored the co-production with Ungerman in 1973 of an amateur-professional boxing night, featuring fighters as young as seven years old, the gyms in Toronto exploded with kids wanting to learn how to fight. The program lasted for three years, making celebrities of such notables as Canadian amateur champions (70-pound division) Mark (“Killer”) Saunders and (80pound) Bob (“Dynamite”) Dafoe. At the Canadian amateur championships, organized last year on a shoestring, some 400 kids took part in matches at Kitchener and Toronto, with the finals at CITY-TV.
But the CITY program was too expensive for the station’s tiny, one-studio operation to finance. “We went to the presidents of large corporations to see if they would sponsor it,” says CITY president Moses Znaimer, “and they all thought it was a marvelous idea—for some other guy.” Clearly, the prestige that Imperial Oil found in Hockey Night In Canada or Rothman’s Tobacco in tennis wasn’t to be purchased in the murky world of boxing. The amateur gyms were having the same problem. The Ontario government, for example, couldn’t find more than the occasional onetime grant of $1,500 for the staging of a tournament. The day-to-day operation of a gym necessary for the tough, continuous training of good amateurs was of no interest. Better to finance square dancing on summer evenings in middleclass districts. The boxing gyms had to look elsewhere for sustenance and they found it in card games, liquor and gambling. Street kids who wanted to turn brawling into disciplined fighting found the neighborhood gyms filled with minor hoods and being run by men with dubious records in Canada and the United States. Those gyms that wanted to survive had to find cheap locations—over pool halls, in basements under coin-operated laundries. The kids didn’t care of course. They simply wanted to box.
In Toronto’s East End Boxing And Youth Centre (rent $220 a month), underneath a laundry. 300 kids hang devotedly around a large pock-faced black man called Kenny Cleveland. Cleveland is one of those curious combinations of good and bad that has enough good to keep his kids toeing a tight line (no smoking, drinking, drugs, skipping school or the kids get barred from the gym) and enough bad (a miscellaneous police record from the Sixties, he admits) to make him a no-no for respectable funding. But the community knows what Cleveland and those who manage to run a tight ship like this are worth.
“His program has helped enormously,” says Mike Rankin, principal of nearby Corpus Christi school. “Kids like to find their pecking order and the boxing program has cut down hooliganism and fighting in the school yard. We’re encouraging the kids to go to the gym.” Local merchants claim petty theft is down “because the kids are afraid Kenny will keep them out of the
gym if we catch them,” and in return for no windows broken and fewer magazines lifted they’ve donated some of the equipment for the club. But when the East End Boxing And Youth Centre applied to Wintario (the enormously wealthy fund the Ontario lottery system has created) for funds to keep the gym going, they didn’t even rate an answer.
It may have been a chicken-or-the-egg situation, but the anti-boxing movement, which sees boxing as (a) a brutal sport and (b) the special domain of mobsters, certainly contributed to the cold-shouldering of boxing by the respectable community at large and the corruption and decay of the sport in Canada. Boxing, wrote legions of editorial writers, who in Canada seemed to group most comfortably on the pages of the Toronto Globe and Mail, was an activity that manifested the worst aspects of man’s nature. “Does any intelligent man or woman,” asked the Globe in one of its several ban-boxing-diatribes, “still accept the badly bruised proposition that there is some connection between manliness and the ability to give and receive the legalized assault and battery of the ring?” It would have been hopeless to point out that man’s impulse to stand up and fight—which enabled him to survive in the first place— seemed less reprehensible than some other impulses in human nature such as envy, avarice, hypocrisy or selfishness. These impulses are all encouraged by our social system, which professes shock and outrage over healthy aggressiveness in much the same way as our grandfathers expressed shock over healthy sex. It seemed pointless to suggest that unless the Globe had come up with some spectacular new biological evidence, the ability to stay on one’s feet remained very much a part of “manliness.”
It was also hopeless to remind the more fortunately endowed that, though the human spirit is more finely exemplified in talents that enable men to compose great symphonies or construct scientific theories, for the less intellectually gifted there is a measure of excellence in disciplining the body to the exhausting demands of the boxing ring, in which standing up and facing an opponent is as much a celebration of spirit as muscle. Still, the editorials contin-
ued to appear sporadically, particularly after a boxing death, even though, in terms of danger, boxing rates seventh on the list of recognized sports.
So it was that when Chuvalo announced he would defend his nonexistent Canadian heavyweight title (taken away from him on grounds of inactivity by the Canadian Boxing Federation, itself not famous for activity) against the non-rated Felstein, the closing comment of CBC’S Brian Williams just before he left the press conference had some relevance. “I think boxing is a very violent sport,” said Williams, “and 1 question whether it is a sport at all.” He did not seem to make the connection between this comment and his earlier put-down of the Mickey Mouse nature of boxing in Canada. It did not apparently occur to him that if Canadian boxing is Mickey Mouse, his attitude might be part of the problem.
The Toronto promoters of the ChuvaloFelstein fight incorporated themselves as Gemini Promotions, Inc. At the beginning, Gemini Promotions seemed to be headquartered in the Lakeshore apartment of one Adam Scinocco. Like everyone else in Gemini. Scinocco came with an unlisted phone number. The difference between his unlisted phone number and his partners’ was that, according to Bell information, it was not just a run-of-the-mill unlisted number. There was no Adam Scinocco. Yet there he was, sitting in the comfortable Mississauga home of businessman Norman Del Florio, owner of Norrock Equipment Co., who had now superseded Scinocco as the man in charge of Gemini Promotions. The third member of Gemini Promotions, Inc. was a good-looking, 21year-old. part-time college student named Sam Forgione. Forgione’s father, who had moved down to Florida to look around at real estate deals, was an old acquaintance of Albert Mignacco and the Bagnato Brothers (the Brooks Brothers of Canadian boxing) and his son had just naturally grown up around boxing gyms.
