Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review: Chuvalo (2013)

By George Chuvalo with Murray Greig

They don't make many boxers like George Chuvalo any more. Too bad.

For those who are too young to remember who Chuvalo was, he was a heavyweight boxer in the 1950s, '60s and '70s who was known to put in an honest day's work whenever he stepped into the ring. Chuvalo knew he had a job, and he did it no matter what the circumstances.

What's more, Chuvalo was always willing to take a couple of punches in order to get a good shot in. That made him quite a knockout artist, and on the other side of the ledger he never hit the canvas in his long career.

You might think that a guy like that would have scrambled eggs for brains now that he's in his late 70s. But Chuvalo apparently is showing no signs of being punch drunk. He had more than enough brain cells to put together his autobiography, appropriately called "Chuvalo."

George's parents immigrated to Canada, where George was born. The family eventually settled in a tough part of Toronto, and he found his way to boxing. It turned out he was pretty good at it, and he turned pro at the age of 18.

From there, it seemed like Chuvalo had an endless series of fights over the years - 93 in all before he finally retired for good. Chuvalo averaged about six fights per year for most of his prime years, and he won 73 of them - so he must have been doing something right.

Most Americans remember him because he went the distance with Muhammad Ali twice - once when Ali was champion, once when he was just a contender. It's these chapters of the book that might be the most interesting, since Ali still fascinates many of us. Chuvalo said that he's never seen a faster heavyweight that Ali was in the first fight in 1966, but Ali wasn't quite the same fighter the second time they met in 1971.

Chuvalo also fought such boxers as Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Ernie Terrell. The Sixties and Seventies really were a golden age for heavyweight boxing, and Chuvalo's timing was all wrong. He might have been a champion in a different era, but lost to most of the really good ones for one reason or another. That cost him some serious money, naturally. Chuvalo claims some extenuating circumstances in some cases, such as a lack of preparation time, medical issues, or interference from organized crime. Those have a certain amount of validity, but basically he wasn't good enough to beat some all-time greats ... and Chuvalo certainly realizes that at some level.

Mostly, though, this is a collection about memories about the boxing business. There aren't any great truths here, not are any expected. Chuvalo seems to have memories of just about all of his fights, and the circumstances around them. He's rather good-natured about it all too. Only a few people are ripped here, including a former manager, Irving Ungerman, and a former champion, Rocky Marciano. Ungerman takes more of a beating, since he's much more central to the story.

Sadly, Chuvalo's life had a very difficult second act. Three of his sons died because of connections to drugs, and his first wife committed suicide. There's not much introspection about it here, but the blow-by-blow description of the problems that led up to those deaths is painful to read and must have been difficult to review. Chuvalo has given many, many speeches since then in an attempt to keep people from starting drug use. Even in his 70s, he's in there punching whenever and wherever he's asked to fight.

Some of the fun of this book is recognizing some of the names Chuvalo encountered along the way. Therefore, it really helps to have been a fan of boxing when Chuvalo was active. That's going to let a lot of people on the outside when it comes to reading this. Those who do pick up "Chuvalo," though, certainly will gain respect for this warrior as a boxer and as a man.

Three stars

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