Chuvalo remembers Frazier

Legendary boxers George Chuvalo and Smokin' Joe Frazier. (STAN BEHAL/QMI Agency)

Legendary boxers George Chuvalo and Smokin' Joe Frazier. (STAN BEHAL/QMI Agency)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:20 PM ET

George Chuvalo pauses when asked about his former foe Joe Frazier.

“He was a real sweet guy,” said Chuvalo, who fought Smokin’ Joe on July 19, 1967 in one of the most brutal heavyweight bouts in history. “Everytime I saw him, he always gave me a big hug.

“I’m missing a dear friend.”

Frazier died of liver cancer on Monday. Chuvalo found out the next day when his wife, Joanne, contacted him in Pinehouse, Sask., a remote Metis village in the north of the province, where the former Canadian heavyweight champion was giving a talk on the perils of drug abuse.

The news struck Chuvalo deeply.

They fought at Madison Square Garden in New York City on that fateful night, a bout that almost ended Chuvalo’s career, and certainly cemented his reputation as one of the toughest fighters ever. After that, the two became good friends and often met in later years at conventions and charity dinners, the last time in June 2010 in NYC.

“He looked great,” said Big George. “In fact, I remember saying, ‘Joe, let’s get the gloves back on.’ ”

After Frazier passed away, the British newspaper, The Telegraph, listed his five most memorable fights. One of them was his bout against Chuvalo.

“In a brutal performance of pure power, Frazier fractured George Chuvalo’s orbital bone under his eye so badly that Chuvalo needed reconstructive surgery to correct the injury,” wrote the author, Gareth Davies. “A career-ending injury for mere mortals, Chuvalo continued his amazing career post-surgery to cement his legend.”

Both fighters went on to bigger bouts, Frazier won the undisputed world heavy-weight title and fought three famous fights against Muhammad Ali, including the legendary Thrilla in Manila on Oct.1, 1975.

Chuvalo also faced Ali again, as well as George Foreman and Jimmy Ellis, who won world championships. The Canadian never won the world belt, but he took on the very best heavyweights in the best heavyweight boxing era and was never knocked down in 93 fights.

But of all of his fights, Chuvalo’s bout against Frazier is widely considered the one that sealed his reputation as the toughest fighter ever.

The referee, Johnny Colan, stopped the bout 16 seconds into the fourth round when it became apparent that Chuvalo’s right eye was severely damaged. By the second round, blood was pouring from the eye, even though he was holding his own against the bruising Frazier.

“I won the first two rounds, or at least that’s what they say, but in the third round, the eye blew up after getting nailed with a left hook,” said Chuvalo. “By the third round, I looked like a one-eyed cat peeping into a seafood store. By the fourth round, it was like somebody took an apple, cut it in half, and placed it inside the top of my eye.”

Chuvalo, 74, can joke about it now. But at the time, the injury was no laughing matter. The American Medical Association tried to have him barred for life.

But Chuvalo persevered and, in fact, fought 30 more times, finally retiring in December 1978 after defending his Canadian title against George Jerome. He’s asked about his fight against Frazier a lot, of course even more now after Frazier’s untimely death at 67 this week. The bout has almost reached mythical proportions.

But there’s a part of the story of that fight that Chuvalo has rarely spoken about — how he wanted the fight postponed.

On June 22, 1967 less than a month before his fight against Frazier, Chuvalo journeyed to Missoula, Mo., to meet Tucson heavyweight Archie Ray in a scheduled 10-rounder. The Canadian made quick work of his American counterpart, knocking Ray out in the second round.

“But as he went down,” explained Chuvalo. “He jack-knifed and his head hit my right eye and cheekbone, and the eye blew up.”

Shortly after that fight, Chuvalo’s manager Irv Ungerman made a deal for Chuvalo to meet Frazier at Madison Square Garden. Chuvalo, a rising heavyweight, was all for the fight, but realized after returning to the gym a short time after the Ray bout that there was a problem. His right eye was still in bad shape.

“In training, even with big head gear on, my eye was blowing up,” he said. “I remember saying to Irving and Teddy (McWhorter his trainer), ‘Maybe we should postpone this fight.’ But they appealed to my macho side, stuff like, ‘We won’t get this chance again’ and ‘We need this fight, it’s New York City, the big time, the Big Apple. And if we beat him, we’ll get a world title shot.’

“They felt I may never get another crack. And I felt like a sissy saying, ‘I don’t want to fight right now.’ So I got swayed into fighting Joe. But it was the wrong thing to do.”

After the Frazier fight, doctors inserted a piece of silicone plastic to hold the eye in place, where it remains to this day, 44 years later.

Yet, of all the times Chuvalo met up with Frazier after their fight, they never talked about it, or Chuvalo’s injury.

“But I can’t help but think about it,” said Chuvalo. “I still have vision problems with the eye. In fact, whenever I park my car, I still have to close that eye.”


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