“How about letting him put a couple of good belts over on you in this heat – and opening him up that way? When he’ll come to follow up – he’ll probably be neglecting to keep that chin guarded, for once – and that’s when you nail him.”
* * * *
As he sat on his stool awaiting the eighth round on January 13, 1948, at the Cleveland Arena, Ezzard Charles took in the words. Across from him, in the other corner, was Archie Moore, a man who would one day leave the ring with more knockouts than any fighter that ever lived. It was dangerous poker, trying to reel in “The Mongoose,” but Charles was slightly on edge. His ire had been raised at the close of the seventh round. Moore, he felt, had intentionally hit him after the bell.
The stakes were high, or so the principals hoped, with the winner of the match promised a title shot by the National Boxing Association. No one knew how realistic that idea was since champion Gus Lesnevich had already turned down a number of overtures to put his crown on the line against either man.
Charles and Moore had met twice before in 10-rounders, with the first occasion coming on May 20, 1946, in Pittsburgh. Moore had gone into the bout as the #1 contender, though it was Charles that had the better of the action, earning a decisive decision victory to take over the top spot. When they met a year later, on May 5, 1947, in Charles’ hometown of Cincinnati, it was a tighter affair, though Charles held onto his ranking after dropping Moore with a body shot in the 8th round to gain a majority nod on the cards.
Image courtesy of Pugilistica.com
Lesnevich had been ringside for the second meeting and said after the contest that he would fight Charles, or Moore, or anyone else his manager picked. But when pressed about a sizable offer said to be on the table from Cincinnati promoters Sam and Benny Becker to face Charles, Lesnevich declined further comment.
The champion had last defended his title in February of 1947, stopping Billy Fox in 10 rounds. Hyped up on the basis of a gaudy albeit suspect undefeated record, and managed by the notorious Blinky Palermo, Fox had entered as a favorite, only to lose almost every round. There had been no call for a second meeting, but when Fox “stopped” Jake Lamotta over four infamous rounds at Madison Square Garden in November, Lesnevich’s manager, Joe Vella, skipped over Charles and Moore, putting pen to paper on a rematch with Fox.
In Cleveland, promoter Larry Atkins was incensed and appealed to the National Boxing Association to block the Fox-Lesnevich rematch. Atkins, who was backing the Charles-Moore bout, had believed the winner of his promotion would have first crack at Lesnevich. Upon word of the Fox deal, he immediately sent off an angry wire to Vella: “It’s high time for somebody to speak out loud, and I intend to do just that in this bit of skullduggery that you are parties to.”
Atkins announced that unless Lesnevich agreed beforehand to defend the title against the winner of Charles vs Moore, the Cleveland Boxing Commission would recognize the match as a title affair. In response to Atkins’ appeals, N.B.A. Chairman Fred Saddy stated that he saw no reason to strip Lesnevich, and that it would be “ridiculous” to sanction Charles-Moore for the championship. Saddy did say, however, that the organization would look into the matter at their next meeting.
Unsatisfied by the N.B.A.’s stance, Atkins placed an advertisement in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer stating that “I am certain that the winner of this bout will be recognized internationally as the only champion in due time because I am positive that Gus Lesnevich will NEVER fight either CHARLES or MOORE! Events will prove my contention.”
While the sanctioning bodies, promoters, and managers bickered, Charles and Moore readied themselves for battle. A 5 to 2 underdog, Moore had been undefeated since his last setback against Charles and was said to be better prepared than he had been for the first two meetings. According to the fighter’s manager Charlie Johnston, Moore had been over-confident, and hadn’t trained “as he should have.” To further bolster his fighter’s credentials, Johnston reported that Moore had decked top heavyweight contender Elmer “Violent” Ray – the last man to gain a victory over Charles – during a recent sparring session.
The 26-year-old Charles had been on a steady roll since returning from military service after the Second World War. In 22 contests since resuming his career, the loss to Ray, a controversial split decision, had been his only defeat. Charles was a quick, powerful fighter, with a crowd pleasing style, and the instinct to go for blood when the opportunity presented. His last two appearances in Cleveland— knockouts of Fitzie Fitzpatrick and hometown star Jimmy Bivins—had been scorching affairs with Charles taking the fight to both sluggers.
