(Guest Post) Ezzard Charles: The life of a Boxer [100 Years of Memory]

(Guest Post) Ezzard Charles: The life of a Boxer [100 Years of Memory]

Written by, Stefania Dzhanamova

Make sure to check out Stefania’s YouTube channel as well!

Ezzard Charles was a boxer of paradoxes. He was recognized as the greatest light heavyweight fighter of all time, but he never won the light heavyweight title — that no-man’s division between the glamor classes of middleweight and heavyweight. He earned his well-deserved place in the Boxing Hall of Fame, but otherwise remained obscure especially if compared with Joey Maxim, Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd Marshall, Charley Burley, and many other hard, great, black fighters whom he had beaten in the ring multiple times. Some boxers had a thunderous punch, or a great back story, or unusual charisma or presence. Ezzard Charles had none of these. He was never anyone’s hero — he simply did not fit the image of a hero the American public demanded. When he died, they named a highway after him in Cincinnati, the way they do for heroes; while alive and fighting, though, he was never appreciated by the general public. Only the guys who knew what they were talking about looked at films of him and asked: “Christ, how could they not see he was a genius?” Indeed, how could they not? This July, the 100th anniversary since Charles’s birth, is the right time to do this legend justice. 

A Conventional Beginning

There was nothing in the circumstances around Ezzard Charles’s birth and childhood to suggest he would become a legendary prizefighter. He was just a poor kid from an American slum, no different than other poor kids from other American slums. However, there was much in those circumstances to ignite the natural, desperate hunger needed to make a kid fight like hell. 

Ezzard Mack Charles was born in a shack on a hidden back road in the Rocky Knob section of Lawrenceville, Georgia, on July 7, 1921. Lawrenceville is roughly twenty-five miles northeast of Atlanta. His father, William Charles, was a truck driver for a local cotton mill. He was the second child his mother, Alberta, conceived — the first, a girl, had died. 

Ezzard grew up like most of the boys in Rocky Knob: poor, hungry, and with only the smarts they came into the world with. Lawrenceville wasn’t big on schooling; the grammar school, if you could call it that, was in the auditorium of the town church. It wasn’t a real school at all, but this did not bother Ezzard much. It gave him something to do and took his mind off how empty his stomach was, yet overall he didn’t much care for it. He imagined himself as a star basketball player or a champion prizefighter. In his fantasies he’d be known as “Jack” Charles, or “Kid” Charles, something like that. He wanted a name that fit his dream of striking fame and fortune. Feeling that his birth name, Ezzard wasn’t going to get him very far. In the 1920s prizefighting was the biggest sport in the world, and about the only sport in America where equality was given to all fighters, letting all Americans fight, no matter the color of their skin. Prizefighters were treated like movie stars, or even as kings of the state. But there was also another reason why Charles strived to become a prizefighter — his father. When he was five, Charles’ parents split up and William headed up North on his own, leaving Alberta to raise their son alone. This spurred Ezzard’s resolve to show his father what a real man should be and what a real man could do. “The older men who spent their days and night in gyms and saloons and alleys knew the truth: Bad fathers created more prizefighters and criminals and alcoholics than poverty, whiskey and cheating women combined, and for as long as men failed as fathers there would be sons chasing them to their graves to show them how they had failed as men,” writes Charles’s biographer William Dettloff. 

Long before Charles was born, the people of Lawrenceville had put together a makeshift boxing ring, and all summer long the neighborhood boys would box one another underneath the scorching Georgia sun, the adults watching and betting. Although he was one of the smallest kids in the neighborhood, Ezzard had little trouble running through other kids around his age. This was a great and welcome surprise to him, and not long after, he filled an old canvas sack with rags and sand, hung it from a tree in the backyard and stood out there for hours under that red Georgia sun, punching away at it. The more he punched at it the better he got. And the better he got the more he punched at it. Day by day Ezzard forgot about being a star baseball or basketball player and thought mostly about boxing. And then he had to leave Lawrenceville and his makeshift sack for good.

