CANADA

Tragedy for a heavyweight

Boxing legend George Chuvalo is beset by family disasters

TOM FENNELL November 15 1993
CANADA

Tragedy for a heavyweight

Boxing legend George Chuvalo is beset by family disasters

TOM FENNELL November 15 1993

Tragedy for a heavyweight

Boxing legend George Chuvalo is beset by family disasters

After 97 professional fights, former Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo will always be remembered for one remarkable achievement—he was never knocked off his feet. In 1966, he emerged as a national hero when he became the first fighter ever to last 15 rounds against the legendary world champion Muhammad Ali. But since his retirement in 1979, Chuvalo, now 55, has suffered a series of personal tragedies. In 1985, his 20year-old son Jesse shot himself to death at the family home in suburban Toronto. His sons George Lee and Steven became addicted to heroin; in 1987, in a desperate bid to find drugs, they robbed three pharmacies. But last week, fate dealt Chuvalo the most crushing one-two punch of all. First, George

Lee, 30, died in his Toronto hotel room from an overdose of heroin. Then, four days later, Chuvalo’s grief-stricken wife, Lynne, 50, apparently committed suicide at their home after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The former champion told Maclean’s that he has been devastated. “I just lost my wife and son,” said Chuvalo, his voice trembling. “I don’t know where you go from here. Where do

you go when you die?"

In many ways Chuva b's life reads like a Hollywood tragedy. When he was 15 years old, Chuvalo quit school to work in the same slaughterhouse as his father. Three years lat er, he launched his pro fessional boxing career when he knocked out four men in one night in a special event at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. He became Canadian champion in 1958, and held the title virtually uninterrupted until 1979. But like so many fighters before him, he had little to show for the pounding he had absorbed. "He didn't leave with much

money,” said Morton Greenberg, a close friend of the Chuvalo family.

Shortly after his retirement, the former champion unsuccessfully tried to start a chain of nightclubs. He also tried his hand at real estate. But by last January, his finances had become so desperate that tenants in a Toronto apartment building claimed that Chuvalo had been hired to force them out to make way for condominiums. Chuvalo hotly denied the accusation. But he admitted at the time that he was in dire financial straits.

As Chuvalo struggled, his sons George Lee and Steven, now 33, were on their way to personal ruin. Greenberg told Maclean’s that the pair seemed unable to handle the pressure of being the sons of a well-known fighter. Following the drugstore robberies in 1987, police found the two men passed out on the sidewalk. While Steven was sentenced to 15 months in prison and George Lee 23 months, Chuvalo never turned his back. “He was always there for them,” said Greenberg.

Life for Lynne was no easier. She disapproved of her husband’s career—according to Greenberg, the pair often argued. While she remained close to daughter Vanessa, 25, who has just graduated from university, and son Mitchell, 34, who has a master’s degree in education, her relationship with George Lee and Steven grew strained. Still, Greenberg said, “Lynne was an outstanding individual. The kids just seemed bent on selfdestruction.”

Greenberg is now terribly worried about his old friend. “I don’t know what’s left for George after such devastation,” he said. “He has been hit with the heaviest blows in the ring and outside of the ring.” But as he always did in his fights, the former champion told Maclean’s that he is going to keep moving forward. Said Chuvalo: “I just want to take care of my family.” The fight continues.

TOM FENNELL