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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 Patterson.

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 ground.

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 traditional sense.

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 fight.

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 shapes?”

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 Levinsky.

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 President Roosevelt.

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 knockout hitter.

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 Rocky Marciano.


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 punch.”

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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