Growing up in Gwinnett County in the late 1970s and 1980s, I only briefly knew the name Ezzard Charles.
I had no idea he was once the heavyweight champion of the world from 1949-51, just that his name adorned a few T-shirts I had seen for the Lawrenceville-based Ezzard Charles Boxing Club. Other than being the namesake of the club, he had little to do with it or his hometown. He rarely returned to Georgia from Cincinnati, where he grew up and spent the majority of his life.
“Even in Cincinnati, people drive every day down Ezzard Charles Parkway and don’t know how he is,” said William Dettloff, a longtime writer for The Ring magazine. “And that’s in Cincinnati, where he’s all over the place. I would imagine people in Lawrenceville, they wouldn’t know him.”
That’s exactly what I found in my research for past stories on Charles. Other than a small, overlooked monument in a shaded corner of the downtown Lawrenceville square, his imprint on the area where he spent his early childhood years in virtually nonexistent.
Through the years, I learned more about Charles through his longtime friend, the late Richard Christmas. Then more from his son, Ezzard Charles II, who visited his late father’s birthplace for the first time in 2010, when the boxer was inducted into the inaugural class of the Gwinnett County Sports Hall of Fame.
Aside from those stories, Charles remained a bit of a mystery to folks around here. It turns out that wasn’t limited to Gwinnettians.
“I think that a lot of people all over the place didn’t know much about him,” Dettloff said. “There had never been anything done about him. There was a real hole in the literature where Ezzard was concerned. There are many biographies about Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, even Charlie Burley, “Jersey” Joe Walcott, Jimmy Bivins. It was very disconcerting that there were all of these biographies about his contemporaries, many of whom he beat. There was a hole in the literature and he certainly deserved not to be overlooked in death as he was when he was alive.”
That’s what got Dettloff, a former boxer, lifelong fan of the sport and journalist, interesting in a biography on Charles. He contacted me five years ago in the early stages of the book, and I helped with contact information on Christmas and Charles’ son. A few months ago, Dettloff sent me an email that he had finished the first-ever book profiling Gwinnett’s heavyweight boxing champion — “Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life,” published by McFarland.
“I’m very pleased (with the book),” Dettloff said. “Boxing is not the sport it once was in terms of popularity, we all know that. And to write about a prize fighter who was at his best 70 years ago, it’s not going to be a best seller. But the people who have read it have been very happy. I’m happy with it.”
Count me in that group, too. I enjoyed Dettloff’s thorough look at Charles’ boxing career and life, pulled largely from sources like The Ring archives and the few remaining people alive who knew Charles well, like Christmas (who unfortunately passed away before the book’s completion).
As expected, there wasn’t much in the book about Charles’ young days in Lawrenceville. He moved to Cincinnati when he was 9 and rose to fame there.
“There were one or two points during course of my research that it became clear Ezzard wasn’t too crazy about Georgia, about Lawrenceville,” Dettloff said. “Lawrenceville, at the time he grew up, you can’t really blame him. It gave me no happiness to write that. There was no school for him to go to, lynchings. You’ve got to put it into context. That’s the way it was at that time.”
Charles’ son told me as much when we talked in the past. Because so little information existed about his early years, the book centers around Charles’ life in Cincinnati and his long boxing career, which included a selection by The Ring as the greatest light heavyweight of all time. He had legendary fights with Louis, Walcott, Marciano and Archie Moore, finishing with a 93-25-1 record, with most of the losses coming late in his career when he was hanging onto the sport for the money and likely suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), which he died from at the age of 53.
Dettloff touches on the corrupt business of prize fighting, as well as how difficult it was for Charles to get title shots and the respect of fans. He never was a fan favorite for a few reasons — the white fans preferred the white fighters and the black fans preferred the charismatic Louis. And Charles made more enemies than fans when he defeated Louis.
The research for Ezzard Charles’ biography took years, but the work should be highly appreciated by boxing fans. It was very informative for me, filling in some holes that I have been curious about since my first story about Charles 15 years ago.
“Like any labor of love, the book was part love, part hard work, but more of the former than the latter,” Dettloff said. “By the time I was done, five years from start to finish, when I was finishing up I felt like I was saying goodbye to a friend. I felt like Ezzard Charles was a friend. I hope I was able to convey what Ezzard Charles was like to the readers.”