The magnificent Cincinnati Cobra
A war, the tragic death of an opponent and circumstances that forced him to fight much bigger men were some of the obstacles in the magnificent career of Ezzard Charles.
Nearly invincible as a light heavyweight, Charles fought the great Rocky Marciano, Jersey Joe Walcott, Joey Maxim and many outstanding heavyweights of his time.
He won 96 of his 122 bouts – 58 inside the distance – lost 25 and drew one. And, almost belatedly, he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
His story, like those of many other greats, ended sadly but it remains a story of courage, talent and triumph.
Ezzard Charles was born on July 7, 1921 in a small town of Lawrenceville, Georgia. The family later moved to Cincinnati, where young Ezzard developed into the state’s only world heavyweight champion.
There, in the city nicknamed The Queen City of the West in Longfellow’s Catawba Wine, an 1854 poem about Cincinati, Charles began boxing as a skinny 14-year-old.
As an amateur, he won both the Diamond belt and AAU welterweight titles. The next year he retained those titles and won a Golden Gloves title.
In 1939, fighting at middleweight, he won those three titles again and added the AAU title, which he retained in 1940.
Charles had 42 fights as an amateur and won them all before turning professional in March 1940. He quickly reeled off a dozen victories, ten of which inside the distance.
He took his winning streak to 20 before losing on points to former world middleweight champion Ken Overlin in June 1941.
In 1942, the year he turned 21, Charles hit the big time.
In January that year he knocked out former world light heavyweight champion Anton Christoforidis in the third round. He then twice won on points against Charley Burley, who was rated by experts as one of the greats in the middleweight division.
He also beat future world light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim on points twice.
With the Second World War still raging, Charles joined the army. During the next three years, he had only two fights, both in 1943. Having done little training, he lost on points to Jimmy Bivins and was stopped in eight by Lloyd Marshall.
After the war, Charles returned to the ring as a light heavyweight. In February 1946, he stopped Al Sheriden in two rounds. He finished the year with nine more victories, including a points win over the legendary Archie Moore.
In 1947, Charles once again defeated Moore and then lost a questionable decision to Elmer Ray on his New York debut.
Putting this setback behind him, Charles racked up wins over Joe Matisi, Lloyd Marshall, Al Smith, Clarence Jones, Teddy Randolph and Fitzie Fitzpatrick. Then, in 1948, he knocked out Moore.
Charles was ranked No 1 light heavyweight in the world by Ring Magazine, whose ratings were the only ones acknowledged at the time.
However, the champion, Gus Lesnevich, would have nothing to do with Charles who then had to fight heavyweights to keep active.
Charles, known as the “Cincinnati Cobra”, lost much of his venom in 1948. He knocked out Sam Baroudi in the tenth round in Chicago on February 20 and Baroudi died a few days later.
Even though Charles continued fighting and still knocked out opponents – he even stopped heavyweight Joe Baksi – he would pull back and wait for the referee to stop a fight.
In 1949 he outpointed Joey Maxim over 15 rounds in an eliminator to meet Jersey Joe Walcott for the vacant National Boxing Association heavyweight title.
Joe Louis, the world heavyweight champion, retired as undefeated heavyweight champion in March 1949. On June 22 that year, Charles beat Walcott on points over 15 rounds to win the vacant title, which was recognised only by the NBA.
He defended the NBA version of the title against Lesnevich, Pat Valentino and Freddie Beshore before beating Louis, who had made a comeback, on September 27, 1950. That brought him international recognition.
He defended and retained the title against Nick Barone, Lee Oma, Walcott and Maxim before meeting Walcott for the third time on July 18, 1951.
For the first six rounds, Charles was in complete control. Then, in the seventh, he walked into one of the best left hooks ever thrown in boxing and he was champion no more.
Charles returned to beat Rex Layne, Maxim and Joe Kahut before challenging Walcott for the heavyweight championship in June 1952. This time he lost on a disputed decision.
He won another 11 fights out of 14 before he was given another opportunity to regain his title. He had to fight Rocky Marciano at the Yankee Stadium on June 17, 1954, only three weeks before his 34th birthday.
Against all expectations, Charles went 15 gruelling, closely contested rounds with Marciano.
A rematch was arranged. They had to fight again only three months later, which was not enough time for Charles to recover from the battering his body took in the first fight.
Marciano handed Charles a brutal beating, but not before a left hook had split the champion’s nose right to the bone. Marciano stopped Charles just before the fight could be ended because of the injury.
Charles continued fighting, mainly because of financial problems, and had another 23 fights. But he should have quit after that defeat because he had become just another opponent.
He lost his last fight, to Alvin Greene, in Oklahoma City on September 1, 1959.
After his boxing career, he tried several jobs. He was a safety inspector for the state of Ohio and then a bouncer at a Northern Kentucky nightclub. He even resorted to professional wrestling, using the name "Cincinnati Cobra".
Charles later returned to Chicago. In 1967, when he was working for Youth Welfare, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Gehrig’s Disease.
He spent his last years in a wheelchair and completely lost his speech.
Ezzard Charles died in Chicago on May 27, 1975 and was buried in the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.
Baroudi’s death affected him badly and he also spent three of his best years in the army. Had it not been for these factors, he might have been recognised as one of the all-time greats.