Boxing legend punches out his life story: wins, losses, and knockouts

Friday, March 7th, 2014

(Originally published on Open Book Toronto)

When I was fourteen, an entire wall of my bedroom was plastered with glossy centerfolds. But rather than scantily clad women, the photos were a who’s-who of boxing’s golden era: guys like Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Marvin Hagler, and Canadians Shawn O’Sullivan and Willie de Witt … with a hallowed place for this country’s most fabled pugilist, George Chuvalo.

Two things I loved were boxing and writing. Two very different worlds, to be sure, but with more similarities than you might think. Both require an unflagging discipline, steely-eyed focus, belief in yourself against all odds, and an ability to keep getting up when life knocks you down. The boxer and the writer both understand that while their finished product may be witnessed and judged by the world – a published book or a title bout – the real work must be done alone.

It was my father who brought home the first manual typewriter that weighed about sixty pounds, and it was my father who made my first heavy bag from an army duffel and some straw and gravel. He was happy to spar with me until the competitive spirit got the better of me and I cut his right eye. I delivered my first bloody nose when an older friend kept badgering me to pick up the gloves and “play around”. And I received my first broken nose at the hand of a hulking kid named Mark one day outside a gym change room. All I remember thinking after the atomic blow was: “I didn’t go down, at least I didn’t go down … ”

George Chuvalo never went down. He is the only professional boxer in his peer group who can say he was never knocked down, never knocked out, and he never threw in the towel on a fight. The longest-reigning Canadian heavyweight champion and a top world contender, Chuvalo fought the best of the day – including two legendary fights with Muhammad Ali – in a 23-year career that resulted in 93 fights, 73 wins, 18 losses … and 64 incredible knockouts.

Chuvalo is perhaps better known to younger generations for his tireless work with his Fight Against Drugs foundation. He travels across North America sharing the devastating impact that drugs have had on his family. His youngest son, Jesse, a heroin addict, took his own life in 1985. His third son, Georgie Lee, died of a heroin overdose in 1993. Grief-stricken, four days later, Chuvalo’s first wife took her own life. And then in 1996, after suffering a relapse, his son Steven died of an overdose.

Somehow Chuvalo has transformed his own “personal holocaust,” as he calls it, into a life’s mission that has touched countless people around the world.

The 76-year-old bares his soul and does not pull any punches in his new and moving autobiography, Chuvalo: A Fighter’s Life (HarperCollins), co-written with Murray Greig. I spoke with Chuvalo from his home in Toronto about writing and the art of staying up when the world tries to knock you down.

CB: I can imagine people have asked you about writing your life story before now. How did you know you were ready to put it down on paper?

GC: I’m 76 years old, so I figured if I was going to write something, I better do it soon. I said to myself if I don’t do it now, who knows, maybe in a few years I won’t remember as much. I’m still mentally alert and able to remember my past.

CB: Writing an autobiography that covers a long and eventful life sounds like an overwhelming task. How did you approach it?

GC: I set it out in fifteen rounds or chapters, the major chronological events of my life.

CB: There’s no such thing as 15-round championship fights anymore, so there is some significance there, in terms of your life story.

GC: That speaks of a certain era. They don’t fight 15 anymore, they fight sissy rounds, twelve …

CB: You had the chance to set the record straight on some things that have bugged you, like the hometown sports media under-rating your talent. Is this a uniquely Canadian thing with us?

GC: Oh I think there’s a national inferiority complex. If you’re a Canadian you’ve got two strikes against you, like you can’t possibly be that good. It just seems that way.

CB: You got screwed over your fair share by those in the management end of the business, and you’re very blunt about that, and you name people. Have there been any reconciliations or apologies?

GC: None whatsoever. Not even from Irv Jungerman (former manager). He’s really a piece of work. Anyway, I was glad to get it all on paper. It made me feel better to get rid of it.

CB: It’s one thing to recount the toughest fights in your career, and the years of abject poverty, but the final pages of the book where you describe the loss of your children and wife, your pain is laid bare. What was it like working on that and finding the right words?

GC: It just came out naturally; it poured out. I put it down the best I could, especially the tough times, and there were plenty of them. In one way it was tough to write it and in another way it was easy because I remember everything.

CB: You talk about your appreciation of the written word. Back in your day, guys like Norman Mailer and George Plimpton were doing some really good writing about the big fights …

GC: Especially Norman Mailer, he was a fantastic writer, very insightful and clear thinking. He had his own way of doing things. He was a great writer and my favorite.

CB: Do you have any advice for those people who are the point where they feel they just can’t go on?

GC: Well, there’s always hope where there’s a will. If you have a strong enough will, then you give hope a chance.

CB: Thanks for being a hero of mine …

GC: Thank you for that compliment, champ.

Find out more about Chuvalo’s Fight Against Drugs foundation:
www. fightagainstdrugs.ca