The First Step Down the Road of Boxing

His mother Alberta decided to head North for better work opportunities and dropped Ezzard at her mother’s house in Cincinnati. She didn’t want her only child to be raised poor in the Deep South where a black man couldn’t really be a man except in his own home. Charles’ grandmother, Maude Foster, lived in Cincinnati’s West End, a predominantly black community. She was a petite woman, yet a formidable matriarch, who instilled in her kids, and especially in Ezzard, the importance of living a good, clean Christian life. As long as a man led such a life, no harm could come to him, she said, and Ezzard believed her. Due to Ms. Foster’s influence, he would turn out to be a good boy. At Harriet Beecher Stowe elementary school, where his grandma enrolled him, Ezzard was placed in a class for “retarded” children for three months because the teachers did not know what to make of this shy, impeccably polite and wholly illiterate nine-year-old. Although he was by no means a genius with books, he learned his lessons diligently and retained them. 

The Cincinnati West End was not a place for cowards and boys who had no interest in street fights. Ezzard, despite his many successful backyard boxing matches in Lawrenceville, was a timid boy and froze in terror at the mere thought of fist-fighting. And since there were always guys ready to pick up a fight, he became skilled in avoiding them by charting new ways to get home. It may seem that those skills and qualities of his did not betray his prizefighting future, but in reality it takes patience, discipline, and a certain kind of smarts to become a good boxer — all qualities the guys who simply enjoy beating up people do not possess. The streetfighters let it all – the anger, the hunger — out on the streets, and by the time they reach the ring there is nothing left in them to fuel the energy for a match. Charles, on the other hand, kept all this frustration bottled up inside himself. 

Timid Ezzard had not resumed his makeshift boxing practices in Cincinnati. Maybe he wouldn’t have turned to boxing again at all if in August 1932 the local newspaper had not announced that the great Cuban featherweight boxer, Kid Chocolate, was coming to fight Cleveland-based journeyman Johnny Farr downtown at the Parkway Outdoor Arena. Ezzard and his friends were on cloud nine when Chocolate’s car stopped in front of the candy shop on the street where Ezzard and his family lived. Despite the scorching heat, the renowned fighter was wearing an impeccably tailored, fashionable suit. “Chocolate, how many suits ya got?” Ezzard heard one of the kids crowding around the car ask. “Man, I got suits for every day of the year. I got 365,” Kid Chocolate replied. This answer stuck with Ezzard Mack Charles, who was as dirt poor as all the other kids on the West End, ran from fights in the street, looked like he was half starving to death, and never spoke unless he was spoken to. He thought: “I’m gonna be a fighter and have clothes like that.” He would be more than the kid born in a shack and more than the poor black boy whose father ran out on him and whose mother, for good reasons or bad, abandoned him in Cincinnati on the way up North. He’d be the boy to make his grandmother proud, the boy who would stand out among all the other poor boys on the West End. It wouldn’t matter that he wasn’t white or that he still couldn’t write his middle name. 

Over the next four years Charles kept going to school, playing ball in the park, doing his chores, and minding his grandmother. Just as he had back in Lawrenceville, though, he started boxing other boys in backyards and parking lots, and just like in Lawrenceville, he went through them like they weren’t there. All along he remembered Kid Chocolate and what he promised himself he’d be some day, but Chocolate wasn’t his inspiration anymore. A sensational Black heavyweight named Joe Louis had come out of Detroit and whipped almost every fighter he’d faced. The world of prizefighting admired him, and he served as an inspiration for many. For Ezzard he was the proof that anyone could work hard, and make their way to the top of the world. He compiled a scrapbook of Louis’ newspaper clips and photos, and when boxing his friends and other neighborhood kids he imagined himself as Louis, landing punches and dodging counters. And after he had whipped them all, bloodied their noses, and sent them home bruised and dizzy, a couple of them told him he was wasting his time with them. If he loved Joe Louis so much and was so good at boxing, why didn’t he go to a gym already and do it right? So Ezzard Charles did.

