In Toronto next week Muhammad (Cassius Clay) Ali will defend his heavyweight championship of all the world—except, of course, the enfeebled world of the World Boxing Association—against the offslaught of George Chuvalo, a Canadian heavyweight who recently has proved he can't whip an egg without an electric beater.
The bout will take place before some 17,500 spectators in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens and possibly not many more in the few theaters in the U.S. foolhardy—or courageous—enough to sign up with Main Bout, Inc., the theater-TV promoter that includes Black Muslims. All in all, Muhammad and the Muslims stand to make no more than cigarette money out of the fiasco—which should be sufficient, since Muslims do not smoke.
"I don't figure to make better than $2,000 on this fight," Muhammad said at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, where he did his early training. "But I don't need no money. I just want to defend the title."
Whatever remote chance Chuvalo has in this flagrant mismatch stems from the difficulty Clay has had in maintaining the continuity of his training schedule in the face of the vicissitudes (mostly of his own making) which have beset this bout from its inception.
March 28, 1966
Originally, Clay was to have fought the NBA world champion, Ernie Terrell, in Madison Square Garden, but Terrell flew on a Chicago-to-New York plane with a gentleman named Bernie Glickman, once a friend of Frank Carbo and perhaps still a guiding influence in the fighter's career. That cooked Terrell with the New York Athletic Commission.
So the fight was hastily moved to Chicago. It stayed there just long enough for Clay's Louisville draft board to reclassify him from 1-Y to 1-A, an intellectual upgrading that failed to titillate Cassius one bit. In fact he was so moved by the absurdity of a warrior of his stature being asked to fight that he signed a verbal peace treaty on the spot. "I don't have no personal quarrel with them Viet Congs," he said. At which point Chicago promptly backed out. So, too, did his home base of Miami Beach, reacting to pressure from the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a variety of politicians. Then most of the 170 theaters that had signed up to show the fight also canceled.
So Clay returned to Miami Beach and tried to concentrate on training again, while the fight promoters—primarily Main Bout, Inc.—scurried about trying to find another city willing to risk its image by allowing the fight to go on. At this time, remember, it was still a fairly attractive fight, matching Clay with the No. 1 contender, Ernie Terrell, and Montreal, Louisville and even Huron, South Dakota, were interested. Eventually, however, they became as disenchanted as everyone else and it was not until a reluctant Toronto finally admitted the touring show to the big Maple Leaf Gardens that the fight had a home again. Clay wearily broke camp once more to go to Toronto for the signing, while a wearier Main Bout, Inc. began to accustom itself to a hundred rather than the original 170 theater outlets.
Clay got to Toronto, but Terrell, offered something much less than his original guarantee, followed the lead of New York, Chicago, Miami Beach. Louisville and points west. In short, he backed out, perhaps prompted by the sudden realization that, fight or no fight, he would occupy the top of the heavyweight heap once Clay entered the Army.
At this development, theater-TV contracts had to be rewritten. Main Bout, Inc. could sign only 21 cities. But as long as they had at least an arena in Toronto, the promoters decided that any bout was better than none and settled upon Chuvalo as Clay's opponent.
Chuvalo had qualified for this honor by losing two of his last three fights, including a sound trouncing by Terrell in Toronto. One of his conquerors was Eduardo Corletti, an Argentine heavyweight whose principal claim to fame is that he once was knocked out by Floyd Patterson's younger brother.
So Clay broke camp again and went to Toronto to sign the papers. In Toronto the fight was now advertised as being between Clay, the people's champion, and Chuvalo, the Canadian champion. His lack of training, Clay said, was one of the pluses of the promotion.
"People want to see me beat," he said. "They better get tickets to this one. So far, I broke camp five times and missed three days training. I ain't near ready."
He was right. In Miami two weeks before the fight he weighed 220 pounds, 10 pounds more than he did the night he demolished Floyd Patterson in Las Vegas. Preparing to enter the ring, Clay pinched a small roll of fat at his waist and patted himself on his ample rump.
