By Ivan G. Goldman
When you get disgusted with the four quarreling alphabet groups that control the major belts, it’s worthwhile to look at how things worked back in the forties and fifties, when there was only one title in each division and it was controlled by gangsters.
Ezzard Charles beat all the best light heavyweights of his time but couldn’t get a title shot. Frustrated, he moved up to heavyweight and in June 1949 won the vacant championship by beating formidable Jersey Joe Walcott at the Chicago White Sox’s Comiskey Park. It was one month before Charles’s 28th birthday.
He competed at a time when prizefighting vied with baseball as the nation’s most popular sport. His life and career are skillfully chronicled by William Dettloff. You always want to read the next page.
Why a book about Charles? The author explains that right away. Because he was “one of the best prizefighters who ever lived.” Also, like so many fighters, he had plenty going on beneath the surface of his athletic activity. He painted in oils, read psychology books, and played an upright bass.
Dettloff, a former senior writer at The Ring, is one-half of the irreverent, often hilarious “Ring Theory” podcast team made up of him and Eric Raskin, another refugee from Ring (Full disclosure: so am I). One of the more popular staples in their astute commentary is the genteel naming of Asshole of the Month.
Dettloff’s chronicle is a kind of social history. You get a good feel for the times as you trail after the fighter’s wily manager Jake Mintz, gangsters Franky Carbo and Blinky Palermo, and trainers Ray Arcel and Jimmy Brown. There are plenty of pretty females and flashy convertibles, also tough times and tragedy.
Along the way we meet Sammy Crandall, a blown-up middleweight who fought under the name Sam Baroudi, and went 41-11-2, 21 KOs. He died of injuries suffered in a February 20, 1948 contest with Charles. Baroudi was 21 years old.
Afterward Charles became a more cautious fighter, less willing to drive in and punish. He acknowledged the style change but claimed it wasn’t motivated by the Baroudi fight. He’d moved up to face heavyweights and had to be more careful. Or so he said.
Charles is perhaps best known for beating Joe Louis. When they competed for the heavyweight title in 1950 it seemed the entire nation was cheering for its beloved Brown Bomber, who at 36 was not the same Louis. Sugar Ray Robinson has a pretty good idea of what was coming, but when asked to predict a winner, told the press, “It would be treason to pick any other than Joe.”
Louis weighed in at 218, Charles at slightly over 184. It was no walkover. Louis put lumps all over Charles but had been counting on scoring an early kayo against his lighter, quicker opponent and couldn’t keep it up for fifteen rounds. Charles, proving his durability as he had so many times before, won on points.
Charles gave Rocky Marciano one of his toughest fights. Marciano, a small heavyweight by today’s standards, was bigger than Charles, and wore him down with clubbing, fierce shots. Marciano won by decision in June 1954 and three months later stopped him in eight. They met both times in Yankee Stadium.
Like so many fighters, Charles stayed in the game too long. He’d tried retirement, but it didn’t stick. It wasn’t just the money. When no one was trying to knock his head off life got boring. He missed that adrenaline rush. But he lost seven of his last ten, and by then he was fighting in tank towns and high school auditoriums. He wrapped it up at age 38 and like almost every fighter you’ll ever see, lost his last bout.
Before his career ended Charles enjoyed plenty of good times, even bought his beautiful wife a mink coat, which she showed off at his fights.
One year after losing to unheralded Alvin Green, he was flat broke in hometown Cincinnati, the utilities cut off for lack of payment. The cars were gone and so were most of his friends. Sometimes bars paid him to make appearances. And yes, he also did some wrestling, just like Mountain McClintock in Rod Serling’s great Requiem for a Heavyweight.
By 1966, Charles, now living in Chicago, was suffering from lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mayor Richard Daley gave him a job counseling children. Even after he was in a wheelchair and no longer able to work, Daley kept him on the payroll. Gladys stuck with him too, taking him to the bathroom and feeding him like an infant.
Charles, a World War II veteran, died in a VA hospital in Chicago at age 51 after living a boxing life so carefully and exquisitely recorded by Dettloff.
Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life, by William Dettloff (McFarland, May 2015). 232 pages, trade paperback
Ivan G. Goldman’s 5th novel The Debtor Class is a ‘gripping …triumphant read,’ says Publishers Weekly. A future cult classic with ‘howlingly funny dialogue,’ says Booklist. Available now from Permanent Press wherever fine books are sold. Goldman is a New York Times best-selling author.