After several years of planning, a statue honoring Cincinnati boxing legend Ezzard Charles is finally about to become reality.
Andrew VanSickle got interested in Ezzard Charles a few years ago when he bought a house just off Ezzard Charles Drive in the West End. He and his dog, Bill Murray The Pug, like taking walks in Laurel Park, midway between Music Hall and Union Terminal.
Soon after moving in, the pair stopped to talk with some young children standing under the Ezzard Charles street sign.
"I asked the kids, 'Do you know who Ezzard Charles is?' One pointed up to the sign and didn't say anything, and a second kid in the group said he was mayor," VanSickle recalls. "I knew then that, wow, such a great history of Ezzard Charles, maybe there should be something around here that actually reminds people of who he was."
A statue, he decided, would be the perfect way to honor one of the country's best boxers, and give children and the community someone to look up to.
"In this generation and the coming generations they need something to pick their phones up to and have a selfie with and have something to share," says VanSickle. "It's great to have a street, but the idea of actually having a place where you can go and experience Ezzard Charles is going to be a great thing, something you can share with your family.
"It's going to be, I think, another landmark in Cincinnati."
As it turns out, the Cincinnati Parks Foundation agreed. Executive Director Jennifer Speiser says the foundation's board recently gave the go-ahead to begin raising funds for the $275,000 project in the West End's Laurel Park.
"We're doing a lot of different fundraising for eight different parks [and] Laurel Park is one of them," she says. "Out of all these projects, we feel like this is the project that so many people will stand behind and support."
Some support will come from FC Cincinnati. The statue is included in the stadium benefits agreement between the team and the West End community. Laurel Park is one block west of the team's planned soccer stadium.
Ezzard Charles would pass the spot where the park now stands on his regular training runs between Union Terminal and Music Hall.
Sculpting A Legend
Sculptor John Hebenstreit brought his clay model to the WVXU studios. His work is featured several places around Cincinnati, including the Black Brigade monument in Smale Riverfront Park. He was eager to be part of the project and had the model ready to go well before the park foundation gave final approval.
The plan calls for a plaza about the size of a boxing ring with a five-foot tall gray granite pedestal at the center topped by an eight-foot tall Ezzard Charles in his traditional boxing stance.
"We want him to look like a very determined, strong, vital individual, the way that people remember him as a boxer," Hebenstreit says.
Nicknamed the "Cincinnati Cobra," Charles was more than the world heavyweight boxing champion - he was the man who famously beat Joe Louis in 1950. He also was a veteran who worked with kids and spoke three languages. Born in Georgia, he was a musician and loved jazz, bringing records home from his travels abroad.
"That may be what's most important about the statue," says Hebenstreit. "He wasn't just a boxer. He really cared about the West End and he invested time into Cincinnati."
The base of the statue will feature information about Charles' life, and a companion mobile app is in the works.
The goal is to begin casting the statue in bronze by the spring. Hebenstreit says that should give him plenty of time to get the sculpture just right.
"I've never had the opportunity to sculpt a figure this exposed, literally," Hebenstreit says with a laugh. "He's only going to be wearing his boxing shorts and that poses some challenge. When you're working with just the raw figure you have to really know what you're doing."
He's intent on capturing Charles' face perfectly, saying he sees a little something different in every image. If the timetable and fundraising go as planned, the statue will be ready for unveiling next fall.
Ezzard Charles was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, in 1966. He died in 1973. A year later, his hometown named Ezzard Charles Drive in his honor.
Editor's note: Music used in this story is "Ezz-Thetic," from jazz musician George Russell's album Ezz-Thetics, written in honor of, and dedicated to, Ezzard Charles.