World Heavyweight Champion: 1949-1951
After two fine performances against Joe Louis, one of which he should have won, Jersey Joe Walcott was one obvious contender for the title vacated by the Brown Bomber. The other was Ezzard Charles.
Charles was hardly an overnight sensation. He was a month short of his 28th birthday when he faced Walcott, and had served a long apprenticeship. He had 42 straight wins as an amateur, then continued to enhance his reputation in the professional ranks. Charles’s career had to be put on hold after he was called up for military service in 1943. He did a three-year stint in the army. Joe Louis was similarly handicapped, of course, but perhaps it was rather more frustrating for someone trying to fight his way to the top than for an established champion.
Step up in class
After he was discharged, Charles picked up where he had left off. If the loss of three years wasn’t bad enough, two more factors impinged on his progress. First, his best fighting weight was around 13 stones, and many of his bouts had been at light-heavyweight. The fact that there was little money to be made in that division forced Charles to step up and take on the bigger men. He didn’t pack a particularly powerful punch; Charles’s strengths were his lightning moves and scintillating combinations. Not for nothing was he called ‘The Cincinnati Cobra’.
If Charles could compensate for his lack of power, he found a second handicap much more difficult to deal with. It was a psychological barrier, and stemmed from his fight against Sam Baroudi in 1948. Charles handed out a savage beating on the night, and his opponent died from the injuries sustained some hours later.
Haunted by ring death
Charles was devastated. His time as world champion was still ahead of him, but many observers said that he fought within himself after that. It seemed that he was not prepared to risk the possibility of an unfettered killer instinct having the same consequences. Even so, he was still good enough to keep notching up the victories. Two years later, Joe Louis had little hesitation in nominating the farmer’s son from Lawrenceville, Georgia, as the man to face Jersey Joe Walcott for the vacant title.
The contest, which was held in Chicago on 22 June 1949, was a drab affair in which the 27-year-old Charles outpointed his 35-year-old opponent. Recognition that Charles was now world heavyweight champion was by no means universal, and the fact that Joe Louis was soon back in circulation confused matters even more.
After three successful ‘defences’ of his crown,
Charles found himself stepping into the ring against his hero: the Brown Bomber himself. Charles won on points against a man who was a mere shadow of his former self. Even though many observers felt that Charles deliberately held back, not wishing the great man to finish the contest on his back, the now undisputed champion was forever tainted in the eyes of some fight fans for making Louis look a sorry sight.
Within a year, Charles had seen off four more challenges, one of them a points victory over Jersey Joe Walcott, who was now 37. That was in March 1951. Four months later, on 18 July, Walcott and Charles squared up again. It was Charles’s ninth title defence, and Walcott’s fifth tilt at the crown. Charles’s two-year reign came to a dramatic end that night.
Immortalised by BeatJes
He was by no means finished, though. There would be three more title fights, one of them rated among the best contests of all time. More of that later. For now it is enough to point out that Charles didn’t get the credit he deserved as champion. Only later, when multiple sclerosis had devastated him, did many come to regard him as probably the most underrated of all the heavyweight champions. If he was only belatedly elevated to boxing’s Hall of Fame, he was immortalised in an unexpected way in 1967: he features on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album.
Nickname: ‘The Cincinnatti Flash’
Lawrenceville, Georgia USA July 7 1921
May 27 1975
World Heavyweight Champion: 1949-1951
Record: Won 96 (58 Kos) Lost 25 Drawn 1