Mr. Versatility: Charlie Powell
Charlie Powell was one of those exciting, fan-friendly types like Bob Satterfield, a chill-or-be-chilled type fighter…
Note: The following is a revised and updated version of an essay that appeared in my 2007 book, “Boxing is my Sanctuary.”
“Muhammad Ali, Bill Veeck and Bobby Layne. Aside from the fact that each was a prominent figure in the world of sports, there’s nothing obvious that links these three men. One way in which they are linked, though, is through the person of Charlie Powell. Powell is almost certainly the only person who can say that he played baseball for Bill Veeck, fought Ali and sacked Layne.”—Raymond St. Martin.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Jackie Jensen, Chuck Connors, Ollie Matson, Bob Mathias, Michael Jordan, Bob Hayes, Deion Sanders, and Bo Jackson were legendary two-sport stars. There have been others, but they didn’t box, and I’m too young to remember Jim Thorpe, but I hear he was a pretty good athlete as well.
Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Mark Gastineau were great football players who became terrible boxers. Fact is, Gastineau may have been the worse professional boxer in history. So let’s eliminate them at the outset. Seth Mitchell (25-1-1) is a fine crossover linebacker from Michigan State, but a suspect chin might hamper further progress.
Now some might argue that Alonzo Highsmith, a running back out of Miami who was drafted in the first round, was the best football player turned boxer since he retired with a fine record of 27-1-2 (23 KOs). Alonzo played football for Houston, Dallas, and Tampa Bay from 1987 to 1992, but he never finished in the top ten in any major category, nor is he even in the all-time top fifty in any major category. Moreover, Alonzo’s boxing opponents were on the dreadful side. For example, Alonzo managed to beat the immortal Ed Strickland (0-30), legendary Jim Wisniewski (3-30) twice, and Terry Verners (8-26-2) twice. In fact, Alonzo’s one loss was to the hapless Verners. Alonzo then destroyed, totally exposed, and retired Gastineau in 1996 in Japan sending Mark to pass rusher dreamland.
Last I knew, Highsmith was working on getting his PGA Tour card. “When I’m not out scouting, I’m on the golf course,” he told USA TODAY’s Dennis Tuttle. In his late 30s, Highsmith was a college scout for the Green Bay Packers. He spends a lot of time mentoring and coaching young football players. And he’s still a big name to many as he enthusiastically works football camps and assists seriously ill children at hospitals.
Derrick Rossy was an exceptional defensive end with Boston College and had tryouts as a free agent with the Jets, Steelers, and Bears, but nothing came of them. Upon turning pro, the affable and articulate “Shaolin Fist” has run up a respectable 26-5 record against formidable opposition. After losing to Eddie Chambers, Kubrat Pulev, and Maurice Harris, Rossy won a UD against Livin Castillo in January and still has hopes of getting into the mix.
The Best Football Player Who Became the Best Boxer
This brings me to “Mr. Versatility,” Charlie Powell, 6’3”, 230 pounds, well-muscled, strong, and fast. He was the youngest player in the history of the National Football League, just 19 years old when he became a starting defensive end with the San Francisco 49ers in 1952, fresh out of San Diego High School. Powell was one of the few modern-day players who made it to—let alone excelled—in the NFL without playing college football. Actually, he had signed up with the St. Louis Browns pro baseball team as a power-hitting right fielder and spent the summer after high school graduation playing Class B ball in Stockton and Idaho before forsaking baseball for pro football.
Powell was one of the greatest high school athletes America has ever known. He was recruited by the Harlem Globetrotters for his basketball skills, and he hit home runs out of Balboa Stadium that reportedly made Hall of Famer Ted Williams envious. He was scouted by the NFL during high school. Remarkably, Powell accomplished this during a time that saw Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in professional baseball.
Charlie was also a barrier-breaker during this period of blatant racism. He was one of those who quietly but effectively helped pave the way for others. Big Bob Foster would later retain his title twice against South African Pierre Fourie, both by decision. Their second fight in 1973 had a major social impact because it was fought in apartheid-governed South Africa. Foster became a hero to South African blacks by beating the white Fourie in their rematch, the first boxing match in South Africa after apartheid featuring a white versus a black.
