LIVE, TONIGHT: GEORGE CHUVALO!
FROM MAY/JUNE 2019 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
Once a week, Mitch Chuvalo takes his dad, the five-time Canadian heavyweight champ, to the Pegasus, an unassuming Junction bar in a strip mall, to sing the oldies he loves and to take their best stab at remembering when
The Pegasus Bar & Grill is set back, behind a gas station, in a strip mall beside a pet store specializing in reptiles. Inside the bar, there is a fridge full of Molson Canadian, an old pool table and a menu featuring French onion soup for $4.95 a bowl. The house special Pegasus Burger is a slab of meat heaped with ham, Swiss cheese and fried onions. Regulars here don’t dress in plaid shirts and skinny jeans or obsess over house prices or quiz the bartender on the hoppiness of this-or-that craft beer. No, the gang at the Pegasus, an old biker bar that the bikers have moved on from, is pure, pre-gentrification Junction. It’s a neighbourhood place where people from the old neighbourhood greet each other by name.
Friday night is karaoke night, and among the Pegasus regulars is a big block of a man, a Junction legend, with a mind battered by dementia, who enjoys warbling some oldies and is willing to sing along with a complete stranger, if asked.
George Chuvalo grew up on Hook Avenue, just east of Keele. He fought Ali twice, and Joe Frazier – and George Foreman – all the greats from boxing’s golden era. He didn’t always win, but he never got knocked down, and here he was, at the Pegasus, 81 years old and leaning on a cane, performing a tone-deaf rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” with Jay, a concrete worker he just met, turning just another Friday night into the most memorable night of Jay’s life.
“If my father were alive to see this, he’d be crying right now,” Jay says, beaming. “My father taught me everything about George Chuvalo. There are only so many living legends left in this country and George Chuvalo is one of them.”
Mitch Chuvalo is sitting at a table near the door, watching his father tumble through the Lynyrd Skynyrd tune and chuckling softly, since “Georgie,” as he refers to his dad, has always been more of an Elvis guy. Mitch is Georgie’s eldest son, his only surviving son, and the one male Chuvalo heir who didn’t get knocked out by a heroin addiction. He lives around the corner from the bar. He is 59, but looks a decade younger, and has the same face as his father save for the nose, which hasn’t been busted up in a boxing ring. Mitch teaches high school. He wears cool sneakers. He would fit right in with the Indie Ale House crowd.
“Doctors describe my father as being pleasantly confused,” Mitch says.
It is not always so pleasant. It can be incredibly hard to watch. George lives with Mitch on the weekends. A friend George met years ago through his public speaking work – Chuvalo became an outspoken anti-drug crusader after his sons, Jesse, Georgie Lee and Steven, and the boys’ mother, Lynne, were all lost to addiction – cares for him during the week. He has good days and bad. Sometimes he stares into space, lost. Other times he will ask Mitch if he has other kids, which is partly why Mitch brings him to the Pegasus on Fridays.
It’s a Junction place, and maybe being in a bar in the area where he grew up with a bunch of people who love him, or at least love who he was once upon a time, can help him remember. Plus, George still loves to sing, and so father and son sing, and when they are not singing they are sitting at a table, where Mitch keeps pulling his dad into the stories that he once told.
“Georgie, do you remember Don Prout?” Mitch says.
“Do you remember him?” George answers.
It’s a feint, a diversion, and part of Mitch’s caregiver role is to do the remembering now, so he launches into a classic George Chuvalo tale as George Chuvalo sits listening. Prout, says Mitch, was an up-and-comer. His 1964 fight with George was set for Sargent Field in New Bedford, Mass.
“The bell rang and George went right to work – wap, wap, wap – right, Georgie?” George smiles, balling his left hand into a fist. Ali once described Chuvalo as the “toughest guy” he ever fought. After a couple of rounds, Prout left the ring and headed for the exits. The referee called after him. Prout looked back and said if the referee wanted a fight then he could fight Chuvalo himself. George laughs, hard, at the kicker, tears welling in the corner of his eyes.
“If they ever make a movie of you, Georgie – that’s got to be the opening scene,” Mitch says. “I love you, Georgie,” he adds, smooching his father on the cheek.
“All the girls do,” George fires back, amid more guffaws.
