|Legendary Canadian boxer George Chuvalo. (BRENDAN MILLER/Special to QMI Agency file photo)
EDMONTON - The Sports Illustrated cover story on the 1966 world heavy-weight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Chuvalo at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens was aptly titled ‘Battle of the Lionhearted.'
Chuvalo, who is celebrating his 75th birthday today, was a 7-1 underdog who took the fight on just 17 days' notice after Ernie Terrell pulled out.
Never taking a backwards step, the Canadian icon became the first challenger to push Ali to the 15-round limit.
Thanks to Chuvalo's murderous body punches — several of which landed south of the border Ñ Ali went straight to the hospital after the fight and later revealed he passed blood for a month.
"You've got it wrong," Chuvalo chuckled from his home in East Caledon, just north of Toronto. "I didn't go the distance with Ali Ñ he went the distance with me!"
The inside story of that epic battle is just one of many Chuvalo reveals in his recently-completed memoir, scheduled to be published next year by HarperCollins Canada Ltd.
"That fight was a great experience, a great night," recalled Chuvalo. "I lost the decision, but when it was over, Muhammad went to the hospital and I went out dancing with my wife. I definitely got the better part of that deal."
Ali's trainer, the late Angelo Dundee, was still in awe 45 years later.
"Chuvalo was one very tough SOB; we were lucky to get out of Toronto in one piece," Dundee told me over lunch at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., last year.
"Afterwards, I told the sportswriters the only way to drop Georgie might be with a stick of dynamite. The scary thing is that he's still that tough today."
Chuvalo had been a pro for 10 years when he fought Ali, and was no stranger to the highs and lows of being a world-ranked contender.
Rated as high as No. 2 after knocking out Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden in 1964, he lost and regained the Canadian championship in a titanic trilogy with Robert Cleroux, then dropped decisions to Floyd Patterson (Ring magazine's Fight of the Year in 1965) and Terrell.
After Ali, there would be other big names on Chuvalo's ledger. Between losses to Joe Frazier (1967) and George Foreman (1970), he KO'd No. 4-ranked Manuel Ramos (1968) and No. 2-ranked Jerry Quarry (1969).
A second distance loss to Ali in Vancouver (1972) was his last hurrah against world-class opposition.
Chuvalo quit the ring for good in 1979 with a stellar record of 73-18-2 (64 KOs) and the singular distinction of never being knocked off his feet. But in retirement his reputation for invincibility was tragically tested when he lost his wife and three of their four sons to suicide and drugs.
"Writing about my life, both inside and outside the ring, was a cathartic experience," he said.
"Do I have unfulfilled dreams? Yeah, but I had a good kick at the can. A lot of guys had their career aborted early, so they're always saying ÔI wish I'd done this' or ÔI should've done that.'
"That's not me. I fought six world champions, I headlined at Madison Square Garden nine times and I fought in the golden era of heavyweights against some of the best ever.
"I had a good shot at it all — and I enjoyed every minute of it."