But Clay moved with all of his old grace and speed in the ring as he worked six rounds with Jimmy Ellis and one with big Mel Turnbow. Ellis is a very fast heavyweight who once beat Clay in an amateur fight. Angelo Dundee, Clay's trainer, kept yelling at Ellis to jab the champion, but Ellis, ignoring the pleas, contented himself with letting Clay lead before jabbing.
"Man, that's a good way to lose your head," Ellis said, in explaining his disobedience of orders. "You lead with your left against him, pow! He hit you with a right over the left. No matter how fast you are. I let him uncock his gun before I fire mine."
With the bigger Turnbow, Clay leaned on the ropes, his hands on Turnbow's shoulders, and let his opponent beat a heavy tattoo on his belly, anticipating the body punches that are Chuvalo's forte. Near the end of the round he sagged dramatically to the floor after a particularly hard punch and grimaced as if he were in pain. It was an act that would have got him the hook in small-town vaudeville.
"Sure he hurt me," he said in answer to a question. "He hit me right here." He touched himself on the solar plexus. "It still hurts."
He moved restlessly around the gym as he talked, obviously disturbed over the uproar his injudicious remarks about Vietnam had caused.
"How can I get myself ready?" he said angrily. "All these people so mad at me. Can't even fight in my country. People here in Miami Beach, they can't even see the fight. They all hate me."
He sat nervously on the edge of a rubbing table. "No," he said. "One thing I ain't is a Uncle Tom. I'm a warrior. I'm a warrior on the Battleground of Freedom."
He lay down on the table and did some sit-ups. "Chuvalo got a good chance," he said. "I got to stick and move and punch. You don't know how hard that can get. I mean you get arm weary, then you got to spend a round just jabbing away, putting on a show, resting to get your strength back. And I ain't gonna have no friends in that ring, either. Does he hit me low, hit me on the back of the head, maybe butt me in the face? Ain't no referee gonna say anything to him about that. But if I did that, watch out! It ain't gonna be so easy. But I'm the greatest. Ain't no little man in a ring big enough for me. Senators and governors talk about me."
It is doubtful that senators and governors devote much oratory to George Chuvalo, the unlikely challenger. Chuvalo, in preparation for this match, has moved out of his home in Toronto, leaving behind his wife and four children, and has sequestered himself in the Seaway Towers. Every morning at 7 Chuvalo does four miles of interval training—sprinting awhile, then jogging, then sprinting again. At 2 in the afternoon he boxes four rounds with each of three good sparring partners—Hubert Hilton, until last month the ninth-ranked heavyweight; Greatest Crawford; and Richie Pittman, who has worked as a sparring partner with Clay, Patterson and Sonny Liston.
Chuvalo's style has not changed; it remains unimpressive. As always before, he moves stubbornly ahead, almost disregarding defense, punching heavily to the body and kidneys, more often in combinations than before, but no faster of hand or foot. He is confident.
"My only concern is that I have Cassius Clay in the ring," he says, a smile softening his thoroughly battered features. Thickset, deep chested with bunchy muscles, he contrasts sharply with Clay. "I've been after him for years, and now he's mine. Believe me, I will make the most of the opportunity. When I beat him, it will be for the heavyweight title, period."
This last was because there has been some reluctance in Toronto and elsewhere to consider this a title fight. Commissioner Merv McKenzie wanted the fight to go 14 or 16 rounds so that it would not be championship length. The fight, in fact, is called "the heavyweight showdown." It is not billed as a championship, even though it is.
Chuvalo will crowd Clay, try to slow him down with body punches, and, as usual, take many blows in order to accomplish his purpose. Seriously considering his chances, he says, "I am the most durable fighter around today. I've never been off my feet, and I've already proved I can go 15 rounds without any trouble. Can Clay say the same thing? It seems to me he had trouble going 12 rounds with Patterson, and that was with a cripple. Well, he can count on my back being in splendid shape along with every other part of my body."
Chuvalo has been accused of being a dumb fighter, a charge he resents. "They say that because I don't stick and move," he said. "Well, I'm not built to stick and move. I'd be dumb if I tried it. I fight my way, and I think it will be good enough."
