The Vintage Years of Ezzard Charles

By Mike Casey on March 22, 2012
The Vintage Years of Ezzard Charles
Charles was the biggest nugget in a goldmine of outstanding talent in the early to late '40s

The young Cobra beat many an illustrious opponent with his precise and educated punching, yet Lady Luck seemed to bite him back just as often…

To all but true boxing fans and connoisseurs, he was the moderate heavyweight champion who beat a much adored legend and came heroically close to beating another.

You have to wonder if Ezzard Mack Charles, the great Cincinnati Cobra, ever grew sick of people asking him about his fights with Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Tap Ezzard’s name into your search engine and the names of Louis and Marciano will invariably pop up just as often.

Charles was a slick and skillful heavyweight when he beat the aging Louis in 1950, and in the final stages of his dying greatness when he ran Rocky to the wire in the first meeting at Yankee Stadium in 1954.

But the greatest Ezzard Charles, the lithe and dangerous fighting machine that could do it all, wasn’t even a heavyweight. Nothing ever seemed to fit as comfortably as it should have done with Ezzard, as bad luck and untimely circumstances combined to fashion a fractured and frequently misunderstood career. The young Cobra beat many an illustrious opponent with his precise and educated punching, yet Lady Luck seemed to bite him back just as often.

The record book can be as cold and unfeeling as a computer in telling us the story of a man’s life, offering up the bare details and perhaps the occasional, explanatory asterisk. In the case of Charles, numerous asterisks and explanations are required.

The standard bio of Ezzard continues to be a perfect example of a square peg being jammed into a round hole: his date of birth, his birthplace, a quick skip through his amateur career and then a straight jump into his reign as a respected low-key heavyweight champion. You won’t find as much as a cursory nod to the greatest years Charles ever had as an exceptional middleweight who blossomed into one of the greatest light heavyweights ever seen.

For the real Ezzard Charles was the biggest nugget in a goldmine of outstanding talent in the early to late ‘40s.

Tremendous

Let us take a little time to ponder the tremendous depth in quality of the light heavyweight and middleweight divisions when Ezzard was at his best.

Swimming in the same dangerous ocean were the likes of Charley Burley, Lloyd Marshall, Joey Maxim, Elmer “Violent” Ray, Holman Williams, Leonard Morrow, Nate Bolden, Oakland Billy Smith and Curtis “Hatchet Man” Sheppard.

It seems almost trite to talk about the sometimes thin divisions of class between such craftsmen of the highest level. Each was a master of his trade because he had to be. This was the era of eight official weight divisions, the era in which the now devalued title of “world champion” was accorded to one man only.

The fighters of Ezzard Charles’ time learned their business thoroughly because they had to fight often against consistently tough opposition, often engaging in series of fights against each other. Charley Burley, for example, clashed seven times with Holman Williams, fought a trilogy with the bruising Fritzie Zivic and also crossed swords with Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd Marshall and Bert Lytell.

Holman Williams was a story all by himself, notching 147 wins in 189 fights against the cream of the crop. Clever, cunning and skilful, Holman was one of those forever kinds of fighters who probably looked like a grizzled old veteran when he came out of the womb.

Sprinkled on his long record are the names of Jake LaMotta, Marcel Cerdan, Archie Moore, Bob Satterfield and Jack Chase.

Perennial contenders like Williams scrapped and scrambled for years in their attempts to climb to the top of the pile. For those who made it, there was still no guarantee of ultimate glory, especially for black fighters. Williams never got a title shot. Nor did Lloyd Marshall or Elmer Ray. Charley Burley retired without ever getting the chance to prove himself on the biggest stage. Even the great Sugar Ray Robinson apparently considered Burley to be too risky a proposition.

Archie Moore finally bagged a world title, but only after piling up more than 160 fights and getting messed around for years by the powers that be.

As a middleweight, Ezzard Charles couldn’t get a shot at champion Tony Zale, and was similarly frozen out by Gus Lesnevich in the light heavyweight class.

Consider what the Cincinnati Cobra achieved in the minefield of talent that we have examined. He scored three victories apiece over Archie Moore, Lloyd Marshall and Jimmy Bivins. He twice whipped the great and mystic Charley Burley in successive fights and also did the double over Joey Maxim and Oakland Billy Smith. To those names, you can add the stellar trio of Teddy Yarosz, Anton Christoforidis and the erratic but hugely dangerous Elmer “Violent” Ray.

