Charley Retzlaff: No Laffing Matter

By Clarence George on January 10, 2016
Charley Retzlaff: No Laffing Matter
Retzlaff met Joe Louis for a scheduled 10 rounds at Chicago Stadium on January 17, 1936.

Damon Runyon compared him to Jack Dempsey, calling him “the best-looking heavyweight prospect that had bobbed up in a long time…”

“Louis may have been ready for the world, but he had to settle for Charley Retzlaff.”—Lew Freedman

Although born in Leonard, North Dakota, on October 28, 1903, heavyweight Charley Retzlaff fought out of Duluth, Minnesota, and became known as “The Duluth Dynamiter.”

He was hailed by such men as Damon Runyon, who compared him to Jack Dempsey, calling him “the best-looking heavyweight prospect that had bobbed up in a long time,” adding that he was the “best of the new heavyweights. He’s got what it takes. I haven’t seen a fighter in a long time who has impressed me so favorably,” trainer Jack Hurley, who said that Retzlaff “loves to train and loves to fight, doesn’t think of anything else but being champion of the world, goes to bed early, doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke, never asks who he is going to fight but only when,” and Max Schmeling, who viewed him as “the next heavy king,” at the time he himself was champ.

Retzlaff fought from 1929 to 1936, returning to the ring for three bouts in 1940, scoring an official record of 61 wins, 54 by knockout, eight losses, four by knockout, three draws, and two no contests, fighting an average of 10 or 11 times a year.

Charley, “whose opponents were often stretched out quicker than a calf at branding time,” as the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame put it, won his first 23 bouts, 21 by KO or TKO, before losing by disqualification to Antonio de la Mata at the Coliseum in Chicago on November 14, 1930. He got even the following month, on December 19, knocking out de la Mata in the first at the same venue.

Retzlaff outpointed Johnny Risko at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium on February 6, 1931; stopped Tom Heeney by seventh-round TKO at the same venue that March 6; knocked out Dick Daniels in the first at the Auditorium in St. Paul on March 1, 1932, thus becoming Minnesota’s heavyweight champ, a title he successfully defended throughout his career; beat James J. Braddock by split decision at Boston Garden that May 13; stopped Art Lasky by sixth-round TKO at St. Paul’s Auditorium on May 12, 1933; again outpointed Risko at the Auditorium in Minneapolis on December 28, 1934; stopped Al Ettore by second-round TKO at the Auditorium in St. Paul on January 24, 1935, the year he was ranked fourth by The Ring; stopped Stanley Poreda by first-round TKO at Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium that February 26; and stopped Lasky for a second time by 10th-round TKO at St. Paul’s Auditorium that September 19.

Isidoro Gastanaga knocked him out in the first at Queensboro Stadium in Long Island City, Queens, on August 9, 1932, as did King Levinsky at Chicago Stadium on May 3, 1933. Hank Hankinson knocked him out in the second at the Legion Stadium in Hollywood on March 29, 1935.

And along came Louis.

Retzlaff met Joe Louis for a scheduled 10 rounds at Chicago Stadium on January 17, 1936. “It has been so long since anyone got tough with the Bomber,” wrote AP sportswriter William Weekes, “that it has become almost legend that Louis first scares, then knocks his opponents stiff.” While “Retzlaff insists that he will not be whipped before he starts,” he said nothing about not being whipped after he starts.

Louis shrugged “that he would get it over as quickly as possible,” while trainer Jack Blackburn said the fight would end as “soon as we can hit him.”

“Retzlaff did not play defense,” writes Louis biographer Lew Freedman. “He came out to slug with Louis and it took only one minute for Louis to analyze his opponent’s style. Boom, down went Retzlaff from a left hook. Abruptly, Louis was in command and Retzlaff, although on his feet by a seven count, was not steady on his legs. Retzlaff was game, but his pins were looking for a reason to fold. Louis provided it when he trapped Retzlaff on the ropes and belted him with lefts and rights and finally one more big right to end things.”

Things ended for Retzlaff by knockout at 1:25 of the first.

Perhaps the Dynamiter chortled with satisfaction when, in Louis’ next fight, on June 19, 1936, he suffered the first defeat of his pro career, knocked out by Schmeling in the 12th at Yankee Stadium.