With his manager, Irv Ungerman, Chuvalo makes up a minority of two who hold this opinion. "We believe we have a hell of a chance," says Ungerman. "Why else are we taking the fight? It's certainly not for the money, because we are not going to take anything out of this fight. George has never let anyone down. He's brave, and he's determined and, like always, he'll give his all, and I believe that will be sufficient."
Whatever happens, this may be the last opportunity anyone will have to see Clay at, or near, his best. He probably will serve his two-year Army stint in one capacity or another before he fights again, and he has a tendency to fatten excessively when he is idle. Only if he is allowed to fight exhibitions or, barring that, if he determinedly keeps in training will he be anything like his old self when he gets out at 26. Neither "if" is likely to occur, particularly the latter one, since Clay is not much addicted to hard training.
Despite Chuvalo's optimism, the principal interest in this fight will be to discover just how much punishment Chuvalo can absorb and just how hard Clay can hit. Chuvalo is neither quick enough with his hands or on his feet to pose a threat to Clay, and Clay should hit him at will.
"Pop, pop with the left hand, step left and cross the right," Dundee said the other day. "That's what you do to Chuvalo, and he has never learned how to avoid it. That's probably what we will do, too."
If Chuvalo is as durable as he says, the fight could go 15 rounds to a unanimous decision for Clay. If not, it will probably end in a knockout or a TKO. Chuvalo does not cut easily but he has not fought Clay; he may be cut in this one and the fight stopped.
Not that very many people really seem to care.
"I have dreamed about this"
Were courage and condition the only criteria in boxing. George Chuvalo would have to be favored over Clay. Here, with no traces of modesty, the Canadian tells Sports Illustrated's Morton Sharnik how he plans to win a knighthood.
I'm a legitimate contender. I'm ranked in the top 10. Doug Jones was next in line after Terrell, and I beat him, knocked him out. I'm tough and I'm strong, and I have been waiting for 10 years to get a title shot. And Clay owes me a fight. He ran out on a contract to fight me November 8, 1963.
Getting the fight the way I did doesn't embarrass me. I am just thankful that I have the chance. This is all I have thought about for the last few years. I dream about this constantly, seldom in my sleep but while I am lying on the table before a fight or after a workout.
I suppose I could win a decision over Clay, but that isn't likely. When I see myself, I am always standing over him. I plan to put pressure on Clay from the first bell and never let up. The hardest part of the fight for me will be the first 10 rounds. After that he will be worn down. I am strong, my stamina is exceptional. Fifteen rounds is no problem for me. It is for Clay. That's the key, my strength and stamina against his speed. By the 12th round he will be in trouble, and then I will take him out.
I'm not a dirty fighter like some people claim. They accuse me of butting, but I have never done that purposely (at least not consciously). I learned early to keep my head low, and since most of my opponents are taller than me they sometimes get bumped by my head, but it has happened to me, and I accept it as an accident.
Sure I'm a rough fighter. First of all, I like to fight in close. There's more body contact, and the fight has a different feeling at this range. When I am in close I feel that I am the boss, and I try to make sure that my opponent knows it.
I will treat Clay as roughly as I can whenever I can. My aim is to impose my will over him. I know Clay respects me. He knows that I won't be shook up by being in the ring with him, so this won't be as difficult as it sounds. I think Clay will quit if he is hurt, and I intend to hurt him.
In Lewiston I yelled at Clay. I felt in my own mind that he knew he did not hit Liston with a good shot, and there he was, strutting like a peacock. It upset me, and I wanted to fight him right then.
Clay is not what the public thinks he is. Essentially, he is a very nice guy. I like him but that won't stop me in the ring. I'll tell myself I hate Clay because he is standing in my way.
I don't think the term white hope has any meaning today. People don't care if a fighter is white or black. They just want to see Clay knocked off. They resent Clay as a person, as an individual, not because of his color. Look at Patterson. Everyone rooted for Floyd. I don't want to be a white hope. It's silly and it's embarrassing.
If I win, maybe I'll be knighted. Sir George Chuvalo. 'Ows that for a 'andle, Guv? Now I'll have to worry about having tea with the Queen. I don't think I'd know what to say.
I am thinking only of winning. It is easier to plan on winning, you know.