Welcome to another episode of What If’s Excellent Heavyweight Adventure, where only two shall remain. We’re almost to the finish line:
Previously, on What If:
Three of our four combatants are, in the grand scheme of things, not terribly surprising entrants in the semifinals. Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were pre-tournament favorites. Ezzard Charles, once he figured out that he could dial in Rocky Marciano’s number in the ring, has gone from a guy who might have been an unfortunate product of his era as far as coming up second best to a guy who is making his play for greatest of all time.
The wild card is Jack Sharkey. Fighting like a man possessed and becoming a fan favorite in the process is one thing, but the man has scored a monumental upset over no less a personage than Jack Johnson, and what’s more, Johnson was plucked from history on the night of his greatest triumph. Could it be? Could Jack Sharkey get past Joe Louis on hardcore mode?
Fight #1: Joe Louis (6/22/1938) vs. Jack Sharkey (9/26/29)
Joe Louis went blasting through the best the 1930s had to offer in the group stage. He knocked Max Baer and Primo Carnera absolutely senseless before putting on an exhibition of amusement worthy of Hollywood with Max Schmeling. Louis then set aside the questions of a bygone age by smashing Billy Conn before sending Jersey Joe Walcott back to a time when perhaps the latter man could fight the weakened version of Louis like an immune system asked to fight a vaccine rather than a full-blown case of disease.
Jack Sharkey? He looked like yesterday’s news when Gene Tunney beat him in the opening bout of the group stage, but Sharkey rallied to stun no less than Jack Dempsey in the very first round before getting a measure of ironic revenge on Tunney’s ill-gotten conqueror Luis Firpo to gather his momentum for a playoff run that featured wins over the best the 1910s had to offer.
The crowd was abuzz. Everyone knew that on paper, Joe Louis was a heavy favorite. Indeed, the betting lines were set at ten to one in favor of the Brown Bomber. Of the remaining four, Louis was a better-than-odds-on favorite; you’d have to put a fiver on the table just to make a buck. He’d shown knockout power, grim determination, a single-minded focus on the achievement of his goal.
Jack Sharkey couldn’t seriously win that fight, could he?
The bell rang to start round one and the crowd saw the difference between ultimate confidence and a glimmer of doubt. Louis began by going to his jab, but that understates just what was coming at the face of the man from 1929. A certain something else that crashed in that year did not hit with such force as what was supposed to be a rangefinder.
Louis turned the jab over the way they teach fighters in the gym but which is so rarely seen on fight night. When Sharkey got forced first onto the back foot and then into a blocking posture where his ability to counter had been neutralized, Louis engaged the secondary thrusters, launching his trailing right hand to the body, leaving Sharkey with the devil’s choice.
Soon enough, Sharkey lowered his guard a bit to try and intercept the second punch in the combination. Louis knew what he had…and with a final display of boxing that left no doubt as to the outcome, Louis first feinted Sharkey into the belief that another of those boilerplate combinations was coming, then put the right hand over the top followed by a left hook.
That did the trick; Sharkey staggered back, barely on his feet, suffering more in two minutes than he’d imagined suffering in twelve rounds in his nightmares. Hurt and helpless, Sharkey was an easy victim of the killing blows when Louis opened up his hands and poured on a barrage in the final minute, finally dropping Jack Sharkey in a crumpled heap on the canvas with twenty seconds left to the bell.
It is one thing to punch one’s ticket to the final. It is quite another to do so while barely breaking a sweat. The gamblers who’d put up so much of their own dough in the pursuit of a paltry payout looked like the smart money in the house. Could anyone stop Joe Louis?
RESULT: LOUIS KO1 SHARKEY.
Fight #2: Ezzard Charles (9/27/50) vs. Muhammad Ali (5/25/65)
A young man, still primarily known to the world of his own time as Cassius Clay, stepped forward in time with the legacy of his own older self a common point of discussion between all who witnessed his activity against the men who had, in the prime timeline, defined him for the 23 years between when his own self in this timeline got in a machine and the so-called present day. Ali was the darling of so many of the fight fans in attendance who had grown up watching him and told his tale like a national myth of the boxing fan Motherland. Sure, he’d looked surprisingly human, especially when he couldn’t figure out Ken Norton and therefore had to fight Joe Frazier in one of the highest-stakes fights in this entire tournament. Still, he was Muhammad Ali, not only the self-proclaimed Greatest Of All Time, but the GOAT in the minds of so many of the spectators who had come to see him.
Meanwhile, Ezzard Charles earned his legend by far more old-fashioned means. One of the greatest light heavyweights in the sport’s history, he’d been something of an afterthought to a boxing casual; if anyone knew him at all it was as the guy who’d given Rocky Marciano the stiffest challenge of his career, but Marciano was always dinged for his quality of opposition as an article of faith, so how good could Charles really be?
Ezzard Charles knew the answer to that. He’d been the best pure boxer of this entire shindig, not that anyone had bothered to notice, since Ali came in as a two-to-one favorite. A guy fighting in the final four among the greatest heavyweight boxers ever to lace up the gloves was an underdog on name alone, and many in attendance were expecting another fight along the lines of the first contest of the evening.
