Book review: ‘Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life’
William Dettloff calls Ezzard Charles “one of the best prizefighters who ever lived.” “Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life” (McFarland & Company) supports that thesis.
Charles was born in Georgia in 1921, raised in Cincinnati by his maternal grandmother and turned pro for a $5 purse on March 12, 1940. Over the course of 19 years, he amassed a ring record of 95-25-1 (52 knockouts). He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1966, suffered through the inevitable physical horrors that followed and died at age 53.
How good was Charles?
He began his career as a middleweight and fought his way to the heavyweight championship of the world. He was undefeated against Archie Moore (3-0), Joey Maxim (5-0) and Charley Burley (2-0); had winning records against Jimmy Bivins (4-1) and Lloyd Marshall (2-1); and won three of seven bouts against Joe Louis (1-0), Jersey Joe Walcott (2-2) and Rocky Marciano (0-2). In his last 29 fights, he suffered 17 losses and was knocked out five times. Remove those fights from his record and Charles’s ledger is more in keeping with the fighter he was.
Charles fought in an era when baseball and boxing were America’s two national sports. “Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson,” Dettloff writes, “were as famous as any movie stars. Every fighter who held a world title was a household name.”
But Charles never achieved the acclaim that his more heralded contemporaries enjoyed.
“Some guys had the gift of gab or a thunderous punch or a great back story,” Dettloff recounts. “Some had unusual charisma or presence. Charles had none of these. He wasn’t a palooka. He didn’t talk in broken or mangled English. He didn’t get a big push from the mob. He’d never done any jail time. He didn’t get into fistfights outside the ring or get caught in pictures with lily-white prostitutes. … Charles was never anyone’s hero. Not the way he should have been. American sports fans were looking for a hero who was as good as (Joe) Louis in the same exact way. It never occurred to them that there was more than one way to be great.”
Charles’ problem – or one of them, anyway – was that he succeeded Louis as heavyweight champion of the world.
Louis had been Charles’ boyhood idol. He’d listened to the Brown Bomber’s fights on the radio and kept a scrapbook with newspaper clippings that detailed Louis’ ring conquests.
In 1949, after Louis temporarily retired, Charles decisioned Jersey Joe Walcott to claim the vacant heavyweight throne. The following year, he successfully defended his championship against Louis. That left him with a predicament similar to the one that Larry Holmes faced when he followed Muhammad Ali.
“I’m a little disappointed,” Charles said of his situation. “I thought that, after I whipped Joe Louis, the fans would accept me as a true heavyweight champion. But now I know they want a bigger, different type champ. Joe made those quick knockouts popular. It’s a bit tough on the guy that follows him.”
In a similar vein, Rocky Marciano observed, “I was at ringside the night Ezzard defeated Joe Louis. It was a real good fight. But as I was leaving, all the people seemed to be talking about Joe. In the papers the next day, the same thing. Everybody seemed to be crying for the loser. Nobody gave any credit to Ezzard. People just didn’t want to see Louis lose. It wasn’t Ezzard’s fault. He has simply come along in a time in history when a blood-hungry public couldn’t appreciate him.”
Dettloff’s book has strengths and flaws. Clearly, he thoroughly researched his subject. But there are some nagging factual errors, such as saying that Charles died in 1973 (the actual date of death was May 28, 1975).
Also, there are times when Dettloff writes extremely well about what it meant to be a fighter in Charles’ day: “Poor boys from the worst ghettos could turn themselves into something in the fight game. If they were any good, they’d hear a crowd cheer for them; they’d get a few dames that were hotter and looser than what they’d get otherwise; and maybe they’d get their name in the paper once or twice. Plus they’d get to know the singular joy of cracking a man on the jaw with a perfect left hook. They’d find out how it felt to dominate another man, to make him quit. It could make a poor nothing from the neighborhood a god for a few minutes.”
Similarly, in one of the book’s better passages, Dettloff describes “that strange world that all fighters come to know eventually. Where you can see the ringsiders cheering but can’t hear them; when you can see the referee’s face up close to yours, but it’s behind a blanket of fog, and you can tell he’s saying something but don’t understand the language.”
But “Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life” doesn’t have the nuanced texture of Russell Sullivan’s masterful biography of Rocky Marciano or Michael Isenberg’s seminal work on John L. Sullivan. After a while, the fight reports become repetitive. And with some notable exceptions (such as Charles vs. Joe Louis and the two Marciano-Charles encounters), Dettloff is prone to recounting major bouts with no more drama than less important ones.
That said, “Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life” makes a compelling case for its subject’s ring greatness. Although never given the opportunity to fight for the 175-pound world title, Charles was unquestionably one of the greatest light heavyweights of all time.
“The heavyweight version of Charles,” Dettloff sums up, “would get a lot of good work done. But on the best day of his life, he was no more a heavyweight than Ray Robinson. He never would be as good there as he was at light heavy and below.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His next book (“A Hurting Sport: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing”) will be published later this year by the University of Arkansas Press.