In 93 professional heavyweight fights, George Chuvalo never once hit the canvas. His record includes fights against Floyd Patterson, George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (twice). He wasn't the biggest guy, standing an even six feet, but it seemed nothing could make Chuvalo fall, until his own family dropped him to his knees four times.
First, the longtime Canadian heavyweight champ lost his youngest son, Jesse, to a heroin addiction that ended in suicide in 1985. His third son, Georgie Lee, died in 1993 of a heroin overdose. A couple of days after Georgie Lee's death, Chuvalo's wife, Lynne, unable to bear the pain of losing a second child, took her own life by swallowing a bottle of pills. Chuvalo's second son, Steven, then died of a heroin overdose in 1996, just days after getting out of jail. Last year, his granddaughter, Rachel, a school teacher, died of cancer in her early 20s. Chuvalo's remaining son, Mitch, became a teacher in Toronto and he also has a daughter, Vanessa. All told, it's a brutally unfair tally.
Still, even though Chuvalo has every right to feel that life has done him wrong, he, somehow, wakes up each morning and gives thanks for the good things in his life. The series of devastating tragedies that would have broken most anyone has instead thrust Chuvalo into a role as a speaker, counselor, and advisor to at-risk youth.
Most of his talks revolve around making good life choices: eating right, going to the gym, avoiding liquor and nicotine, and staying away from drugs. Perhaps a corny message to some, but one that carries weight when it comes from the man who faced down boxing's golden generation of heavyweights and never gave an inch in return. And while his new calling is one he finds fulfilling, he admits that constantly retelling his personal story is "very draining."
"I think I'm doing okay. I'm on top of things, I don't break down. I used to feel like crying sometimes when I talked about my family. It's not as bad as it once was," he says. "I can hold myself back a little better today than I could when I first started speaking about what happened to my family. It's still tough. I don't like to cry in front of an audience."
Much as his life's story is one marked by loss, Chuvalo is the rare fighter who is better known for the fights he lost than the ones he won. Perhaps his greatest sporting moment came when he fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on March 29, 1966. Chuvalo had Joe Louis working in his corner. He went 15 grueling rounds with the champ, but lost a unanimous decision. His payday? A whopping $12,500 and the respect of boxing's greatest heavyweight, who said Chuvalo is "the toughest guy I ever fought."
Here's an example of Chuvalo's legendary chin: he went out dancing with his wife the night of the Ali fight after he'd iced down and had a shower. Ali, meanwhile, had to go to the hospital with bleeding kidneys.
"When I was dancing with my wife, I said, 'I should have danced more in the fight,'" he remembers with a rare laugh. "A lot of people thought I won the [first] fight but they gave it to him. That's the way it goes sometimes."
He may have lost his two world title fights—the second was to Ernie Terrell in 1965—but Chuvalo takes some solace in the unofficial title of being the longest-fighting boxer to never get knocked down. (There is, of course, no formal system for tracking how often boxers get knocked down.)
"There's no one else around who has as many fights as I had, or even close, that wasn't knocked down," he says. "I fought a lot of big punchers. I was lucky, I guess."
After his retirement, he spent a number of years promoting fights and training fighters. While he still watches boxing now, he's been on the outside so long that he considers himself no more than a regular fan.
Now 77, Chuvalo's body is starting to break down— his knees give him trouble going up and down stairs—but he does his best to keep fit by lifting weights. It's impossible to not notice that his fists are the size of canned hams. However, he stays away from much of the training that once made him one of the toughest and most feared men in the world.
"I don't mess with the heavy bags. I have problems with my shoulders," he says.
Instead, his regimented fighter's discipline goes into his work as a speaker.
"If I can get my point across and convince young people not to do drugs again, then I'm doing okay," he says. "Judging by the responses I've been getting for the past 15 or 20 years that I've been doing this, there are a lot of success stories out there attributed to some of the things I've said. That makes me feel good about myself and gives me a sense of self worth."
Unfortunately for Chuvalo, there are no self-help groups for people who have lost three sons and a spouse.
"I can't find anybody who I can talk to who has been through the same situation as me. I have to be able to help myself, talk to myself, and stay as strong as I can be."