Charles, when the bell rang to start round one, came forward with his arms crossed in front of him, taunting Ali with the “crab” defensive posture that Ken Norton had used to effect in both prime and present timeline to fluster and frustrate the man in front of him. He had no intention of sticking to such a change in approach from his own skill set. It was all about the message.
Ali, seeing a man playing the gimmick card at the open, set to attack…and a counter left hook got him right in that pretty mug of his. “Anger a hotheaded young man, lure him in, and almost knock his head off”, fans heard on the radio and TV broadcast. Charles continued to, as Teddy Atlas once said, “be the dog, and his opponent is the cat, and the dog is going to eat the cat.” Regardless of the meat on the menu in this metaphor, Charles certainly ate Ali’s lunch in round one; by the time the bell rang, the fight had settled down a bit, but the big shot up front left some wondering just what it was they were witnessing.
More of the same came in round two. Ezzard Charles showed pure boxing ability refined by a combination of 1988 sports nutrition and training and the supreme confidence that came from success breeding success over the course of five fights in getting to this point. Rounds two through seven passed in the kind of way that invited a highlight montage with “You’re The Best Around” behind it. By the time the bell rang to sound the start of the eighth, the question wasn’t “Does Ezzard Charles have a chance?” The question was “Does Muhammad Ali need a knockout here, and can he even get it against a guy who keeps beating him to the punch every time he moves his hands?”
You live by the sword and you die by the sword. Pull Muhammad Ali out of 1974 and you have a guy who was a crafty fighter but who might have been a half step too slow by virtue of being in his thirties and having too many miles on his odometer. Pull him out of 1965 and you’ve got a guy who was a world-beater but was still only 23 years old and prone to simply not knowing how to deal with the graduate course in pure boxing that faced him across a ring. Ali was always at his worst against guys that could out-think him. Joe Frazier had done it in 1971. Ken Norton did it to him two years later. Even Leon Spinks did it, although in Ali’s defense in that last one, “I let him rob my house while I was out to lunch.” It was the guys who were more of the straight-ahead sort whose styles played into Muhammad Ali’s hands—guys like Liston, Foreman, and Earnie Shavers.
Ezzard Charles knew that…or at the very least, whoever told him to outbox Ali knew it and Charles simply followed orders like a good infantryman. Unfortunately for him, by the eighth round, Ali himself knew what was going on, and the echoes of that loss to Norton started to generate doubt in a man who otherwise spent his entire career devoid of it.
Boxing is the Sweet Science. We take that as gospel truth; every writer working his first angle in his first article wants to get those two words in there like the pass phrase at a speakeasy. Styles make fights, we say. Good defense beats good offense. There’s more to this that just hitting guys in the head, you’ve got to make sure they don’t hit you back.
Still, no phrase ever reached cliché status in a vacuum. Well-worn tropes and narrative devices get that way by showing themselves in the course of the stories in which they are told, and Ezzard Charles was a sweet scientist, a stylistic nightmare, a slick defender, and a guy who could hurt you when he hit you in the head without giving you the satisfaction of a concussive blow of your own.
We’d seen the Upset of the Century in the first Charles-Marciano bout in that San Dimas gym. We saw the confirmation of the new boxing reality in the quarterfinal. We saw hook and uppercut, jab and body shot, skill over reputation and skill over power and skill over all else in the world, and we saw Ezzard Charles administering the whole lot of it.
Over the course of his career in the prime timeline, Ezzard Charles had beaten Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Joey Maxim, and Joe Louis. He gave Rocky Marciano all he wanted in their first fight. On the day he was pulled forward in time, he was 65-5-1; he finished his career with 25 losses because he fought on way too long, pulling paychecks at a time when that was just the way old fighters made a living; they kept fighting until someone had the decency to save them from themselves.
You can look at a guy like that and say “25 losses? He must’ve been nothing special.” Ask Muhammad Ali just how special Ezzard Charles was at the height of his powers. Just don’t expect a response; this timeline’s version of him is battered, bruised, and eating applesauce through a straw until his jaw heals.
The judges were concise; it only took 12 lines, and no one could accuse them of being over-kind. Mr. Muhammad Ali, of Louisville, Kentucky, may very well have thought to himself that “full-time consideration of another endeavor might be in order” after losing on all three cards by counts of 120-108, 119-109, 118-110.
The Upset Kid had done it again. Ezzard Charles was the only thing standing between the world and a Joe Louis-Mike Tyson Dream Fight after the tournament proper was all said and done.
RESULT: CHARLES UD12 ALI.
Four months of grand tale, wild speculation, and a twisting, turning road at last meets its destination. We abandon the friendly confines of San Dimas High for the Roman decadence of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The world will be watching as we crown the greatest heavyweight champion of all time, as Joe Louis takes on Ezzard Charles for the mother of all championship belts. The fight is scheduled for 15 rounds…the only question is will it go that far. Stay tuned…it’s all about to pay off.
Fox Doucette writes the weekly What If series and covers ESPN Friday Night Fights for The Boxing Tribune. His weekly opinion column, The Southpaw, appears on Thursdays. Fan mail, hate mail, and howling of “No way! Ali would ruin Charles!” can be sent to email@example.com.