The Champ: County to honor legendary boxer Charles today

Photo by Nate McCullough

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Like the boxing memorabilia he stored in the attic, the tales of Ezzard Charles' early years were hidden throughout the former heavyweight champion's life.

Ezzard Charles II said his famous father rarely spoke of Lawrenceville, his birthplace and his home until he was 9 years old, leaving it somewhat of a mystery to his three children. It was similar in that regard to the distinguished boxing career that he seldom brought up, preferring to focus on what was in the future.

Some of the curiosity about Charles' childhood was satisfied for his only son, now 54, on Saturday. He flew in from Chicago with his wife Inetta for his first trip to Georgia, relishing the opportunity to visit his father's hometown.

The legendary boxer was honored with a ceremony in Lawrenceville on Saturday, a day before he was set for induction into the new Gwinnett County Sports Hall of Fame at Coolray Field.

"It's been wonderful. It's really wonderful," said Ezzard Charles II, visibly excited to accept the weekend's awards for his late father, the world heavyweight champion from 1949-1951. "I told my wife for years I wanted to come down and see where my dad was born. We just never got around to it. And then they brought this up. Isn't this wonderful how God works? And now we're down here."

The family's visit started in an ideal setting, the old Lawrenceville Court House. It stands tall beside the Ezzard Charles monument, the only permanent, visible evidence the boxer ever lived in Gwinnett County. Dedicated in 1979, it's even hidden under shade trees in the corner of the downtown square.

Charles' visits back to the area were scarce after he moved to Cincinnati, then to Chicago, along with most of his family. He made a visit shortly after winning the heavyweight title in 1949, but that was a rarity, possibly because of his race and his treatment in the Deep South, according to his son.

"Most of the people we knew in Chicago, from the South, from Mississippi, only a few ever went back down there," Ezzard Charles II said. "That time in our nation was tough on African-Americans. When I was a little boy we'd take the bus to the shopping plaza at 35th (Street) and I'd always run to the back of the bus. And he'd say, come up here, sit in the front. He always wanted to sit in the front.

"He told me in the South they made him sit in the back of the bus. That's why he liked to sit in the front of the bus. ... I think he never took trips back down there because of the way it was in the South."

On Saturday, the son was introduced to the new South, a new Lawrenceville. The city welcomed him with a celebration, proudly claiming the heralded fighter as one of its own.

Amid the celebration was longtime Lawrenceville resident Bertha Wilburn-Smith, a distant cousin of the late Charles. Her aunt Bonnie Kate Reese, or "Aunt Kate," who died in 1999, was the sister of the late Charles' father.

Wilburn-Smith lives on the property where the boxer was born, an appropriately hidden road named Honeysuckle Circle that sneaks behind a Pike Street shopping center. The house where Charles was born is long gone, but she hasn't forgotten its significance. She even has a 1956 Esquire magazine that features one of Lawrenceville's most accomplished athletes.

"I'm very pleased to know he's getting honored," she said. "I'm pleased his family's here. I've been wanting to meet them for years. I just want to know what it was like growing up, to be in Ezzard Charles' family. I've always wondered that because we never got to know them or about them. After Ezzard died, they probably didn't know how to get in touch with us down here either."

The Cincinnati Cobra

Because he moved from Lawrenceville at such a young age, his monikers from down this way -- like Mack (his middle name) or Snookie -- didn't stick. His unique first name did have a Georgia flair though as he was named after Gwinnettian W.P. Ezzard, the doctor who delivered him.

To boxing fans, he was "The Cincinnati Cobra," a well-known figure because he was that city's only world heavyweight boxing champion. He rolled to a 42-0 amateur record with two Golden Gloves titles before embarking on a pro career that was interrupted by service in World War II in 1944 and 1945.

Though he rarely carried more than 200 pounds on his 6-foot frame, his mass well below heavyweight standards, he beat the best fighters of his time. He won his heavyweight titles from Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Louis. He whipped Archie Moore three times. Two of his most notable fights were late-career losses to the unbeaten Rocky Marciano. Marciano, considered in his prime at the time of his fights with Charles, knocked out 43 of his 49 opponents but Charles went toe-to-toe with him for 15 rounds and lost a decision.

In their second fight, Charles opened a gruesome, gaping gash on Marciano's nose that required lengthy medical attention. The fight was eventually resumed and Marciano knocked out the older Charles. The two bouts, just three months apart, were both held at Yankee Stadium.

"If that (second) fight was today, they would have stopped the fight," said 84-year-old Cincinnati resident Richard Christmas, a longtime personal secretary of Charles and his friend since childhood. "The blood was squirting out like a fountain when he first hit him. Then it started streaming down."

A less visibly grotesque scene had affected Charles negatively years earlier. He nearly quit boxing in 1948 when 21-year-old Sam Baroudi died from head injuries suffered in a fight with Charles. Baroudi was fighting up at 169 pounds, but Charles weighed just 176 himself.

