The Fascinating Saga Of George Chuvalo & Irv Ungerman

At 27-years of age and in his eighth year since turning professional, the career of George Chuvalo was going nowhere fast. By mid-1964, he had lost his Canadian heavyweight title to feather-fisted Bob Cleroux and Chuvalo’s 26-8-2 record was flush with victories over no-name ham and eggers, and of those 26 victories, 10 were against opponents with either a losing record or else making their pro debut. However, Chuvalo was still a local favorite in Toronto because he never danced around the ring, but charged at his opponent like a raging bull. He would never touch the canvas, even once in career.

Yet, whenever this son of Croatian parents from Junction area of Toronto traded blows with a decently ranked heavyweight, he always came up short. He failed to make a dent against mid-ranked fighters likes Willie Besmanoff, Pat McMurty, Joe Erskine and Zora Folley, although he did eke out a split decision victory on March 1961 over Alex Miteff whose once promising career had already hit the skids. It must have been especially frustrating losing to Bob Baker May 1957 at Maple Leaf Gardens when Baker entered the ring on the losing side of 6 of his last 9 matches. Against trial horse Howard King who lost to Archie Moore on 6 different occasions, Chuvalo went 1-1 via the decision route.

Chuvalo usually fought at Maple Leaf Gardens, with occasional forays to places like Montreal, Miami Beach, Detroit, Cleveland and Louisville. Losing to Rademacher (15-7-1) in July 1960 at Maple Leaf Stadium is hard to explain. Rademacher, in his pro debut, was chosen to fight Floyd Patterson in 1957 for the heavyweight crown. It was a black moment for boxing.

At this low point of his career, Chuvalo’s biggest booster Irv Ungerman came to the rescue by getting directly involved in promoting and managing the Canadian slugger. This was a huge development as the independently wealthy Ungerman had a significant public profile. A cocky character who knew everybody that mattered: police and politicians, show biz types, business titans, sportswriters, the wealthy chicken plucker met them all with a schmooze and a pat on the back while chewing on a Montecristo cigar.

Born in the Kensington Market neighborhood of Toronto, at 15 years the 106-pound kid became a local boxing champ. However, WWII put an end to his boxing dreams. After serving overseas, this son of Jewish immigrants became a self-made millionaire in a chicken and eggs enterprise called Royce Dupont Poultry. When the chicken magnate wasn’t involved with his large family in helping to grow the business, Ungerman often hung around boxers. At 7-years old in tow with his mom who worked 15 years plucking chickens at Royce Dupont, George Chuvalo got to know Ungerman.

It was a tumultuous relationship marked by many ups and down, but its can’t be denied that Ungerman helped put together some of Chuvalo’s biggest fights against the likes of Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. With Chuvalo’s upset win via 11h round TKO over Doug Jones at MSG, he vaulted into 4th spot in the WBA heavyweight rankings, Ungerman began immediate negotiations with New York matchmaker Teddy Brenner for an elimination bout with Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams, Ernie Terrel, or Floyd Patterson for the newly vacant WBA title. That version of the title had opened up when the WBA refused to recognize Muhammed Ali for agreeing to grant a rematch with Sonny Liston. It reeked with shadiness.

Ungerman boasted: ”This is a new Chuvalo. We’ll take on all comers.” However, the Williams match-up fell through when Williams needed a hernia operation, but a Chuvalo-Patterson scrap was arranged at MSG February 1, 1965, when Patterson would win a close 12-round decision. One month later, the 15-round bout between Terrel and veteran Eddie Machen was recognized as a title bout by the WBA. Terrell got the nod, which set the stage for a November 1,1965 tussle with Terrell at Maple Leaf Gardens. Chuvalo maintained his knack of never winning an important bout by dropping a 15-round decision. Still, the persistent Ungerman managed to lure Muhammed Ali into the ring 5 months later. Ali’s ribs would ache for days on end. In jocular homage to the mid-section pounding he had endured, Ali dubbed Chuvalo “the Washerwoman”. Nevertheless, Ali won a unanimous decision by scores of 73-65, 74-63 and 74-62.

On Feb 6,1967, Ali gained the unified title via a lopsided decision over Terrell at the Houston Astrodome both held.

The 30-year old Chuvalo soldiered on for another 13 years, mainly as a competitive and rugged opponent against chaps like Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Buster Mathis and Oscar Bonavena (a bout he only lonely lost by majority decision. In December 1969, Chuvalo immediately put himself back into contention with an upset 7th round TKO over Jerry Quarry at MSG. However a 3-round brutal beatdown at the hands of George Foreman in August 1970 at MSG, as well as a decision loss to Jimmy Ellis May 10, 1971 at MLG dashed Chuvalo’s hopes for any more title shots, although he did fight Ali once again in May 1972 at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum when the all-time great was on the comeback trail.

Chuvalo only fought 7 more fights, all against very mediocre opposition. At 41 years old, he closed out his career against nonentity George Jerome (11-12-4) who had lost 9 or his last 11 fights) at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. A gash to Jerome’s right eye led the ref to stop the in the 3rd round. Chuvalo finished with a record of 73-18-2.

Unfortunately, there would be no peaceful retirement for Chuvalo. Three or his sons committed suicide or died from a heroin overdose and his wife also ended her life.

Irv Ungerman died in 2015 at age 92. Steve Buffery wrote an obituary in the Toronto Sun which referred to a bigger than life man who raised millions for charity, including the Hospital for Sick Children and Salvation army. He was awarded the Order of Ontario in 1972. Fighters always seemed drawn to him: Rocky Marciano stayed at Ungerman’s Muskoka cottage, while Muhammed Ali once visited Irv’s Toronto apartment and asked for the direction of Mecca so he could pray.

Chuvalo never had a smooth relationship with Ungerman. When asked to comment on Irv’s passing, George’s replied: ‘He was not my favorite person. He was a very destructive force in many ways. I told him I’d probably see him in Hell”. In a 2010 Sun interview, Chuvalo accused Ungerman of holding back funds that belonged to him from the sales of sports memorabilia in Ungerman’s possession. Ungerman denied the accusation. More bitterness from George: “The bottom line was Ungerman acted both as a manager and promoter when I fought, which was against the rule of Ontario but he did it anyway.” Chuvalo added that by doing so, Ungerman got two cuts of the purse instead of only one.

Now 82 years old, Chuvalo’s significant cognitive decline has led his two remaining children to recognize their father’s expressed wishes, and on his behalf have been in a fierce legal battle against their stepmother Joanne, involving guardianship ship; and they have also commenced divorce proceedings on behalf of Chuvalo under a power of attorney.

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