This is not to decry the achievements of Ezzard Charles in the dreadnought division. He was actually a very good heavyweight and an underrated champion. But even as he was gaining universal recognition as the king of the hill by beating Louis, the Cobra had lost much of the speed, venom and killer instinct of his peak years.

Smooth

Everything seemed to be following a smooth and logical path when Ezzard started out. Born in Lawrenceville, Georgia, in 1921, he and his family moved to Cincinnati, where he would begin his boxing career at the age of fourteen.

Charles was clearly a special talent even in those early days, quickly picking up the Diamond Belt and the Ohio AAU welterweight titles. Moving up to middleweight, he added the Golden Gloves and the National AAU title to his collection. He did all that in just 42 fights and nobody could beat him.

His progress was similarly speedy when he turned pro, as he racked up twelve straight wins before dropping a decision to the skilful former middleweight champ, Ken Overlin. Ezzard drew with Overlin in a return, trounced Teddy Yarosz and registered his first big triumph with a third round stoppage of former NBA light heavyweight champ, Anton Christoforidis.

It was then that Charles had the first defining fights of his career, a couple of back-to-back duels with master mechanic, Charley Burley.

During my early years as a boxing journalist, I had always wanted to know the exact nature of those two tantalising contests from 1942, because I certainly knew all about both men. My imagination would run riot as I pictured them locking horns in the prize-fighting equivalent of a long and engrossing chess match. For so long, those fights had been nothing more than simple results on each man’s record, with no hint of their shape or pattern.

Imagine my surprise when I dug out the old newspaper reports and discovered that Charles had won both bouts handily, decking Burley with a classic counterpunch in the final round of their first meeting at Forbes Field in Charley’s hometown of Pittsburgh. Few men dominated the masterful Burley in such a way during his 98-fight career. Charley was shut out for the first five rounds of that fight and hurt badly from a Charles attack in the seventh. It was a master class from Ezzard, sportingly acknowledged by way of an ovation from Burley’s fans.

Charley had punched it out with Charles to little avail, but the adoption of a more cautious and scientific approach in the return match a month later at Hickey Park proved no more successful. Ezzard survived a few stormy moments to post another convincing decision.

Charles was at the top of his game when he closed out the first phase of his professional career with a pair of unanimous decisions over the clever Joey Maxim. Then the Second World War interrupted the Cobra’s career as it did to so many other quality fighters who were in their prime. Army service meant that Ezzard could squeeze in only two fights over the next three years, and his lack of proper training cost him dearly. Both fights took place at the Cleveland Arena and Charles must have felt that his whole world had suddenly fallen in on him. He took seven counts against the cagey Jimmy Bivins in a unanimous points loss, but that was only the beginning of the nightmare. Next up was the ferocious Lloyd Marshall, who bounced Ezzard off the deck eight times before stopping him in the eighth round.

But the Ezzard Charles armory didn’t consist merely of skill, speed and punching power. He also had guts and determination in plentiful supply, and set about proving himself all over again after the war. And how! With his mind free once again to concentrate solely on his boxing, Ezzard seemed better than ever with a well trained and slightly heavier physique, which didn’t compromise his wonderful sense of timing.

In July 1946, he avenged his loss to Marshall by surviving a first round knockdown to knock out Lloyd in the sixth at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Four months later, Charles got off the floor again to outpoint Bivins at Duquesne Gardens. For good measure, Ezzard knocked out Bivins in four rounds in 1947, and also revisited Mr. Marshall by bombing him out in two. That same year, Charles gave away significant weight to lose a hotly disputed split decision to Elmer “Violent” Ray at Madison Square Garden, but evened the score by knocking out Elmer in nine rounds a year later.

The incredible Ray was one opponent the top guys were glad to get past, or better still, avoid. A savage puncher, Elmer started out in 1926 and scored 70 knockouts in a twenty-three year, 101-fight career.

The Moore fights

Archie Moore set high standards for himself and judged others by his own tough yardstick. It wasn’t Moore’s practice to hand out false compliments. In later life, he would turn down the chance to train a certain prospect with the curt explanation, “I can teach a man how to fight, but I can’t teach him how to think.”

In Archie’s book, there were two men who could fight and think better than the rest. One was Charley Burley. The other was Ezzard Charles.

Archie crossed swords just once with Burley and got a good old licking for his troubles. But his failure to unlock Charles was far more prolonged and frustrating.

In their first meeting at Forbes Field in May, 1946, Charles demonstrated his great jab and all-round skills as he glided to a 10-round decision. In the sixth round, he emphasised his superiority by winding Archie and flooring him with a terrific left uppercut to the stomach.

A year rolled by before the return match at the Music Hall Sports Arena in Cincinnati, where Moore made it a much closer fight. He got a draw from one judge but still dropped a majority decision. Nevertheless, he must have felt confident about his chances against Ezzard when they hooked up for their third encounter at the Cleveland Arena in January 1948. Archie gave it everything, looking good in the early going as he launched an impressive assault.

But Charles had a mighty bomb in his arsenal and he dropped it with chilling suddenness in the eighth round. Moore’s uncanny sixth sense seemed to warn him of the imminent explosion, but he didn’t have enough time to haul himself out of the quicksand into which he had stumbled.

Pittsburgh sportswriter Harry Keck, sitting ringside that night, wrote: “Charles’ whole body seemed to coil like a huge snake about to strike. Moore was on the ropes, just above me, and his instinct told him he was in real danger. But before he could climb into a shell, Charles struck with a sweeping right that seemed to travel a complete circle before landing with a sickening thud on Archie’s jaw. I was sure that something broke either in Archie’s head or in Ezzard’s right hand, maybe in both places.”

The Sam Baroudi effect

It seemed that everything was finally right in Ezzard’s world after his memorable knockout of Moore, but fate was to wound him again. In his next match, Charles took on the 21-year-old Sam Baroudi at the Chicago Stadium and was given a stiff test for the first half of the fight. Baroudi was coming off a second round TKO of the thunder-punching and gloriously erratic Bob Satterfield and looked confident. But Charles was in a different class and thundered down the home stretch to unleash a big attack and knock out Baroudi in the 10th round. A famous photograph shows Ezzard snarling as Sam heads for the canvas.

Baroudi never recovered from the onslaught, dying of a cerebral haemorrhage. The tragic incident had a profound effect on Charles’ life and his future attitude to boxing. He contemplated quitting the game, but Baroudi’s family urged him to continue his career.

Thereafter, the vital bite was always missing from Ezzard’s work as his approach became more conservative and restrained. It was testament to his talent that he was still able to reach the top of the mountain without going flat out, but a new hesitance was there for all to see.

Some years later, before his first fight with Marciano, one sportswriter wrote of the Cincinnati Cobra: “Charles’ weakness is that he has no natural ardor for fighting. In the case of a prize fighter, there must be an inner force which has an affinity with the primeval. Charles most certainly doesn’t. Fighting to him is a chore.”

That might well have been true of the heavyweight Ezzard Charles, although he showed this writer plenty of ardor and fighting heart in both Marciano fights. But it is certainly not a fair accusation to level at the young Charles, who didn’t squawk or quit or walk away from the game when Lloyd Marshall was giving him the battering of his life all those years before.

Ezzard weighed 176 lbs. for the Sam Baroudi fight and would never compete at light heavyweight again. The Cobra moved up to heavyweight to join the other big snakes as a lesser albeit still exceptional fighter.

It was in the glamor division that he finally won his world championship and gained the worldwide recognition he deserved—after his true prime, after Sam Baroudi, after television had caught up with him and missed his greatest accomplishments.

Most of the archive film of Ezzard shows him slipping over the hill and wasting away into the role of journeyman and trial horse.

Isn’t life the damnedest thing?

Mike Casey is a freelance journalist, artist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

(www.artgallery.co.uk/artist/mike_casey)

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  1. henry 08:20am, 04/09/2013

    He was great.  Incredible skill.  If you want to learn how to fight watch Ezzard.  He could box and slug with the best of them.  I rank him in the top 10 of heavyweights and Number 1 among the light heavies.  If you beat Charles,  you beat someone.  If he beat you you got beat by one of the best ever.  What more can you say?

