Here are some things commonly said of boxing hall-of-famer George Chuvalo: he could take a punch, he threw powerful body shots that sometimes drifted below the belt, he never won a major title, and his life after boxing has been tragic. The long-time Canadian Heavyweight Champion knows this story well, and in Chuvalo, he and co-author Murray Greig approach it with self-deprecation, pathos, and lingering regret. Chuvalo’s self-awareness makes him a great guide, and boxing nostalgists will love following him from bouts with Ali in Toronto and Frazier in New York to the dimmer lights of Labrador City and Nelson, B.C.
While a bout-by-bout catalogue of Chuvalo’s career is the meat of the book, the earlier chapters carry the greatest energy. Chuvalo’s account of small-time Canadian boxing reads like a thoroughly debauched coming-of-age tale, populated by corrupt promoters and friendly sociopaths. Here’s manager Jack Allen: “He preferred to conduct business only after dark because he claimed to be allergic to sunlight. Another quirk was that he always had a pint-sized mentally challenged guy named Mike Levinsky hanging around him. Mike was always dressed in a striped shirt, wide suspenders and an ever-present oversized bow tie.” Fiction is rarely allowed characters so extreme.
The story darkens after Chuvalo shutters his boxing career and returns home to three sons battling heroin addiction. His pain at their deaths is expressed in numb minimalism. He reprints his wife Lynne’s bitter suicide note – “I looked for love and couldn’t find any” – but doesn’t comment on it. By the time Chuvalo admits to being scared of the dark, we know what he means.
Much like its subject, Chuvalo comes at you at a steady, relentless pace. Also like its subject, it’s easy to notice that forward momentum but miss the skill being showcased. Framed simply by a likeable narrator telling a long, sad story, it is a deceptively potent read.