George Chuvalo was a major heavyweight contender of the mid-1960s, arguably endowed with the toughest body of any boxer who ever lived. This was so much so that Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) sought to avoid facing him for a time, and Sonny Liston never elected to accept a challenge from the then-Canadian heavyweight champion. In a scenario typical of boxing, the fight came close to happening in 1971, when both fighters were past their best and Liston needed the money. Liston died on December 30, 1971.
But what if Liston decided he wasn’t interested in taking on the Louisville Lip, and wanted the mouthy, insolent brat to stew in his juices for a while. What if he chose to take on Chuvalo instead?
The Fighters 1964
Most boxing history buffs analyze this fight based on Chuvalo vs. Foreman, using Big George as a stand-in. There is a certain logic to that, since Foreman was Liston’s protege in some respects, but it undervalues Chuvalo. When the big Cannuck fought Foreman in 1970, he was in his early 30s, and that was old for a fighter in the 1970s. After losing to Foreman, Chuvalo never won another big fight, was not even competitive in another big fight.
Yet in 1964, Chuvalo was truly an immovable object. Recall that when Joe Frazier fought Chuvalo in 1967, Smokin’ Joe had to crush one of Chuvalo’s eye sockets to make the Canadian back down, and even with damage like that Chuvalo finished the fight on his feet!
Liston’s ability in 1964 is well known. He was a big heavyweight for the era, and so powerful that he still routinely appears on lists of the greatest punchers of all-time. More than that, Liston had a jab that struck with locomotive-like force. He might not have been fast, but even glancing strikes from Liston’s jab were enough to jar world contenders. More open to question were Liston’s stamina: he was supposedly 34 at the time, but may have been older, and was known for his hard living. Liston would also show in his fights with Ali that he wasn’t really invested in being champion anymore, and was just fighting for paydays.
Liston vs. Chuvalo
The opening bell sees the two men meet in the center ring, each determined to be the guy who goes forward. Liston sticks his jab in Chuvalo’s face, while the shorter Chuvalo tries to get close enough to attack Liston’s body. They soon clinch and wrestle, and that is when Liston is in for his first big surprise: Chuvalo is the first man he’s ever gotten physical with who was simply too strong to shove around. He also finds Chuvalo’s rib-banging in the clinch annoying and a little painful. Unable to force Chuvalo to back off either with his jab or his rough stuff, Liston backs off to get the space back for his jab.
The judges score the round for Liston, but Cassius Clay is at ringside, and he calls the round correctly: “Washer woman ain’t gonna be bullied. He’s got that big ugly bear!”
Round after round follows this pattern. Liston works behind his jab, trying to stand his ground, yet even Liston’s incredible power shots don’t stop Chuvalo. Liston stuns Chuvalo here and there, but never manages to hurt him. The unstoppable force can’t make the immovable object stop, but not back up. Chuvalo manages to bull his way through Liston’s jab at least once every round, and lands a flurry of good body shots. After each body attack, Liston grabs Chuvalo to make him stop, and the result is a draining wrestling match.
By the 6th Round, Liston is spent. Chuvalo isn’t looking good either, as the incessant, hard-hitting jabs have left his face puffy and his eyes swollen. In a desperate move, Liston’s corner smears his gloves with liniment, knowing that with Chuvalo’s eyes half-swollen shut the doctor won’t suspect a thing when Chuvalo complains that he can’t see and his eyes are burning. Liston gets the chemicals into Chuvalo’s eyes with his jab, and with Chuvalo helpless and blind, pummels him mercilessly. Whatever is left in Liston’s gas tank is spent on hammering Chuvalo, who falls backwards onto the ropes and covers up.
Yet the scrappy Chuvalo refuses to give up. He knows he is as close to the World Heavyweight Championship as he will ever get, and fires back at Liston. At close range, he can’t miss Liston’s ribs. It’s the opportunity Liston has been waiting for, and he drops the hammer right on Chuvalo’s jaw. Chuvalo covers up, his butt lands on the ropes, but he does not fall. The bell rings, ending Round 6.
Chuvalo’s corner flushes his eyes, and he comes out in the 7th spoiling for a fight. Liston is gassed, he knows it, and Chuvalo has taken his best punches. After some listless jabbing and another beating to the body, Liston waves Chuvalo off and quits in the center ring.
George Chuvalo would meet Cassius Clay in his second title defense in 1967, and lose. But forever after, Chuvalo vs. Liston would stand as the greatest piece of evidence for the boxing maxim that when two punchers fight, it’s the guy with the best chin who wins.