Hit Me With
Your Rhythm Stick: Joe Grim and George Chuvalo
By Mike Casey
Armed with a Louisville Slugger apiece, Joe Grim and George
Chuvalo are in some kind of heaven, though it isn’t a place of angels and
harps. Chuvalo swings his bat hard into the pit of Grim’s stomach and Joe
laughs at him and says, “Nah, you gotta hit me harder than that to hurt me,
George. Now you try bouncing one offa my jaw.”
“Nah, it’s my turn now,” Chuvalo protests. “Smack me one over the
head. I betcha I don’t even blink.”
Down through the corridors of time, boxing has spawned some
remarkably tough and resilient men. Joe Grim and George Chuvalo, who fought in
vastly contrasting eras, were very definitely two of the toughest. While the
more technically inclined exponents of the game were inflicting traditional
damage in the way of cut eyes, broken noses and sore ribs, Joe and George were
thinking laterally and leaving a trail of bruised fists and dented egos. Two
generations of fearsome punchers walked away in amazement after vain attempts to
knock out the defiant duo. Breaking rocks in the midday sun was more fun than
trying to break Grim or Chuvalo.
Both men plied their trade in the shadow of great world
champions. Grim wanted nothing more than to beat the mighty Jim Jeffries, even
though Joe didn’t often beat anyone else. Chuvalo tracked Muhammad Ali, warming
up for the challenge by severely hurting the knuckles of Ernie Terrell and Floyd
It was the mental scars meted out by Grim and Chuvalo that hurt
their conquerors the most, compelling them to try and make sense of it.
Patterson would say of George, “I hit him several times with punches that would
knock other people down. But he didn’t go down.”
Floyd, who could be quite scholarly about such things, added that
other men’s brains tend to cut out and go to sleep after being hit hard. Not
Chuvalo’s brain. George just cocked a snook at biological logic. He would have
loved Joe Grim.
It was Joe who took a ferocious pounding from Jack Johnson over
six rounds before sticking out his tongue at the finish and calling the
Galveston Giant a bum. Jack shook his head at his cornermen and said, “I just
don’t believe that man is made of flesh and blood.”
The tributes flooded in for Joe Grim, just as they would flood in
for George Chuvalo some sixty years later. Tributes that were very different
from the norm. Of Grim, Irish Joe Thomas would say, “You might as well hit a
sandbag.” Chuvalo would be compared by the Associated Press to a man being paid
piece work for the number of punches he could take.
An Italian iron man and a Canadian rock. That was Joe Grim and
George Chuvalo respectively. It would make a nice little supernatural twist to
our tale if we could say that tough Joe, who died in 1939, came back as tough
George. Alas, Chuvalo was already toddling around as a two-year old by that
time, no doubt causing significant structural damage to the walls of his home
whenever he bumped his head.
Man, oh man, did Mr Chuvalo and Mr Grim have hard heads. When Joe
was a young boy in Italy, he had a novel way of earning money from tourists.
Much more inventive than his contemporaries, the rugged youngster didn’t opt for
the boring business of showing visitors the beauty spots or tipping them off on
the best places to eat. For a silver lira or less, he would demonstrate his
mettle by running headlong into the iron door of his local church. Joe’s face
would balloon with various bumps and bruises as his act became a regular
feature, but his friends would recall in amazement how he would never be so much
as dazed. History does not tell us how many tourists were impressed by this
curious act of masochism or how many were forced to scoot behind the nearest
tree to bring up their breakfast.
When most folks come to America in search of their dreams, they
are looking to buck the odds and not be beaten down. Joe Grim, with typical
perversity, openly invited America and her best fighters to beat him into the
He had been born Saverio Giannone on March 16, 1881, the eighth
of nine children, but quickly learned that the fast and urgent world of America
didn’t have much truck with complicated names. Joe Grim was easy to pronounce in
a land that had yet to become more multi-culturally diverse.
