IN his prime Ezzard Charles was a slick, smooth, precise boxer. Long before he won the world heavyweight crown under the shadow of Joe Louis, Charles was one of the best middleweight prospects in the world. After World War Two he could have boxed for the light-heavyweight title, but was kept well away from it, and eventually financial problems forced him to consider taking on heavyweights. Even when he finally fought for the heavyweight championship after Louis had retired, he was only 12st 13 3/4lbs. He was a remarkable talent.
He won partial recognition as world heavyweight champion by outpointing Jersey Joe Walcott in Chicago in June 1949, erased any doubts that he deserved the title by trouncing Louis in a painfully one-sided 15-rounder in September 1950, and turned back eight challenges before Walcott dethroned him in an astonishing upset with as good a left hook as you could wish to see, a one-punch knockout in July 1951.
At the beginning of his reign he was under-appreciated because of how good Louis had been in his prime, and then when he beat a washed-up Joe, he was lauded as a new Gene Tunney.
Charles had been a fighting champion, but could never quite recapture the magic after Walcott, supposedly a 37-year-old has-been, upset him.
Charles was born in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and raised there until the age of nine when his parents parted. He was sent to live with his grandmother and great-grandmother in Cincinnati.
He was a naturally gifted amateur, who won the 1939 National AAU title and at eighteen decided to box professionally to add money to the household budget. Within a year he had beaten world class Teddy Yarosz over ten rounds. He also stopped former light-heavyweight champ Anton Christoforidis in three rounds and outpointed Burley in back-to-back ten round fights in the summer of 1942 when he was still only 20 years old.
He also beat Joey Maxim twice, but then suffered shattering defeats by Jimmy Bivins and Lloyd Marshall, when he climbed up from a total of 15 knockdowns! He lasted the distance with Bivins, was stopped in eight by Marshall, and then served in the US Army in Italy and north Africa.
He emerged to find his investments had dwindled and he owed taxes, so set to work: he beat Bivins and Marshall, as well as Archie Moore. The big-hitting heavyweight Elmer Ray outpointed him, but he knocked Ray out in a return, stopped Moore in eight and in spite of conceding 32lbs, knocked out Joe Baksi in 11. Afterwards when a writer suggested he might challenge Louis, this self-effacing man looked shocked and said:”My goodness, not yet.”
As it happened, Louis retired temporarily and he beat Walcott to begin his time as champion.
After he lost the title, he seemed to many to have outboxed Walcott in a return but lost a close unanimous decision, and then in June 1954 in front of 47,000 fans in Yankee Stadium he gave Rocky Marciano a hard, gruelling 15 rounds. He lost by margins of two, three and four points on the official cards. In a rematch three months later he split Marciano’s nose wide open but was knocked out in eight.
That sent him on the slide, and he was only a shell when he lost on a two round disqualification to Dick Richardson in London in 1956. He retired, but came back because, in spite of having grossed more than $770,000 in his 13 world title fights, he was broke. He was 38 when he lost his last fight in Oklahoma in 1959.
Charles’ decline was sad. He tried wrestling, worked doors, sold cemetery lots, worked for a wine company and tried to help young people in Chicago. In 1968 he was diagnosed as suffering from lateral sclerosis, and he died seven years later, aged 53.