He is 61 years old, but beneath the short, steel-grey hair reminiscent of barbed wire he could pass for 51. The bloated face and body of times past have yielded to diet and exercise. George Chuvalo, at an inch over six feet, has lost 40 lb. since last February and now, more or less fat-free, weighs in at a compact 260. Outwardly, the toughest heavyweight fighter this country has ever produced is in good shape. Inwardly, Chuvalo remains tormented by the drug-related deaths, years apart, of three sons and his wife. The memories haunt him, especially at night when he is alone, but they have also imbued him with a sense of mission. Like a penitent or a preacher, and maybe a bit of both, he travels the country, exhorting high-school kids, native youth, young offenders and adult groups to heed the dangers of illicit drugs. Last year, he spoke to students in every province except New Brunswick, and he expects to hit the road again this month. "My agenda is essentially preventive medicine," Chuvalo says.
He sits in the kitchen of his apartment in northwest Toronto, wearing a green T-shirt and beige slacks and sipping peach tea. A small dog, a part poodle called Tippy, is gnawing his foot. On the table is a photo album, its pages filled with the frozen smiles of long-dead children. Beyond the archway into the living room, the afternoon sun shines on a dark-green leather chesterfield and the stereo is playing the music of 1950s jazz organist Jimmy Smith. Chuvalo talks only reluctantly, as if none of it matters any more, about his 21 years as Canadian heavyweight champion or the bone-crushing, losing battles with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, none of whom could knock him down.
What Chuvalo really wants to talk about is his unrelenting, one-man war on substance abuse. With passion and single-mindedness, he goes from city to city, urging teenagers to reject the idea that drugs are "cool," to respect themselves, to make life and career choices and stick to them, to recognize and shun "the craziness that goes on in the world." He is driven by the horror of what he calls "my personal holocaust."
When people ask him how he got through the suffering that once seemed endless, he says: "I put it like this, how I'm getting through it. When you're awake and fully conscious, your mind kind of protects you. But once I stop, I really stop, once things slow down, the TV's off, the lights are out and I'm there with my own thoughts, I have a hard time, I have a hard time. It's like an anxiety attack." Several sharply indrawn breaths dramatize the feeling. "It's the only time I feel sorry for myself. I think, 'How can you even live after that, how the hell did all that happen?'" The voice chokes and the eyes well up. "You don't want to be me after midnight."
The son of Croatian immigrant parents who worked in the slaughterhouses of west-central Toronto, Chuvalo found his life unravelling about six years after he retired from the ring in 1978 (with a record of 78-17-2, including 71 knockouts). His son Jesse, in constant pain following surgery to repair the knee he had broken in a motorcycle accident, took a friend's advice at a party one night in 1984 and tried heroin to ease the discomfort. Less than a year later, on Feb. 18, 1985, he went into his bedroom and shot himself. He was 20.
Jesse's older brothers, high-school dropouts Georgie Lee and Steven, were already in trouble. In 1984, their teenage flirtation with drugs had progressed to heroin, and after Jesse killed himself, they began shooting even more of it. In 1987, they were convicted of robbing a drugstore and imprisoned. On Halloween, 1993, Georgie Lee, four weeks out of jail, felt the heroin rush for the last time. They found his body in a shabby hotel room in west-end Toronto. He was 30.
For Lynne Chuvalo, the loss of her second son was beyond endurance. Two days after Georgie Lee's funeral, Chuvalo came home to find his wife in bed, dead from an overdose of prescription drugs. The shock sent him down for the count. "They say I was in bed for a month-and-a-half after that," he says. "Friends would come round, my family, but I don't remember. I must have got out of bed to go to the bathroom, but I don't remember."
And then there was Steven, at the time one of his three surviving children. (Vanessa, now 31, has a degree in classical studies from the University of Guelph, and Mitchell, 39, is a high-school teacher and football and wrestling coach in Toronto.) In 1995, the CBC's fifth estate aired a documentary on the Chuvalo family's anguish; Chuvalo plays a video of the program as part of his presentation wherever he goes. In it, Steven speaks of his life as a heroin addict, of his sense of worthlessness, of how his father repeatedly rescued him from flophouses and, on one occasion, from a snowbank. "Stevie's articulate, Stevie's a handsome kid, nice little kid, talks nice, sweet," says Chuvalo. "When he talks, he talks about beating heroin, and you believe him as he's talking, it's hard not to believe him. Then it ends, it ends. I talk a bit but the show's over, you know, the video part."
And so is the short, tortured life of Steven Chuvalo. On Aug. 17, 1996, less than two weeks after he finished serving a sentence for yet another drugstore robbery, Chuvalo's third drug-addicted son died in his sister Vanessa's Toronto apartment of a heroin overdose. She found him there when she came home. He was 35.
When he brings his audiences up to date by telling them of Steven's death, Chuvalo says, "there's an audible gasp. They didn't expect that. They expected me to talk about my two sons who were gone, my wife, but they didn't expect another son, a live, talking son on the video. And when they see somebody like that, I talk about how young people today have to be a lot smarter to survive. I talk about lots of things. I talk about how they have to have their radar working and make sure their antenna's working so they can tune in to what's going on."
Perhaps because Steven's death was the most recent or because there was something special in their relationship, Chuvalo lingers with his reflections. "He quit high school. I let him, I thought he was going to go back but he didn't. You know when he went back? When he was in jail. He completed high school inside. They let him take courses from Queen's University while he was in Collins Bay Penitentiary. He loved Russian literature; imagine, my little drug-addict son loved Russian literature. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn. He loved all those guys, he had a passion for that stuff. He should have gone to university on the outside, studied Russian literature, psychology, whatever and done something with his life. He had the brains. He was a smart kid."
In the two-hour interview, Chuvalo's emotions are all over the map. Now, he turns his anger on the entertainment industry "for the way they promote drug use and they don't tell you the real story." He singles out Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction in which John Travolta plays a hip hoodlum hooked on heroin. "Tall, dark, well-built, handsome, doing drugs - and still looking tall, dark, handsome and well-built," Chuvalo says. "What's the message? 'Hey, you can do drugs and still look like John Travolta, you can do drugs and carry on a normal life.' That's sending out the message that you can do drugs and get away with it and nothing could be further from the truth."
What is at work here, he says, is the seduction of imagery; that the drug-related deaths of rock stars and actors like Janice Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi and River Phoenix "in the minds of some kids were, like, cool. My sons bought into that whole imagery of cool. I talk about that and I talk about it pretty explicitly, graphic as I can be because you can't bullshit kids; you can jive 'em but I'm not going to do that. In the beginning, my sons didn't know they'd get so excited at the sight of heroin they'd be crapping their pants, nobody does. They didn't know they'd start shakin', sweatin', they didn't know that part of it."
His personal indictment of the image-makers goes beyond illicit drugs. Says Chuvalo: "You have to wonder about a society like ours that can't understand why young people are seduced by drugs while it not only tolerates smoking and drinking but encourages both by its example."
The winter sun has moved enough to put late-afternoon shadows in the living room and Tippy the dog is off searching for something else to chew on. It is nearly a month after Christmas "which is always tough," Chuvalo says. "You kind of get overwhelmed by things. Even if horrible things haven't happened, you get melancholy, kind of maudlin." But he got through it, he says, with the help of his second wife, Joanne, whom he married on Jan. 27, 1995. Now 42, she is a registered nurse who brought two children to the marriage, Ruby, 9, and Jesse, 16. Ruby, as it happens, is standing by the stove eating pizza. In the ordinariness of his extended family, Chuvalo has at last found comfort.
On Christmas Eve, he went to Barrie, an hour north of Toronto, to visit his grandchildren, Jesse, 12, and Rachel, 16. They are Steven's children and they live with his widow. "I go nuts when I see them," Chuvalo says. "I love them so much." Last year, Rachel won an award from her school for having the highest marks in Grade 10 science. "When you see her, you feel so proud and happy," says Chuvalo. "All those little things make you feel good." Jesse does such a believable imitation of U.S. President Bill Clinton that Chuvalo videotaped it.
Inevitably, the conversation returns to boxing. While his encounters with the likes of Foreman and Ali made him a headliner, Chuvalo says his most unforgettable bout was on Sept. 25, 1968, at New York City's Madison Square Garden against Manuel Ramos, the six-foot, four-inch Mexican heavyweight champion. "I knocked him out in the fifth round. I think he was ranked number 4 in the world. I knocked out all the number 4s. I had trouble with the ones, twos and threes."
He warms to the subject, recalling that he had always wanted to be a fighter and was working out in a gym by the age of 10. "I think of boxing as being the truest form of sport. It's more natural to fight than play football. It's more natural to fight than play hockey or golf. A caveman would understand boxing, he wouldn't understand golf. Boxing to me is the respect for power. No other sport more clearly demonstrates one man's superiority over another quite like boxing. When a guy goes down for the count at 10, everybody knows who won the fight."
The years of the big paydays (he got $65,000 for his May 1, 1972, fight against Ali) are long gone. Now, Chuvalo depends on the fees from single speaking engagements or the sponsorship of supporters such as the United Food and Commercial Workers Union - which promoted last year's tour - and Expedite Plus, a Toronto-area courier company. He made a half-dozen appearances in January. "The pay's not bad, it's OK, I stay alive," he says. "We get by, we get by. Money's less of a factor in my life right now, it doesn't seem as important. I don't worry about becoming filthy rich." He still goes to the gym, where his routine includes a series of bench presses at 400 lb. "The physical thing gives me a little balance - if I don't lift weights, I go bonkers."
Cooking helps as well, and he reels off a list of specialties - "I can make stuffed peppers, I can make cabbage rolls, all kinds of stews and sauces, all kinds of fish, stewed fish, brown stewed fish Jamaican-style, Thai foods, Greek foods, a little bit of everything. I'm trying to be less messy about the way I cook, I drive people nuts."
Alone at night, he often revisits despair and the unanswerable question of whether he could have done anything to save his dead sons. But in the welcome light of day, he is cheered by the love of his surviving children, his grandchildren and his new family. "When I talk to young people about drugs or staying off drugs," Chuvalo says, "I always talk about love in your life and sometimes people say, 'Oh, yeah, love, you're not going to bore me with that stuff are you?' But what else is there in life? What else are we here for if we can't love people? I love being with Joanne, I love waking up to laughter in the house." A relatively new and refreshing way to greet the day. After 40 years of punishment in and out of the ring, George Chuvalo is still on his feet.
Maclean's March 8, 1999