Joe went to work as a bootblack and had a little stand near the
Broadway Athletic Club in Philadelphia. He loved boxing and spent his evenings
sitting in the ten-cent seats in the gallery watching the fights. His loyalty
and enthusiasm paid off one night when the management asked for a volunteer from
the audience to substitute for a fighter who hadn’t shown up. Joe jumped at the
chance and soon showed the stunned audience what he could do. For one thing, he
could fall down many times from thunderous blows to the head and body and keep
getting up without taking a count. Much as he loved his boxing, Grim was utterly
ignorant of its subtleties and technicalities. He simply couldn’t fight in the
What made him additionally remarkable, however, was that he was
never cursed with a loser’s mentality. He tried his utmost every time, bragged
unashamedly that he would knock his opponent out and quite genuinely believed
that he would do so.
Joe became an instant hit at the Broadway Athletic Club for his
astonishing courage and comical antics. He would smile and chuckle all the time
as he bounced up from shuddering knockdowns like a mischievous rubber ball. Club
promoter Lew Bailey was soon managing him, impressed by Grim’s equally shining
talent for marketing himself to his adoring faithful. After every hideous
thrashing, Joe would make a speech in which he would throw out a challenge to
world champion, Jim Jeffries.
Big Jeff, in his delightfully sober way, became convinced that
this little fella Grim, all 5’ 7” and 50lbs of him, was a plain and simple
madman. Even Sam Langford didn’t want to fight Jeffries and Sam could actually
Undeterred, Joe Grim ploughed on, his fame spreading like
wildfire as the larger boxing clubs began to employ his very special services.
He was never short of willing opponents. While the astute Jeffries had the good
sense to steer a wide berth of Grim’s carnival, plenty of other marquee names
couldn’t resist the insatiable urge to massage their egos and try to knock out
the man who simply wouldn’t be flattened. Champions and contenders who should
really have known better became obsessed with the challenge of becoming the
first man to put Joe Grim down for the ten count. Joe Gans, the brilliant Old
Master, tried with everything he had in ten brutal rounds with Grim at Baltimore
in 1904. Gans didn’t do too badly, breaking only three of his knuckles as he
knocked Grim down 17 times. But the Italian wonder was still there at the end,
mocking the maestro’s punching power and even having the cheek to criticise his
stance. How must poor Gans have felt? Much like Picasso being asked by a man on
the street, “Are you the guy who paints them rinky-dinky pictures of funny
Peter Maher, by contrast, could only have felt like going home
and drinking himself into oblivion. Perhaps, indeed, he did. Thunderous-punching
Peter not only failed in his quest to knock Grim out at the Industrial Hall in
Philadelphia, but also committed the cardinal sin of getting knocked out
himself. Dozing fighters have been known to get stiffened by their punching
bags, but certainly not punching bags that have mouths and can brag about it.
One simply cannot draw a quiet veil over those occurrences. Fortunately for
Peter, Grim’s desperation wallop was a right uppercut that began its journey
from the floor and was still south of the border when it crashed into Maher’s
wedding tackle and sent him down.
As a witty reporter of the time noted: “Peter then thoughtfully
yelled foul and made a blind stagger to his corner.”
Grim was disqualified in one of his rare moments of positive
glory and Maher’s blushes were at least spared to a degree.
Many other illustrious names tried their best to wipe the cheeky
smile off Joe Grim’s face and put him into a slumber, including Philadelphia
Jack O’Brien, Barbados Joe Walcott, Dixie Kid, Johnny Kilbane and Battling
Jack Blackburn, he of the lightning fast hands and withering
punching power, should have been given a gold medal for blind perseverance. In
three successive bouts, Jack went through the formidable tools of his arsenal
and failed to knock Grim into dreamland.
Without doubt, however, the most celebrated attempt at cracking
the Italian iron man was made by a man who was reckoned to be able to punch
holes in just about anything: the mighty Bob Fitzsimmons. The experts on such
matters calculated that Ruby Robert’s scientific knowledge of punching would
prove the key to unlocking Mr Grim’s doughty little safe box.
Fitz was training for his light-heavyweight championship match
with George Gardiner and agreed to oblige Grim in the meantime. Perhaps Bob felt
that such an exercise would fine-tune the hammers that ballooned from the end of
his formidably muscled arms.
Robert Edgren, that grand boxing writer of bygone days, travelled
down to Philadelphia with Fitzsimmons and his party to watch the fight in
October, 1903. Edgren wrote: “Like all the others, I expected to see the Italian
iron man put away for at least a ten-count. It wasn’t possible to believe he
could stand up in front of Fitzsimmons, who had knocked out Corbett, Ruhlin,
Sharkey, Maher and scores of other great heavyweights. Fitzsimmons thought the
fight was a joke. But he wanted to catch a train home. He was in a hurry. He
intended to knock Joe out in a round.”
Fitz tried. How he tried. But he didn’t get his wish. Grim,
defiant as ever, made his intentions clear with a little speech before the
hammering began. “This Fitz thinks he’s gotta me scared. I tell you, he no gotta
this fellow scared. I Joe Grim. I no quit for no man in the world. I fighta da
Jeff next time, sure.”
Fitzsimmons didn’t quite know whether to feel amused or insulted
by the immovable object he encountered. After giving Joe a ferocious pounding in
the opening frame, Fitz strolled back to his corner and told ringside reporters,
“I hate to hit him – he’s so much fun.”
By the end of the third round, Bob’s expression had changed to
one of sheer bemusement. Grim’s face was a mask of blood from the repeated
smashes he had taken to nose and mouth. Each time he was hammered to the floor,
he simply laughed and stormed back into Fitzsimmons.
There were 17 knockdowns in all. Of the particularly brutal fifth
round, Robert Edgren wrote: “Fitzsimmons knocked Grim down three times with
blows that sounded like the impact of a mallet on a wedge.”
Not even Ruby Robert’s famous solar plexus punch could keep Joe
down. At the beginning of the sixth and final round, Fitzsimmons leaned across
and playfully tapped Grim on the head, as if trying to ascertain the apparently
unique structure of the Italian’s skull. Joe, of course, survived the session.
He even managed a celebratory somersault as he jogged back to his corner and
threw out his obligatory challenge to Jim Jeffries.
What was the secret to Joe Grim’s phenomenal resilience? Ace
trainer Harry Lenny believed he had part of the answer. Although Lenny had no
medical qualifications, he possessed a rare, physiotherapeutic gift for healing
aching muscles and bones. Lenny lived at the Forest Hotel in mid-town Manhattan
in his later years, offering free treatment to friends and charging fifty bucks
to strangers. During the war years, he was said to have secretly treated
Lenny trained Grim for around five or six years and could never
quite believe the texture of Joe’s skin. “I never in my life felt skin like his.
It was smooth as a baby’s belly and it was as pliable as rubber. But the
strangest thing about Joe’s skin was the way it secreted a fine oil. I would
just touch his arm, shoulder or chest very lightly with my finger, and when I
took my finger away there would be a film of this fine oil where my finger had
been. I have always believed that Grim’s skin was a big part of his secret. It
was like a cocoon protecting him from danger.”
But even Joe’s skin and the exceptional quality of his cranium
couldn’t enable him to last out forever. The sad side of the Joe Grim story is
the great price he paid for the colossal punishment he took. Sailor Burke
finally knocked him out and Sam McVea duplicated the feat. Young Zeringer is
sometimes credited with knocking Grim out in three rounds at Pittsburgh in 1904,
but that result has always been disputed. It was Joe’s boast, don’t forget, that
he couldn’t be put down for the count. The Zeringer fight was stopped by a
compassionate referee who became horrified by Grim’s lust for punishment.
Whatever, the strange magic had finally seeped from the bottle
and Joe Grim was falling apart. We do not know how many fights he had, because
he never kept a record of his own incredible journey. He certainly won no more
than five or six. On July 28, 1913, he was admitted to a sanatorium, eventually
being discharged and apparently cured of his mental problems. He became a
shipyard foreman in New York around 1919, but was said to be mentally broken by
the time of his death twenty years later in a hospital at Byberry, Pennsylvania.
