Updated: Mar 8
By Jim Withers
It wasn’t destined to go down as one of the most memorable moments in Canadian sports history.
Far from it.
But that hasn’t prevented me from vividly remembering a boxing match I witnessed in Toronto 44 years ago.
It was for the Canadian heavyweight crown and it pitted perennial titleholder George Chuvalo against one Bob (“Pretty Boy”) Felstein.
I was among the 5,000-plus people in attendance that night, March 7, 1977, covering it for The Mirror, a suburban weekly with more reporters, editors and resources than a lot of dailies have now.
My two-year stint as a sports writer was a dream job for a life-long jock like me.
I not only got to meet and write about legends like Hockey Hall of Famers Frank Mahovlich, Andy Bathgate, Ace Bailey and Foster Hewitt, but also future stars like downhill skier Steve Podborski, who’d later become one of the Crazy Canucks, capturing an Olympic bronze medal and a World Cup title.
One of those rising sports stars stands out.
Billeted with a family, he was doing his homework in the living room when I showed up to interview him. I was struck by how polite this teenage hockey phenom was, and it’s possible that he was the first person to ever address me as “sir.” I was in my 20s and it made me feel old, but I also came away thinking about how well brought up this young man was. I wished him well.
His name was Wayne Gretzky, and he did all right. (RIP, Walter Gretzky – 1938-2021.)
But of all the athletes I met, boxers were my favourite, which is ironic because I’m no aficionado of blood sports. (I can’t even look at mixed martial arts, which I call human cockfighting, and doesn’t appear to be anything more than bloodied combatants rolling around on a mat while beating the crap out of each other.)
Boxers seemed more colourful, open and authentic than other athletes, and more likely to give a sports writer a good quote.
And they didn’t come much more flamboyant than the late Tony Unitas, an ex-fighter with an unbridled passion for his sport.
Promoter, trainer, ring announcer, Unitas did it all when it came to the world of pugilism, including founding and running the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame, a one-man show tucked away in a dingy office lined with posters promoting bouts from yesteryear and filing cabinets overflowing with boxing records and black and white photos of old prizefighters. With a broad smile and a boisterous laugh, Unitas could regale you by the hour about sparring with future Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos while he, Unitas, was serving with the U.S. Marines in World War II, or his days as a TV cooking-show host, disco-club owner, adman and stuntman (which ended when he was kicked in the chest by a horse). With Unitas, you never knew what to believe, including his claim that 46 police chiefs studied a novel he’d written, Hit Man North, to gain insights into Mafia operations in Northern Ontario.
There was also ex-Canadian welterweight champ Sammy Luftspring, who would have competed for Canada in the 1936 Olympics had the Games not been in Nazi Germany and he not been Jewish. After hanging up the gloves, Luftspring made headlines as a referee when he delivered a bare-fisted haymaker to an irate fighter who’d taken a poke at him. Another boxer-turned-ref, Jackie Silver, drew flak for his laissez-faire officiating in one of Chuvalo’s most celebrated fights – against Muhammad Ali at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in 1966, which I remember listening to in my bedroom on my transistor radio. Silver laughed off accusations that he’d let Chuvalo get away with a barrage of blows below the equator. “If you called everything, there’d be no fight,” he said.
But Chuvalo was 39 now, and nearing the end of an illustrious 93-fight career – 73 wins (64 by kayo), 18 losses, 2 draws – which included a pair of slugfests with Ali, and battles with the likes of Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. And while he never did reach the pinnacle of his sport and win the world crown, the granite-jawed Chuvalo would eventually retire with the almost-unheard-of distinction of never being knocked down, let alone knocked out, despite having gone toe-to-toe with the very best. (Despite all the punches he absorbed in the ring, however, they were nothing compared with the blows Chuvalo sustained in real life, losing his wife and a son to suicide, and two sons to drug overdoses.)
Working for a suburban publication, the focus of my writing needed to be local, even when a story like this had national interest, so while big dailies like the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail concentrated on Chuvalo in the twilight of his career, my task was to hang out with “Downsview fighter” Felstein – our boy – and chronicle his fight preparations. (Downsview, a neighbourhood in the north of Toronto, was part of The Mirror’s coverage area and it had to be mentioned in any story involving the challenger.)
While it might be unkind to refer to him as a palooka – a word that has fallen into disuse these days, but essentially means mediocre or inferior boxer – Felstein had a less-than-stellar record of 16-12-1 with 10 knockouts. (Friend and ex-colleague Peter Stockland contends that “palooka” can be either a term of endearment or scorn, and for me, when referring to Felstein, I mean the former.)
He supposedly got his “Pretty Boy” moniker because he was tall (6-foot-4), dark and handsome, and because of his penchant for checking a mirror after each fight just to make sure everything was still where it was supposed to be.
While having the advantage of being six years younger than his opponent, Felstein hadn’t fought in four years. He was running a limousine company when he landed the opportunity to square off with Chuvalo, who’d been stripped of his national title for going five years without defending it. He was no Muhammad Ali, but Felstein was nonetheless still a showman, even if the days were long gone when he’d dress up in white gloves, top hat and tails, twirl a cane, and be followed around by a bevy of adoring buxom babes in sweaters emblazoned with “We Love Pretty Boy Felstein.” He still talked a good fight.
Once, when I was chauffeuring him somewhere in my ’69 Meteor, Felstein pointing out the North York Centennial Centre and told me how pleased he was that it would be the fight venue – a far cry from New York’s Madison Square Garden and Maple Leaf Gardens, where Chuvalo had boxed in his glory days.
“I remember when it was just a field, and I got laid right there in the grass,” Felstein said, adding that he was looking to get lucky there again, but in a different way.
Perhaps superstitious, Felstein also saw it as a good sign when the power went out at the gym where he was supposed to be working out.
“This is one in a million! This is a good omen; it’s going to be lights out for George.”
I didn’t understand why.
“Aw keep quiet,” his crusty old trainer Jerry Bates barked. “You’re like the lid on a pot of potatoes popping up and down … popping up and down.”
Indeed, it often seemed that Felstein’s mouth was the only part of his anatomy that was getting a real workout.
Interest in the fight wasn’t exactly making waves, so he put that mouth to use in a supposedly impromptu donnybrook with his opponent at a press conference. Poking Chuvalo in his ample paunch, Felstein started taunting him.
“Georgie Jell-O! Georgie Jell-O!”
Chuvalo, with his puffy face and fiery eyes – not Rocket Richard fiery, but fiery nonetheless – reacted in mock outrage. Fake punches were thrown, cameras flew, reporters’ notebooks flew, and Chuvalo chased Felstein out to the hotel’s parking lot and started booting in the fenders and a door of the car in which Felstein had taken refuge. (It turned out that it wasn’t Felstein’s car, but rather a loaner from a repair shop.) The whole mêlée made great TV and, in truth, probably was at least as entertaining as their boxing match turned out to be.
The headline over my post-fight story was “Battle of the bulge(s).”
In it, I said Chuvalo did “an enthralling impersonation of a beached whale” – which I’m not proud of – reporting that many in the crowd responded with disbelief when his weight was announced as 235. In his memoir A Fighter’s Life: The Story of Boxing’s Last Gladiator (2013), Chuvalo says, “I came in at 249 pounds and wore velvet powder-blue trunks to hide my gut (it didn’t work).”
I described how for eight rounds the two men clinched, spat, plodded around the ring and clinched again. “Boos and jeers greeted both fighters as they continually hugged each other, Chuvalo often rolling his eyes and looking heavenward.”Occasionally, though, real boxing would break out and Chuvalo would bulldoze Felstein into the ropes, stretching them until it looked like they would snap like elastic bands.
“Mercifully,” I wrote, “at 1:22 of the ninth round, Chuvalo brought the fistic farce to an end. A combination of punishing body punches and rights to the head, reminiscent of the arsenal Chuvalo once possessed, took its toll.” Felstein, his mouth bleeding, couldn’t get to his feet after he hit the deck for the second time in the round.
“I guess I’ll have to walk home,” he joked in his dressing room after the fight. “When you lose, you have to walk home.”
And, after a brief pause, Felstein smiled and said, “Georgie’s a tough mechanic. ... I think we both did a great thing for boxing.”
I had my doubts about that.
Chuvalo would go on to win a couple more Canadian title fights before calling it quits in 1978. He’s now 83, and I hope done with personal tragedies. He’s had more than his share.
The North York Centennial Centre, site of the fight, eventually would be renamed after the late Herb Carnegie, who, had it not been for the rampant racism of the 1930s and ’40s, would have been the NHL’s first black player. (When I interviewed him, I was amazed at his lack of bitterness.)
And Pretty Boy Felstein?
He did fight one more time, three years later, and lost. He then quickly faded back into obscurity.
Forty-four years after his showdown with Chuvalo, I’m tempted to break into a little Simon & Garfunkel:
Where have you gone, Pretty Boy Felstein? A washed-up ex-sports scribe turns his nostalgic eyes to you. …
Except that I know the answer to that question.
A couple of days ago I attempted to look up Pretty Boy’s number and give him a call, but I ended up talking with his personable 36-year-old son Brian.
Dad’s 77 now, in a long-term-care facility and has “memory issues,” Brian said, adding that he didn’t know if boxing had contributed to his father’s dementia.
He told me that Chuvalo and his father had become close, and how his dad once, in the middle of the night, came to his friend’s aid in dealing with a family emergency.
We talked about his dad’s match with Chuvalo, which occurred seven years before Brian was even born.
“And did you ever hear about the big publicity-stunt your dad and Chuvalo cooked up to hype their fight?” I asked. I was ready to tell him.
“Yes,” Brian replied.
His laugh told me that he’d probably heard that story about a million times.