It's a story I've told before, especially when surrounded by sports fans who can understand why I keep repeating it: I have thrown punches (albeit small, tiny punches) with boxing legend George Chuvalo.
Most of the kids in my elementary school had never heard the name of George Chuvalo. This baffled me, because not only had I heard of the Canadian boxing legend, but I could rattle off some of his more impressive accomplishments by the time I was in second grade. This came in especially handy when I realized that, for a few years in elementary school, I was in the same class as George Chuvalo’s granddaughter.
We were friends, back then, her and I, and I never did pester her about her grandfather or his career. (We sadly did lose contact after middle school; I learned recently that she passed away a few years ago after a battle with cancer. My thoughts and condolences are with her family and friends.) There were, however, days when George would come to pick her up from school, and on those days I would make him linger a little longer. I’d get him to put up his hands and I’d punch them, pretending to be one of the heavyweight champions he had fought. We’d pretend-spar a little, and then he’d laugh and ruffle my hair and head back home with her.
It was a story I told well into high school: that as a child, I had sparred with a boxing legend. For the rest of the kids in class, he was a grandfather picking up one of our classmates; for me he was someone whom, had I just been a little older, I could have watched in the ring, circling and dancing and boxing, on Friday nights with my dad.
I've been thinking a lot about George Chuvalo, and of boxing, and of the cultural resonance of the prize fight, recently, since the death of Muhammad Ali. For my father, and for kids like me to a lesser extent, the heavyweight champion of the world was more than just a superlative athlete, more than someone that had reached the pinnacle of success in sports.
The heavyweight champion was a metaphor that the world could be changed by those who were so often marginalized by it, that through (literal and figurative) fighting injustice we could live in a society that was much more beautiful, artful, and strong. Muhammad Ali was the prototypical heavyweight champion we pictured every time we thought of the power of boxing and sport to change the world.
As part of the many remembrances of Muhammad Ali recently, I read Stephen Brunt's piece on George Chuvalo, The Canadian Who Faced Down Ali. It reminded me that boxers didn't just fight in the ring, or fight for social justice; they fought their own demons, too.
It’s become a cliché in Canada to talk about how George Chuvalo is still standing, about how, in life as in his boxing career, he’s absorbed devastating amounts of punishment, yet never went down. But the fact is, he has managed to come back from the brink. There have been some tough financial times, to the point where fundraisers were held for his benefit, including one in Rochester, New York, at which both Ali and Joe Frazier shared the head table. And there have been some embarrassing moments—most notably, a front-page newspaper story in 1993 that reported how Chuvalo and one of his pals had been hired to “encourage” the tenants of a Toronto apartment building to move out so that the property could be converted into condominiums by its owner.
These days, though, Chuvalo seems to have found personal stability. He is remarried, to a woman named Joanne O’Hara. He is a devoted grandfather to Steven’s kids. He spends much of his time speaking to students and community groups and anyone else who’ll hire him about the evils of drug use, and about what it did to his family.
And he’s been rediscovered by a new generation, not old enough to remember, but curious about Ali, and about the one Canadian who faced him down.
“I’m sixty-three years old now,” he says. “That fight’s over thirty-five years ago. But that’s how people still remember me. It may even be young people who weren’t alive at the time. They ask me about a part of history before they were even born. I kibitz with them. They say, ‘You lost the fight,’ and I say, ‘Guess who went to the hospital after the fight? And guess who went dancing with his wife?’ So that fight will kind of live forever. No matter where I go, and I go all over this country, and people come up to me and say, ‘I remember that fight.’ I like that.”
Boxing, when done by people at the pinnacle of the sport, is art: it is a study of movement and agility and strength. It is a metaphor for life in that it is about hard work, preparation, and the ability to withstand a few hard knocks when things don’t go your way. Boxing is art, it is metaphor, and for me, it is nostalgia. It is memories of watching fights with my dad on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, and of throwing a few punches at the hands of George Chuvalo before I went home after a fun day at school.