As George Chuvalo comes to the stage he looks like he’s still ready and willing to go 15 rounds.
For 21 years he was Canada’s heavyweight boxing champion. He also held a consistent top 10 world ranking, going toe to toe with all the greats of the golden age of boxing in the 60’s and 70’s, including Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson and twice with Muhammad Ali.
Remarkably, in 93 professional fights between 1956 and 1978, he was never knocked off his feet.
But since his last dance in the ring there have been greater battles to overcome.
Chuvalo’s son Jesse Chuvalo committed suicide in 1985. In 1993 his son George Lee died from a drug overdose. Two days after George Lee’s funeral his first wife Lynn committed suicide. And then in 1996 his son Steven died of a drug overdose.
To ease this unspeakable pain and tragedy, Chuvalo’s mission has been to speak anywhere he can against the horrors of drug addiction, and to talk about suicide prevention.
Last week on Oct. 21 more than 300 Red Deerians packed a banquet room at the Red Deer Lodge to hear Chuvalo’s story. He was once again the main attraction, this time as honoured guest for the 7th Annual Breakfast of Champions sponsored by the Alberta Sport Development Centre. It was an event to recognize and honour 47 elite young amateur Central Alberta athletes.
“I do a lot of speaking to young people, and passing the right message stands me in good stead with the general public,” said Chuvalo. “They like to see that in the face of adversity a guy bouncing back and hopefully do some good with kids, and help them see the light with the biggest social problem in our country, in the world really, and that’s drug abuse.
“Most people and communities are aware of the awful things that can happen with drug use, how young people can lose focus with their lives going in a certain direction, and how they can lose their lives,” added the champ. “I think I have an important message by the example of what happened to my family. And in that way it makes people feel I am trying to help them, whether directly or indirectly.”
But George still loves to talk about boxing. The night before his appearance at the Breakfast of Champions he was at the Red Deer Boxing Club talking and giving advice to young local fighters.
Immediately following his Breakfast of Champions appearance Red Deerians lined up for half an hour to get an autograph, have a picture taken with the champ, and for up and coming young boxers, seize a sacred opportunity to get some ring tips. The champ was more than happy to oblige.
“People are always nice to me. Anytime people ask me for my autograph I am complimented. I am thrilled people still want my autograph. It is still kind of cool at age 73 for people to want my autograph,” said Chuvalo.
But this public reverence for George goes far beyond his ring record, a phenomenon that far transcends a great Canadian sports story. The sum of all of the parts of George Chuvalo’s life speaks to an indomitable spirit of courage and perseverance.
“I hate to talk about what happened to my family. To lose three sons, to lose your wife is an awful thing,” said the champ. “I lost my second son and my wife in a four-day period. Most people could not conceive of something so awful.
“As a result I didn’t hide or put myself in a cocoon. People kind of respect that,” he adds.” But I also do it to help people and to help myself. Because if I didn’t do it, it would be like my kids and wife died in vain. I don’t ever want to feel that way.”