The Haunting of Ezzard Charles

By Clarence George on February 20, 2013
The Haunting of Ezzard Charles
Today is the 65th anniversary—February 20, 1948—of the day Charles killed a man.

Although always a gentleman, as well as a gentle man, Charles was a prizefighter, not a figure skater. He had the requisite killer’s instinct…

May 27, 1975. A beautiful day, what with the leaves upon the trees doing a bit of a shimmy under the caress of the wind, the hypnotic buzzing of bees at a safe and inoffensive distance. I was sitting in the parking lot of the Armonk Tennis Club in my mother’s lemon-yellow Camaro, which she had indulgently allowed me to borrow, waiting on my then-girlfriend. I had perhaps caddishly and certainly inadvisedly trounced her on the court, and she was deliberately and with malice taking her own sweet time in completing her cosmetic ablutions. Having had enough of the bees, I turned on the car radio. A news report. The announcer’s voice with that phony-as-a-three-dollar-bill solemnity announcing the death at age 53 of one of my favorite boxers—that ultimate ring gentleman, Ezzard Charles. Thirty-eight years ago, and yet the moment is as vivid as though captured in a painting by Renoir.

Brought to mind because today is the 65th anniversary—February 20, 1948—of the day Charles killed a man.

Okay, that was for dramatic effect, and historical accuracy was more honored in the breach than in the observance. The man Charles killed didn’t die until the next day, the 21st. But the beating took place on the 20th. The place: Chicago Stadium. When: the 10th round. The man: Sam Baroudi.

Baroudi (41-11-2, 21 KOs) was a solid middleweight. He took on the toughest journeymen of his time and from a variety of weight levels, including light heavy Clarence Wilkinson, and was stopped only once—by Charles. A pro for less than three years at the time of his death, Baroudi died at age 21…and Charles was never the same.

Charles, “The Cincinnati Cobra” (93-25-1, 52 KOs), fought as pro from 1940 to 1959. He won his first 15 fights, from March 1940 to May 1941, eight by KO or TKO. In the first eight years, he defeated the likes of Charley Burley, Joey Maxim, Jimmy Bivins, and Archie Moore. On June 22, 1949 (the year he turned heavy), Charles was awarded the vacant National Boxing Association title following his defeat of Jersey Joe Walcott. On September 27, 1950, he attained undisputed recognition as Heavyweight Champion of the World by decisioning an out-of-retirement Joe Louis. He successfully defended his title four times following his win over Louis before losing it to Walcott on July 18, 1951. Rocky Marciano won the championship from Walcott on September 23, 1952, via what remains the sweetest right in the history of heavyweight championship bouts. A.J. Liebling called it exactly—Walcott “flowed down like flour out of a chute.” Charles twice took on the new champ, on June 17 and September 17, 1954. He lost both times, but went the distance in the June bout—the only man to go the full 15 with Marciano. True, that journeyman’s journeyman, Tiger Ted Lowry, twice went the distance with “The Brockton Blockbuster,” but those were 10-rounders.

Baroudi did quite well against Charles, particularly in the first five rounds. Ultimately, however, he proved no match for the stronger, heavier, and certainly more skilled “Cobra.” In the 10th, Charles caught his opponent with a whirlwind of blows. Dropped to the mat, Baroudi fell into a coma just as the referee counted 10. Taken by ambulance to Cook County Hospital, Baroudi was followed by Charles and manager Jake Mintz, both men keeping an all-night vigil. The game fighter from Akron never regained consciousness, and died of a brain hemorrhage in the early hours of the morning of February 21.

No less true for being bizarre, Baroudi had killed a man in very similar fashion. He knocked out light heavy Newton Smith in the ninth on August 15, 1947. Smith died in hospital of massive brain trauma.

Although always a gentleman, as well as a gentle man, Charles was a prizefighter, not a figure skater. He had the requisite killer’s instinct, but it was nowhere near as sanguinary as it had been prior to Baroudi’s death. In fact, a devastated Charles announced his retirement. Although persuaded to continue, his heart was no longer in it. It’s not that Charles turned into a quivering bowl of jelly following the tragedy. After all, he won the next 16 fights, nine by stoppage, defeating guys like Bivins, Maxim, Gus Lesnevich, and Lee Oma. And it was in that time that he won the title. He didn’t lose a bout until more than three years after Baroudi’s demise, when he lost the championship to Walcott. That said, Baroudi stayed with him as though his own shadow.

Charles never spoke of Baroudi, and for the remainder of his life remained…well, just awfully sad.

Generally considered among the best of the light heavies, Charles also has a strong reputation as heavyweight. Bert Sugar, for example, had him in seventh place. But his quality didn’t prevent him from being plagued by financial problems. As a result, Charles fought far longer than he should have, and eventually became a professional wrestler in a desperate attempt to make ends meet.

He died of ALS…with me sitting in that lemon-yellow Camaro.

While transacting business in a bank a few years ago, I noticed the teller’s name tag. Charles was the last name. I asked her if she was any relation. “To who?” she said. “To Ezzard Charles,” I answered. “Who?” “Ezzard Charles, one of the great heavyweight champions.” “Never heard of him.” Now that ain’t right. That ain’t right at all.

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  1. Ezzard Charles III 01:01pm, 06/10/2018

    If anyone wants to know the real story about my grandfather please email me.I would love a book or movie on his life my dad and grandma Gladys told me everything.We also have tons of memorably.Ezzard Charles 312 487-8852 Facebook Ezzard Charles III

  2. Clarence George 02:40am, 10/21/2014

    Good Lord, I haven’t looked at this article in ages.  I wrote it in an ice-cold cabin in Great Barrington, where the lovely Karen Allen (now in her 60s!) runs a store.

    Delighted you liked it, Beaujack, and thank you for another gem of a reminiscence.  Yes, a very tough business.  That’s its appeal, of course, but sometimes it’s just plain ugly—and that’s never appealing.

  3. Beaujack 09:09pm, 10/20/2014

    Great article Clarence on a sorely neglected Ezzard Charles. Ezzard was as fine a gentleman as he was a great lightheavyweight. The best of his rich era of LHs, consisting of Archie Moore, Lloyd Marshall, Jimmy Bivins, Harold Johnson, Joey Maxim, all who would be champs today…
    I never saw Charles fight ringside, but I saw Jimmy Bivins and a past peak Melio Bettina battle to a draw at MSG in the mid 1940s…
    About the time of the death of Sam Baroudi at the hands of Charles I recall I was watching the fighters train at my favorite haunt, Stillman’s gym on 8th Ave. One of the boxers sparring in the ring looked as pale as a ghost. His name was Jimmy Doyle a prominent welterweight of that time
    who had recently been kod badly and hospitalized, by a neighbor of mine
    named Artie Levine in Cleveland in 1947 I believe…Well not long after seeing the pale Jimmy Doyle spar, he fought the peak Ray Robinson also in Cleveland Ohio, and he died from the the severe ko Doyle suffered in the very same hospital he went to after he was concussed by the hard punching Artie Levine…I shall never forget seeing Jimmy Doyle at Stillman’s gym…Boxing is a tough business Clarence…

  4. Clarence George 01:52pm, 02/24/2013

    Thanks very much, Tex.

    Yes, definitely among the best light heavies.

    By the way, any opinions regarding another light heavy, Melio Bettina?  Always liked him, but he seems to be largely forgotten.  Maybe I’ll write about him someday.

  5. Tex Hassler 12:25pm, 02/24/2013

    I would rank Ezzard Charles in the top 3 of all time light heavy greats. He might well have been number one and I would have no argument with that. He was a truly great fighter who fought the very toughest of his time. A fighter cannot do any more than that. He deserves to be remembered and this fine article helps do just that.

  6. Clarence George 05:16pm, 02/22/2013

    Excellent judgment, Biker.

  7. bikermike 02:40pm, 02/22/2013

    Jersey Joe Walcott is my favourite fighter…lived clean….tried to be a good provider from the proceeds of prize fighting.

    His KO of Ezzard Charles….with that sneaky rolling of his shoulders as he closed the distance….and unleashing that murderous uppercut….

    I’ve had many an amateur fighter look at that finish….to explain the beauty of the uppercut.

    ....I also make the three left hooks delivered by Joe Louis to Max Baer….to be required viewing by all my amateur students

  8. Clarence George 11:26am, 02/20/2013

    Thanks, Andrew.  Glad you enjoyed it.

  9. andrew 11:19am, 02/20/2013

    i have a soft spot in my heart for charles..we share the same birthday…july 7/great article..thanks

  10. Clarence George 10:56am, 02/20/2013

    Outstanding!  Thanks, FFC.

    I’m a big fan of Walcott, as well as of Charles.  If anything, I rank Jersey Joe a bit higher.

  11. The Fight Film Collector 10:24am, 02/20/2013

    “Already been there . . . Ezzard Charles” is what I say to young boxing fans who insist how technically sophisticated fighters are today.  Thanks again, Clarence.  A while ago I managed to locate a copy of the final minutes of the Charles-Walcott I television broadcast.  Ezzard was in brilliant form.  Thought I’d share it here, enjoy:  http://youtu.be/mqr-wMprjEk

  12. the thresher 10:10am, 02/20/2013

    I know who he is but I don’t believe I have ever made a comment about him. However, I might have seen him fight in 1906.

    Actually,  I am almost 76 and just might be the oldest living Boxing Writer. I have followed boxing since 1946 and fought amateur during the 50’s in Northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.

    If they have fought since the mid-to late 40’s I might have seen them on 7” TV, or live, or otherwise. .

    .

  13. Clarence George 10:00am, 02/20/2013

    But you’ve commented extensively and vividly on Marvin Hart, Mr. Thresher Shark, which surely means that you’re considerably older than you’ve let on.

  14. Clarence George 09:55am, 02/20/2013

    Thanks very much, Irish.

    And thanks, Matt, for sharing your view on Bivins.  Yes, at least in the top 50—in fact, maybe somewhat higher.

  15. the thresher 09:42am, 02/20/2013

    I tend not to comment on fighters I have never actually seen fight. It’s just my thing. But I have seen Ezzard and he was something else.

    Actually, I only track back to the mid-40’s. Now, YouTube helps a lot of writers.

    The landscape is changing through technology.

  16. Matt McGrain 08:40am, 02/20/2013

    I think that Bivins was indeed great.  Top 50ish.  As for Charles, the depth in his resume is insane.  Signature wins at three weights (pretty much) in old money is crazy.

  17. NYIrish 08:31am, 02/20/2013

    Ezzard Charles, a great fighter you don’t hear much about. Top notch article.

  18. Clarence George 07:24am, 02/20/2013

    Matt:  While I hold Charles in the utmost regard, I don’t rank him quite that high—I’d have him at 12 or 13.

    Mr. Thresher Shark:  Thanks for that impressive summary.

    What do you think of Bivins?  Not truly great, perhaps, but close.  He deserved more of a career than he had, and his last years (except toward the end) were pretty nightmarish.  Maybe I’ll write about him someday.  I don’t know if I could do him the justice he warrants, but he’s entitled to more recognition than he’s received.

  19. the thresher 07:24am, 02/20/2013

    That is all

  20. the thresher 07:07am, 02/20/2013

    He died of ALS and I think he was showing the early onset during the tail end of his career.

  21. the thresher 06:47am, 02/20/2013

    Nothing can ever dilute the following encapsulation:

    Rocky Marciano (twice) IBHF/WBHF
    Joe Louis IBHF/WBHF
    Jersey Joe Walcott (four times) IBHF/WBHF
    Archie Moore (thrice) IBHF/WBHF
    Rex Layne (thrice)
    Joe Maxim (five times) IBHF/WBHF
    Jimmy Bivins (four times) IBHF/WBHF
    Charley Burley (twice) IBHF/WBHF
    Lloyd Marshall (thrice) WBHF
    Gus Lesnevich WBHF
    Ken Overlin (twice)
    Elmer Ray (twice)
    Harold Johnson IBHF/WBHF
    Bob Satterfield

    Names like Moore, Burley and Bivins are mentioned in conversations reserved only for the legendary, but when you add Marciano,
    Walcott, and Joe Louis into the mix, well, maybe “legendary” becomes “immortal.” Charles fought them all.

  22. the thresher 06:42am, 02/20/2013

    Great stuff. Ezzard faught the highest level of opposition of any fighter. IMO. It cost him, of course.

  23. Matt McGrain 06:07am, 02/20/2013

    They do indeed say that Charles was never the same again as a closing fighter. It makes me wonder about guys like Fitzsimmons who killed a guy and just got on with dangerously knocking people unconscious.  What plane are they operating on?

    Charles was a true great.  I have him #6 all time.  RIP.

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