First Gym, First Coach, First Beating, First Match

In the summer of 1936 Ezzard asked his grandma for fifty cents, the fee at a local boxing gym. Ms. Foster was not a fan of fighting and fifty cents was not a small sum for a lady who earned her living as a maid, but she knew how easy it was for West-End boys to go astray and that any activity that would keep her grandson off the streets was beneficial. The next day she pressed the money into his palm. The first gym Ezzard tried his luck at was Danny Davis’. There he got laughed at. No way he could become a boxer, the old men said — and one couldn’t blame him. By the time Ezzard wandered into Davis’ gym, Danny was already a celebrity, having trained the great featherweight Freddie Miller, who was Cincinnati’s first homegrown world champion. Ezzard Charles, with his fine manners, spindly arms and legs, and barely audible voice could not expect attention from him. Fortunately, there were many other gyms on the West End, and one of Ezzard’s friends, Gene Howell, an amateur boxer himself, introduced him to Bert Williams, a diminutive Welshman and World War I who had been a fixture in the Cincinnati fight scene for years. If you were involved in the fight business in Cincinnati you knew Bert Williams and Bert Williams knew you. You also knew he was in the room before you could see him: he spoke in a heavy Welsh accent and with severe authority. After looking Ezzard up and down, Williams saw a “skinny, undernourished kid who can barely stand, let alone box.” Yet he also noticed that the kid seemed earnest, and when he asked Ezzard to show him how he punched and how he stood when he was going to fight, he could see the boy knew what he was doing, even though he had never been instructed. So the Welshman took him in. 

It was obviously in Ezzard’s heart to be a fighter. He was always there for practice, always right on time. When Williams put him against one of his experienced boys, Sam Rutledge, just to see how Ezzard would react to being hit, Ezzard took such a beating the Welshman doubted he would show up for practice again at all. But the next day, there he was, right on time. He sparred again with Rutledge and again got knocked down and beaten up, but he kept showing up, day after day. 

After a couple of months of steady progress in the gym, Williams made a match for Charles against a boy named Al Jackson at an American Legion show in Newport. This was an important test: Williams wanted to check if Ezzard was a real fighter or just a “gym fighter” — a guy who could fight like hell in the gym and then somehow lose it all when the lights came on in the arena and he had to do it for real, in front of paying customers. 

The first round Charles was in trouble. He backed up to get away, and Jackson chased after him, throwing punches. A hard right hand landed on the jaw and for a second Charles went to sleep. When he woke up, it felt nothing like his fights with Rutledge in the gym. There was constant noise and he could hear everything and see it and smell it and taste the blood in his mouth. When punches landed they hurt. It was real. This was different, like a dream. Ezzard neither saw nor felt the punch that floored him. His self-preservation instinct was telling him to stay where he is, to let that fight he did not need go. But he’d trained his body and mind to act like a fighter’s, so he shook himself out of that peaceful dreamland back to the real world, where he was sitting on a blood-stained canvas in the American Legion Hall with the referee counting over him. He felt like he might throw up but struggled up, making it to the end of the round. At the start of the second he tore into Al Jackson like no one’s business and stopped him in the third. Bert Williams had his answer. The kid was a fighter. Williams soon had Charles winning every tournament he entered, including the 1937 Diamond Belt and Ohio AAU welterweight championships and the 1938 Diamond Belt, state AAU and Golden Gloves welterweight championships. The following year was even better. He claimed the Diamond Belt middleweight championship; the Golden Gloves middleweight championship, beating Pete Hantz in the finals; the Ohio AAU title; and then, finally, the National AAU middleweight championship, beating Bradley Lewis, James Toney and then Leroy Bolden in the finals. Nobody could remember the last time they’d seen a kid like Ezzard Charles. 

To Ezzard himself, however, trophies and medals didn’t mean all that much after a while — the amateurs was merely a training ground to prepare him for a professional career where his trophies and medals would be apartment buildings, suits, nice cars, beautiful women, a full stomach, and a life without struggle. 

The Breakthrough

Charles received national attention for the first time after he agreed to fight a much-avoided Pittsburgh middleweight named Charlie Burley. Burley was someone to avoid if you could. He was too good, and if you had a kid you thought you could take somewhere, you kept him away from Burley. Ezzard Charles, however, went through him like he wasn’t there and endeared himself to Pittsburgh fans. He also caught the eye of the local matchmaker, Jake Mintz, who seemed to instinctively know what the public liked. Mintz also knew the first rule of doing business in boxing, which was that there were really no rules. He would become Charles’ unofficial manager. After beating Puerto Rican puncher Jose Basora, Ezzard Charles was the hottest fighter in boxing. Pittsburgh fight writers couldn’t praise him enough. One called him the “uncrowned champion in two divisions.” Another described him as “the brilliant, two-fisted middleweight package of dynamite.” 

