Famous for Something Else: Charlie Powell, the minor-leaguer with 83 NFL games and a fight against Ali

Today’s “Famous for Something Else” is one who I honestly am surprised I hadn’t heard of until recently: Charlie Powell. After all, I doubt that there were any other former minor leaguers who had the honor of getting knocked out by Muhammad Ali. And even if there were (and if there were I will find out), I doubt any of them also played several seasons in the NFL.

Charlie (sometimes spelled Charley) Powell, however, did all of these things. Born in Dallas in 1932, he would grow up in San Diego. His was in an athletic family, and his brother Art would go on to be one of the lead receivers in the American Football League of the 1960s. According to the Los Angeles Times, Charlie’s time at San Diego High School was to that point perhaps the most decorated student-athlete career in the history of the city, as he lettered 12 times in four different sports (football, baseball, basketball, and track). The Harlem Globetrotters and major college football programs wanted to him to join up, but instead he decided to go into professional baseball.

It was a season that, as the Times obituary put it, left him “realizing his sporting riches would be elsewhere.” Looking at the admittedly bare-bones stats of that lone short season in Stockton that Baseball Reference has, it isn’t hard to see why:

Register Batting
Year Age AgeDif Tm Lg Lev Aff G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
1952 20 -2.6 Stockton CALL C SLB 10   30   5 0 0 0           .167   .167   5          
All Levels (1 Season)       10 30 30   5 0 0 0           .167   .167   5          
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/24/2021.

And so, Powell instead went into football, joining the 49ers in time for the 1952 season at the age of 20, making him the youngest NFL player at that time. In 1953, he had his first boxing match, drawing with a fighter named Fred Taylor in Hollywood.

As evidenced by the fact he’s the subject of an installment of this series, it should be obvious he had far more luck on the gridiron and in the ring than he ever did on the diamond. Although his statistics from his time in the NFL are a bit hazy due to some less-than-stellar record-keeping during that era as well as the fact that some statistics (such as sacks) weren’t even officially recognized yet, anecdotally it is said that Powell once sacked Bobby Layne (himself someone you may see in a future installment of this series) ten times in one game. To put that into perspective, the most sacks in a single game from an era where NFL record-keeping existed well enough where we can be sure is seven.

Here are the NFL statistics for Powell that we do know:

Defense & Fumbles Table
          Game Game Def Def Def Def Fumb Fumb Fumb Fumb  
Year Age Tm Pos No. G GS Int Yds TD Lng Fmb FR Yds TD Sfty
1952 20 SFO RDE 87 7 7                 1
1953 21 SFO LDE 87 12 10         1 1 0 0  
1955 23 SFO RDE 87 12 7 0 7 0 7 0 1 0 0  
1956 24 SFO RDE 87 12 11                  
1957 25 SFO RLB 87 12 8         0 1 3 0  
1960 28 OAK RDE 87 14 14                  
1961 29 OAK RDE 87 14 14                  
Care Care       83 71 0 7 0 7 1 3 3 0 1
5 yr 5 yr SFO     55 43 0 7 0 7 1 3 3 0 1
2 yr 2 yr OAK     28 28                  
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/24/2021.

Perhaps Charlie Powell’s most interesting athletic career, however, came in the ring. In 39 career bouts, Powell went 25-11-3, with 17 of his victories coming by knockout.

He was, according to my research, a legitimate heavyweight fighter, not some sideshow coasting on his achievement in football. According to his obituary, he once was rated the fourth-best in the world by The Ring magazine. His brother Art and a promoter named Don Chagrin both say that he could have been even more successful if he had had better management and had focused entirely on boxing. In fact, he himself admitted it later in life.

Still, he had some great success. In 1959, he defeated the Cuban Nino Valdes, who at the time looked like a possible challenger to then-champion Floyd Patterson. A few years later, he would step into the ring against a young hotshot with a big mouth but the talent to back it up, a man then called Cassius Clay but later known as Muhammad Ali.

The Jan. 24, 1963 match-up in Pittsburgh was over quick. Clay declared before the fight that he’d beat Powell in three rounds, and, of course, he did just that, winning by KO. According to a newspaper account from the time, Clay declared himself the “greatest” and then went to badmouthing future opponents, including then-champion Sonny Liston, who he said he hoped to unseat by the next November and who he categorized as being neither as fast or as rough as Powell, who he complimented in his own Ali-like way:

“Powell was rough. They couldn’t call him a push-over. I was concentrating on three. The man was strong for two. He’s the roughest fighter I’ve met yet for three rounds.”

That wouldn’t be the end of Charlie Powell’s boxing career, however, as he would fight six more times after that, perhaps most notably a six-round loss against Floyd Patterson in 1964 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico. Hiram Bithorn, of course, is most notably used for the sport that Powell began his professional sports career in: baseball.

Powell died on Sept. 1, 2014 after a years-long battle with dementia. He was 82. Although his brother believed that his dementia was the result of his years on the gridiron and in the ring, he had never joined any of the major lawsuits against the NFL.