Monday, February 12, 2007


Watch the old fights of George Chuvalo sometime. Only then can you truly recognize the ferocity and the violence that boxing can be. The fight game, which is about as far from a "game" as can be is sometimes deadly serious with deadly consequences. While George Chuvalo was a successful winner who won far more than he lost, it was his unbelievable ability to absorb punishment that has made him historically significant.

And so, as I watched young Jeff Lacy absorb clean blow after clean blow recently, it got me to thinking about what the after effects may be for a young man who will have an entire life to live after he hangs up the gloves for good. The ending could still be good for a kid like Lacy. At age 29, and after only twenty-four pro fights he hasn’t absorbed anywhere near the shots the bear of a man named George Chuvalo did.

Chuvalo, who hails from north of the border in Canada, fought for 22 years and engaged in 93 pro fights. While not blessed with the natural ability of a Muhammad Ali, Chuvalo was a useful and dangerous contender who was ranked in the top 10 throughout the decade of the 1960’s. Along the way he fought some of the biggest punchers the heavyweight division has ever seen.

Names like George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Cleveland Williams dot Chuvalo’s record. The fights with Foreman and Frazier were particularly brutal. Because of Joe Frazier’s left hook, there is a piece of plastic that holds one of Chuvalo’s eyes in place. His 1970 fight with a still developing George Foreman was stopped in the third round but during the seven minutes and 41 seconds that fight lasted Chuvalo soaked up a tremendous beating. However, taking shots and not falling down was how Chuvalo made a living. His reputation as a catcher rivals that of Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk.

Chuvalo’s manager, Irving Ungerman, frantically climbed the steps to the ring and told referee Arthur Mercante to call the slaughter with Foreman off, but Chuvalo never went down, and in nearly 100 pro fights – he was never down – ever. When the fight with Foreman was over, a disappointed Chuvalo tried to plead his case, "I don’t think the fight should have been stopped. I got hit with a few shots, I wasn’t hurt. I was still coming on. It took me a while to get warmed up, but it’s no reason for them to have stopped the fight." Legendary Don Dunphy, who called the fight from ringside said to the dejected Chuvalo, "Maybe it looked different from where you were, George."

Chuvalo finally stopped fighting in 1978 at age 41 and today he’s a 69 year-old ambassador of goodwill. Chuvalo lost two sons to the ravages of heroin and he travels throughout Canada and the world giving motivational speeches and educating school aged students on the dangers of drugs. Absorbing all of those punches over all of the years hasn’t seemed to have a negative effect on George Chuvalo. He is vibrant, sounds wonderful when he speaks, has a full head of hair and still has a massive and powerful physique. Yes, George Chuvalo still has sharp eyes and a clear smile and when he shakes your hand it’s as strong and as firm as his chin proved to be for all of those years.

Which brings us back to Jeff Lacy. After only five years as a professional, many in the boxing community are already questioning his future in the game. Lacy caught punch after punch when he barely survived to the end of the fight against Joe Calzaghe in March of this year. Lacy was on the wrong end of a twelve round unanimous decision, he suffered his first loss as a professional and he lost his IBF title belt in what turned out to be a disastrous night in Manchester, England.

In his first comeback fight after the Calzaghe debacle, Lacy fought fringe contender Vitali Tsypko and again he surprisingly absorbed more punches than many thought he should have against the caliber of opponent that Tsypko is. Hall of fame trainer and manager Emanuel Steward’s voice lowered an octave when he expressed his concern for Jeff Lacy’s future. "He’s taken a lot of punishment in two consecutive fights. And believe me, you don’t take the kind of punishment he’s taken in this fight with Tsypko and with Calzaghe and that not have an effect on you."

In boxing, it seems that some can take the punishment and come back easily whereas others are far less resilient. For every iron-chinned tanker like George Chuvalo or Jake LaMotta, who both forged on for years without demonstrating any measurable ill-effects of taking thousands of incoming shots, there are the fragile and sensitive fighters like Davey Moore and David Reid who were never right again after just one beating in the ring. Moore was never the same after the frightful beating that Roberto Duran dished out to him. Along the same lines, Reid never recovered from the shellacking that Felix Trinidad forced him to endure.

Whether it’s personal chemistry or a belief in one’s own will that allows some fighters to take horrendous punishment and come back is a question of debate. In the case of guys like Davey Moore and David Reid it seemed as though their problems were more related to confidence issues than something physical. When they eventually wandered back to the ring they had the look of shell-shocked, wide-eyed war soldiers. Conversely, after George Chuvalo had his face re-arranged courtesy of Joe Frazier’s left hook in 1967, he went on to fight 30 more times while losing only four of those fights before retiring in 1978 as the Canadian Heavyweight Champion.

Wherever the answer is as to why some guys can take it and some guys can't, maybe HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant, who has been around the fights for over 40 years, has the best answer to the question of what effect the punishment Jeff Lacy has recently endured will have on his future - at least from a fistic perspective. After Lacy's fight with Tsypko, Merchant, the elder statesman of the game had this observation: "I think it leaves as many question marks at the end of the night as there were coming into the fight. I don’t know if we’re going to ever see him beat a real elite fighter."

And if that's the case, Jeff Lacy has his answer.

December 2006

No comments: