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Former Canadian heavyweight champ visits Estevan to fight against drugs

It's probably said about him pretty much everywhere he goes, but for George Chuvalo, in life, just like in boxing, it's pretty hard to knock the guy down.

It's probably said about him pretty much everywhere he goes, but for George Chuvalo, in life, just like in boxing, it's pretty hard to knock the guy down.

The former Canadian professional heavyweight boxer visited Pleasantdale School on Tuesday afternoon to tell his harrowing story and to counsel the students on the devastating effects of drug abuse something he knows all too well in a presentation called Fight Against Drugs.

Chuvalo was born in Toronto in 1937. At seven-years-old, he got his first glimpse at a boxing magazine in a convenience store and was immediately drawn to the sport.

Within years Chuvalo had risen through the ranks of the Toronto amateur boxing circuit, and in 1956, at the age of 19, he turned pro. In 1966, the Canadian fought Muhammad Ali. Chuvalo ended up going the distance (15 rounds) against one of the most recognized names in professional boxing history.

After the fight, despite winning, Ali famously called Chuvalo, "the toughest guy I ever fought."

Chuvalo fought Ali again in 1972 for the heavyweight championship, but lost once again.

During his presentation, one of the Pleasantdale students asked Chuvalo who his toughest opponent was. Chuvalo's answer: not Ali, but Joe Frazier.
"He's the reason I have a piece of glass holding my eye up," Chuvalo said, laughing about the lasting effects of the pummeling he took from Frazier.
In 1979, after 93 professional fights (73 of which were wins), and with more than 21 years under his belt as the Canadian heavyweight champion, Chuvalo retired from boxing.

Ironically, with his fighting career behind him, Chuvalo was still to be dealt his heaviest blow.

In 1984, five years after the end of his boxing career, the father of five (four sons and a daughter) discovered that three of his sons were addicted to heroin, and had been become mainstays in the drug circuit on the mean streets of Toronto.

About a year later, Chuvalo's youngest son Jesse committed suicide.
Georgie Lee and Steven Chuvalo remained addicted to heroin for years after their brother's death, before Georgie Lee eventually succumbed to his addiction as well, dying of an overdose in 1993. Four days later, Chuvalo's wife, Lynn, unable to cope with the loss of her second son, took an overdose of pills and lay down to die in Georgie Lee's bed. In an ironic twist of fate, Chuvalo revealed that those same pills had been stolen by Georgie Lee just days earlier.

Chuvalo opened up his presentation with a short documentary produced by the CBC in 1995, that detailed his life up to that point, two years after losing his wife and son.

By the end of 1995, having already lost half of his family, it looked like the worst was finally over for Chuvalo. Steven, who was interviewed for the documentary while being held in a correctional facility, looked to be turning his life around, finally.

The CBC documentary ended, and Chuvalo took the floor to tell the rest of his story. Two days after the CBC show was first aired, a charity had contacted Chuvalo and said they would sponsor him if he'd be interested in presenting his story to young people across the country.

When presented with the idea, Steven sober and with a new lease on life stated a strong interest and agreed to accompany his father on the cross-country tour, as soon has his release date arrived.

Nine months after the making of the documentary however, Chuvalo revealed that, upon being released from jail, Steven had fallen prey to his addiction once again. Days later, he was found dead with a needle in his arm and an unlit cigarette between his fingers, just 30 days before he and his father were scheduled to make their first presentation.

At the time of Steven's death, Chuvalo was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, providing assistance in the corner for a young boxer named Johnny Tapia.
"All I could think about during those 47 minutes that the fight lasted was, 'my beautiful son - are you dead or alive?'" Chuvalo told the students.
Unfortunately, Chuvalo would be left heartbroken, yet again.

Which brings us to today.

Shortly after Steven's death, the former heavyweight made the decision to follow through with the plan that he and his son had put into place, and took his show on the road.

"What happened to my family shouldn't happen to anybody," Chuvalo told the Grade 6-8 students. "Being young is probably tougher now than in the whole history of mankind; a young person has to be smarter now and this is the time to make smart decisions.

"Doing drugs is insane - it's like hitting yourself over and over again."
And this is the crux of Chuvalo's presentation.

He travels the country talking to people about drug use specifically young people, like the audience at Pleasantdale School because it's a pivotal period in their development. If his own three sons could have seen a glimpse of their future, or were given some perspective about their situation, there's no way they would have become addicts, he said.

"I just try to impress upon kids the fact that you have to be happy in life, you've got do well in school, and you have to be tight with your family. All of those things can contribute to a very stable young personality."

One of the main points that Steven was going to touch on had he lived to see the project come to fruition is the importance of getting a good education.

"Education is the single most important determinant in how well you'll do in life," said Chuvalo. "The future doesn't bode well for you if you don't do well in school; that comes straight from my son, Steven."

Chuvalo's main point, on the other hand, is the importance of having love in one's life.

"If it wasn't for love, I wouldn't be here today," he said. "Love makes you feel strong, tender, appreciated and important. We all need it I don't care how big and tough you are, I don't even care if you're Mike Tyson you need love."

With love, comes the ability to lean on others during hard times, Chuvalo said. With a strong, loving family bond, happiness should follow, and happiness is, perhaps the most important combatant against the lure of drugs during a teenager's developmental years.

"The happier you are, the less likely you are to make the wrong step. The unhappier you are, the easier it is to fall off-track," said Chuvalo.

After the presenation, Chuvalo admitted that it can be very difficult to talk about his family like he does - especially since some of the content is very graphic in nature. At one point during the speech, Chuvalo talked about the intense physical hold that heroin had on his three sons. At times, the heroin high was so extreme that it even caused them to defecate themselves.

"I don't like having people visualize that kind of stuff, but I think it's important to tell them how godawful it is to be a drug addict," he said. "How else can you do it but by showing them with words, so that they can visualize it themselves? It's just something so out of control. That's the life of an addict."

As for Chuvalo himself, for a man who has been through so much in his own personal life, let alone the physical beating he took during his boxing career, he is doing incredibly well.

Less than two weeks ago, he celebrated his 73rd birthday, and he says he still lifts weights and exercises daily.

"I'm an old guy, but I still go to the gym. Healthy body, healthy mind. When I work out I'm happier, because it relieves stress too," he said. "As long as I have some steam left, I'm going around the country."

"I hope I'm having a strong impact, even if kids just think about the stuff I'm saying," Chuvalo went on. "I'm not saying I'm going to get to everybody, but I know I have had a very positive effect on a lot of young people, because they've told me later. I'd see them when they're 25-years-old and they'd say, 'hey George, you came to my school several years ago and I was really impressed and it taught me about drugs and what they can do to you.'"

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