Today Over-the-Rhine has what is thought to be the largest urban collection of Italianate architectural gems in the country – and in the 1940s and 50s one of those buildings was home to the gym of boxing great Ezzard Charles, the Cincinnati Cobra.
Charles wasn’t born in Cincinnati – he was originally from Georgia – but he made Cincinnati his home, settling in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. He lived and trained in this busy enclave, settled by German immigrants who were reminded of the Rhine River back home when they crossed over the Miami and Erie Canal into their adopted one.
Charles took the boxing world by storm, fighting in three classes over the course of his 15-year career – as a Middleweight, a Light Heavyweight, and eventually as a Heavyweight. In 1950 he became heavyweight champion by taking out the great Joe Louis in a unanimous decision. He remained heavyweight champ through his next 4 fights, finally being unseated in 1951 by Jersey Joe Walcott. Throughout his boxing career, Charles lived and trained in Cincinnati, and his training regimen included exploiting some useful Cincinnati geography. When he heard that Sugar Ray Robinson used the hills of New York’s Central Park to train, Charles decided he needed to add some hill work too – nearby Eden Park provided just the right inclines, and he could often be seen running up and down the steepest hills. Besides hill work, endurance was key, so he would run roundtrip between Union Terminal and the Music Hall 10 times, each trip a three-mile journey. Fittingly, the thoroughfare between the two is now called Ezzard Charles Drive, having been renamed in his honor in 1976. Sadly, Charles didn’t get to see the name-change, having died only the year before.
Boxing wasn’t his only talent or contribution – Charles was a well-respected musician (he played stand-up bass with some of the jazz greats of his era, even appearing at Birdland); he was a veteran (he suspended boxing for two crucial years early in his career to fight instead in World War II); he spoke fluent Spanish and Italian; and he worked with children after retiring from boxing (in Chicago the annual PAL-Ezzard Charles Award is still given to individuals of service to children). After a full life lived in only 53 years, Charles finally succumbed to the ravages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - “Lou Gehrig’s disease” – in 1975. As one of his best friends and one-time opponent Rocky Marciano said about the Cincinnati Cobra – he was the bravest man he ever fought.
While Charles used a few different Cincinnati boxing rings for training, he spent a good deal of his time at a second floor gym at 14th & Vine. The building still stands, at number 1404 Vine Street, and the current occupants of the second floor have made sure to pay tribute to the Cincinnati Cobra. There are some pictures of his famous bouts mounted behind a vintage 1950’s era punching bag and gloves, all as a reminder of a favorite son from Over-the-Rhine.
Know Before You Go
2nd floor of 1404 Vine Street (currently a private real estate development office)