Charley returned to the ring on February 27, 1940, knocking out Abe Kashey in the fourth in Fargo, North Dakota, the only boxing match on what was otherwise a wrestling card. King Kong Kashey was very much wrestling’s answer to Fritzie Zivic, putting “into practice what his perusal of the wrestling rule book tells him is not popular and definitely against regulations of ring warfare,” quote Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson in their book on wrestling’s heels. Kashey, in his defense, said, “I’ve never broken a wrestling rule in my life without just provocation. After all, it’s not against the law to protect yourself.” Tell that to the ref he once threw into the laps of the ringside press before putting a leglock around his neck. Kashey’s bout with Retzlaff was his one and only boxing match.

Retzlaff knocked out Frank Rowsey in the fifth at the Armory in Minneapolis that May 24 (Rowsey’s last fight) and drew against Arne Andersson at the Armory in Duluth that September 19 (Andersson dying five months and three fights later).

Following his retirement, Retzlaff returned to the family farm in Leonard, but eventually opened an auto dealership in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. He died there on June 4, 1970, age 66, and is buried in Leonard Cemetery in North Dakota. He was inducted into the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015, along with Lasky, Danny Davis, Duane Horsman, and Mel Brown, as well as boxing writer Jim Wells, and promoters Sammy Gallop and Mike Collins, with current welterweight Jamal James receiving recognition as Prospect of the Year.

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Louis KOs Retzlaff This Day in Boxing January 17, 1936

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  1. Clarence George 08:17am, 01/11/2016

    True in so many fields, Eric.  For example, everyone was drooling over David Hemmings after “Blow-Up” came out (an awful movie, in my opinion), but he never lived up to the hype.  Not even close.

  2. Eric 08:04am, 01/11/2016

    A lot of these can’t miss guys never quite live up to the hype. Bobby Murcer was set to become the next Mickey Mantle but didn’t quite reach that level of play. Murcer, like the Dynamiter wasn’t all that bad, but neither came close to legends like Mantle or Dempsey.

  3. Clarence George 08:00am, 01/11/2016

    Thanks very much, Mike.  And that’s the way I see it.  Everyone remembers Joe Louis, and rightfully so, but it’s not as though he were anointed.  He did it the old-fashioned way, by earning it.  He earned it against guys like Retzlaff, who did their best not to hand him glory on a silver platter.  They, too, should be remembered.

  4. Mike Casey 07:06am, 01/11/2016

    Another good one, Clarence! A man deserves a peaceful retirement after taking the best of Joe Louis. Charley and his like form an important part of boxing’s backbone.

  5. Clarence George 08:23pm, 01/10/2016

    Very glad you liked it, Irish.  Gastanaga was a very hard puncher, though I’d rank Retzlaff higher, toward the top of the second-tier.  Louis was incomparably superior, of course, and Retzlaff’s attempt to slug it out with him was misguided, to put it politely.  I love to watch Louis punch, though my favorite when it comes to footwork is Sugar Ray Robinson.  Perfection, or damn close to it.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:16pm, 01/10/2016

    Clarence George-This article is the catch of the day! The Louis left hook that got him didn’t travel six inches as they used to claim about Joe’s KO punches….it traveled about four inches at the most! Hoping that Damon Runyon’s effusive praise came before he was larruped in one round by Castanaga in ‘32.

  7. Clarence George 02:43pm, 01/10/2016

    Thanks very much, Mr. Alden.  Yes, I love to get the cemetery in, if I can.  Given that the 1930s is my favorite decade and the heavyweight division my favorite weight class of those years, in combination with Galento being my all-time favorite boxer, it’s no surprise he gets mentioned with frequency.  Unfortunately, however, I could find no connection between the Dynamiter and Two Ton.  Too bad, because I could have done a lot with those nicknames.

    Best, as always,

    Steve Cochran

  8. Norman Alden 12:08pm, 01/10/2016

    Great piece as usual, Mr. George. Glad you mentioned the Dynamiter’s burial location. The only thing that could have made the story better was a mention of Two Ton. I love when he makes an appearance in a Clarence George classic.

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