The knockout of Bivins at the Cleveland Arena underscored how daring a fighter Charles was at the time. Giving away 13 ¾ pounds to the man most fight aficionados believed was the greatest threat to Joe Louis, Charles went at Bivins with abandon from the opening bell. For his trouble, Charles was shook badly in the second and stunned again early in the third, but just when Bivins had seemingly taken control, Charles flattened the bigger man for the count with a sizzling right hand.
Knocking out Moore, however, was a different proposition. At age 31, the veteran of just over 100 fights, he was already as cagey as ever but still close to his physical prime; with a bobbing, chin-tucked, back-foot style, he was able to maintain an elusive target while pressing forward, looking to unleash hurtful shots.
Image courtesy of Boxrec.com
Moore, like Charles, had fought in Cleveland before, but it had been a few years since the locals had last seen him. Based out of California at this stage of his career, he was a boxing nomad, seeking opportunities on the road while hoping to force his way into a title shot. He had been waiting for years, only to slip behind Charles in the pecking order. Now he had another chance to claim his spot and hopefully force Lesnevich’s hand.
A crowd of 8,334 customers turned up at the Arena—not quite the 10,000 that Atkins had hoped, but still a very good crowd for a match-up of out-of-towners. With two big hitters of differing approaches it was a fast-paced but tactical battle with Charles bringing pressure, though always wary of falling into one of Moore’s traps.
The first two rounds went to Charles on the strength of several right hands, though he was shaken in the second by a right to the ear. A determined body puncher, Charles was penalized in the third and fourth rounds by Referee Jackie Davis for straying low with his left, though Moore, busier than he had been early in the bout, opened up with his hook and may have won the frames anyway.
Charles turned it up a notch in the fifth, banging away with both hands and putting Moore on the defensive. It was a dangerous game—to attack a potent counter-puncher—but Charles maintained the initiative in the sixth and had his foe briefly in trouble in the seventh, before Moore fiercely cracked back with a buzzing counter late in the round. Fueling the growing intensity of the contest, Moore landed a shot after the bell, angering Charles and setting the stage for an extraordinary finish.
Had the circumstances been different, had the world title really been at stake, had television cameras been present, had writers from New York and beyond been ringside, what happened next would surely have found a place among boxing’s most memorable moments. Ezzard Charles took another look across the ring at Archie Moore; would he set the most daring of traps, and step into harm’s way and let Moore catch him?
Charles pondered his corner’s brazen plan for a moment, before nodding. Yes, he would do it.
Two minutes of the eighth round had gone by when Moore found the mark. It was a good enough shot to bloody Charles’ mouth, and a follow-up left hook smashed into the Cincinnati man’s ear, with a right hand coming in hard for good measure. Backing into the ropes, Charles seemed to wobble from the force of the blow. As the crowd rose, Moore charged in, expecting to fire home a finishing salvo. With the trap set perfectly, Charles steadied himself and viciously struck home a left hook followed by a sweeping right hand that smashed into the unsuspecting Moore’s jaw, the force of the blow sending his mouth-piece flying. Moore tumbled to his knees before toppling flat on his back. He tried to rise but was counted out as he groped hopelessly for the bottom rope. It was a good twenty seconds more before he was up and, and even then it was only with the help of his corner.
There was much talk in Cleveland over what had transpired. As was his nature, Charles, merely smiled, and acknowledged that he had never seen Moore looking so sharp, and that he needed to be on his game to beat him. Atkins was naturally delighted, as was Charles’ manager, Jake Mintz, who having professed his fighter as the greatest puncher in the world, excitedly declared, “Bring on Gus Lesnevich! Bring on Joe Louis!”
But with Lesnevich booked to face Fox once more, and Louis in talks for a rematch with Jersey Joe Walcott, the title picture wasn’t a welcoming site. Looking to stay busy, Charles accepted a fight in Chicago with a talented 20-year-old from Akron named Sam Baroudi on February 20, 1948. The youngster was coming off a two-round destruction of hard hitting Bob Satterfield the previous month, and the match was highly anticipated among Windy City boxing fans.