Soon he outboxed Joey Maxim, who was nicknamed after the Maxim machine gun because of how fast he could jab and had won several Golden Gloves titles and an AAU championship as a middleweight. Not long afterwards, Charles found out his number was about to be called; he was going to be drafted into the U.S. Army. Charles had begun to grow disillusioned with boxing, so he wasn’t particularly saddened when his attorney’s attempt to get him re-classified as his grandmother’s main financial support failed. He was a world-class fighter, yet he was making peanuts fighting tough, hungry guys like Maxim and Basora. He had a car and some nice things back home, things he’d never had before, but it seemed to him that everyone else was making real money, while he was the one taking punches. He wasn’t getting anywhere. He should have been a Madison Square Garden fighter by now, making the big money, fighting in stadiums, being famous. But here he was, stuck in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, fighting for his life against guys no one else wanted to fight in front of just a few thousand people. Wasn’t he ranked high in two divisions? Hadn’t he beaten a bunch of good fighters to get there? Wasn’t he always exciting, always going for the knockout? So why wasn’t he a star? By this time in his own career, his hero, Joe Luis, had already fought in Yankee Stadium a couple times and was a fight or two away from winning the heavyweight title against Jimmy Braddock. That seemed like a million years away to Charles. Worst yet, things weren’t going to change any time soon. The National Boxing Association and the New York State Athletic Commission had “frozen” all the titles so that the champions who were serving in the military didn’t have to worry about losing their status while fighting for Uncle Sam. It made sense — why should they be penalized? But it made it hard for everyone else to make a living fighting. On top of that, Charles lost a fight to Jimmy Bivins, the third-ranked heavyweight in the world and the top-ranked light heavyweight — the best fighter Charles would face. Thus, when he entered the military, Ezzard Charles was at the lowest point of his career and ready to quit boxing.

The Army & Meeting The Idol

On May 14, 1943, Ezzard enlisted in the United States Army. He was shipped off for basic training to Fort Clark, Texas, where he was assigned to the Second Cavalry Division, a “colored” division that, after basic training, would be deactivated, with the personnel deployed to North Africa and then to Italy to work in service units, performing garrison and supply duties. During basic training Charles learned to ride horses and trained on firing 45-caliber pistols and M-1 Springfield rifles. All the officers were white save for a few warrant and non-commissioned officers; all the sergeants were Black. As a private, Charles made about $50 a month, most of which he sent back to Cincinnati to his grandmother and great-grandmother. It was a long way from the purses he’d earned fighting every month, and it was a shock to his system. He thought he’d been making peanuts fighting, but it was more than a lot better than fifty bucks a month. That wasn’t all. Sleeping and eating quarters for the Black soldiers in camp were separate and awful. The camp horses were treated better than the Black soldiers. Charles had no intention of using his meager celebrity as a top-rated prizefighter to get special treatment while in the military, and by now he was so disgusted with the fight game that it almost felt good to be anonymous. That summer, however, there came a chance for him to show what he could do in a ring, and he could not pass it up. Word came through the camp one afternoon that they’d be getting a visit from the great Joe Louis, who was touring bases in the area, visiting the troops and doing boxing exhibitions with any of the army boys who wanted to mix it up with him.

Louis was twenty-nine years old and had had his last serious fight a year before— a knockout over the giant Abe Simon in Madison Square Garden. He was an almost mythic figure to the boys on the base, most of whom had come of age listening to him fight on the radio. Charles was reluctant at first to spar with his hero — army rations and the strict exercise regimen had reduced his weight to about 159 pounds, while Louis was around 200. Plus, it was Joe Louis! However, a couple of Charles’ army buddies who knew of his civilian life goaded him into it, and before Charles knew it there he was in the ring with his boyhood idol and the greatest heavyweight champion who had ever breathed. They did three fast rounds, and although Louis never once went all out, he was not the kind of guy who let a kid take liberties. Charles held back too — out of respect and out of the certainty that if he accidentally caught Joe with something hard, Joe would strike back even harder, out of reflex if nothing else. Charles wanted no part of that. 

