“LIFE is the best left-hooker I ever saw, although some say it was Charlie White of Chicago.”
That’s a quote from Ernest Hemingway, fight fan and Nobel Prize-winning writer, or at least he’s supposed to have said it. When I first read that line some years ago, I assumed Charlie White to be an invention, a sort of everyman who symbolised prizefighters everywhere. But it turns out he wasn’t. White had lived and breathed and spilled his blood in the punishing rings of pre-war America. He was indeed a fearsome left-hooker and despite the Chicago billing, he was British by birth.
Born into a Jewish Russian-immigrant family in Liverpool on March 25, 1891, Charlie’s real name was Charles Anchowitz. He came to America with his parents at age seven and settled in the Jewish ghetto in Chicago’s West Side. At 13, Charlie contracted tuberculosis. He was sent to Bill O’Connell’s Chicago gym and put through a course of exercises designed to improve his health. The treatment seemed to work. He was soon clear of tuberculosis and under O’Connell’s tutelage discovered a talent for boxing.
Charlie had his first pro bout in his mid-teens, adopting the name White in tribute to Tommy White, a top Chicago featherweight of the 1890s. A string of knockout wins mostly generated by the left hook earned him the nickname “Left-Hook Charlie” and soon he was mixing in world-class company.
In December 1909, he lost an eight-rounder to the reigning world featherweight champ, Abe Attell, who “was forced to extend himself to the limit” according to the Sacramento Union. The paper observed that the ref’s decision for Attell “was unpopular”. They met again nine months later in a ‘no-decision’ fight. It was another close one but Attell did enough to get the newspaper decision.
At the time, certain US jurisdictions had outlawed points verdicts and a boxer could only officially win by knockout or stoppage. This was intended to combat betting, but in lieu of an official result the winner of a full-distance contest was decided by sportswriters in the next day’s papers. Some world champions even insisted on no-decision fights to help protect their titles – much to the chagrin of their challengers.
In May 1914, a 23-year-old White faced San Francisco’s Willie Ritchie for the world lightweight crown and dominated the fight. “I was outgeneralled and outfought,” admitted Ritchie. White won the newspaper decision, but the bout had gone the distance so Willie kept his title.
Charlie’s next shot at lightweight honours was against Ritchie’s successor, Pontypridd’s Freddie Welsh. The pair fought four times between 1914 and 1916, with White winning one newspaper decision and losing the other three fights. Despite his apparent fistic superiority, Welsh developed a healthy respect for Charlie’s left hook. “Keep your right hand up at all times and keep going at him with your left. Never use your right,” he warned fellow Brit Matt Wells in a letter before Matt’s first fight with Charlie in 1915. “I felt one of his lefts on the head in one of our Milwaukee battles and I thought the building fell in.”
Benny Leonard, one of the finest defensive boxers of all time, would have found that advice useful when he met the ring-worn but still dangerous 29-year-old White in July 1920. In the fifth of this 10-round lightweight title fight, White planted his fabled left hook on Leonard’s jaw and knocked him through the ropes. But Leonard scrambled back into the ring – some say with the help of his brother – and turned the tables on White with a ninth-round KO. It was the only knockout loss of the Chicagoan’s career.
Charlie – who also challenged Jack Britton for the world welterweight crown and won two, lost two and drew one against two-weight world titlist Johnny Dundee – was unlucky not to win a title himself. He deserves to be remembered as far more than the punchline of a Hemingway quip.