By Mike Dunn
I watched the Floyd Patterson-George Chuvalo fight for the first time recently and understand why it was voted by Ring Magazine as the Fight of the Year for 1965. The fight took place on Feb. 1 of that year at Madison Square Garden, with Patterson winning a unamimous 12-round decision.
The fight had the necessary ingredients to be special: 1. Contrasting styles, with Chuvalo the aggressive puncher and Patterson the speedy boxer not afraid to mix it up inside; 2. Both fighters determined, having much to win for - Chuvalo wanting to establish himself as a contender for Ali's crown and Patterson wanting to reestablish himself as a legitimate contender after the two disappointing defeats at the hands of Sonny Liston; and 3. Great public interest in the bout, as the sellout at Madison Square Garden attests.
It is interesting to note that this was Patterson's first fight in the U.S. since the 1-round KO loss to Liston in their Chicago rematch (7-22-63). In 1964, Patterson fought twice in Sweden, where he remained very much a respected figure, and later he also fought in Puerto Rico. In Sweden, he beat two fighters with good records but not much chance of beating him: Sante Amonti (46-4-1) and Eddie Machen (47-4-2). He knocked out Amonti in 8 rounds and decisioned the defensive-minded Machen in 12 rounds. Patterson's third fight of 1964 was against Charley Powell, who fell in 6 rounds in their San Juan bout.
For Patterson, 1964 was a time of rebuilding. By his own admission, the former champ suffered great emotional damage in the two KO losses to Liston. Patterson had much to prove to himself in the aftermath, and much to prove to the public. He felt he had let his fans down and he was driven to find redemption in the ring. The three foreign fights of '64 were cathartic for him; they gave him a new confidence and sense of purpose. In that frame of mind, he agreed to the Madison Square Garden bout with the rugged Canadian Chuvalo. The goal was to beat Chuvalo and then challenge Ali or Liston (Patterson believed that Liston would beat Ali when the two met in a rematch, which was to take place in May of 1965).
Chuvalo, meanwhile, had won 9 of his previous 11 fights leading up to his encounter with Patterson, the only blemishes being a draw with Tony Alongi and a decision loss to wily veteran Zora Folley.
Chuvalo was gaining a reputation as someone who wouldn't duck anyone. He was a clubbing puncher with a granite chin and a will of iron. He refused to take a backward step in the ring. He had beaten a few notables along the way, including Mike DeJohn (W 10), Doug Jones (KO 11) and Yvonne Durelle (KO 12). He had also lost his share, including a pair of 12-round decisions to fellow Canadian Bob Cleroux and a DQ loss to former English champ Joe Erskine, in addition to the loss to Folley. But Chuvalo had been winning of late and was riding a crest of momentum and popularity as he entered the Madison Square Garden ring on Feb. 1, 1965. He owned a record of 29-8-2, compared to Patterson's record of 41-4.
The fight was good from the start because Chuvalo pressed the issue from the start. Patterson employed a different strategy against Chuvalo, one he had never used before. Instead of being the aggressor, which was his usual role, Patterson was content to stay back and let Chuvalo come to him. The strategy worked quite well in the early rounds; with faster hands and more experience, Patterson beat Chuvalo to the punch continually and landed crisper, harder shots to the Canadian's head and body. Chuvalo lived up to his reputation, though, and did not seem discouraged in the least. He lost the first four rounds fairly convincingly, but kept pressing in and pounding away.
In the middle rounds, the action heated up when Patterson began to eschew the defensive posture and meet Chuvalo in the center ring. Perhaps Patterson thought that Chuvalo was ready to be taken out. Perhaps Patterson was just reverting to what came natural to him. In any case, the result was several hard exchanges between the combatants. Patterson landed his best shots of the fight, including his single best punch, a solid right to the head in the fifth round. But Chuvalo was also finding the range. And when Chuvalo began connecting, Patterson appeared to fade. Going into the seventh round, Chuvalo had cut into Patterson's early lead and it appeared that Chuvalo was the fresher of the two.
Patterson wisely returned to the defensive mode after that. He let Chuvalo come to him. In the seventh and eighth rounds, Chuvalo kept up the pressure and the attack, but he was not nearly as effective as he had been in the previous rounds when he and Patterson stood toe-to-toe. Patterson was obviously tired, but he gamely hung in with the bigger foe. Patterson didn't throw as many punches as Chuvalo in those rounds, but Patterson's punches were crisper and landed more often.
In the later rounds of the bout, there were fewer exchanges but the action remained intense. Would Chuvalo's aggression be enough to offset Patterson's sharper punches in the minds of the judges? Would Chuvalo be able to trap Patterson in a corner and finally do to the former champ what Liston had done? Would Patterson be able to withstand the continued assault of the bigger man?
In the final two rounds of the fight, Patterson became more aggressive and accomplished what he had set out to do: he proved himself to the public. He proved that he could take the hard punches of a genuine heavyweight. He proved that he still had the heart of a lion and the hunger to reach down inside of himself and find the resolve to finish strong.
Patterson and Chuvalo battled and battered each other fiercely in the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds. Both were weary, but neither let up. As before, Patterson generally had the better of the exchanges. As before, Chuvalo kept pressing and kept punching.
At the final bell, both men received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd.
The verdict for Patterson was close, but unanimous. The two judges narrowly gave Patterson the edge, but I agreed with referee Zach Clayton, who voted 8-4. Many of the rounds were close, but in most of them Patterson landed more often, even if he threw less punches and wasn't the aggressor.
Both Patterson and Chuvalo would go on to fight Ali for the heavyweight title. Patterson engaged Ali in November of '65 in Las Vegas in a fight that was a terrible disappointment to everyone. Patterson was fighting back spasms as well as the champ, and just wasn't capable of putting up a good battle. He was stopped in 12 rounds of a miserably one-sided bout.
Chuvalo faced Ali in Toronto in March of 1966 and really distinguished himself. Chuvalo lasted the full 15 rounds. While the decision wasn't close, Chuvalo gave Ali a thorough pounding inside, especially in the latter rounds, and earned the distinction of giving Ali his toughest fight (in terms of punishment) in those years leading up to Ali's 3 1/2 year exile from the ring.
Chuvalo lost twice more in rapid succession after the decision loss to Ali, and many thought that he was near the end of the road. But Chuvalo was to perseverance what Michael Jordan was to gravity. In the years 1967-70, he went on to win 24 of 27 bouts. His only losses were to Joe Frazier (KO 4), Buster Mathis (L 12) and an up-and-coming young Olympic champ named George Foreman (KO 3). One of his wins was a seventh round KO over Jerry Quarry.
Chuvalo didn't put up his gloves until 1978. He finished with a distinguished ring record of 73-18-2 and an even more distinguished reputation.
Patterson never won the title again, but he remained a popular and respected figure in the sport right up till his second loss to Ali in September of 1972. He retired after that with a record of 55-8-1. He didn't leave the ring as heavyweight champ, the way he hoped, but he did leave with the affection and honor of the boxing public.