It’s often easy to peruse the ledger of great or even just well known fighters and highlight clear turning points in their careers. Quite commonly, the pivotal moments or occurrences are outside of the ring, or obvious. Mike Tyson’s prison stint altered his career in a huge way, Marco Antonio Barrera saw a stylistic shift and boost in evolution against “Prince” Naseem Hamed, and so forth. These are things many even semi-dedicated fight fans would not have to look up or research.
There are fighters whose milestones and flash points aren’t as clear, though. Perhaps their careers haven’t been dissected as thoroughly, or maybe they simply don’t stick out and aren’t as obvious.
Ezzard Charles had few issues sticking out, yet has been forgotten from lists and left out of “all-time great” discussions for a long time. His lower weight journey to the heavyweight championship has taken on an almost mythic quality, like that of “Sugar” Ray Robinson’s run at welterweight. But it was apparent from very early on that Charles was an exquisite talent — as early as 1942, when he took his first of two decision wins over Charley Burley, before rushing home to ready himself for high school graduation the next morning.
On July 29, 1946, Charles met Lloyd Marshall in a true crossroads match. In hindsight, the bout would position both men to be aimed in a certain direction, and in that direction both respectively plummet or skyrocket.
Three years later, and Charles was still rebounding from a difficult year in 1943; he had been knocked down 15 times in only two fights: seven times against Jimmy Bivins, then eight courtesy of Marshall in their first bout.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports editor Al Abrams quoted a conversation with an intentionally unnamed fight veteran in 1952, during the lead up to the historic third Jersey Joe Walcott vs. Charles heavyweight title bout, saying, “Charles’ kayo at the hands of Marshall reminded a Cleveland writer that Ezzard took two bad lacings in consecutive bouts in his city in 1943. ‘I remember the Marshall bout well,’ he said. ‘Charles was knocked down several times in that one and if a guy ever took a bad beating he did. But he was game. He convinced me of that in the fight with Jimmy Bivins two months before that. Bivins was a great fighter then while Charles was just 22. He did everything but knock Ezz out that night. But Charles stuck it out for ten rounds. If I’m not mistaken, the Cincinnati boy came back to whip Bivins four times after that, knocking him out in another Cleveland fight. There was talk that Charles had a bad back the night he fought Marshall. The story is that his seconds shot him full of dope and sent him out to get murdered. Nobody can tell me he doesn’t have any guts after seeing him take it from Bivins and Marshall.'”
The story from Charles’ corner after the first Marshall fight was that a pre-fight hip injury led to a bad showing. Whatever the reason, Charles found himself enlisting in the U.S. Army shortly after losing to Marshall, fighting only twice, beating nondescript opponents in pro-style tournaments while on duty in Italy.
After his discharge in 1945, Charles picked up seven wins en route to his second meeting with Marshall. One of the wins came against Archie Moore by decision — a win Moore never could avenge despite being given two opportunities to do so.
While the first fight took place on Marshall’s Cleveland turf, the rematch was set in Cincinnati, where Charles hung his coat. Though press for the match up wasn’t overwhelming, an advance ticket sale of $20,000 was no laughing matter. At fight time, over 10,000 tickets had been sold in the old Cincinnati Reds stadium, Crosley Field, bringing in over $30,000.
James E. Doyle of the Plain Dealer said before the fight, “The good gray Mr. Johnny Rogers is back in town with his old light heavyweight warhorse, Cleveland-California Lloyd Marshall, who’ll shortly be trying to put the Marshall drug on Cincinnati’s Ezzard Charles for the second time. The only fighter who has ever flattened the sable-skinned Charles, Leatherin’ Lloyd batted him out at the Arena three years ago, but it’s at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field that he’ll be trying to bat him out again. Times have changed, and there’s nobody guessing that Ez will be E.Z. for the veteran down there in the Redlegs’ orchard. Ez in a strong betting favorite, indeed, off his recent walloping of Archie Moore, which hoisted him to the top of the title-contending pack in the light division.”
Marshall readied himself at a Cleveland gym owned by trainer, manager and retired fighter Johnny Papke — brother to former middleweight champion Billy Papke. Despite his huge victory over Charles the first time, no odds-makers could logically tab Marshall a favorite due to a bruising knockout loss to Oakland Billy Smith four months earlier. While Smith was a respectable foe, his win over Marshall was one of the few times he managed to actually get over the proverbial hump, in terms of opposition.
Losses simply weren’t as damning then as they are now, and particularly to fighters of color who were often painted out of title landscapes. Marshall was 58-14-3 going in, and had lost twice in a row before, but to fighters like Moore, Ceferino Garcia, Teddy Yarosz and Shorty Hogue — hardly slouches. But Marshall had never lost twice in a row inside the distance.
Charles’ win over Moore already earned him his top contender status, and he wanted the light heavyweight title to bargain with during a likely future stint at heavyweight. Ultimately this rematch, which did little to propel Charles toward a title, centered around his desire to erase a substantial blemish on his record, while pocketing some coin in the meantime.
As the fight began, it seemed as though Charles’ claims of injury after the first meeting may have held water. While there wasn’t much about his style or approach that Charles had changed, he moved differently, crouching and bobbing more fluidly before firing off crisp punches. But what had indeed changed, was that Charles was able to avoid getting clipped early on, as he had been in the 1st round of their initial bout. He did hit the deck, however, from a combination of a punch and a leg collision inside.
Subsequent rounds had Charles walking Marshall directly into his uppercut and cross-section body shots, while Charles played off of Marshall’s aggression and likely overreaching based on his relative 1st round success. In round 4, a right hand wobbled Marshall following a regular sniping display from Charles’ jab. As Marshall appeared to wise up to Charles’ poleaxe jabbing and began to dodge underneath, Charles unsheathed his uppercut again and backed Marshall to the ropes in round 5, running away with the momentum.
A terrific display of footwork in the 6th round initiated the end sequence for Marshall. In pursuing Charles, Marshall walked into the full force of a left hand downstairs that had the latter gutted and finished.
The Plain Dealer reported, “Marshall, an unorthodox, stand-up type of fighter, was met with a vicious left hook to the heart shortly after the sixth round bell. He reached to grab his opponent and was knocked to the floor with a right to the mid-section. Charles’ handlers announced immediately after tonight’s bout that they would seek a match with [Gus] Lesnevich.”
With the Cincinnati dust resting, official tallies saw the 10,000 plus spectators paying $33,000 for their rematch.
Marshall, a significant piece of boxing’s “Murderers’ Row” — a group of fighters in the 1940s and 1950s that never fought for a title despite being among the more elite fighters in the game — would win only one significant bout in the last five years of his career, over Welsh contender Tommy Farr. In the third and final bout between he and Charles, “The Wizard” would stop Marshall even sooner. His run at the upper reaches of boxing was effectively ended by a starchy beating at the hands of one of boxing’s greats.
Charles’ career gained steam after handling Marshall. While he would never fight for the light heavyweight title, despite a few attempts at putting together a Lesnevich rumble, Charles was recognized as a top mark at 175 pounds before moving to heavyweight and claiming the ultimate prize there. Later his popularity waned in the shadow of a dominant, generally beloved heavyweight champion in Joe Louis, but his mix of brash and flash inside the ring and out made him a centerpiece of elite level fighting.