Mitch has another story, one he tells quietly, so his father can’t hear. It is about Joe Louis, the greatest before Ali. There was a party at the Chuvalo home in Etobicoke. Mitch, a kid, came down for breakfast the morning after, and poured a bowl of cereal. George was out back, cleaning up. Did Chuvalo have any ice cream, Louis wondered? George said there was some Neapolitan in the fridge. Louis grabbed the ice cream, a big spoon, and dug in. Mitch couldn’t believe it. His mom might appear at any second, and she would surely give the man almighty heck for eating ice cream for breakfast. Then Louis reached across the table with a heaping spoonful and handed it to Mitch.
“Of all that has happened in my life – all the horrible shit – here I was, an 11-year-old kid, eating ice cream with Joe Louis,” Mitch says. “Maybe it’s those experiences that have somehow balanced things out for me, and maybe that’s why I am not completely fucked up.”
Mitch keeps talking. It’s Friday, and he is going deep, because if you really want to understand what it’s like to be a Chuvalo – to have two brothers overdose, another put a rifle to his head and have your mother take her life in a haze of grief – you need to understand that the only way to survive the name was to escape from it. And that’s what he did, for a time. Mitch got good grades. He got out, on a football scholarship to Florida State University. After tearing up his knee, he came home and majored in philosophy at Guelph. His younger sister, Vanessa, also went away to university. The experience expanded their worlds.
“It saved my fucking life,” Mitch says. “Take something simple, like the argument, are we born with a nature or are we free to determine our fate? Man, I have thought about that a million times over, and if I didn’t have that in my mind, if I couldn’t apply that to my own life. It has helped me be able to come to terms with a lot of things.
“But my brothers never had that opportunity.”
Now they are ghosts, haunting the periphery of their living siblings’ lives. Mitch is a cyclist, a crazy loon who bikes year-round. He needs it. It’s his oxygen, but even in those moments of endorphin-charged peace, the past is all around. Mitch’s work commute along Queen West takes him past the Gladstone Hotel – where his brother Georgie Lee was found dead with a needle in his arm. Across the street from the hotel is a mural. Among the images painted there is one of his father in his prime, all muscles and menace, in a classic fighter’s pose.
“That is what it’s like being George Chuvalo’s son,” Mitch says. Mitch takes his father to System Fitness on Bloor Street, near Clendenan, on Saturday mornings. Gyms are familiar. George sometimes asks when his next fight is. Mitch isn’t one to pull punches. He will tell him there is no fight, that he is 81 years old, his knees are wrecked and his memory is shot full of blank spaces, but to peel down to his skivvies, just the same, so he can have a steam bath and read the newspaper.
Another weekend ritual involves driving the Junction strip. George met Mitch’s mom out in front of the old bank building on the northeast corner of Dundas and Keele. He was 21, and aiming to be heavyweight champion of the world. She was 16 and the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. They got married in a church nearby. They had four boys by the time Lynne was 21, and later added a daughter. All Lynne wanted was a house in the suburbs, a place to raise a family – and host parties – and a husband who came home to cut the grass. But George didn’t cut the grass. He craved action. The city. There were other women. Lynne drank. Their marriage was a mess.
“When I look back on my family life, when I was a younger man, there were a lot of beautiful and good things that happened to us,” Mitch says. “But there was also a lot of craziness, stupidity and strife.”
Chuvalo remarried a few months after Lynne’s suicide in 1993. “I said, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ ” Mitch recalls. “He told me it was love.” It is that declaration that has led to a protracted court battle. George’s second wife, Joanne Chuvalo – long estranged from her husband – is contesting the power of attorney Mitch and his sister have over their father, challenging their ability to divorce him from her. It is a sensitive topic. Exhausting. Mitch just wants what is best for his old man.
It is nearing midnight, and the Pegasus is in full swing. Joe Cocker, real name Paul, has sung some Joe Cocker; Chico, tall, bald and full of wisecracks, has done a shot of Jack Daniel’s with George, who mostly drinks water or Diet Coke; Jay is out front pulling hard on a smoke; and Richard, in a Jamaica hat, has grabbed the microphone. Richard has had one too many. He dedicates “Like a Rolling Stone” to the “greatest Canadian boxer ever.” The crowd roars, George raises a hand, acknowledging the love, and Mitch smiles over at his father – it is another part of being a Chuvalo.
“In a lot of ways, me and my dad, we have had a troubled relationship,” Mitch says.
“But he’s my father, and what am I going to do about it, especially now, when I see him so vulnerable?
“I saw my dad when he was on top of his game, when he was the toughest guy in the country, and I see him now and he can barely walk and can barely remember anything, and it is pretty humbling, and a reminder that all of us are going to be diminished, in some way. We need to support, love and care for each other. In the end what else are we here for?”