Thursday, May 28, 2015

This Day in Boxing History (Death of Ezzard Charles, The ‘Cincinnati Cobra’)

May 28, 1975—Ezzard Charles, a boxer of superior skills, who despite winning the heavyweight crown for two years, was overshadowed by two others he faced in the ring, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano, died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at age 53.

Charles was just one of several prominent sports figures who, over the years, have been diagnosed with this neuromuscular condition, including baseball pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter, British soccer player Don Revie, American football player Steve Gleason, Life Fitness chief executive Augie Nieto, and the man most associated with the disease, baseball slugger Lou Gehrig.

Though born in Georgia, Charles moved as a youngster with his family to Cincinnati. His undefeated, 42-0 amateur record as a teen led observers to tout him early on as “The Cincinnati Cobra.” Turning pro in 1940, he proceeded methodologically through the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, dismantling opponents even when they enjoyed the advantage in experience over him.

Becoming a heavyweight in 1949, he stepped into the vacuum left by the retirement of Joe Louis to take the National Boxing Association crown, beating Jersey Joe Walcott in a 15-round decision. The following year, when Louis came out of retirement, Charles beat him in a decision.

By all accounts gentlemanly and thoughtful, Charles did not display a killer instinct in outpointing the slow, heavy, and aging Lewis, nor did he seem to relish being champ. Both might have had something to do with one of his last fights as a light-heavyweight.

In 1948, Charles had stopped Sam Baroudi with a rain of blows so devastating that the 21-year-old had fallen into a coma by the time the referee counted to 10. Charles traveled to the hospital, where he kept vigil until Baroudi died the next day. Though the distraught Charles was talked out of his initial decision to retire after the bout, many observers agree that something had gone out of him after the untimely death of his opponent.

Unlike Emile Griffith after his 1962 bout with Benny Paret, Charles was not blamed by fans for the tragedy in the ring. But neither did they embrace him as they had Louis, a symbol of racial and even national pride, or Jack Dempsey, renowned for his slugging style. 

Instead, a number of fans failed to appreciate his slow but certain exposure of his rivals’ flaws through his fast jab and quick right cross, or belittled him as not being a “real” heavyweight because he had beefed up from his time as a middleweight and light-heavyweight. (He never, in fact, exceeded 200 pounds while boxing.)

The history of boxing is filled with improbable outcomes, and few more so than the 1951 match that saw Charles, who had beaten Walcott twice before, lose in the rematch, making the 37-year-old challenger the oldest man up to that time to have won the heavyweight title. Charles would never reclain the crown, despite three more tries in title bouts.

But, though he fell short each time, Charles gave fight fans some of the most memorable minutes in history—particularly so against the successor to Walcott, Rocky Marciano.

In their first bout, it took Marciano 15 rounds to beat Charles, who performed especially adeptly in rounds seven and eight, according to A.J. Liebling: “The bounce and snap had left him for good now, but his determination was unbelievable. His face, rather narrow with a high curved nose, changed in shape to a squatty rectangle as we watched. It was as though he had run into a nest of wild bees.”

The return match, in September 1954, at Yankee Stadium, was not as long, but perhaps more remarkable. Whether from an elbow or a punch, the heavily favored champion emerged from his corner in the sixth round with blood running freely from his split nose—so heavily that his cutman could not stanch the bleeding. The only alternative for Marciano was to take out Charles before he himself was counted out. That he accomplished, with a knockout, in the eighth round.

Somewhat like Louis, financial problems kept Charles in the ring well past his physical prime. From 1955 until his retirement in 1959, Charles would fight 24 times, and only win 10 of those bouts. After leaving the ring, he tried to make ends meet variously through professional wrestling, selling cemetery lots, working for a wine company, and working with youth programs in Cincinnati. He was diagnosed with ALS in 1968.  

Charles was a great deal better than his lifetime 93-25 record would indicate, according to sportswriter Red Smith: “Someday, 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.”

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