Thursday, September 3, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: EZZARD CHARLES, A BOXING LIFE


 

It’s one of the cornerstones of boxing lore: Ezzard Charles was unpopular because it was his bad luck to follow in the footsteps of the mighty Joe Louis. Not only that, but when Charles actually faced a faded Louis at Yankee Stadium, he had the nerve to punch out the great American hero. Never mind that Charles was only doing his job, which was to put on big gloves and hit another guy in the head. It’s just that the press and the public had ordained Louis as a kind of saint. And you can’t beat up saints.

Charles, a Georgia born boy who began fighting for money in 1940 at age 19, was among the first fighters inducted into the newly formed International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, along with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and of course, Louis. Not bad for a guy who heard more boos than any other champion in history.

Wladimir Klitschko isn’t popular in America? Floyd Mayweather gets jeered for being dull? 

That’s pussy stuff.

Charles was booed non-stop from the day he beat Louis in 1950, to his final bout in 1959. Even the kids in Charles’ Cincinnati hometown hated him for beating Louis. 

I used to think these stories were exaggerated, but after reading William Dettloff’s Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life, it seems Charles’ most impressive feat was not that he beat Archie Moore three times, but that he had 121 pro fights and was booed for at least three quarters of them.  

In writing this book, which is superbly researched, Dettloff, for 15 years a senior writer at The Ring, has chosen a formidable project. For one thing, Charles had never been the subject of a biography, so there’s not much of a trail to follow. For another, Dettloff wanted to solve a little mystery: Why didn’t people realize Charles was a genius? Who the hell else goes 3-0 against a prime Moore? 

Of course, there has been a reappraisal of Charles in recent years, perhaps starting with Dettloff’s 2002 Ring article where he cited Charles as the greatest light heavyweight of all time, even though Charles never held a title in that weight class. This was a bold statement, akin to declaring Vanilla Fudge the greatest band of the 1960s. But Dettloff stood his ground, made his arguments (largely, the reasoning went, it was because Ezzy came out best in a roundelay of exceptional light heavies who fought each other in the 1940s) and may have inspired a sort of grass roots reevaluation of Charles. At times, it got a little goofy, such as in 2006 when Charles was named the 11th greatest fighter of all time by the IBRO (International Boxing Research Organization). The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction. In just a few years, Charles had gone from underrated to overrated.  

Dettloff does a convincing job of portraying Charles as a gallant professional who often fought men who outweighed him by 30 pounds, and as a kind of virtuoso who understood the techniques of boxing better than most. And he does this without glossing over the two main knocks against Charles: that he was overly cautious, occasionally letting fights get away from him by being too timid; and that he was  unpredictable, the sort of boxer who sometimes stepped into the ring and simply looked as if he’d forgotten why he was there. Like the venerated trainer Ray Arcel once said, Charles was “like a good race horse who won’t run for you.” 

Charles wasn’t always so diffident. It was understandable that he was wary against heavyweights, because those bigger guys were dangerous. But as a young fighter against middleweights and 175-pounders, he was a terror. He’d been a mild mannered, Bible reading youngster who lived with his grandmother, but as Dettloff writes of those early days, the boxing ring was the one place where Charles “could go bad for a while.” And Dettloff’s book makes the case that Charles, now and then, was a legit bad ass. He  could foul like the dirtiest street fighter, and wasn’t averse to hitting a guy when he was down. His wins were often ultra-violent, where he’d knock his rival to the canvas many times before the contest was mercifully stopped. A right hand thrown at Moore’s head in their third bout landed “with such force that some in press row winced at the noise it created.”

If Charles occasionally flaked out, or turned in a dull performance, well, Dettloff makes it appear as if every other fighter of the time did the same thing. When you were fighting every three weeks, as they often did in those days, you were bound to have some weird nights, like the time Charles was dropped eight times in a bout with Lloyd Marshall, or the time a few months earlier when he was decked seven times by Jimmy Bivins. Charles whipped those guys in rematches, which brings to light the bipolar nature of Charles’ checkered career.

