He could always count on the face. It never betrayed him, this big sprawling face that so many had had a good go at over 12 years. Ali had to bury his hands in ice after he was through with it, but still the target was only bruised. Floyd Patterson, with his slashing hand speed, never could open it up, and Floyd's body was drained near the end from punching. The face, with heavy bones, a massive jaw and a nose that tells you what he has been doing for too many years, was all he ever had.
Last week in Madison Square Garden the face came apart on George Chuvalo, splitting like a cantaloupe that has been too long in the sun. Joe Frazier of Philadelphia did the splitting, quickly but untidily. He dug in and took Chuvalo apart piece by piece, and what was left of the Croatian-Canadian was now stretched out on his dressing-room table. His arms hung limply to the sides and his chest heaved as a doctor slowly and gently sponged away the blood below his right eye. The cut was shaped like a scimitar and it went to the bone (later it was discovered that the bone was broken, requiring surgery), and the eye, seemingly ready to burst, was just a slit. There was another cut on the outside of his left eye, and a gash on the top of his scalp. He would not be the last of the great catchers anymore.
"He didn't take all that much punishment," said Irv Ungerman, his manager. "He didn't get hurt that much."
"What the hell ya call this?" mumbled Chuvalo. "This ain't no punishment?"
July 30, 1967
"Are you going to retire?" Chuvalo was asked.
"No, Georgie's gonna be around a long time," said Ungerman, who did not get hit all night. "Every kid on the way up is gonna want a piece of Georgie boy. He'll be a great opponent for 'em, a great and rich trial horse."
"Don't say that," said Chuvalo. "Please don't say that. I'm no trial horse. I'll never be a trial horse for anyone."
Surely, in his own mind, Chuvalo will never be just an opponent, just an impressive name to add to the record of some crude kid with an empty belly, but he was nothing more than that for Joe Frazier, an uncomplicated fighter with the proper God and proper thoughts, a new black hope of the Establishment that embraced Joe Louis and now vilifies Muhammad Ali. Chuvalo, relatively harmless and immobile, was designed for Frazier.
Still, Frazier and his manager, Yancey Durham, knew that they would have to do much more than club George across the distance. Frazier had to disassemble Chuvalo—who cannot be taken out with a machine gun—as no one had ever come close to doing before in 62 fights. A spectacular victory before New York critics would strengthen his already important position in the heavyweight division. "Frazier is going to step out tonight," said Durham. "He's going to do something for the first time. He's going to stop Chuvalo."
Frazier did step out all right—right into a corner, it appears. When AH was removed from the picture, Frazier smartly refused to participate in any sort of elimination tournament. Frazier, or rather Durham and the syndicate behind Joe, knew that he was the key figure in the division and whoever won the tournament would have to deal with him. It is all working out quite nicely for Frazier, except for one problem. Who is Frazier going to fight in the interim? All of the contenders are in the tournament, and there are only a few names left—like Sonny Liston and Zora Folley. It seems unlikely he would risk his position against this pair, and so he is left with the obscure fighters he fattened up on early in his career. If he does revert to this caliber of opposition, there is the possibility that his development could be arrested and, despite his heavy-handed surgery on Chuvalo and his remarkable improvement, Frazier needs polish and plenty of action.
"Joe Frazier is still a kid as far as boxing's concerned," said Durham. "He has a lot of work ahead of him." Coming from Durham, this smacks of the dullest kind of sophistry, but the implication is sound. Certainly Frazier has corrected glaring deficiencies. He no longer moves in on a straight line, his jab has been honed beautifully and he has learned how to set an opponent up for his big punches instead of trying to beat him into submission. But for all his progress, all the fierce joy he exudes in the ring, Frazier does indeed have "a lot of work ahead of him." For one thing, you can see his left hook coming from across town, and he is often off balance when he throws his punches. Defensively, he accepts punishment needlessly, but more dangerous is his bad habit of ducking under a punch and then lifting his head up like a man craning his neck to see over a fence. He is, even without this flaw, an easy shot for a headhunter.
Chuvalo, unfortunately, has never been able to punch to the head effectively; his blows resemble the action of a shotputter. His most striking skill has always been his relentless body attack, but against Frazier he hardly worked the body. The fight was supposed to be a war, but it never had time to develop. By the second round, Chuvalo's face was smeared with blood as hook after hook banged into the right side of his rocklike head. Between the second and third rounds, the face turned purple. The third was Chuvalo's best round, but still he did not win it. He had Frazier cornered on the ropes, pinioned by punches, but then he slowed up and let Joe spin out of danger. This inability to retain an advantage was not new; Chuvalo, for some inexplicable reason, never throws more than three punches at a time.
Chuvalo's right eye was closed when he came out for the fourth and, as he said later, he was dizzy. Two heavy hooks by Frazier ended the fight after 16 seconds, Chuvalo turning his back on Frazier and groping for his corner. A blood vessel leading to his eyelid had erupted. "I thought my eyeball had been knocked out." said Chuvalo.
The next night Chuvalo sat in a dark hotel room on Eighth Avenue and watched a rerun of the slaughter on TV. The film flickered and the images became so distorted that Frazier seemed to be hitting him with four hands. Chuvalo stared vacantly at the picture out of his left eye. "That's the way it felt," said George. "Four hands." He turned off the set, and the room was lightless, the shadows of cars riding around the walls.
"It's painful," said Chuvalo. "Very painful to see all the chances I missed. He looks easy to hit, but he isn't easy. Everything moves, his head, shoulders, his body and his legs, and meanwhile he keeps punching and putting pressure. He fights six minutes every round. He doesn't let you live. Whoever gets him from here on will catch hell."
He walked to the window and looked out across the street at the Garden. "If I'd made it last night." he said. "If I could have only made it. . . ."
"I'm all for George," said his wife, "but I wish he'd get a factory job, you know. He has paid so much as a fighter. I don't want him to be a punching bag."
Chuvalo, quite likely, will never adhere to his wife's wishes until his face and body can no longer handle the pain. He wants the money, but even more important he is chased by the reputation that he is a loser, a guy who, if he stacked the deck, would deal everybody a winning hand but himself. No one considers the fact that he has been a first-rate man and has moved with dignity and valor through a business saturated with mendacity. He could have become much more than he is now, but somewhere along the way he got caught between his desire to be a smooth performer and his pride in his ability to take a punch. He has never been knocked down in any of his fights and. consciously or unconsciously, he has sought to preserve that record.
"It's such a negative thing," said Chuvalo. "So I've never been knocked out. So what? Often it makes me feel I'm nothing but an oversized punching bag. It's not an accomplishment. It's just a physical quirk. There are times when I'm pleased, like after the Clay fight when they said Clay knocked out everybody but George Chuvalo. Right now, I'm certain Frazier can't knock me down. I refuse to admit it could happen to me. I remember in the Bonavena fight I lost my balance and skidded back. I heard the crowd drawing in their breath in anticipation. Then it raced through my mind that if I stumbled back and went down, my record would be gone. I thought—I'm not going down, I won't let it happen. And it didn't. It's just one of those things. It's a funny pride, and it grew without my realizing it."
Chuvalo's confused psyche has, without doubt, been an obstacle in his career, but the immediate problem before the fight with Frazier was his training camp. Frazier's camp was tranquil and organized, but Chuvalo trained amid chaos. He needed direction and confidence, but instead he had two trainers, one for each ear. Toothless Ted McWhorter, who began with George when he fought in clubs long ago boarded up, advised Chuvalo to let Frazier wear himself out. Freddy Brown, a morose little man who barked commands as if he were training a dog act, succeeded only in angering the fighter. Nobody has to prod George to work; if anything, he is inclined to work until exhausted. But Brown goaded him. He also told him when to go to bed and how to relax and finally began a three-man debate on whether George should eat steak or have the fish he preferred for his prefight meal. "I just couldn't relax around him," said George, who threatened to leave camp four days before the fight.
Nevertheless, Chuvalo, an 11-to-5 underdog, went into the Frazier fight as the best bet of the year to many observers. Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer, was one of them. "It's embarrassing," Dundee said later. "I should have seen the signs. Frazier has star quality, and he's going to be tough to handle."
More than just a few disagreed with this observation. Chuvalo, of course, was berated. Tiresome comparisons were made of Frazier and Muhammad Ali, and no one remembered that it was only a few years ago that Ali was dismissed as a loudmouth dancer with fast hands, quick feet, a bad chin and a soft punch. Frazier preferred to talk about what he had done to Chuvalo.
"Can I duck?" he shouted to reporters. "Hey, and what about my defenses!"
"What about Ali?" somebody asked.
"All I can say," said Frazier, "is when Ali is ready, I'll be here."
While Frazier was talking, Chuvalo was still on his back in his dressing room. It was some time before he left, and then he did not go to bed. He walked the streets of the city until the blue light of the morning fell on his face. Going by one store window filled with staring toy figures, he stopped and saw his reflected face hanging above the clowns and soldiers with keys in their backs, and one hoped that he could also hear the words: "No, Georgie's gonna be around a long time. Every kid on the way up is gonna want a piece of Georgie Boy."