Charles had fought with his usual menace; he went hard to the body, drawing warnings for straying low on occasion, and showed no mercy in the late stages when his opponent started to fade. Knocked out in the tenth round, Baroudi had convulsed on the canvas before being taken on a stretcher to his dressing room. In his adjoining quarters, Charles was seen pacing back and forth, his voice trembling in the wake of his opponent’s fate. A few hours later, Baroudi would be dead from a brain hemorrhage.
A soft-spoken, thoughtful man outside the ring, Charles couldn’t wrap his head around what had happened. According to his trainer Jimmie Brown, he wanted to quit boxing and return to his old trade as a mechanic. But he continued fighting after being urged to do so by Baroudi’s father.
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The clamor for a chance at the light-heavyweight crown continued, with Mintz informing Lesnevich’s management that Charles would accept a championship fight “any place,” “anytime,” and with “any terms.” But the offer went ignored. Instead, Lesnevich signed to meet Freddie Mills for a summer bout in London. After Mills won, hopes were further dashed when the Englishman’s manager Ted Broadribb announced the new champion was not interested in facing Charles.
By early 1949, talks had turned to a heavyweight title challenge, with rumors of a summer match-up against champion Joe Louis. But those hopes were scuttled when Louis announced his retirement on March 1, leaving the crown vacant. Instead, Charles faced off against Jersey Joe Walcott for the N.B.A. version title(New York refused to sanction the bout as a championship fight, arguing that Charles and Walcott were only 2 of numerous contenders) in June, winning a clear-cut unanimous decision.
The following year, he gained universal acceptance as champion when he outclassed Louis, who had returned to the ring due to financial woes. Although he made a total of 8 successful defenses (NBA included), there was something missing though from his performances. Many believed he could never forget Sam Baroudi. Charles was still an outstanding boxer, but the fiery daredevil that terrorized the light heavyweight ranks was gone, replaced by a cagey sort of fighter, one seemingly content to win on points.
He was paid handsomely for his title defenses, but fans didn’t want a stylist for a heavyweight champion; they wanted drama and violence, the sort Charles used to bring. It is a strange juxtaposition, the two sides of Ezzard Charles: the man who courted danger from Moore, and the later incarnation, a boxer only looking to hit hard enough to keep opponents away.
He lost the crown to Walcott in 1951, and failed to gain it back in three tries, including two valiant attempts against Rocky Marciano when he was clearly past his best. Charles eventually retired in 1959, broke, sadly seen more as an enigma for what he never became than for the remarkable fighter he once was.
He found contentment for a while after his career was over. He was happily married with three children and he was soon out of debt. But in early 1966, he fell ill against an impossible foe. His body, starting with his legs and moving progressively upwards, slowly stopped responding, his muscles degenerating under the ravaging effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
In November of 1968, a benefit dinner was arranged at a Chicago hotel for the ailing fighter. It was attended by a number of prominent boxers and an overflow crowd of fans. At the speaker’s table, Archie Moore and Rocky Marciano sat alongside Charles, who was in a wheelchair by that stage. Marciano called his former foes the “odd couple” while Moore and Charles shared jokes and smiled for photographers.
With Moore living a good distance away in California, it had likely been awhile since they had met. As Marciano had hinted, they couldn’t have been more different. Moore, the loquacious prankster, and Charles, always quiet and reserved, but they shared a common bond as champions who had earned their crowns the hard way.
After his final loss to Charles, Moore had stuck around the light-heavyweight division, racking up wins while patiently waiting for a chance that sometimes seemed like it would never come. Finally, in December of 1952, his perseverance was rewarded when he wrested the crown from Joey Maxim at the Arena in St. Louis. Fighting well into his forties, he would hang on to the title for an astonishing 8 years.
One wonders what Charles and Moore may have talked about in those moments. As was his nature, Charles probably wouldn’t have felt right reminding his old rival about who had held the upper hand. But perhaps Moore, to lift his old foe’s spirits—or maybe because he was still a little sore—brought up the old days and mentioned that January night in Cleveland, when “The Cobra” caught “The Mongoose.”
In time, Charles would lose the ability to speak and would have to rely on others for his basic needs. He communicated by blinking his eyes, and though life was hard, his smile still beamed from time to time. His wife quit her job to provide around-the-clock care until Charles entered the Veterans Administration hospital in Chicago for palliative care in 1974.
Ezzard Charles died in his sleep on May 27, 1975. He was 53.