The heartening thing is that it is simply impossible to ever
forget Joe Grim. It always was. Before a fight with Al Kaufman, Joe was
described thus by writer TP Magilligan: “Of all the rich cards of the ring
pugilistic, this boy Grim has the lead by seven furlongs.”
George Chuvalo had finally discovered the secret. No longer would
he be the likeable slugger who won some and lost some and took punishment like
no other heavyweight around. Now the Canadian Rock was punching correctly with
those meaty arms and had learned how to be a consistent winner. To cut through
the technical claptrap, old sage Charley Goldman had taught George to hold his
arms closer to his sides so that the weight of his body went with the punch.
It was late 1964 and George had just turned the heavyweight
rankings on their head with a dramatic eleventh round stoppage of Doug Jones at
Madison Square Garden. Joe Grim never scored a victory of such magnitude, but
then Chuvalo was a wholly better fighter than Joe and arguably just as
freakishly tough. Not once was George knocked off his feet in his 93
professional fights. He was also a terrific body puncher and undoubtedly a
What frustrated many worldly observers of the game was that a man
of such abundant raw talent was getting a reputation as a catcher when he had it
in him to be an ace pitcher. That raw talent never was truly harnessed and
polished. It teased and glimmered every once in a while and then got smothered.
Was George handled wrongly? Was he simply a bull-headed brawler who couldn’t
learn new tricks? We never truly know the answers to such irritating questions.
The Jones victory was indeed a lulu and Chuvalo looked mightily
impressive. There would be other big victories and false dawns that would enable
George to remain a stalwart of the heavyweight top ten for what seemed like a
lifetime. But always he was the slow plodder, the catcher, the guy who could
take a licking and keep on ticking.
The slick and smart boxers and jabbers like Muhammad Ali, Jimmy
Ellis and Ernie Terrell could never go wrong against Chuvalo. Yet take a look at
George’s stand against Ali at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1966, and you
will see the potential that went to waste. How I want to prod loveable old
George whenever I see that fight. How I want to urge him to punch more often,
bob and weave, duck and roll. Ali won the contest by the proverbial street, yet
the consistent surprise when we watch it afresh is its competitiveness. Fighting
as basically as he did, in more or less straight-up fashion, Chuvalo was able to
find Ali’s jaw repeatedly and smash him to the body and ribs all night long. A
sobering thought for those who maintain that Muhammad would have skated around
It’s in the bones!
After spending just under three rounds in the bludgeoning company
of George Foreman, Chuvalo compared the experience to being hit by a Cadillac
going at 50 miles per hour. Note, dear reader, that George did not say, “…being
run down by a Cadillac.”
Foreman’s Caddy knocked a fair few chunks out of the Canadian
Rock. But it couldn’t run it down or flatten it. Don’t ever watch the film of
that fight if something has gone down the wrong way and your stomach is feeling
a little tender. To this day, thirty-six years on, I cannot fathom how Chuvalo
managed to stay on his feet against the slow hail of crushing blows that soaked
into his head and body. George’s sponge-like resistance was quite something to
behold. Once Foreman’s punches struck home, they somehow seemed to disappear,
like a twister at sea that suddenly evaporates before it hits the land.
Chuvalo attributed his durability to his exceptionally solid and
absorbent bone structure. He would stand on his head for long periods to
strengthen the muscles in that famously thick and chunky neck.
On those rare occasions when his bones were broken, he couldn’t
be sure they were. He believes he suffered a busted nose at school after taking
a thump from a fellow pupil, only to be told by his boxing buddies to get into
the ring and forget about it. The theory was that a few more belts on the
schnozz would make the pain go away. The twisted nose became a trademark of
George’s rugged face, of which he was most proud.