Still, Charles did well enough in the first round that he felt comfortable enough in the second to try to get away with a little more for the benefit of his buddies at ringside. He bounced a hook off Louis’ head. That was all the provocation Joe needed, and he proceeded to lay into Charles over the second half of the round — never all out, but hard enough to show Charles who was boss. That got Charles back in line, and he made it to the end of the third round on his feet. It had been a rough three rounds but not as bad as he thought it would be. Besides, if he never tied on a pair of gloves again for as long as he lived he’d always be able to say he went three rounds with the great Joe Louis.

In 1944, the same buddy who had convinced Charles to spar with Louis blurted out to their commander that Ezzard was one of the best fighters around, and Charles joined the Fifth Army boxing team in the special services unit. After the allies liberated Rome in June 1944, he shipped out to Italy and spent the rest of his war days boxing in inter-allied tournaments and wooing the daughter of an Italian shipbuilder. He also realized his heart was still in boxing and in boxing only. 

He started training again as soon as he got back home and was again winning fights like it was nothing. He even belted Archie Moore, who was thirty years old and one of the best fighters in the world, around the ring like he owned him. Everything that Charles had been before the Bivins fight he was again: fast, powerful, hungry and indefatigable. The army had improved him. He also got his rematch with Bivins and whipped him in front of a crowd of 11,519, scoring an electrifying fourth-round knockout. For the first time in his career, Jimmy Bivins was counted out.

A Champion At Last

Joe Louis retired before Charles could challenge him for the heavyweight title, which was in fact a relief for Ezzard. He had no desire to fight his idol. But he still wanted the title. That meant he had to face Jersey Joe Walcott, who had once managed to give Joe Louis a hard time. 

Charles opened at about a 13–5 favorite. He was, after all, the younger and the faster one, Yet, Walcott wasn’t worried. “Charles is a good fighter but I know too much for him,” he said a week before the fight. “Youth is a wonderful thing, I admit. But I don’t think Charles will benefit by it. I have too many advantages over him. I am heavier and stronger. I think I hit harder and have a lot more experience.”

Walcott’s confidence would not be justified. Charles was faster and more energetic, and whenever Jersey Joe got close and attacked, Charles stung him with counter-punches. Midway through the seventh round the fighters became entangled in a clinch and Walcott, desperate to gain some advantage, threw Charles to the canvas. This produced the most exciting moment of the fight. Apparently enraged by Walcott’s manhandling, Charles attacked and landed a pair of head-rattling right hands that left Walcott teetering. At that moment Charles had the chance to start his reign as heavyweight champion of the world with a convincing knockout. It would have shut the mouths of all of those who had doubted his authenticity as a heavyweight over the last year, had he stopped Walcott right then and there, a full four rounds quicker than had Louis. But ever the cautious one, he didn’t. Had he pressed, he might have gotten rid of Walcott any time over the next few rounds. Jersey Joe looked exhausted. Instead, Charles continued to lay back, and the fight became a waltz. “The eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, and 12th rounds were horrible to watch. Walcott couldn’t fight and Charles wouldn’t,” was the way one writer described it. Another was even harsher: “The Charles-Walcott bout was billed as a championship affair and as it turned out it was an insult to the No.1 division in boxing.” Joe Louis, who had been the enthusiastic promoter of the fight, was insulted. 

But even those disappointed in Charles’s performance had him clearly winning. Ezzard Charles was finally officially the heavyweight champion. 

Fighting The Idol

A year after his fight with Walcott, while still the current heavyweight champion, Ezzard Charles got to fight his idol. The International Boxing Club was unhappy with the way Charles’s championship reign had been proceeding. He was a bust at the box office. The fighting public was just not buying him as the heavyweight champion, and that was reflected in the gate receipts. Moreover, England refused to recognize Charles as champion, which threatened the IBC’s monopoly on the heavyweight title. England was lobbying to have the winner of the upcoming Bruce Woodcock – Lee Savold fight recognized as the world champion.The solution was clear: Joe Louis would have to come back and fight whoever it was the world saw as heavyweight champ, whether it was Charles or the Savold-Woodcock winner. 

