News / Canada

The fight over boxing legend George Chuvalo

At 80, the champion is in the middle of a bitter divorce — a proceeding that involves accusations of kidnapping, brainwashing and extortion

George Chuvalo and Don Cherry at the Cadillac Lounge during Chuvalo's 80th birthday in September. A happy event masked a bitter family conflict

CBC

George Chuvalo and Don Cherry at the Cadillac Lounge during Chuvalo's 80th birthday in September. A happy event masked a bitter family conflict

It was a glittering birthday bash held for one of Canada’s most beloved athletes.

George Chuvalo had turned 80.

The heavyweight boxer no one could knock down — not even The Greatest, Muhammad Ali — was chauffeured along Queen St. W. on Sept. 12 in a 1961 Rolls-Royce to the Cadillac Lounge. There, he was feted by sporting royalty like Don Cherry and Donovan Bailey and toasted by buddies like Mob snitch Marvin “The Weasel” Elkind and security expert Tom Doyle. The public, for $40 a ticket, was welcome, too. The joint was jammed.

Chuvalo shone, dapper in a crisp shirt and jacket. No tie. His smooth skin and thick cap of white-flecked hair belied his years. Friends and family beamed around him. Cameras captured it all: the smiles, the hugs, the genuine affection.

But beneath that cheerful celebration, a disquieting reality churned.

The George Chuvalo this country has known — a granite boulder of a man in the ring who faced crushing tragedy outside of it — is beginning to slip away.

After a pro career of 93 fights and innumerable blows to the head, the legendary boxer has “significant cognitive impairment.” That’s according to a medical assessment filed in a rancorous divorce proceeding that effectively pits Chuvalo’s adult children — who submitted the divorce application on behalf of their father under power of attorney — against their stepmother.

Accusations of kidnapping, brainwashing, extortion and reckless spending are sprayed throughout sheaves of affidavits, power-of-attorney documents, mental capacity assessments and testy emails packaged in Superior Court as part of the two-year legal wrangling to end Chuvalo’s marriage.

Through his attorney, Chuvalo declined to be interviewed for this story.

None of the allegations have been tested in court and a trial date has not been set. But from information in medical reports and sworn statements, it’s apparent this is not a routine marital split.

Sometimes Chuvalo says he does not want a divorce. Other times, he says he does. And though the former fighter’s cognitive ability is waning — he got lost driving home once; police took him to hospital — he’s been deemed competent in certain areas by medical experts.

Lawyer Graham Webb, executive director of the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said a situation where children initiate a divorce under power of attorney for a parent “is unusual,” but in his experience, “it does happen.”

“Usually there are significant property rights involved,” said Webb, who is not associated with the Chuvalo proceedings.

In the Chuvalo case, three marital properties and various business and financial interests are being contested.

Joanne Chuvalo, the boxer’s wife of 23 years, wants to remain married.

Joanne and George Chuvalo during a night out together in recent years.

Joanne and George Chuvalo during a night out together in recent years.

The 61-year-old says she and her husband are still in love and that Chuvalo returns to her whenever he can “escape” his handlers, according to her responding affidavit in the divorce action. She also alleges in the document that “a gang of conspirators including (Chuvalo’s) children from his first marriage” are stashing him in homes and seniors residences around the GTA to prevent her from seeing him.

“I just want him home,” the retired registered nurse said in an email.

Joanne is also seeking guardianship of her spouse.

Chuvalo’s degree of impairment — and his ability to make independent decisions — is central to the divorce application supported by his son Mitchell and daughter Vanessa, under power of attorney for property.

In Mitchell’s sworn 2015 statement to act as his father’s litigation guardian, he says Chuvalo’s memory has ebbed “to the point where my father can no longer be trusted to govern his affairs.” Mitchell declined to be interviewed by the Star.

Chuvalo’s son accuses Joanne of depleting family assets “at an alarming rate”— spending a “minimum” of nearly $450,000 “post-separation” — and preying on her husband’s vulnerable mental state to “extort cash money,” according to information supporting the divorce action.

The former Canadian heavyweight champion with his son Mitchell in 2005.

Michael Stuparyk

The former Canadian heavyweight champion with his son Mitchell in 2005.

Joanne is the boxer’s second wife. She claims the power-of-attorney authority used against her is invalid, that a handwritten revocation of the power-of-attorney agreement signed by Chuvalo was ignored and that the Chuvalo children are pushing for a “sham” divorce.

“These proceedings are, and always have been, based on the fundamental lie that George does not want to be married to me,” Joanne stated in an October affidavit.

“The truth is that George has always loved me dearly and he still does. I don’t want us to be divorced and George doesn’t want us to be divorced.”

For Chuvalo, these proceedings come late in the life of a man who, too often, has shouldered the heaviest mantle of family grief.

A father of five, Chuvalo has attended funerals for three sons and his first wife, Lynne. Two sons died of heroin overdoses: Georgie Lee and Steven. Jesse, while fighting heroin addiction, shot himself. Lynne died by her own hand, swallowing pills.

It is loss of immeasurable agony.

Yet, over time, Chuvalo shared his anguish. Repeatedly. He embarked on a decades-long anti-drug campaign, telling his sons’ stories. The Canadian public embraced Chuvalo and his cause. His legacy grew.

Now, this.

His wife and children are waging war in court, in a proceeding the former Canadian heavyweight champ might not fully comprehend: he recently told a geriatric expert he couldn’t recall ever meeting his lawyers and didn’t know their names.

Boxing commentator Chuck “Spider” Jones is one of Chuvalo’s closest friends. He described Chuvalo, whom he’s known since 1963, as a “warrior” who will withstand this.

“This man fought the best fighters in the world for 20 years and you know what? They couldn’t knock him down,” said Jones, referring to Ali, Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry — all three now dead.

“So I don’t think anybody’s going to knock down George.”

Chuvalo connects with Muhammad Ali in their second bout, May 1, 1972. Ali won the decision.

Chuvalo connects with Muhammad Ali in their second bout, May 1, 1972. Ali won the decision.

GEORGE AND JOANNE

George Chuvalo and Joanne O’Hara eloped to Wilson, N.Y., on Jan. 27, 1994.

It was about three months after Lynne Chuvalo died.

Lynne killed herself just four days after their son, Georgie Lee, was found dead in a Parkdale hotel room. Eight years earlier, Jesse put a gun to his head in his bedroom.

After Lynne’s death, Chuvalo was at his nadir, recalled Jones.

“It was a house of pain and tragedy and heartbreak,” said Jones. “The ones who survived saw the other ones go.”

Joanne O’Hara and Lynne Chuvalo had both worked at the former Northwestern General Hospital in Toronto many years earlier. Joanne was an emergency room nurse; Lynne was an electrocardiogram technician.

When Joanne’s infant daughter Emily, born in 1990, died of sudden infant death syndrome, Lynne had comforted Joanne as someone who’d already lost a child. Joanne met Chuvalo, briefly, when Lynne introduced them at work.

In his 2013 memoir, Chuvalo: A Fighter’s Life, he recalled running into O’Hara “on the street” in late 1993.

O’Hara asked if she and her two young children could drop by after Christmas. It was a pleasant visit, Chuvalo wrote. The pair began having morning coffee regularly.

“Before long, I realized that Joanne was making me feel alive again,” Chuvalo wrote of his wife, 19 years his junior. “Still, I felt uneasy because Lynne had been dead just eight weeks.”

A year after they eloped, the couple took formal vows in a Catholic ceremony in Toronto. Even then, the fighter harboured pangs over the rapid romance.

“To be honest, I felt guilty that our elopement happened so quickly after Lynne’s death, but I never for a second doubted that it was the right decision,” he wrote.

“I knew most people — especially Mitchell and Vanessa — wouldn’t understand (they still don’t), but if it wasn’t for Joanne, I would not have survived.”

In his book, Chuvalo makes a reference to his own suicidal thoughts after the deaths of Jesse, Georgie Lee and Lynne.

The Chuvalo family snacks at the kitchen table in this 1975 photo. George's first wife, Lynne, pours coffee, with their five children, Mitchell, 15, Steven, 14 Georgie Lee, 12, Jesse, 10, and Vanessa, 7. The family would go on to experience a numbing series of tragedies.

RON BULL

The Chuvalo family snacks at the kitchen table in this 1975 photo. George's first wife, Lynne, pours coffee, with their five children, Mitchell, 15, Steven, 14 Georgie Lee, 12, Jesse, 10, and Vanessa, 7. The family would go on to experience a numbing series of tragedies.

(His son Steven accidentally overdosed on heroin in 1996. Joanne broke the news to her husband at Pearson airport when Chuvalo returned from a business trip in the United States.)

“My decision to marry Joanne came down to a choice between perhaps killing myself sometime later in the ’90s, or being the way I am now: Living and being as happy and as normal as I could hope to be.”

When George and Joanne Chuvalo began building a life together, financially it was a rocky start.

“Nobody can accuse (Joanne) of being a gold digger, either, because just before we were married, I lost my house and we had to move in with her mother. I was totally broke when the Croatian Credit Union foreclosed on my mortgage after I’d missed a couple of payments and they hadn’t given me enough time to find a new lender,” he wrote.

“It only added insult to injury when my furniture ended up being piled on the front lawn for everyone to see.”

In her motion to dismiss the divorce application, Joanne refers to their finances when they eloped:

“At that time . . . George had no real job or structure to his life. He made some money doing appearances and the like. But George was in dire financial straits, after failing to pay his taxes for decades.”

Together, their financial outlook improved.

In 1997, Joanne founded George Chuvalo Fight Against Drugs, which she still owns, “a company which campaigns against drugs, assists in arranging treatments for addicts and managed George’s appearances.” That work comprised the bulk of Chuvalo’s income. Typically, he’d collect $4,000 to $5,000 per engagement, according to financial information filed by Joanne.

The Chuvalos eventually purchased three properties: in Toronto, in Caledon and a cottage in Tiny Township. All are registered in Joanne’s name. However, those properties were “afforded solely” by her husband, according to the divorce application that includes “exclusive possession of the family home” among its property claims.

A Chuvalo-owned company also acquired 19 hectares of land near Hamilton’s airport. The company sold the land to the city in 2011 for $3.2 million, according to published reports.

The Chuvalos’ lives were entwined; they worked closely as the boxer’s speaking career blossomed. How they drifted apart is disputed in court documents.

Chuvalo’s children claim that in late 2013, the couple had an argument and their father was told to leave the Caledon home. He moved to their Toronto house, where Joanne’s elderly mother and brother were living.

Joanne alleges the couple “never formally separated” in 2013 and “ended up living at separate marital residences by a series of unplanned events,” according to information in her guardianship application. In that document, she claims Chuvalo, after a business trip, stopped by their Toronto home “which was infested with bed bugs” and that he was bitten; Chuvalo remained there to avoid contaminating the Caledon home until the bugs were eradicated, a process that took about eight months.

As the divorce proceedings wind through family court, Joanne continues to reside in Caledon, where she cares for her mother. She is responsible for taxes, insurance and maintenance for the three marital properties, she said in an email.

Chuvalo, under the stewardship of his children, still enjoys going out around town.

The boxer is often with his son Mitchell, a Toronto teacher and coach, or Tom Doyle, who specializes in “close body protection/security for celebrities and high-profile events.” Doyle posts photos of many outings.

In those social media posts, Chuvalo is signing photos and boxing gloves for charity. He’s having meals around the city. He’s at a local boxing card. A Dragons’ Den party. At tributes for him.

In October, Heritage Toronto unveiled a plaque commemorating the1966 Chuvalo-Ali fight held at the old Maple Leaf Gardens. Ali won by unanimous decision but Chuvalo went the distance, lasting all 15 rounds on his feet. Ali trained for that fight at Earl “Sully” Sullivan’s Toronto Athletic Club, when it was on Ossington Ave.

Joanne Chuvalo does not attend these type of events. She was not at her husband’s 80th birthday party.

George Chuvalo's son Mitchell at his father's recent 80th birthday party.

George Chuvalo's son Mitchell at his father's recent 80th birthday party.

LOST AND FOUND

OPP Const. Andrew Duncan noticed a driver making an unsafe lane change in Toronto’s west end.

The man at the wheel, George Chuvalo, saw the cruiser’s lights flash behind him and pulled over.

It was Dec. 20, 2015. About a month after Chuvalo’s children filed his divorce application.

Duncan recalled in a sworn statement that Chuvalo said he was driving to see his wife, Joanne, at their Caledon home.

“Mr. Chuvalo was quite confused and disoriented,” Duncan stated in an affidavit April 7, 2016, part of Joanne’s guardianship application.

“It appeared he had not been taking care of himself and he admitted he was lost,” the officer continued.

The officer took the boxer to Etobicoke General Hospital, where Joanne met them. The attending physician who assessed Chuvalo spoke with the officer; Duncan suspended Chuvalo’s licence.

Duncan stated he observed the Chuvalos speaking calmly together and often holding hands. He also heard about their split.

“Mr. Chuvalo stated that he was getting a divorce from Mrs. Chuvalo,” according to the officer’s affidavit.

“I asked him if this was what he wanted and he stated it was not. Mr. Chuvalo stated several times in the presence of Mrs. Chuvalo words to the effect of “what am I going to do without you” and “without you, I’m nothing.”

The couple left the hospital and spent the night in Caledon.

The next day, Caledon OPP “interrupt us with a ‘wellness check’ because someone has called them,” according to Joanne’s application to dismiss the divorce proceedings.

According to Joanne, later that day Mitchell, Vanessa and a third person arrive at the Caledon home and “take my husband.”

Police involvement peppers this case.

In Joanne’s motion to dismiss the divorce, she claims Mitchell and Vanessa call police when they suspect their father is with her. There have been confrontations (sometimes with police in attendance) between Joanne and Chuvalo family members and others when she was with her husband — once as recently as September, when Chuvalo was removed from her vehicle, according to Joanne’s affidavit.

Mitchell alleges in the divorce application that his father has been “badly manipulated” by Joanne, saying she takes cash from their father when they are together.

In the same document, Mitchell also accuses Joanne of having “a severe gambling addiction and a problem with prescription drug use” that have had a “deleterious impact on the marital relationship” and continue to “plague” the relationship by “inspiring (Joanne’s) active depletion of the net family property.”

In an email responding to the drug and gambling assertions, Joanne said Mitchell and Vanessa had “never made such allegations until my husband’s will was drafted” and they were named beneficiaries.

“The allegations against me are merely part of their continuous campaign of attempting to convince their father, who they know suffers from dementia and is susceptible to undue influence, that he should divorce me,” Joanne said in the email.

By Joanne’s count, she and her husband have tried to reunite at least four times. She says in court documents that her marriage is being disrupted by the Chuvalo children and others “brainwashing George into believing he wants to be apart from me.”

Three years ago, however, Joanne called police because she was fearful of her husband.

In October 2014, Joanne told police Chuvalo was menacing her in their home. Police charged him with uttering threats despite her plea to get him medical attention instead, Joanne said in an email to the Star. She stated by then, she’d already been consulting medical experts about her husband’s actions.

“It was a complete departure from my husband’s behaviour throughout our marriage,” she said in the email, noting Chuvalo had stopped taking prescribed medication and became “uncharacteristically aggressive and irrational.”

“However, I was warned in advance by medical professionals that I could anticipate a change in his behaviour as his symptoms of head trauma worsen.”

The Crown dropped the charges in 2015.

WHAT THE DOCTORS SAY

One of the traits that made Chuvalo a boxing star — his resolve in withstanding blows — could be a culprit in his declining cognitive ability.

Ali. Frazier. Foreman. Quarry. Ali, a second time. The Toronto pug fought them all, and more, over his 22-year career.

His raw numbers: 93 fights. 73 wins. 18 losses. 2 draws. 64 knockouts — meaning he flattened opponents 64 times.

Chuvalo tapes his hand before a workout in 1961.

REG INNELL

Chuvalo tapes his hand before a workout in 1961.

Chuvalo was never knocked out cold. Never kissed the canvas. A point of pride.

He lost twice by technical knockout. That means the ring referee can halt a fight if a boxer is badly injured or can no longer defend himself. Those losses came against American icons, Frazier and George Foreman, who put savage early-round hurts on the Canadian.

Frazier’s battering was serious. He broke Chuvalo’s orbital bone, and he needed reconstructive surgery.

Back in Chuvalo’s halcyon days, concussions and potential brain trauma from repeated blows to the head were not discussed. It’s only in recent years that brain trauma in athletes is being recognized as a serious problem.

The medical professionals who examined Chuvalo as part of the divorce proceedings did not definitively conclude blows to the head from boxing triggered his cognitive slide. His long history of concussions, however, was noted, as was his boxing career.

Chuvalo’s spotty recall, at first, didn’t seem overly troubling to his children. They thought he was just having memory issues but still took action to protect him, court documents show. George Chuvalo executed — and signed — a continuing power of attorney for property on March 26, 2014, authorizing Mitchell and Vanessa “to make decisions on my behalf concerning management of my property and thereby to do on my behalf anything that I could lawfully do except make a will.”

Chuvalo was initially assessed in January 2015 by his family physician as having “significant cognitive impairment/dementia” with “very poor short-term memory recall,” according to a letter from the doctor after he examined Chuvalo.

In April 2015, a geriatric psychiatrist met to assess Chuvalo and reported he could not “confirm any evidence of a dementing illness in Mr. Chuvalo” and that “there are mild deficits in delayed recall,” according to medical information supporting Joanne’s affidavit.

Recently, Chuvalo was assessed by Dr. Heather Gilley, a geriatric specialist based at St. Michael’s Hospital, at Joanne’s request. Gilley met him twice, in mid-August and again on the morning of his birthday party, Sept. 12, according to the report filed with Joanne’s affidavit.

Gilley noted in her report that Chuvalo stated in their first meeting that he did not want to divorce his wife. The geriatrician noted in their second meeting, Chuvalo initially told her he desired a divorce but changed his mind by the end of the session.

Gilley also reported that “Mr. Chuvalo is a very pleasant and congenial person and he tried hard to answer all my questions. His memory loss and cognitive impairment was immediately evident.”

This is a brief synopsis of Gilley’s findings and opinions in key areas:

  • Despite “significant cognitive impairment” the boxer is able to express wishes and preferences. One preference was to attempt to reconcile with his wife.
  • Chuvalo “is capable of making the decision to divorce Joanne Chuvalo.” He understands the current facts of his marital status and understands the facts of separation and divorce.
  • He does not have the capacity “to instruct counsel in the matter of his separation and divorce from Joanne Chuvalo.” The geriatrician added Chuvalo does not know who his lawyers are and “cannot recall ever meeting them.”
  • Chuvalo “is vulnerable to undue influence due to the relationships of dependence he has on others for meeting his basic daily personal needs.”

Gilley also stated that “capacity and vulnerability are dynamic concepts and George Chuvalo may change in these domains in the future.”

Joanne said in an email that her husband’s needs would be best met at their Caledon home, where, as a couple, they could afford private home care.

“In my opinion, he needs routine, attention and relaxation rather than be moved around all the time at 80 years old,” she wrote, noting she had “extensive geriatric experience” when she worked as a registered nurse.

To date, during his separation from Joanne, the boxer has spent time living with family members and at least one short stint at a GTA seniors residence, according to Joanne’s court filings.

Like a lot of boxers who made it to the top, Chuvalo beat long odds.

The son of blue-collar Croatian immigrants, raised in the heart of Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood, he rose to international fame, fuelled by hard work and passion. He called Muhammad Ali a friend. Joe Frazier, too. He’s a member of the Order of Canada. A hall-of-famer.

At 80 years old, Chuvalo remains standing when many of his opponents are not. But as his memory loosens and dementia tightens its grip, the boxer’s future is in others’ hands.

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