Chuvalo could be no less conventional in the way he won bouts. In
a 1972 Canadian title fight with Charley Chase at the Pacific Coliseum in
Vancouver, George recorded a sixth round technical knockout. Chase certainly
took some punches, make no mistake about that. But it was a broken hand that
forced his retirement. Hitting George for any great length of time could be an
oddly harrowing and dispiriting experience. If it couldn’t break a man’s bones
or his very resolve, it could at least cause him to nod off at the wheel.
Jerry Quarry suffered such an experience in a bizarre fight that
quite probably represented the greatest and unlikeliest win of George Chuvalo’s
punishing and chequered career.
Jerry was very much the golden boy of the heavyweights in 1969, a
hugely talented and dangerous counter puncher, a marketing man’s dream with his
rugged good looks, a charismatic Jack Kennedy in boxing trunks. Quarry had
dismantled the previously undefeated Buster Mathis with almost technical
perfection, lost with great honour in a classic summer war with Joe Frazier and
was itching to get back into the fray against a fellow top ten contender who
could be presumed to be a reasonably safe opponent.
Chuvalo had reached the stage in his career where he fitted this
requirement perfectly. Promoters called on George at such times as surely as
movie producers call on Dennis Hopper to put some lumps on the leading man
without actually killing him.
Much like Joe Grim, however, George Chuvalo never once stepped
into a ring to lose. He saw his big chance against Quarry. And my, oh my, how
the Canadian slugger took it!
From the opening bell, the fight had a surreal air to it, as if
nothing at Madison Square Garden was quite in its proper order. George fell
behind on points, as he invariably did, but never overwhelmingly so. He was
always in the thick of the battle, rumbling forward like a little tank, scoring
with some punches and missing with others. He was competing with Quarry without
really giving Jerry the kind of challenge that concentrates a man’s thoughts and
keeps his brain ticking over.
Quarry needed that challenge throughout his career. He needed a
specific purpose to win, a sufficiently testing puzzle to solve. He thrived on
being written off and told he couldn’t win. He positively bristled at any
implication that his opponent could outbox or outpunch him.
Chuvalo, rock steady old George, wasn’t expected to do any of
these things. Where was the point to it all? When we are troubled by a pesky
wasp, we bat it away. We don’t find ten different ways to do it. Such was the
way that Quarry fought Chuvalo. Never underestimate the immense danger of a
tough old pro who just keeps hanging around, no matter what.
Jerry did a lot of damage with some classic textbook jabbing and
hooking, splitting George’s cheek open in the fourth round with a combination of
punches. Chuvalo was well accustomed to such treatment and continue to rumble
forward. It seemed that he simply couldn’t function properly without the impetus
of having his face turned into an abstract painting.
When the seventh round opened, George looked as if he had been
worked over by some bad people from Brooklyn. But he was still punching and
catching Quarry with some hefty clouts. Then Chuvalo hit the jackpot with a long
left to the temple that caused Jerry to stop and dither like a man who has lost
his keys. Quarry plopped down on his backside, clambered straight up and then
stumbled into a dreadful fog. He dropped back down on one knee to take a few
extra seconds as referee Zach Clayton tolled off the count. It was then that
Jerry discovered how hard it is to count from one to ten when your mind decides
to take an inconvenient vacation. He was still on one knee at ‘ten’. Out for the
count and out of the fight.
Hell came to breakfast in the Quarry dressing room as Jerry
thundered his protests. “Nobody knocks me out,” he insisted. “I was looking at
the clock and I couldn’t hear the count because the crowd was yelling so much. I
got gypped. I got ruined. That destroyed me. I could have gotten up. I couldn’t
tell the count by his (Clayton’s) fingers.”
Chuvalo’s response to Jerry’s tirade was as gorgeously blunt as
his fighting style. “If he couldn’t tell nine from ten, it must have been a good
But what if George had been fighting Joe Grim that night? What
would have happened then? Why, of course, the two old pugs would have been going
at it forever. In a no-limit fight, it might just have been the longest draw
decision on record.
Hit me with your rhythm stick, hit me slowly, hit me quick.
Didn’t make any difference to those fellas.
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