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Chuvalo-Ali, 1966: The fight that proved ‘Canadians weren’t soft’

Muhammad Ali may have won the match on March 29, 1966, but George Chuvalo was still standing at the end of it.

Boris Spremo/The Globe and Mail

It was the biggest fight in Canadian boxing history and it turned George Chuvalo into a source of national pride, even if he lost the one-sided contest to the man they call the Greatest – Muhammad Ali.

Chuvalo's epic 15-round bout with Ali at Maple Leaf Gardens on March 29, 1966, transformed the lightly regarded Toronto fighter into a symbol of courage and determination and lifted him into the top rank of contenders during a golden age of heavyweights.

"Icon – that's the only way I can describe George Chuvalo," said Lennox Lewis, a Canadian boxing star of another generation.

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The fight's 50th anniversary will be celebrated on Tuesday with a gala dinner at the Mattamy Athletics Centre, the former Maple Leaf Gardens.

Chuvalo, 78, is to attend, although 74-year-old Ali is unable to go because of his long-running battle with Parkinson's disease.

It was a gripping time for boxing, with Ali embroiled in controversy over his anti-Vietnam War stance and refusal to be drafted. The Louisville, Ky., native famously said at the time that he "ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."

He had been slated to fight Ernie Terrell in Chicago, but fierce opposition from U.S. war veterans and others over what they called Ali's "unpatriotic" statements moved Illinois state officials to declare the bout "illegal."

Instead, the fight was offered to Chuvalo – on only 17 days notice. Ali's promoters originally looked at staging it in Montreal, but when war vets threatened to boycott the Expo 67 world's fair, then-mayor Jean Drapeau backed out.

Even in Toronto, there was opposition to letting Ali fight. Officials demanded that they not bill it a title bout, even though it would be the champion's third defence. That he had converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay made him even more unpopular to some.

But nobody could deny Ali's magnetic personality and his brilliance in the ring.

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When he fought Chuvalo, Ali was coming off the three most talked-about fights of his early career – two wins over Sonny Liston and a dramatic 12th-round technical knockout of Floyd Patterson.

The Chuvalo fight was supposed to be easy. Ali had named him the "Washerwoman" after witnessing the churning left-right attack Chuvalo had used three years earlier against Mike DeJohn.

Chuvalo's manager, Irving Ungerman, played the bout up as well, bringing in former champions Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano as "advisers," although his fighter said later they did little more than pose for pictures and that it was "a pain in the ass having those guys around."

When the fight finally began, with 13,540 at the Gardens and thousands more watching in theatres, Ali threw all his speed, skill and flair at a comparatively plodding Chuvalo. But a funny thing happened – Chuvalo did not go down.

He took Ali past the 12th round for the first time in the champion's career and was still on his feet when the bell ended the bout after 15.

The judges and referee Jackie Silvers scored it a lopsided win for Ali, with most having it 13 rounds to two.

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But just by staying upright and not giving up against the world's best heavyweight made Chuvalo a hero to fans across Canada and around the world.

"He showed Canadians weren't soft, that they were durable and they wanted to win so badly and were good," Lewis said. "It was electric. Everybody was tuned in."

Chuvalo said later he had never faced a fighter with such quick hands, but found Ali's punches less heavy than expected.

Ali said: "He is the toughest fighter I ever fought."

After the Ali bout, Chuvalo starting taking on the top heavyweights, including George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry. And he had a rematch with Ali in 1972 in Vancouver, a 12-round loss by unanimous decision.

Chuvalo never got the world championship he coveted, but he retired in 1978 having never been knocked down in 93 professional fights.

The 1966 Ali fight didn't make him rich. After management fees and taxes, Chuvalo said he ended up with only $12,500 of his $49,000 purse. Ali reportedly was paid $125,000, a large sum back then.

But the fight remains the highlight of his career, and Chuvalo insists that, in a way, he was the winner.

"When it was all over, he was the guy who went to the hospital because he was [urinating] blood. Me? I went dancing with my wife," he said in his biography Chuvalo: A Fighter's Life. "No question I got the best of that deal."

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