Fans, especially older fans, know the George Chuvalo story, both in and out of the ring. The Canadian warrior is still celebrated as one of the toughest, most durable fighters who ever climbed into the ring, a man who, as his sole surviving son, Mitch, says, had a “huge pain threshold.” Chuvalo, famously, was never once knocked down in close to 100 pro fights.
Yet outside the ring, Chuvalo was brought to his knees by close personal tragedy. Chuvalo lost three sons to drugs, while his first wife, his hi-school sweetheart, took her own life, unable to cope with the death of three of her children. Chuvalo, who was battling financial troubles also, soldiered on. George simply did not know how to give in, how to quit.
But cruelly, so, so cruelly, there was more suffering to come, this time for Chuvalo’s surviving son and for his daughter, Vanessa. A few years ago, Chuvalo was diagnosed with the early stages of dementia. In the middle of a messy divorce with his second wife at the time, Chuvalo’s cognitive abilities slowly left him, and today, at age 86, George is being cared for in a nursing home that is just a couple of blocks away from the gym in which he used to train.
Unable to move or speak today, Chuvalo has his son at his side with visits every single day. Mitch says, on the 30-minute documentary presentation by W5 News Channel in Canada, that he has “prepared himself” for the day when he will lose his father. News reporter Sandie Rinaldo, who interview Chuvalo back in 1996 and found it so hard seeing him as he is today, speaks with Mitch and Vanessa in the documentary, and Mitch talks about the concussions his dad took whilst fighting in the ring.
“He survived in the super-exploitive, cruel world of boxing for 21 years,” Mitch says of his dad. “I think about the metric in my brain, I’m going, ‘okay, one concussion, two concussions,’ – how does that stack up with 1,000 sub-concussive blows to the head? Death by a thousand blows.”
Rinaldo speaks about the way she and her colleagues would not take cameras into the nursing home at which Chuvalo currently resides, this as his son and daughter want the world to remember George as he once was, this as “a gentle giant, a man who loved his family and provided strength.”
Mitch says he feels his father would like to be remembered as “a very tough, diligent, hard-working son of working class people.”
“Once the dementia was diagnosed, I prepared myself for that [losing him],” Mitch says of his father. “I’ve been around boxing all my life, and neurologically, it never ends well. It never ends well. So, I steeled myself for that moment.”
The short film has stock footage of some of Chuvalo’s epic bouts with Ali, Foreman, Frazier, and there are some snippets of Chuvalo speaking back in the day, both during and after his ring career. In one such interview, conducted in 1969, Chuvalo is asked if he is concerned about the possible effects the punches he has taken might have on him. Chuvlao replies by saying he has had regular tests every six months, and that “if there’s any damage, it’s certainly well-hidden.”
Chuvalo carried on fighting for another ten years after the interview. And maybe he would have been afflicted by dementia even if he had never been a boxer. We will never know.
George Chuvalo is approaching the end of his life, and all we fans of his can do is hope he lives out his remaining days as comfortable as is possible.
“When I go see him (in the nursing home) I’m still awed by how handsome he still is, by how strong he still looks,” Vanessa says. “But it is very sad. It’s sad because he’s helpless, but in a sense, he’s still kind of fearless. He’s not afraid.”
George Chuvalo was never once afraid of what might happen to him in the boxing ring, and today, sadly, he might be paying the price for his bravery.