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Chuvalo releases autobiography on his life in the ring

The Canadian Press

10/29/2013 5:54:44 PM

MONTREAL -- George Chuvalo wants the world to know he was more than just a big lug who could stand in a boxing ring and take punches all night.

The Toronto native was a top 10-ranked fighter in the golden age of heavyweights, taking on the best of his era, including Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Floyd Patterson.

He inflicted more damage than he absorbed in his 22-year career, but the perception lives on of the plodding boxer with the iron chin that was formed during dramatic bouts in 1966 and 1972 with Ali, perhaps the greatest heavyweight of all time.

There was also the misery he endured after his retirement in 1978, losing three sons and his wife to drugs and suicide, perhaps the most painful blows of all.

He addresses those issues in "Chuvalo: A Fighter's Life", an autobiography released on Tuesday that was written with veteran boxing writer Murray Greig.

It is a chronological recounting of his fight career, but Chuvalo's voice, his love of storytelling and his frankly expressed opinions on the good and terrible things in his life are all over it. That is what makes it a better read than your average as-told-to book by an ex-athlete.

It also describes a boxer's early life, before the headline bouts at Madison Square Garden, of being broke most of the time and leaving a wife and young children at home to drive a shaky jalopy to fight for too-little money in a small-town arena.

And it recalls the glory days of heavyweight prize fighting, when major bouts were front-page news and the stars were not like today's six-foot-eight giants who jab and do little else in the ring.

That Chuvalo emerged from it all without a slurred tongue and with his memory and sense of humour intact may be his biggest victory.

"I wanted to leave something for my grandchildren to read about their grandfather and know about me," the 76-year-old Chuvalo said of the book in a recent interview.

But he also would like them to know that he was more than just one of the many victims of Ali's flair and skill.

"When people think of me, they think of me fighting Muhammad," he said. "It's hard for them to think of anything else.

"But I had close to 100 fights. The perception of me is as a tough guy who could take a shot. I was supposed to have the best chin in boxing. It clouds my other abilities."

From his first fight in 1956, a second-round knockout of Gordon Baldwin, to his third-round KO of George Jerome in 1978, Chuvalo compiled a record of 73 wins (64 by knockout), 18 losses and two draws. Although he was stopped short of the distance by Foreman and Joe Frazier, he was never knocked down in the ring.

It is one of the first issues he deals with in the book.

"Today, most people think I was a tough guy who took a good rap, which is fine," he writes. "But I was a much better defensive fighter than I ever got credit for. I didn't get hit with half the punches people think I did. If that were true, I'd be walking around on my heels today. Nobody's that tough."

Chuvalo never won a world title, losing to Ernie Terrell in his only attempt in 1965, a fight he feels was fixed by mobsters. But he was Canadian champion for most of 17 years, back when that title still mattered. And one of his favourite funny stories was about how he became champion of Haiti in 1972.

He was voted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997. There was also a statue of him erected in his ancestral hometown in Bosnia.

But his defining moment was in Toronto on March 29, 1966, when he stood up to Ali's brilliance for 15 rounds and became a national hero simply for not going down. He did the same over 12 rounds in a rematch in Vancouver six years later.

Perhaps ironically, Chuvalo feels Ali had the best chin of any opponent he faced, along with being the best boxer of all time. He names Foreman and Mike DeJohn as the hardest punchers he encountered.

He left the painful stories of his family for last. No blood in the ring was quite as gruesome as finding a son dead in a hotel room with a needle in his arm, or of his first wife Lynne succombing to dispair and taking her own life. He spares no details.

Chuvalo has since remarried, and he visits schools across Canada to deliver an anti-drug message.

Somehow, he maintains a positive approach to life, concentrating on his two remaining children and his grandkids. Even then, he dedicates the book to his granddaughter Rachel Chuvalo, who died of cancer last year.

The fighter's life has been a tough one indeed, in and out of the ring.