Medical issues eventually slowed down Charles as well, contributing to losing 12 of his last 23 fights. He fought until he was 38, finishing with a 96-25-1 record and 58 knockouts.

But throughout his career, especially the latter stages, he was battling an unbeatable foe, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's Disease. It affected his legs first and then spread upward, the opposite path it takes in most sufferers.

"At the end, the sickness had him and nobody knew it," said Christmas, who was a year younger than Charles at Cincinnati's Woodward High and traveled with the champion to nearly all of his professional fights, setting up training camps and sparring partners.

"The only two who knew it was me and him and I wasn't telling a soul. I would get on his case, 'What are you going to do? Stay in there and get beat up.' He said, 'I don't have a job.' And I told him, 'Well, you've got to find a job.' ... He still thought he could do more than he could.

"He had whatever it was since he came out of the Army (in 1945). We took him to all the doctors but they couldn't figure out what it was. Nobody else knew something was wrong but him and me."

ALS eventually forced Charles to walk with a cane. Then into a leg brace. Then into a wheelchair. Then he lost the ability to speak.

He died in 1975 at just 53 years old.

"It's a terrible disease, but he was never a complainer, you didn't have to worry about that," Christmas said.

A Renaissance man

Christmas first met Charles when they were on opposing baseball teams as middle-schoolers. It was the only other sport the man several publications have called the greatest light heavyweight ever tried seriously.

"He could pitch, he had those broad, strong shoulders, so he had a fastball," Christmas said. "He was good in baseball but that's all he fooled with. He didn't try basketball or football."

While athletic skills brought Charles great fame, they didn't define him. He was by all accounts popular in many circles, a personable, well-spoken and highly educated product of strict upbringing by his grandmother, Maude Foster. His father wasn't close to him and his mother lived in New York, so "Grandma" as she was called, raised him.

"She was the boss," said Christmas, referred to as Charles' younger brother by "Grandma."

A good student, Charles learned to speak Spanish fluently in high school.

"He was my idol," said Tony Mathis, a Dallas, Texas, resident whose father owned the Cincinnati grocery store where Charles worked as a teenager. "He was always a gentleman. He was very religious. And he was very intelligent. He spoke very well. He was the first black man I ever heard speak Spanish."

And it wasn't just Spanish.

During his service in World War II, he connected with a ship builder's daughter in Italy and learned to speak Italian fluently. He also learned French, but didn't master it like he did Italian.

Following the war, Christmas and Charles visited the Cincinnati market on Saturdays and chatted up the Italians.

"All the Italians were selling their products and we'd wind up there for three hours," Christmas said. "He'd talk to all those guys and I didn't know what they were saying. But we got all the free grapes, oranges, bananas we wanted.

"He was very personable. I don't care what kind of story you had to tell him, he'd sit there and listen. A guy tried to sell us a nickel mine in Canada one time, one of those shams. I said, 'Come on, we've got to go to the doctor.' And he said, 'Wait a minute, we've got to hear what this man has to say.' He sat and listened to this man for an hour and he had no intention of buying a nickel mine. We didn't even know what one was."

Charles, who owned multiple night clubs, also was an accomplished musician. He played the bass with some of the era's top jazz performers, even sitting in for a session one night with the legendary Duke Ellington.

He also was known for his fashion and was rarely seen around town without a suit and tie. Mathis was so impressed with the champ that in 1973 he made his license plate "EZZ CHAS" in honor of his hero.

"You never saw him when he wasn't dressed nice," Mathis said.

Charles' favorite suits came from Brooks Brothers, who outfitted him in style during his heyday.

"A boxer came by in a nice car and in a nice suit (when Charles was a kid)," Ezzard Charles II said of his father. "He told him he had 365 suits and my dad said, 'I want to be a boxer.' At that time he was sharing his brother's clothes. He got hand-me-downs because they didn't have any money."

Charles' only son also said his father was a huge movie buff, regularly taking in shows and even acting in one film that was never released. He named his two daughters Deborah (after actress Deborah Kerr) and Leith (after film composer Leith Stevens). His daughter Leith passed away in 2007.

Charles moved to Chicago in 1967 and worked with children for much of his life in that city, where The Ezzard Charles Award is given annually to someone who works with young people. A school in Chicago also bears Charles' name, as does the street where he lived in Cincinnati.

A Lawrenceville boxing club was named in his honor and operated until the early 1990s, but its absence left his monument in the downtown square as his last remaining footprint in Gwinnett County.

That will change this weekend when Charles becomes part of the inaugural class of the county's sports hall of fame, a fitting reward for a champion who was virtually forgotten in the place where his life began.

"I think this is great. It's really great," said Ezzard Charles II, whose five children include one son, Ezzard Charles III, now 27. "My dad, he didn't get the recognition he should have gotten when he was a boxer. I don't know why but they just didn't give him the same recognition as other boxers. Now they do now that he's deceased. It's just wonderful to see people doing things for him."