The untold story of the fighter who took Muhammad Ali the distance.
"You always think you're going to win. Otherwise, you couldn't fight at
The Last Round tells a story that sounds vaguely familiar: a working-class boxer, second-generation immigrant family, living the big city, scraping together a meager boxing career. He achieves enough success to catch the interest of listening ears. Flash forward a few years, and, suddenly, the working-class hero boxer is aiming to fight the boisterous, tough-talking world heavyweight title holder…and to the surprise of everyone, the absolute underdog comes out swinging, holding his own against the champion.
No, it isn't Rocky. Rather, this is the true story of George Chuvalo, the Canadian boxing champion who rose through the amateur ranks like a madman, taking punch after punch, trying to earn a champion fight—until almost 10 years later, when through a long string of frustrating bouts, lost fights, cancellations, and political complications and interference, the working-class Toronto native found himself squaring off against the greatest boxer in the world, Muhammad Ali, in his home town, fighting against all conceivable odds.
This Canadian documentary, after a blanket of old newsreels and fight footage, introduces us to the modern-day Chuvalo, a remarkably personable and well-preserved (for a professional boxer) fellow, who at times looks like a bodybuilding Elvis impersonator. The man is built like a tank. He takes us through the old neighborhoods and haunts of his youth, and, gradually, we learn the story of the man who would rise up through the boxing ranks in Canada—first the amateur, then the professional—vying always for a chance to break into the boxing Mecca of the world, into the United States, for a shot at the world championship.
By the time Chuvalo has emerged as a Canadian name in the boxing world, a four-years-young Cassius Clay has barely begun to box in the amateur circuit in the American South. Slowly, Chuvalo and Clay box their way through the ranks of their respective leagues, and weeks after Cassius brings home the gold Olympic medal, Chuvalo wins the Canadian heavyweight championship title…only to lose it shortly thereafter. Then, after winning a fight in Clay's hometown that would have guaranteed Chuvalo a shot at the young boxer, Clay refuses to fight the Canadian, having watched the devastating savagery exhibited on the face of Chuvalo's vanquished opponent. A strong rivalry emerges between the two young boxers, culminating in a bizarre press conference where Chuvalo, dressed from head to toe in a wig, a dress, and makeup, taunts Clay and waves a contract in front of his face for a fight. Truth is so much stranger than fiction.
Suddenly, Clay stuns the world with a victory over world champion Sonny Liston—and just like that, Clay is thrust out of Chuvalo's league. As Cassius Clay's career skyrockets, Chuvalo's career begins to freefall. Lacking any clout or professional connections, Chuvalo suddenly becomes a fringe contender. Broke, discouraged, poorly trained, and supporting a new wife and family, Chuvalo is forced to reinvent himself, return to his roots, and struggle again up the boxing ladder.
Each time that Chuvalo climbs higher, he falls back; each time he gets closer to the success and accolade he strives for, he slips. For almost 10 years, Chuvalo struggles towards a single, pivotal moment—a shot at a world championship heavyweight boxing championship match, a prize that hangs tantalizingly in front of his visage, but always just out of reach. Then suddenly, through an inexplicable set of coincidences and political pressure, the match is upon him (endlessly complicated due to cross-country political complications from the draft-dodging champion). Chuvalo gets his match: he will square off against Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest fighters to grace the squared circle, a fight that cumulates an entire lifetime of struggle, sacrifice, and dedication.
He loses the fight, of course—Chuvalo was such a serious underdog to begin with that Vegas refused to even entertain bets on the fight. But what shocked the entire world was the sheer tenacity and determination exhibited by the stocky challenger. Not once did Chuvalo back down; not once did he sway, or stagger. Every step was a step forward, without ever once retreating, despite taking 10 punches for every single punch he delivered. Chuvalo lost the fight, but he made the champion earn it over a full 15-round tooth-and-nail battle, a fight that Ali described afterwards as the toughest of his career. Not surprisingly, it has long been rumored that the Chuvalo vs. Ali fight was the real-life inspiration behind the Rocky movie.
While The Last Round is a story of a struggling boxer trying to make a name for himself, the documentary also delves into the politics of the 1960s…the mob corruption in professional boxing, the racial tensions erupting throughout America, the Vietnam War and the political fallout, the heavy consequences of Ali refusing to participate in the draft, and the degradation of the sport of boxing in the eyes of the public. Most of these issues are simply backdrops for the story itself, glossed over fairly quickly, which is unfortunate, since they could have added some much-needed spice and tension to the film.
The video, composed mostly of black-and-white stock footage, news segments, and boxing reels, is well preserved and transferred adequately to DVD, with a clear, clean, and functional documentary-type image. The modern-day interview footage is filmed in color and has no negative qualities associated with it—it serves the purpose well enough. The dialogue is mixed soft, with most of the verbal action clean and uninhibited by the diminutively mixed score, a jazzy period soundtrack full of muted trumpets and piano rags.
Unfortunately, there isn't much to The Last Round. While an attempt is made to split attention between Chuvalo and Clay, the filmmaker's affections are obvious from the start. Chuvalo's story is interesting and will pique the intrigue of die-hard boxing fans, but only mildly so; the material seems too diluted to be the subject matter of a full-length documentary. After 50 or 60 minutes, the material grows tiresome, and by the time we reach the much-lauded fight, the interest factor has diminished. The overall staleness of the presentation does not help matters, either—at times, the leisurely pace of the documentary and the basic lack of exciting or saucy complications in the life of Chuvalo gives the film an A&E Biography tint—whimsical, factually interesting, but dull overall.
To its credit, the documentary tries as hard as possible to make the material exciting, full of energy, and dramatic—fighting the good fight and such—but ultimately, the material simply fails the film. Chuvalo was a hardworking boxer who won some fights and performed very well in the Canadian boxing scene, but lost all the important American fights that could have elevated his career to an international level. As such, he never made an impact outside of Canada; though he stood his ground against one of the best fighters in the world, his effect on the American boxing world is only a shiny footnote in the history books.
Sadly, that is all there is to it. The documentary is as interesting as the subject matter can allow it to be—Chuvalo is a genial, kind fellow (whose work outside the ring is almost as dedicated as his work in, lecturing to children about the pitfalls of drug use, as well as some occasional acting), and his past ruminations are certainly fascinating to boxing fans and purveyors of Canadian folk-hero-types. But for the casual or curious viewer, The Last Round is almost over before it begins—an enjoyable, but slightly mediocre, DVD experience.
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