While Louis had announced his plan to “retire,” he was acting like anything but a retired boxer. He had been fighting exhibitions almost nonstop since his “retirement” and in 1949 alone made almost $300,000 from exhibition tours. He denied his comeback one day, then confirmed it the next. The press hung on his every word. He liked playing with them. In reality it was a done deal and all insiders knew it: Louis wasn’t coming back. He was already back. Jim Norris from the IBC and Louis had met to confirm it and Louis’ only requirement was that the big fight, against Charles for the world title, happen in December at Madison Square Garden. Norris would have none of it. The fight would happen at Yankee Stadium, outside, a big ballpark fight, like the old days. They could do a better gate there, he reasoned. After Norris played on his ego, Louis finally relented. 

Charles knew better than to underestimate Joe Louis and trained relentlessly for the fight. Louis also knew better than to underestimate Ezzard Charles, though. He knew that this was a real fight. He’d seen Charles plenty, knew what he was about, what he could do and what he couldn’t do. He told the press, “Charles is a good man, but I figure with my experience I should take him.”

The crowd at Yankee stadium was there for Joe Louis and Joe Louis only. It had long been the custom in world title fights to introduce the challenger to the crowd first, and then the champion. But in another concession to Louis’ stature— and probably also to the fact that he never lost the title in the ring, but rather relinquished it — Charles, recognized as heavyweight champion in forty-seven states, was introduced first, to polite applause. The crowd’s response to Louis’s introduction was passionate and long, and hopeful. 

At the opening bell Charles charged forward. Louis hadn’t even gotten on track yet and there was Charles, in and out, jabbing, throwing lead left hooks and getting away with it while Louis’ punches sailed over his head. “I knew after the third or fourth round I was washed up,” Louis said later. By the sixth round Charles was ripping him apart inside. Even when early in the tenth round Charles got a little careless, and Louis landed the left hook he’d been trying for all night, it did not do the job. In the fourteenth round Charles tortured poor Louis, stinging him so badly that the great one stumbled back and grabbed the top ring rope. It was a pitiable sight and, before it happened, an unthinkable one. As it played out, the most curious thing happened: The crowd let out a roar. Not a moan of anguish and sorrow for its dying hero, but the roar of a fight crowd lets go when one fighter is about to finish another. Among the masses the lust for a knockout supersedes alliances to a particular fighter. They did not get their knockout, but when Louis threw a right after the bell ending the round and it landed, Charles responded with a left of his own and it landed better.

Ezzard Charles was now at the top of the world. Here he was, a poor black boy from the slums of Cincinnati, now the heavyweight champion, and there was nothing anyone could do or say about it. Even better, they’d told him he couldn’t whip Joe Louis in a hundred years, but he’d done it anyway. The Ring magazine even put him on its cover on the December 1950 issue. Underneath his picture it read: “Ezzard Charles, the Heavyweight Champion of the World.” 

Ezzard Charles was optimistic and naive. He thought that this win was all it took for him to be finally accepted. But when Louis was half-carried to the dressing room after their match, all the black folks who had grown up and grown strong listening to Louis on the radio in the early days, when every victory of his in the ring was a victory for them outside of it, were crying for Joe Louis. Joe Louis had spoiled American fight fans by being everything they had ever wanted in a superhero — outside of being white, of course — and in comparison Ezzard Charles looked like a school kid. They hated him for not being Louis, who was everything they wanted in a heavyweight champion. Charles was everything they didn’t want, and he had dared to do the unforgivable: he had beaten their hero. In his own neighborhood in Cincinnati, where he had grown up dirt poor and hungry, the slum kids booed him.

It would take him a proud loss, not a win, to finally gain the American public’s admiration.

