It is high time Gods of War added its first pugilist, and to start with we will look at one of boxing's most skilled and yet under-appreciated champions, the Cincinnati Cobra.
Ezzard Mack Charles was born July 7, 1921 in Georgia, but his family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio while he was still young. There he took up boxing and by the time Charles was a teenager he was excelling, winning bouts as an amateur Featherweight. He won several local titles and the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament of champions, finishing his amateur career while still in high school with a 42-0 record.
Even at this early point in his career it was clear that the Charles was a different breed of fighter. He was blessed with the physical traits looked for in a top fighting prospect, but it was also obvious that Charles had the makings of a technical master. He had very accurate punches that were set up well with footwork, angles and feinting. He would blossom into one of the mid-1900s true sweet scientists. His speed and accuracy would earn him the nickname "the Cincinnati Cobra".
Charles, who made his professional debut in March of 1940, was no different. Charles won his first pro fight by knocking out Melody Johnson, a local fighter, in the fourth round.
The 1940's would be a decade of deep talent in boxing, and young prospects would be tossed to the wolves very quickly. In just his third pro fight Charles defeated Remo Fernandez, a veteran of over 90 fights, and then later that year Charles, just 19-years-old at the time, would lose a decision to former Middleweight champion Ken Overlin, who had over 100 career wins at the the time. Charles would get a rematch over a year later and fight Overlin to a draw.
Charles continued to develop his skills and then in 1942 he faced his toughest test yet. Charley Burley was the World Colored Middleweight Champion and he was set to defend his title against Ken Overlin in Forbes Field. When Overlin was unable to fight, Charles was called up for a non-title fight.
Burley was a fearsome fighter with a reputation for mauling larger fighters, and had been avoided by many elite boxers. But the rising young Charles put on a masterful performance against Burley, knocking him down in the third then nearly knocking him out in the final round. The crowd in Burley's home town of Pittsburgh is reported to have given Charles a large ovation for his performance.
Burley fought again less than a month later, beating his opponent, a crafty boxer similar to Charles, on points. He then declared that he was in shape and wanted to face Charles again, and that he wouldn't be just hunting for the knock out this time. But again it was Charles who had his hand raised when the two met again, having won seven out of the ten rounds.
At this point Ezzard Charles was considered the top contender at Middleweight, but was unable to secure a title shot. Charles was facing difficulties making the weight cut to 160 pounds, and would not be able to stay in the division much longer. The current Middleweight Champion, Tony Zale, simply waited Charles out and, frustrated, Charles moved up to Light Heavyweight in 1942.
Far from getting off to an easy start at the weight Charles faced three of Ohio's best Light Heavyweights in his first four months in the weight class. The last was a fellow up-and-coming great, Joey Maxim. A fellow Ohioan, Maxim would go on to the be the only man to stop "Sugar" Ray Robinson. Charles beat Maxim by decision, and the two re-matched two months later. This time Maxim made a fight of it and was ahead after five rounds, but Charles took firm control of the fight in the second half and took another decision.
Charles would then drop a decision to Jimmy Bivins, a future Light Heavyweight Champion and Heavyweight contender. Then Charles would lose again, this time to Lloyd Marshall, another future contender. Marshall beat Charles for eight rounds, and then knocked him out. Charles' camp would later claim that their fighter took the fight while suffering a hip injury.
The Cobra would fight twice in 1944 before joining the military during World War II. While serving it was rumored that he crossed paths with Billy Conn, a multiple belt holder in the Light Heavyweight division who had vacated his titles to fight Joe Louis at Heavyweight and then serve in the military. The story goes that the two strapped on gloves at some point and Charles flattened Conn, but Charles would dodge questions about the supposed bout in a gentlemanly manner when asked.
Ezzard returned to boxing in 1946 as a Light Heavyweight and won five straight matches. He then would face Archie Moore, a future Light Heavyweight champion and all time great fighter. Charles would be victorious and then get a rematch with Lloyd Marshall.
This time around Ezzard would get dropped in the first round with a body shot, but come back to knock Marshall out in the sixth round.
It is difficult to see the details in this video, but it can be made out that Charles was steadily improving his already impressive skill set. Those skills would allow Charles to continue on the run through the Light Heavyweight division he had started before the war. He would rack up win after win in the division over just about every notable fighter the era had to offer, including rematches with Jimmy Bivins, Archie Moore, and another knockout win over Marshall.