It seemed Scinocco. who says that he makes his living through an infallible system he had worked out at the racetrack, had taken to hanging around the small surgical supply business Sam was managing
for his absentee father and got to talking up the possibility of a Chuvalo-Felstein fight. Sam was an ambitious boy and wellliked by his parents. For his sixteenth birthday he got a diamond ring which, like an unlisted phone number, seems to be a sine qua non among boxing people, and he wears it on his littlest finger. For his eighteenth birthday he received a gold coin watch. For his twenty-first birthday he was given a gold sovereign signet ring. On important occasions, like this meeting at Del Florio’s, he would wear all three at once.
The promoters estimated that the fight would cost about $30,000 ($10,000 in prize money to Chuvalo; $5,000 to Felstein), with at least half of that needed up front. (The Ontario Athletics Commission won’t sanction a fight until a $2,500 bond is posted.) Half of the front money, it seemed, had been put up by part-time student Sam, who had no illusions about making a great deal of money from the fight but wanted to “run a good, clean, classy, gangster-free show that will give Gemini Promotions, Inc. a credible record.” He telephoned his father in Florida to discuss the proposition and Sam was in. “But we needed a good family man of respectable age to head things up,” explained young Forgione, “and that’s where Del Florio came in.”
While Gemini was planning on using the fight to establish its credibility and then quickly move into the more lucrative field of rock concerts, George Chuvalo was planning to use the fight to push his latest venture. It had been some time now since George had hustled a business of his own and he wanted to “start something that would run itself.” But what?
Enter Arnold Foote.
In his native Jamaica, where he headed his own marketing and promotion firm, Arnold Foote wielded a great deal of power until Michael Manley was first elected Prime Minister and Arnold became persona non grata. There was the little matter of his passport being temporarily lifted by authorities, who seemed peeved that Foote had run the advertising campaign for Manley’s opponent in Jamaica’s 1972 election, former prime minister Hugh Shearer. Foote’s clients in the Caribbean read like Fortune’stop 500 list, but when he came to Canada two years ago with his Canadian wife about all he had was a scrapbook of awards and citations and a good deal of marketing know-how. Just how this polished Jamaican aristocrat of careful tastes in wine, and a penchant for old mahogany furniture and good silver, met up with Chuvalo is one of those little peccadilloes of fate that neither seems to want to explain. But meet they did, and Foote grabbed the obvious. “Chuvalo’s Fruit Punches!” he exclaimed.
The Foote-Chuvalo team set about developing a line of fruit drinks in lightweight, middleweight and heavyweight sizes and enlisted a well-known independent Canadian food processor, SunPac
Foods, to help them. In the tiled laboratories of SunPac, suitable amounts of fruit concentrate and chemicals were sniffed, filtered and tasted to produce the appropriate tastes.
Food marketing is not a simple business. Developing a fruit punch is one thing. Getting the chain stores to list it on their computers is quite another. That requires capital, a good broker and a good gimmick. The gimmick was clearly Chuvalo’s name, but he had been out of action for some time and his currency needed some updating. A title fight for the Canadian heavyweight boxing championship would solve that, but the Canadian Boxing Federation wasn't about to sanction a Chuvalo-Felstein match as a title bout. (According to its current president, Edmonton alderman Ron Hayter, the federation members never actually meet to decide such
things—they correspond by mail. They do not seem to have done much of anything for Chuvalo over the years, nor for heavyweight boxing in Canada. During the 10 years when Chuvalo had virtually no worthwhile opponents in Canada and wanted to fight for the British Empire title—over the resistance of British boxing interests, which wanted more money up front—the federation dealt with the situation by mailing some protests to the British Boxing Board of Control. When asked if they contemplated withdrawing recognition of the Empire title unless Canada’s Chuvalo be given a crack at it Hayter replied, somewhat startled, “that sort of action wouldn’t be effective. I understand we sent letters.”)
Chuvalo could see the commercial potential in a fight even if it weren’t a title match. “Listen,” he counseled his promoters in a whispered phone conversation, “we could go for the controversy with the federation. You know what I mean?”
By January of this year, the Chuvalo Fruit Punches were still not in the stores and production was already two months behind schedule. And by January, Chuvalo had at least 40 pounds to lose to get into fighting shape, and two months in which to do it. But in spite of the dire predictions of food brokers (“these guys are in for a big shock if they think the Chuvalo name will get them on the shelves”), the haphazard training program for the fight, the sleazy occupants of the boxing gyms and the cynical sports columnists, there remained some gold among the dross and that gold was George Chuvalo himself.
Making and missing appointments, beginning businesses and coming back to start new ones all over again, moving, wheeling, dealing and smiling with a genuineness that sorted out the nickel-anddime sentiments of temporary camp followers and along-for-the-ride business associates, it was Chuvalo who would go the distance. In all his fights they had never knocked him down. Commentators could make fun of stolid Chuvalo standing there, legs apart like a mindless Colossus, taking, taking endless physical punishment, but there remained a dignity about a man who would not throw in the towel and take the easy way out. There was a quality of spirit that sneering observers (who themselves would wither at the glance of a spinster schoolteacher) could never understand. And in life, as in the ring, Chuvalo will survive with some personal decency. Whether he goes into the ring March 7 to make one last stand, or to flog some fruit punches, or just to pick up a needed $ 10,000, he will do it with charm and with guts. Canada may have let its boxing world rot, but in George Chuvalo we managed to produce a heavyweight in spirit as well as physique. It was not Chuvalo who was Mickey Mouse. As in so many other things, it was we who were Mickey Mouse in the unaccustomed face of excellence, v?