“I saw a quote in a magazine that said Ali was second only to Martin Luther King in his social influence. I said, ‘What did he do?’ I tried to figure it out. And it was nothing. He was about the Muslims and he was about himself. But this image was so imbedded in the public consciousness that he’s some sort of saint that it’s hard to disabuse people of it.”—Mark Kram (2001)
“Now, if Ali was still going around saying those things, I don’t think he would be as beloved as he is today. By the same token, this country as a whole has become much more understanding of the terrible prejudice and bigotry that existed and has come to recognize the underlying validity of Ali’s demand for racial justice and equality.”—Thomas Hauser (Thinkexist.com)
Muhammad Ali would make his sociopolitical impact during the 1960s and 1970s as well, though universal consensus on his motives is not totally positive. Many other black athletes spoke out, including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and track and field’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But the mercurial “Greatest” was center stage in this volatile decade. Maybe constantly reminding everyone that “I am the greatest!” convinced people that he was, in fact, the greatest. “I am the greatest,” he chattered. “I am the prettiest. I am so pretty that I can hardly stand to look at myself.” However, there was far more to Ali than the hyperbole.
Some revere Ali as if he were a visionary or saint, but I’d prefer to treat that concept with a more balanced perspective. The myths about Ali are rarely demystified, and maybe that’s because he is perceived to walk on sacred ground. However, in “Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier,” the late Mark Kram was one of the few who challenged the legacy and legend of Ali in a reasoned and non-hagiographic manner. On the other hand, in “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” the renowned boxing writer Thomas Hauser painstakingly provides the ultimate view of Muhammad Ali as an almost magical figure who remains larger than life and “the most recognizable person on earth.’” Hauser draws on over 200 sources to make his case. Both are fascinating and compelling works.
However, regardless of one’s personal views, the contributions Ali made to the African-American community were manifest, first as an attention-grabbing radical voice and much later while active on the lecture circuit. And it cannot be denied that he led the sports world in radicalism at a time when radicalism was arguably necessary. Quite simply, he was the right person to come along at the right time and, perceived or otherwise, he represented courage, individualism, conviction, and tenacity to a global fandom that became increasingly adoring and now idolizes him.
The progressive jump in athletics for blacks from the Negro Baseball League to Jackie Robinson to Doug Williams to Ali to Tiger Woods to the 2007 Super Bowl (in which both head coaches were African Americans) has been spectacular, but far too long in coming. Ali’s contributions to this evolution will remain part of his legacy.
Back to Charlie
Still, athletes like Powell helped lay the groundwork before Ali, albeit far more quietly. Charlie was one of a new breed of active and responsible African-American athletes who helped grease the skids for others in the world of sports.
During an interview with sports consultant Reggie Grant, Powell talked about his life during World War II and how, while he was in high school, pockets of integration formed and thrived. At San Diego High School whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics were thrown together, and they became a state powerhouse in all sports. But, according to Powell, racism and segregation was always a part of the equation. He recollected when a truck pulled up to his neighbor’s house one day, and, just like that, a Japanese family disappeared. They had been taken to a Japanese internment camp for the remainder of World War II.
As for Powell’s amazing athletic skills, he was the only baseball player folks can remember hitting balls out of Balboa Stadium on a consistent basis. This was the same baseball stadium in which Ted Williams often played. Powell was drafted by the then St. Louis Browns and the summer after high school, he played for its minor league team in Modesto, California. However, baseball did not prove to his liking, so he went home.
In basketball, Powell was a second-team all-league center in high school. He played forward and center and was a dominate player. The Harlem Globetrotters came to town and all but begged his parents to let them take him with them.
“But baseball and track were during the same season,” Powell recalled during the interview, “so I’d go to the track meet, maybe put the shot a couple of times, and then change in the car and go to play baseball…And every now then and I’d fill in and run the relays.”
In all, Charlie won 12 varsity letters. Among other things, he ran the 100-yard dash in a blazing 9.6 seconds. He high jumped 6 feet and put the shot 57 feet 9¼ inches. (That San Diego High School record still stands over fifty years later.)
His professional football career began in 1952 when San Francisco 49er Coach Buck Shaw showed up at his home in San Diego, contract in hand. Charlie’s parents had to sign the contract and he made a whopping $10,000 that first year. He was a world-class athlete long before players were fairly compensated for their skills and he credited his success as a football player and boxer to his superior conditioning. As a 19-year-old, his chance to play came during training camp when the starter was injured, and did he ever make the most of it!
In his very first game, Charlie played against the world champion Detroit Lions, a team loaded with several all-pros and future Hall of Fame players. Charlie sacked the great quarterback Bobby Layne an eye-popping 10 times for 67 yards in losses. All this before the NFL kept official stats on things like sacks. Powell quickly became an NFL star; his younger brother, Art, would eventually play in the AFL for the New York Jets. Powell and Joe “The Jet” Perry were the only black players on the 49ers, and he and the “Jet” sometimes had to stay in different hotels than their teammates.
Powell played seven full seasons in the NFL: five seasons for the 49ers (1952-53 and 1955-57) and two for the rowdy Oakland Raiders (1960-61).
Unlike overhyped predecessors and those who followed, Charlie Powell was the Real McCoy, a legitimate contender who fought Muhammad Ali when Ali was still Cassius Clay, and later Floyd Patterson, and achieved a high ranking among the top ten in the heavyweight division—and he did this in the football off-season!
Charlie actually started boxing at the age of 11 or 12. As a youngster, he would get up early before school and jog down to Archie Moore’s home, train with the champ, return home, shower, eat, and go to school. He earned extra food for his family during WWII by boxing at the San Diego Marine Corps and Naval bases.
Powell started off his boxing career in 1953 fighting to a draw with Fred Taylor, but then he reeled off 10 straight knockout wins. In only his fourth fight, Charlie made short work of Al Winn (29-23-1 coming in). However, as is often the case, his managers and promoters got greedy and moved him along too fast. Powell was young and naive about the sleazy elements surrounding him and he would suffer the consequences, for he would fight ad get KO’d by rugged contender Charlie “The Bayonne Bomber” Norkus in only his second year as a pro.
The highlight of Charlie’s boxing career occurred in March 1959 when he knocked out the number-two ranked boxer in the world, 6’4” Nino Valdes of Cuba. The fight was nationally-televised. Valdes was knocked down three times and Powell vaulted to fourth in the world rankings. This truly meant something back then since there was just one unified world champion in every weight class. A rematch was scheduled in Valdes’s home country of Cuba amidst the noir-like involvement of movie star and wannabe gangster George Raft as the promoter, but it never came off due to the Castro-led revolution.
Eventually, Powell would finish with a record of 25-11-3 (19 KOs). Among his opponents were such notables as Norkus (twice), Harold Carter, Floyd Patterson, Roger Rischer (twice), Mike DeJohn (in which the ripped Powell was blasted out in the early seconds of round one), Johnny Summerlin, Roy Harris, and, of course, Ali.
Powell was one of those exciting, fan-friendly types like Bob Satterfield, a chill-or-be-chilled type. The first Norkus fight in 1954 had lots of drama surrounding it and while it warrants separate and special treatment, suffice to say that while Powell got knocked out, he put the equally muscled “Bayonne Bomber:”through some early hell. A reporter asked Norkus before the fight what he thought the outcome would be with the undefeated Powell. Reportedly, Norkus replied that “Lefty O’Doul would be wise to advertize on the bottom of Powell’s shoes.” Powell won the rematch in 1958. Interestingly, Rocky Marciano was in attendance and once again shrewdly seemed to use Norkus to feel out potential title contenders.
Powell fought Ali in 1963 in Pittsburgh before 17,000 fans and like so many of Ali’s opponents, he felt the sting of biting insults. Ali predicted he would KO Powell in round three and did just that, but Powell earned $12,000 more than he’d ever been paid for an entire season as a pro football player. In 1964 Charlie was paid $10,000 to fight Floyd Patterson, but lost that one in six.
However, it was during the lead-up to the Clay bout that Powell became one of the few who prevailed over the flashy champion in the pre-fight banter that was the Clay’s trademark. Ali arrived at the weigh-in for his bout with his usual arrogance only to find himself facing a bigger and more physically intimidating man. Powell also brought along his brother, Art, who was more than willing to exchange insults with Clay. Cassius became discombobulated and put on his vest the wrong way.When Powell pointed this out, Clay/Ali stomped out only to find the door of the janitor’s closet instead of the exit. It was a rare pre-fight loss for Clay, but once in the ring, it was a different story.
Ironically, Charlie did not reach his full potential because of that which distinguished him; namely, being a two-sport man. Going back and forth between football and boxing, he would put on weight for one and lose it for the other. Had he focused on boxing, there is no telling how far he could have gone.
Charlie Powell was never really picked up by the public or the press, but I knew about him and I know him personally. He was one of the truly great all-around athletes of any era. If you are ever in San Diego, visit the Breitbart Hall of Champions and look for the Powell brothers, Art and Charlie. San Diego has produced many great world-class athletes, Hall-of-Famers, and Heisman winners, but the classy Powell is the best prep athlete ever to come out of San Diego, and one of the most respected.
Both Charlies—Norkus (2012) and Powell (2009)—have been inducted in the California Boxing Hall of Fame.
Charles “Charlie” Powell was and is all man.