Bite of the
Cincinnati Cobra: Meet the prime time Ezzard Charles
By Mike Casey
To all but true boxing fans and connoisseurs, he was the moderate
heavyweight champion who beat a much adored legend and came heroically close to
You have to wonder if Ezzard Mack Charles, the great Cincinnati
Cobra, ever grew sick of people asking him about his fights with Joe Louis and
Rocky Marciano. Tap Ezzard’s name into your search engine and the names of Louis
and Marciano will invariably pop up just as often.
Charles was a slick and skilful heavyweight when he beat the
ageing Louis in 1950, and in the final stages of his dying greatness when he ran
Rocky to the wire in the first meeting at Yankee Stadium in 1954.
But the greatest Ezzard Charles, the lithe and dangerous fighting
machine that could do it all, wasn’t even a heavyweight. Nothing ever seemed to
fit as comfortably as it should have done with Ezzard, as bad luck and untimely
circumstances combined to fashion a fractured and frequently misunderstood
career. The young Cobra beat many an illustrious opponent with his precise and
educated punching, yet Lady Luck seemed to bite him back just as often.
The record book can be as cold and unfeeling as a computer in
telling us the story of a man’s life, offering up the bare details and perhaps
the occasional, explanatory asterisk. In the case of Charles, numerous asterisks
and explanations are required. The standard bio of Ezzard continues to be a
perfect example of a square peg being jammed into a round hole: his date of
birth, his birthplace, a quick skip through his amateur career and then a
straight jump into his reign as a low key heavyweight champion. You won’t find
as much as a cursory nod to the greatest years Charles ever had as an
exceptional middleweight who blossomed into one of the greatest
light-heavyweights ever seen.
For the real Ezzard Charles was the biggest nugget in a goldmine
of outstanding talent in the early to late forties.
Let us take a little time to ponder the tremendous depth in
quality of the light-heavyweight and middleweight divisions when Ezzard was at
Swimming in the same dangerous ocean were the likes of Charley
Burley, Lloyd Marshall, Joey Maxim, Elmer ‘Violent’ Ray, Holman Williams,
Leonard Morrow, Nate Bolden, Oakland Billy Smith and Curtis ‘Hatchet Man’
It seems almost trite to talk about the sometimes thin divisions
of class between such craftsmen of the highest level. Each was a master of his
trade because he had to be. This was the era of eight official weight divisions,
the era in which the now devalued title of ‘world champion’ was accorded to one
The fighters of Ezzard Charles’ time learned their business
thoroughly because they had to fight often against consistently tough
opposition, often engaging in series of fights against each other. Charley
Burley, for example, clashed seven times with Holman Williams, fought a trilogy
with the bruising Fritzie Zivic and also crossed swords with Jimmy Bivins, Lloyd
Marshall and Bert Lytell.
Holman Williams was a story all by himself, notching 147 wins in
189 fights against the cream of the crop. Clever, cunning and skilful, Holman
was one of those forever kind of fighters who probably looked like a grizzled
old veteran when he came out of the womb.
Sprinkled on his long record are the names of Jake La Motta,
Marcel Cerdan, Archie Moore, Bob Satterfield and Jack Chase.
Perennial contenders like Williams scrapped and scrambled for
years in their attempts to climb to the top of the pile. For those who made it,
there was still no guarantee of ultimate glory, especially for black fighters.
Williams never got a title shot. Nor did Lloyd Marshall or Elmer Ray. Charley
Burley retired without ever getting the chance to prove himself on the biggest
stage. Even the great Sugar Ray Robinson considered Burley to be too risky a
Archie Moore finally bagged a world title, but only after piling
up more than 160 fights and getting messed around for years by the powers that
As a middleweight, Ezzard Charles couldn’t get a shot at champion
Tony Zale, and was similarly frozen out by Gus Lesnevich in the
Consider what the Cincinnati Cobra achieved in the minefield of
talent that we have examined. He scored three victories apiece over Archie
Moore, Lloyd Marshall and Jimmy Bivins. He twice whipped the great and mystic
Charley Burley in successive fights and also did the double over Joey Maxim and
Oakland Billy Smith. To those names, you can add the stellar trio of Teddy
Yarosz, Anton Christoforidis and the erratic but hugely dangerous Elmer
This is not to decry the achievements of Ezzard Charles in the
dreadnought division. He was actually a very good heavyweight and an underrated
champion. But even as he was gaining universal recognition as the king of the
hill by beating Louis, the Cobra had lost much of the speed, venom and killer
instinct of his peak years.