But despite only losing once after the war at Light Heavyweight, a split decision that most agreed went the wrong way, he was never able to get a title shot. So it was in 1949, after beating Joey Maxim for a third time, Charles fought Jersey Joe Walcott for the National Boxing Association World Heavyweight title, left vacant by the retiring Joe Louis, in Comiskey Park, Chicago.
Now a Heavyweight Champion, Charles defended his title against Pat Valentino, and then Freddie Beshore. It was then that living legend Joe Louis returned from retirement to attempt to reclaim the belt he had vacated. A prestigious knockout artist, Louis had been the reigning champion in the Heavyweight division from 1937 to 1948 before retiring and hadn't lost since his famous 1936 match with Max Schmeling.
Louis was a beloved figure in boxing, and was the fan favorite heading into the bout. But when they met in the ring the smaller Charles boxed circles around the aging power puncher.
Charles outclassed Louis, using his feints and slips to totally negated Louis' famous power, and Charles landed counter punch after counter punch. While the Cincinnati Cobra had clearly won the match and even stunned Lewis on a few occasions, he never really had the former Champion in real danger of being knockout.
The outrage was immense. Joe Louis was a transcendent figure in the sport of boxing, one of the greatest Heavyweight champions the sport had ever seen. The man had stood up to Hitler's claim that his Aryan boxers could best anyone, and he had just been out pointed by a former Middleweight. The technical mastery Charles had shown over the sweet science flew over the heads of most fans, and he became reviled during his time as Heavyweight Champion.
Dismissed as a place holder champion and a blown up Light Heavyweight, Charles quietly defended his belt. He cleanly picked apart his challengers, including rematches with Joey Maxim and Jersey Joe Walcott.
Ezzard Charles vs Joey Maxim
Ezzard Charles vs. Jersey Joe Walcott II
But even then through 1950 Ezzard remained unpopular. Many blamed his fighting style, which had slowed somewhat from his earlier days. There are some that assert that Charles had become hesitant in the ring since a match in 1948, where the Ohioan knocked out a man only to have him later die from the injuries Charles had inflicted on him. The incident is said to have affected the Champion deeply and it has been argued that Charles' aggressiveness in the ring was never quite the same afterwards.
Then in 1951, Charles fought Walcott for the third time in three years and this time Walcott was able to land a perfect uppercut counter for the knockout and wrest Charles' belt away. He became the oldest fighter to win a Heavyweight Championship at the time.
Charles spent the next three years trying, and failing, to regain his lost title. Then in 1954, after a knock out win over Bob Satterfield, Charles was given one more shot at the title. But it was not Jersey Joe awaiting Ezzard Charles for the fifth time, it was the 45-0 new champion, Rocky Marciano who had knocked Walcott out.
At this point Charles was a 33 year old former champion, with an 83-10-1 record, who was entering the downside of his career. While only two years younger than the Ohioan, Marciano was in the midst of his run of dominance and had half as many career fights.
But when they met for the first time, it resulted Marciano's most hard fought victory in his spotless career. Charles used all of his famed skill to take up to 6 rounds from Marciano on one scorecard, five on the others, but it wasn't enough as Marciano's hand was raised.
Sadly this fight was not filmed in its entirety, but here is a highlight reel made of what footage we do have.
Rocky Marciano vs Ezzard Charles I Highlights (via IronTapeProductions)
A rematch was scheduled, and this time it was almost Marciano's undoing. While The Rock knocked Charles down in the second round, Charles opened a cut on Marciano's nose that was in real danger of stopping the fight. Marciano came out urgently in the eighth round and knocked Charles out. Ring Magazine declared the bout the Fight of the Year in 1954.
This was the Cobra's last hurrah. From the second fight with Marciano to his retirement in 1959 he went 10-13, finishing his career at 93-25-1. After retiring Charles developed lateral sclerosis, which paralyzed him from the waist down. He passed away May 27, 1975 in Chicago.
Ezzard Charles was under appreciated in his own day because of the stigma attached to him from the Joe Louis fight, but history has recognized his technical brilliance. Many rank Charles as the best Light Heavyweight of all-time because, despite never winning a title at that weight. He beat all of the great Light Heavyweights of his time, many of them more than once. From a Middleweight contender champions avoided, to standing against two of the greatest Heavyweights in the history of the sport, Ezzard Charles was brilliant in defeat as well as victory, and is a welcome member to the Pantheon of the Gods of War.