Rocky

Joe Louis’ comeback and his hope to become the first heavyweight ever to regain the title came to a painful and crashing end when Docky Marciano stopped him in the eighth round in Madison Square Garden. Born Rocco Francis Marchegiano in 1923, Rocky was raised poor on the northern edge of working-class Brockton, the son of a pair of Italian immigrants. One of six kids, he grew up playing ball and had dreams of being a catcher in the big leagues. He played some football too in school, lifted weights, and banged around an old, homemade heavy bag in his backyard. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade and after failing to make the final cut in a tryout for a minor league baseball team, he settled for good on boxing. After a short amateur career, Marciano turned pro in 1948 and quickly developed a reputation as both a clumsy novice and a terrifying hitter. At just 5’11” and about 188 pounds, he was smaller than many of his opponents but regardless knocked out one after another. Marciano possessed an unheard-of combination of strengths that wasn’t immediately apparent but would become so eventually: he was virtually impossible to hurt; he was indefatigable, due to a near-pathological dedication to training; his punching power, while clumsier than Louis’s, was nevertheless positively authentic; and he had an immense amount of will and self-belief. He could not be discouraged in a prize ring. 

After he whipped Louis, Marciano became the hottest thing going, and soon Charles, who had by the time become a good but exhausted racehorse and had suffered a number of disappointing losses due to being overly cautious, was chasing after him. He had also lost the heavyweight title to Walcott. This was the fight he needed to prove himself again.

While no heavyweight champion had ever regained the crown, on fight night with Marciano Ezzard Charles came closer than any of them to regaining it. For five rounds he looked like a sure bet to do it. The problem was that Charles had to work awfully hard to keep Marciano honest, and five rounds of beating on him, fending him off and ducking his pressure wore him down. Starting in the sixth, Rocky started to get through a little. After the tenth it was a flogging. The question wasn’t around who would win, because it was clear by then that Marciano had worn Charles down like he wore everyone down; there was a reason he’d knocked out his last ten opponents. It was about whether Charles would make it to the final bell. As the eleventh turned into the twelfth and the twelfth into the thirteenth, it became clear that not only was Charles not going to surrender, he would try to win right until the last, even as his face swelled to such a degree that you wondered if he ever would look like himself again. This was not the usual Ezzard Charles — playing it safe or quitting quietly. As the last seconds of the fight were passing, the crowd, still all for Marciano, of course, had to marvel at old Charles, whom many of them had booed over and over throughout his long career for what they saw as cowardice. Even they had to admit he was no coward on this night. In the last rounds some around ringside were heard hollering, “Stay up, stay up Charles!” “No longer can anyone question Ezzard’s courage or determination,” observed one writer in his column the day after. “He was far greater in defeat than he ever had been in victory.”

Even though everyone knew by the end who had officially won — it was Marciano, of course, by scores of 8–6–1, 8–5–2 and 9–5–1 — Charles had won too. “If Ezzard had fought all his fights the way he did against the rock-ribbed, rock-jawed and rock-fisted Rocky, he would have been the heavyweight champion of the world for a much longer time,” observed one writer, who rarely covered Charles favorably. Marciano, who received reporters in his dressing room even before his eye was stitched up, had nothing but praise for Charles. “It was my toughest fight,” Rocky said. “He hit me with some good right hands and hurt me in three or four different rounds.” 

Ezzard Charles was finally accepted. 

How Much Is Enough?

There was immediate talk of a rematch. And this rematch would prove to be Charles’s undoing. “I thought Ez won the last time. He will do it officially this trip,” announced Joe Louis. But Rocky Marciano was undeniably better; he was inexhaustible. And after a promising first round for Charles, Marciano landed a thudding right under the heart in the second; everything went to hell for Ezzard. Marciano whipped him, and the public got to see Ezzard Charles disdained again — Ezzard Charles the Coward, Ezzard Charles who did not want to hurt anybody and did not want anybody to hurt him. When he returned to Cincinnati, there were no homecoming parades, no near-riot at the train station. More important, there was none of the sense of moral victory he’d had after the first Marciano fight. He’d fought his heart out that night, thought he won it, and even the folks back home who thought he’d lost looked at him like he was a god. The fight he had showed! This time there was none of that. A lot of folks had a hard time looking him in the eye — unless they were asking for money. From that moment on, crowds showed at Charles’s fights just to boo him. Soon he retired. And just like that, Ezzard Charles, the fighter who gave Rocky Marciano the hardest time, was done. It was over. Forgotten.

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