Legendary boxer George Chuvalo rings in 80th birthday

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Legendary boxer George Chuvalo rings in 80th birthday

Legendary former boxer George Chuvalo celebrated his 80th birthday in style on Tuesday evening in Toronto, taking the opportunity to look back on a long and storied career in the ring. 

Dozens of boxing fans lined the sidewalk outside of the Cadillac Lounge on Queen Street West, not far from the Junction neighbourhood where Chuvalo grew up, as he pulled up in a 1961 Roll Royce with his son and two grandsons. 

The five-time Canadian heavyweight champion took his time chatting with fans and shaking hands as he made his way inside. 

"Everyone here, as far as I know, is a fight fan, and that makes me feel pretty good," Chuvalo said.

One man even shoved a pair of gold boxing gloves in front of Chuvalo, which he was happy to autograph.

"When they stop asking me for autographs, then I'm in trouble," he said.

Inside, Chuvalo settled into a booth by the front window with hockey commentator Don Cherry, who was more than happy to share his memories of his friend's boxing career.

"I saw George back in the 50s fight Alex Miteff," Cherry recalled. 

Chuvalo faced Miteff, who was ranked 5th in the world at the time, on June 16, 1958, at Maple Leaf Gardens. Although the match finished in a draw, Chuvalo knocked Miteff down in the 10th round.

"Alex Miteff was a big deal back in those days to be in the top 10, and he knocked him right out of the ring," Cherry said.

The two fighters met again in 1961, with Chuvalo beating Miteff in a split decision.

The biggest fight of Chuvalo's career didn't come until March 29, 1966, when he squared off against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world. Chuvalo's son, Mitch, was only 6 years old at the time, but he remembers the evening. 

"My original memories of being there are very short bursts," he said. "Cigar smoke, the crowd yelling, heat."

The senior Chuvalo only had 17 days to prepare for that fight — Ali was originally scheduled to fight Ernie Terrell on the same day in Chicago, but that fight was cancelled after Ali made controversial comments about the Vietnam War.

Though Mitch Chuvalo was too young to realize the importance of the fight at the time, more than 50 years later he has no problem listing some of the things he believes made this one of the greatest fights in Canadian boxing history.  

"Taking that fight on 17 days notice, fighting so valiantly when he was supposedly just going to be knocked out so easily," Mitch Chuvalo said. "Earning the respect of the international boxing press and representing Canada the way he always knew he could."

Chuvalo went 15 rounds with Ali and despite losing in a decision, it was a seminal moment for Canadian boxing. The pair fought again in 1972, though Chuvalo also lost that fight in a decision. 

As for birthday gifts, there was only one thing Chuvalo wanted for his 80th, and he says he got it.

"My special gift is my children around the house — they were at the house all week," he said. "When I see my grandchildren... that's when I'm the happiest."