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Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Canadian champion George Chuvalo fight at Maple Leaf Gardens on March 29, 1966.Boris Spremo/The Globe and Mail

Spider Jones needed time to grieve before he was ready to talk about his friend and former sparring partner Muhammad Ali.

"The world is grieving," Jones said from Toronto of Ali, whose death on Friday caused a global outpouring of grief. "He was a great man.

"I met him in 1966 when he came to fight George Chuvalo and he was the most famous person in the world, but he treated me like an equal."

Ali left his mark on Canadian sports history with his pair of victories over Chuvalo, including the memorable 1966 clash at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens when The Greatest was embroiled in a controversy over his resistance to the Vietnam War.

The first was a bout that turned Chuvalo into a national hero simply for staying on his feet for 15 rounds against the quickest and most gifted boxer of the era. For Ali, it was a chance to show he would not be bowed by those calling for him to be banned from the sport.

The second fight came in 1972 at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, where Ali vowed to be the first to knock Chuvalo down, only to see the Toronto fighter he once called the Washerwoman absorb his blows without falling for another 12 rounds. Chuvalo never went down in 93 pro bouts.

By 1981, Ali was a shadow of his former self when he lost the final bout of his career to former heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick of Halifax in Nassau, Bahamas.

Jones, of Windsor, Ont., met Ali at the gym where the champion was working out ahead of the first Chuvalo bout. Trainer Angelo Dundee asked him to join the team of sparring partners.

"I thought I'd be humiliated, but when I climbed in the ring he said, 'Push me around. Push me in the corner and work on me.' He was lightning fast, but he never hurt me once."

When Ali learned that Jones was sleeping at the gym, he got him a room in the same hotel as the rest of the entourage.

Jones counts himself lucky to have been up close to not only one of the greats of the sport, but an international legend.

"He was a legitimate hero, an icon," Jones said. "He was a symbol of courage."

As in the rest of the world, there was an outpouring of tributes to Ali.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined the chorus of admirers.

"He thrilled. He rumbled. He fought fearlessly, and stood firm in his beliefs. He was, no doubt, the Greatest. RIP Champ," Trudeau said on Twitter.

Fate – and a determination to stand up for his anti-war principles – brought Ali to Canada.

Chuvalo thought he had lost his chance to face the charismatic Ali when he lost to Floyd Patterson in 1965, but then Ali's career took a turn after he was ruled eligible to be drafted by the U.S. Army. Ali refused.

He had been booked to fight Ernie Terrell in Chicago on March 29, 1966, but amid outrage from U.S. war veterans, the Illinois State Athletic Commission declared the bout "illegal" because of Ali's "unpatriotic" stance. No other state would sanction the bout, and Terrell pulled out when it looked as if there would be little money to be made.

So Ali's handlers, led by Bob Arum promoting his first fight, looked north. Montreal backed out when veterans threatened to boycott Expo 67, but Harold Ballard, owner of Maple Leaf Gardens, took it on. Chuvalo accepted the fight with 17 days notice.

Chuvalo was seen as a second-tier fighter at the time, but won over both the international boxing media and the Canadian public for his courage in the ring.

Most scored the bout 13 rounds to two in Ali's favour, but Chuvalo's relentless attacks and granite chin instead made him a hero in defeat.

It took Chuvalo years to appreciate what he had done.

"When people say, 'You must be proud of the fight' I say, 'Proud of what? I lost the fight,'" he told former Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt in his 2002 book, Facing Ali. "But in a crazy kind of way it made Canadians feel good. Kind of proud. I made my fellow Canadians proud about being Canadian and that part makes me feel good."

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