Everything seemed to be following a smooth and logical path when
Ezzard started out. Born in Lawrenceville, Georgia, in 1921, he and his family
moved to Cincinnati, where he would begin his boxing career at the age of
Charles was clearly a special talent even in those early days,
quickly picking up the Diamond Belt and the Ohio AAU welterweight titles. Moving
up to middleweight, he added the Golden Gloves and the National AAU title to his
collection. He did all that in just 42 fights and nobody could beat him.
His progress was similarly speedy when he turned pro, as he
racked up twelve straight wins before dropping a decision to the skilful former
middleweight champ, Ken Overlin. Ezzard drew with Overlin in a return, trounced
Teddy Yarosz and registered his first big triumph with a third round stoppage of
former NBA light-heavyweight champ, Anton Christoforidis.
It was then that Charles had the first defining fights of his
career, a couple of back-to-back duels with master mechanic, Charley Burley.
During my early years as a boxing journalist, I had always wanted
to know the exact nature of those two tantalising contests from 1942, because I
certainly knew all about both men. My imagination would run riot as I pictured
them locking horns in the prize-fighting equivalent of a long and engrossing
chess match. For so long, those fights had been nothing more than simple
results on each man’s record, with no hint of their shape or pattern.
Imagine my surprise when I dug out the old newspaper reports and
discovered that Charles had won both bouts handily, decking Burley with a
classic counter punch in the final round of their first meeting at Forbes Field
in Charley’s hometown of Pittsburgh. Few men dominated the masterful Burley in
such a way during his 98-fight career. Charley was shut out for the first five
rounds of that fight and hurt badly from a Charles attack in the seventh. It was
a master class from Ezzard, sportingly acknowledged by way of an ovation from
Charley had punched it out with Charles to little avail, but the
adoption of a more cautious and scientific approach in the return match a month
later at Hickey Park proved no more successful. Ezzard survived a few stormy
moments to post another convincing decision.
Charles was at the top of his game when he closed out the first
phase of his professional career with a pair of unanimous decisions over the
clever Joey Maxim. Then the Second World War interrupted his career as it did to
so many other quality fighters who were in their prime. Army service meant that
Ezzard could squeeze in only two fights over the next three years, and his lack
of proper training cost him dearly. Both fights took place at the Cleveland
Arena and Charles must have felt that his whole world had suddenly fallen in on
him. He took seven counts against the cagey Jimmy Bivins in a unanimous points
loss, but that was only the beginning of the nightmare. Next up was the
ferocious Lloyd Marshall, who bounced Ezzard off the deck eight times before
stopping him in the eighth round.
But the Ezzard Charles armoury didn’t consist merely of skill,
speed and punching power. He also had guts and determination in plentiful
supply, and set about proving himself all over again after the war. And how!
With his mind free once again to concentrate solely on his boxing, Ezzard seemed
better than ever with a well trained and slightly heavier physique, which didn’t
compromise his wonderful sense of timing.
In July 1946, he avenged his loss to Marshall by surviving a
first round knockdown to knock out Lloyd in the sixth at Crosley Field in
Cincinnati. Four months later, Charles got off the floor again to outpoint
Bivins at Duquesne Gardens. For good measure, Ezzard knocked out Bivins in four
rounds in 1947, and also revisited Mr Marshall by bombing him out in two. That
same year, Charles gave away significant weight to lose a hotly disputed split
decision to Elmer ‘Violent’ Ray at Madison Square Garden, but evened the score
by knocking out Elmer in nine rounds a year later.
The incredible Ray was one opponent the top guys were glad to get
past, or better still, avoid. A savage puncher, Elmer started out in 1926 and
scored 70 knockouts in a twenty-three year, 101-fight career.
Archie Moore set high standards for himself and judged others by
his own tough yardstick. It wasn’t Moore’s practice to hand out false
compliments. In later life, he would turn down the chance to train a certain
prospect with the curt explanation, “I can teach a man how to fight, but I can’t
teach him how to think.”
In Archie’s book, there were two men who could fight and think
better than the rest. One was Charley Burley. The other was Ezzard Charles.
Archie crossed swords just once with Burley and got a good old
licking for his troubles. But his failure to unlock Charles was far more
prolonged and frustrating.
In their first meeting at Forbes Field in May, 1946, Charles
demonstrated his great jab and all-round skills as he glided to a ten rounds
decision. In the sixth round, he emphasised his superiority by winding Archie
and flooring him with a terrific left uppercut to the stomach.
A year rolled by before the return match at the Music Hall Sports
Arena in Cincinnati, where Moore made it a much closer fight. He got a draw from
one judge but still dropped a majority decision. Nevertheless, he must have felt
confident about his chances against Ezzard when they hooked up for their third
encounter at the Cleveland Arena in January 1948. Archie gave it everything,
looking good in the early going as he launched an impressive assault.
But Charles had a mighty bomb in his arsenal and he dropped it
with chilling suddenness in the eighth round. Moore’s uncanny sixth sense seemed
to warn him of the imminent explosion, but he didn’t have enough time to haul
himself out of the quicksand into which he had stumbled.
Pittsburgh sportswriter Harry Keck, sitting ringside that night,
wrote: “Charles’ whole body seemed to coil like a huge snake about to strike.
Moore was on the ropes, just above me, and his instinct told him he was in real
danger. But before he could climb into a shell, Charles struck with a sweeping
right that seemed to travel a complete circle before landing with a sickening
thud on Archie’s jaw. I was sure that something broke either in Archie’s head or
in Ezzard’s right hand, maybe in both places.”
It seemed that everything was finally right in Ezzard’s world
after his memorable knockout of Moore, but fate was to wound him again. In his
next match, Charles took on the twenty-one year old Sam Baroudi at the Chicago
Stadium. and was given a stiff test for the first half of the fight. Baroudi was
coming off a second round TKO of big-hitting Bob Satterfield and looked
confident. But Charles was in a different class and thundered down the home
stretch to unleash a big attack and knock out Baroudi in the tenth round. A
famous photograph shows Ezzard snarling as Sam heads for the canvas.
Baroudi never recovered from the onslaught, dying of a cerebral
haemorrhage. The tragic incident had a profound effect on Charles’ life and his
future attitude to boxing. He contemplated quitting the game, but Baroudi’s
family urged him to continue his career.
Thereafter, the vital bite was always missing from Ezzard’s work
as his approach became more conservative and restrained. It was testament to his
talent that he was still able to reach the top of the mountain without going
flat out, but a new hesitance was there for all to see.
Some years later, before his first fight with Marciano, one
sportswriter wrote of the Cincinnati Cobra: “Charles’ weakness is that he has no
natural ardour for fighting. In the case of a prize fighter, there must be an
inner force which has an affinity with the primeval. Charles most certainly
doesn’t. Fighting to him is a chore.”
That might well have been true of the heavyweight Ezzard Charles,
although he showed this writer plenty of ardour and fighting heart in both
Marciano fights. But it is certainly not a fair accusation to level at the young
Charles, who didn’t squawk or quit or walk away from the game when Lloyd
Marshall was giving him the battering of his life all those years before.
Ezzard weighed 176lbs for the Sam Baroudi fight and would never
compete at light-heavyweight again. The Cobra moved up to heavyweight to join
the other big snakes as a lesser albeit still exceptional fighter.
It was in the glamour division that he finally won his world
championship and gained the worldwide recognition he deserved: after his true
prime, after Sam Baroudi, after television had caught up with him and missed his
Most of the archive film of Ezzard shows him slipping over the
hill and wasting away into the role of journeyman and trial horse.
Isn’t life the damndest thing?
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