  2. jofre 10:43am, 05/25/2012

    I agree with all everyone has written about the great Ezzard Charles. In his prime he beat most of the the tough and dangerous black murderous row. He was just a kid when he beat the great Charley Burley.

  3. henry dicarlo 07:08pm, 05/04/2012

    My mother loved Charles - saw him fight in Cleveland and still talks about how great he was.  If you wanted to learn how to box, Charles would have been the guy to learn from.  This was the “gold” age of boxing.  Charles was one of the guys that made it “gold”.

  4. McGrain 02:42pm, 03/29/2012

    Most excellent.  Concerning Burley, I agree that they are special, maybe the greatest pair in history…my appraisal of Charley is one of the most talented fighters of that era with only one or two guys in his class…Charles comes in as a teenager and beats him twice?  Am I right in saying Charles was still at school at this time?  Imagine some kid finding time between lessons to outbox an outfight Mayweather…

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 09:23am, 03/25/2012

    Gajjers-Rocky was the product of a hard working, God fearing, Depression era Italian family. From pix I’ve seen of his beloved mom, I suspect a lot of his unbelievable strengths came directly from her, just as Sinatra’s moxie was more than likely transmitted directly to him by a strong, loving and doting Italian mother.

  6. Gajjers 09:06pm, 03/24/2012

    Ain’t no real fight fan gonna knock the Rock - GUTS personified! I sure could use some of what he had as a man…

  7. the thresher 04:49pm, 03/24/2012

    Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo,  good points

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 01:56pm, 03/24/2012

    I’ll say it again…for Rocky to take out this ATG who had almost torn Rocky’s nose off in a do or die scenario proves conclusively for all time Marciano’s greatness! Native Americans believed that were judged according to the greatness of their enemies…..the same should be the case in boxing….according to the greatness of the adversary!

  9. the thresher 05:02am, 03/24/2012

    Gajjers has the beat

  10. Gajjers 01:31am, 03/24/2012

    Thanks for the history lesson, gentlemen! I too mostly remember Ezzard Charles for his exploits as a heavyweight, when, as you say, he must have been well past his best as a prize fighter. His boxing record is littered with outstanding names from different divisions (thanks for the list Ted), so he must have been really something in each division he competed in. I wonder what he would have thought of Floyd Mayweather as a welterweight, in terms of his willingness to take on the best? I have a fair idea, but they sure don’t make ‘em like they used to!

  11. Phil Rice 02:11pm, 03/23/2012

    Another excellent piece of prose on boxing history. Salute!

  12. the thresher 12:18pm, 03/23/2012

    Enjoyment is reading a Mike Casey gem while smoking a nice cigar and drinking something amber with ice,

  13. the thresher 10:50am, 03/23/2012

    The other thing is that according to some, EC had the beginning of ACL even before he retired from boxing. I don’t know if that’s true.

  14. mikecasey 06:33am, 03/23/2012

    Yep, all very true and in need of saying, Ted. When you list them like that, it’s a big reminder of the talent Ezzard had to beat.

  15. the thresher 06:15am, 03/23/2012

    Nothing can ever dilute the following:


    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.

  16. the thresher 06:14am, 03/23/2012

    “Some day, maybe, the public is going to abandon comparisons with Joe Louis and accept Ezzard Charles for what he was—-the best fist-fighter of his particular time.” -–Red Smith

  17. the thresher 06:08am, 03/23/2012

    Ezzard fought the toughest opposition of any fighter in history. You name him and he fought him—and he did it multiple times. He was and is an ATG. More on the way.


    Thanks for posting an old school gem on an old school great.

  18. mike schmidt 03:30am, 03/23/2012

    Superb

  19. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 08:56pm, 03/22/2012

    Bye the bye….so many yearn for a post Klitschko era to be replaced with a heavyweight version of Mayweather. I’ve got a much better idea…a modern day version of Rocky coming in at 6’2” and 225….not only good for boxing but for the whole damn country!

  20. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 08:37pm, 03/22/2012

    Mike Casey- Beautifully crafted work…for my part it proves in part just how great Rocky Marciano was, keeping in mind that Rocky fought at least two of his early fights at 178 lbs and never enjoyed a size advantage over his opponents other than Matthews. To do what Rocky did to this tremendous fighter in their return bout seals the deal for Rocky as an all time great for any era.

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