But if Dettloff is a mostly effective believer in Charles’ greatness, he’s savvy enough to know that Charles’ muted personality isn’t enough for a full length book. He smartly weaves in anecdotes about other fighters, glorious tidbits about heavyweight contender Elmer Ray wrestling alligators in carnivals, and Jersey Joe Walcott benefiting from his shady connections. The book is also well-stocked with side characters, such as Charles’ main mouthpiece, Jake Mintz, a colorful little prick who never met a word in the English language he couldn’t maul. Charles worked at a time when gangsters and fight fixers lurked at every corner, and ring deaths were just part of the business. The political side of boxing was even more venal than it is now, so it’s no wonder Charles just kept his head down and went about his job of fighting. He was no match for the world he lived in and he knew it. 

In several cases, Dettloff presents fights that Charles should’ve won but for one reason or another came up short. There were ringside judges who voted against Charles when he seemed to be a clear winner, and referees who apparently had something against Charles. Even former champ Jack Dempsey, who refereed a bout between Charles and Rex Layne, helped screw Charles out of a win by scoring seven rounds even! Yet, time and again, the root cause of these lousy decisions was Charles’ lack of aggression. Maybe he was brilliant, maybe he was undervalued, but he would still appear to be, in the final accounting, erratic.

The book isn’t just the raving of an advocate; it’s also a detailed recounting of Charles’ boxing career, the endless ups and downs he endured, and how he was constantly trying to make up for blown opportunities, all for an American public that, as Dettloff writes, didn’t know “there was more than one way to be great.”

All boxing stories have familiar plot points, and this one is no exception, from Charles’ poor upbringing in Lawrenceville Georgia, “where a young black boy couldn’t look a white man in the eye without permission,” to his championship years, where he lived large for a while. Charles occasionally lost his cool and growled at pressmen, but this was reasonable since most articles about him included the words “unimpressive” and “disappointing”. Then came the downfall, and Charles’ long decline. Indeed, it was a boxing life: poor, rich, poor, dead.

Dettloff has a meat and potatoes style, but can be elegant when he wants to be. He writes of Sam Baroudi, nearly dead from Charles’ blows and being carted out of Chicago Stadium, “splitting the crowd and then disappearing into a dark hallway like a broken raft floating out to sea.” Of Rocky Marciano’s prolonged beating of Charles in their second bout: “Rocky was like a novice farmhand struggling through slaughtering a prize hog.”

Charles remains a puzzle. As thoughtful as this biography is, he’s as unknown to us as ever. Charles’ personal life, which ended with him dying at 51 of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, may have been harder to reconstruct than his ring career because info was scarce. Yet, the author does a lot with a little, and there’s never a sense that anything is being skimmed over. We learn just enough about Charles’ family life, his occasional womanizing, his sketchy pals at the jazz clubs, to get the picture. Not surprisingly, it’s the dramatic build up and aftermath of the Charles-Louis bout that serves as the book’s centerpiece. Louis had been Charles’ hero at one time, then his rival, and ultimately, a co-star in what felt like a “long soap opera”, even helping to prop up Charles’ failing body at a fund-raising tribute in 1968.

As for why Charles didn’t get his due for beating Moore three times, here’s my own theory: Those bouts took place in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Had they been in New York, there would’ve been more noise around them. New York was the biggest media horn in those days. Also, they weren’t title bouts, which means they weren’t destined for the history books. Finally, at the time Moore fought Charles, he’d already lost to Jimmy Bivins, Charlie Burley, and others; he wasn’t yet the media sensation he’d become in the 1950s, so beating him may not have been viewed as a major event. Yet, it’s interesting that in the only “authorized” biography of Moore, a 1991 book by Marilyn G. Douroux, Charles is scarcely mentioned. For Moore, Charles was like un ugly high school picture he didn’t want anyone to see.

That’s my two cents. I apologize for adding them to this review of Bill Dettloff’s highly readable book.

 
- Don Stradley



1 comment: