On March 29, 1966, a Tuesday, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, pounded out a unanimous 15 round decision over George Chuvalo at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. For the Johnny-come-lately promoters, shareholders in a newly formed company called Main Bout, the run-up to the event was an object lesson in Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong, did. The face of the company, 34-year-old tax attorney Bob Arum, was a smart cookie. He had graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. But college boys from nice middle class homes were historically devoured when attempting to navigate the shark-infested waters of professional boxing. After this holy mess, it was a fair guess that Arum would return to the legal profession, a safe haven from all the chaos.
The original plan called for Ali to fight Ernie Terrell. Ali was the heavyweight champion of the world in the eyes of the public, but Terrell was recognized as the champion by the World Boxing Association which had stripped Ali of his title when Ali bypassed their top contender in favor of a rematch with Sonny Liston.
Plans were laid to stage the Ali-Terrell battle in New York on March 29, but the New York Athletic Commission scuttled those plans when they refused to license Terrell on the grounds that his chief backer had business dealings with Mafia figures. The site then shifted to Chicago, Terrell’s hometown, where it received the blessing of the Illinois Boxing Commission.
On February 11, with the fight roughly six weeks away, Ali was re-classified 1-A by his local draft board after passing the Selective Service mental exam. As an unmarried man, 24 years of age, his chance of being drafted and shunted off to Vietnam was extremely high. But Ali made it known that he was opposed to the war and would not comply if he was called to serve.
On February 25, Muhammad Ali appeared before the Illinois Boxing Commission in Chicago. He was summoned there to apologize for his “unpatriotic remarks.” When he failed to apologize, the commissioners pulled the plug. Illinois Attorney General William G. Clark cited a provision in the Illinois state code that required a licensee to be a person “of good and stable moral character.”
There were other issues that made it easier for the commission to renege. Ernie Terrell was supposedly controlled by shady characters. Then there was the Black Muslim tie-in. The sect, which owned 50 percent of Main Bout, was reviled by much of white America as a KKK in blackface.
As it became increasingly clear that it would be hard to find a suitable venue in the United States, Arum and his partners looked to Canada. The authorities in Montreal said no and an attempt to place the fight in the Montreal suburb of Verdun also backfired. “Look! We’ll hold the **** thing on a raft floating down the St. Lawrence River,” said a frustrated Bob Arum in a quote that appeared in the March 4, 1966 issue of the Lethbridge Herald.
On March 8, the orphaned fight finally found a home in Toronto. But the very next day, the promoters were thrown another curveball when Ernie Terrell backed out.
There was a safety net. Toronto was home to George Chuvalo, a heavyweight with a good local following. But boxing had moved past the stage when the turnstile count was the key element in determining whether an important fight was financially successful and selling Chuvalo across a broad landscape was a challenge.
Chuvalo was rugged. He had never been knocked off his feet, a distinction he would maintain throughout his career. But he was coming off a loss to an obscure Argentine fighter named Hector Corletti and his record, 34-11-2, had the markings of a journeyman. Ali dubbed him a “washerwoman.”
The washerwoman saved the day, if only from an artistic standpoint. Ali outpointed him by a fairly wide margin, but Chuvalo was applauded for his gallant effort.
“Just when it seemed that Cassius Clay and his Black Muslims were going to spoil the richest championship in sports, along came a rough, tough Canadian by the name of George Chuvalo to save it,” said the UPI correspondent. “Chuvalo didn’t win the world’s heavyweight championship, but he did the next best thing. He kept it from being the fiasco everyone expected.” Ali also gave Chuvalo his props: “He’s tougher than all the other fighters I have met all together.”
Following the money trail in professional boxing often leads an investigative reporter into a maze that terminates in a blind alley. However, by all accounts, Arum and his partners took a bath. They anticipated 270 closed circuit outlets for the Ali-Terrell match. Pressure from veterans groups led most of the theater owners to bail out. The Associated Press gathered information from 32 theaters – 22 in the U.S. and 10 in Canada – and determined that only about one-third of the available seats were sold for Ali-Chuvalo. The radio broadcast was cancelled for lack of sponsorship.
There’s an old saying that a man is drawn to the boxing business by visions of great wealth and then stays in it to get even with those that exploited his naivety. Perhaps that even applies to a man as pragmatic as Bob Arum. Regardless, 50 years have elapsed since Ali first locked horns with George Chuvalo and Arum hasn’t lost a beat. Whether he’s been good or bad for boxing is matter of opinion, but even his harshest detractors marvel at his stamina; his indefatigable spirit.
Today, March 29, is Arum’s golden anniversary as a boxing promoter, or at least as good a date as any to acknowledge it. Happy anniversary, dude.