Hall of Fame boxing writer Nigel Collins catches up with Charles Brewer, the thrill-a-minute crowdpleaser known in the industry as ‘Mr Chuckles’
THE last place you would expect to find a man called The Hatchet is a women’s hair salon, but that’s where I met former IBF super-middleweight titleholder Charles Brewer on a recent Saturday afternoon. As incongruous as it seems, these days he spends as much time at Jazzy Shears Hair Studio as he used to spend in the gym.
“Back when I won the title in 1997, my wife, Sophia, a licensed hair stylist, and I opened up a hair salon in downtown Philadelphia,” said Brewer. They have since relocated to North Philly where rent is cheaper.
Brewer would turn 51 in a few days, but despite being a division or two above his fighting weight, he’s still an imposing looking man. We moved to a small curtained-off area at the back of the shop and sat at an appropriate distance from each other, facemasks firmly in place. I’d covered many of Brewer’s fights, but got to know him better during our trip down memory lane than at any time during his career.
Back then Brewer often seemed grim, bordering on grouchy. When he came to The Ring office for a photo shoot after winning the title, trying to elicit a smile was challenging to say the least. We had a hatchet handy as a prop and asked him to pretend he was hitting his promoter, J Russell Peltz, over the head with it. Bingo! He couldn’t help but laugh. Wisenheimer Peltz calls him Mr Chuckles.
Maybe his stern demeanor was misinterpreted and it was really about the intense focus and emotional discipline he needed to fight the way he did.
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Although his father boxed as an amateur, Brewer had his sights set on making his high school’s football team his freshman year, but he dislocated his hip playing street football, spoiling any chance he might have had. His transition to boxing was facilitated by his friend William “Hammer” Jones, who went on to have a 21-2 pro career as a junior middleweight and eventually become a Philadelphia policeman.
“One day in the summer Hammer came home from the gym and told me he wanted to introduce me to his trainer. I said cool. We went to the gym and I met [Bobby] ‘Boogaloo’ Watts and began to train.”
Watts, the former middleweight contender who handed Marvin Hagler his first pro defeat, and Augie Sciemca co-managed and trained Charles throughout his career. Augie and Boogaloo certainly made an odd couple but somehow they made it work.
“It was so crazy,” said Brewer. “During sparring I would have Augie in one corner and Boogaloo in another. I would go from one corner to the other in alternative rounds. Boogaloo’s style was more about boxing. Augie was about: if you see the shot take the shot, hit him on the button. That’s essentially what I did.”
It was Watts who gave Brewer and Williams their nicknames. “I don’t know if Boogaloo had a thing for garden tools or what,” said Brewer, “but he gave William Hammer and I got Hatchet.”
Sparring with veteran pros, including IBF light-middleweight titleholder Buster Drayton, was a master class and taste of what to expect down the road. One particular session with another novice whose name he’s forgotten taught Brewer a lesson he’s never forgotten. “I was a 14-year-old amateur and we had a heavyweight in the gym who was 16, 17 years old. I was boxing him one day and hit him with a left hook and knocked him unconscious. Talk about having the s**t scared out of you. I’d never knocked anybody out before and he was on the canvas, unconscious with his eyes wide open. I thought I’d just killed somebody. It was at that point I realised this is for real. You can get badly hurt. He was okay, but that bothered me for a long time. After that, first and foremost, I always kept in my mind that boxing is a very dangerous sport. That’s why I took it so seriously.”
Brewer was 19 when turned pro, August 8, 1989, at the Blue Horizon where he would eventually fight 16 times. There was a first-round knockout in the semi-final and a swing bout was needed to fill time before the main event. It was a four-round prelim fighter’s dream come true. Brewer’s second-round knockout of Jerome Johnson was televised nationally on the USA Network, all and all a decent start.
Campaigning in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, Brewer’s record was 20-2, with 16 wins inside the distance going into 1994—a disastrous year when he lost three of four bouts, including stoppage defeats to Lonny Beasley and Rafael Williams. Peltz was thinking of walking away but Sciemca convinced him to stay, a decision that eventually benefited everyone.
Brewer turned things around old–school, grinding away, mostly at the Blue Horizon against respectable competition. He gradually worked his way up the rankings and after five straight victories was matched with Gary Ballard for the vacant IBF title, June 21, 1997, in Tampa, Florida.
“For me it was a matter of looking where I started from, my upbringing and the neighborhood I grew up in,” said Brewer. “I’d been given the opportunity to achieve this goal and my mind was blown.”
It was a Don King promotion and Ballard was his fighter, so Brewer knew he had to win big to avoid dodgy scorecards. There wasn’t very much to worry about. He had the South African down in the first round and finished the job in the fifth, flattening Ballard with a peach of a left hook. Referee Max Parker Jnr probably should have stopped it when Ballard dragged himself upright, still foggy, blood leaking from his nose. A barrage of punches quickly put him out of his misery at the 1-40 mark.
“I’m like a bad virus. I won’t go away,” said Brewer when Showtime’s Jim Gray asked him how he managed to keep bouncing back from adversity.
Brewer’s next fight, November 2, 1997, made local history—the first and only title fight held at the Blue Horizon. It was a festive occasion. Scrappy underdog Joey DeGrandis, a Bostonian fighting out of Chicago, was in the other corner and USA Tuesday Night Fights televised the whole shebang. It was only fitting that the Philly fighter won a unanimous decision.
“It was very special to have a fight of that magnitude there,” said Brewer. “Around the world fighters wanted to know what it’s like to fight at the Blue. I still have people now ask me now how it is to fight there. The atmosphere was incredible.”
Brewer says his defence against England’s Herol Graham was the toughest fight in a career that featured more shootouts than a Clint Eastwood western. It was on the Lennox Lewis-Shannon Briggs heavyweight championship card in Atlantic City, March 28, 1997, and almost stole the show. Graham’s best days were behind him, but he’d won four in row, including victories over Vinny Pazienza and previously undefeated Chris Johnson.
“He was a very crafty southpaw,” said Brewer. “That in itself was complex enough. In the third round he clocked me with a left hand and knocked me down. What a lot of people were unaware of was that I twisted my right ankle and tore two ligaments when I fell. From then on I couldn’t put pressure on the ankle. Oh my God. That was hell, but he must not have noticed that I was dragging my right foot and not being as aggressive as I was a couple of rounds ago.
“In preperation for that fight I’d watched tapes of Graham and noticed he was vulnerable to a right hook. Southpaws normally go to their left and I saw he was doing that. [In the 10th-round] I caught him with a right. He ran into it and I almost knocked him out of the ring.”
With Graham helpless on the rope, Brewer landed several more head-twisters and referee Earl Morton stepped between them and stopped the fight. The loss ended Graham’s career.
It was a shame that HBO only televised Brewer-Graham overseas. It would have given Brewer’s Q-Rating a nice bump in the U.S. and maybe changed the course of his career. As it was Peltz was unable to sell Brewer’s mandatory against Antoine Byrd to American TV for enough money. So he made a two-fight deal with promoter Cedric Kushner to be held in Germany. The winner of the Brewer-Byrd match obligated to fight homegrown Sven Ottke next.
The first fight was held in Leipzig, August 22, 1998, and The Hatchet went Paul Bunyan on Byrd, chopping him down in the third round. At that point the package deal seemed like a great idea, but Brewer had walked into a honey-trap and lost the title to Ottke by controversial split decision, October 24, 1998, in Dusseldorf.
“I went into the Ottke fight blind. I thought there was no way a guy with 12 pro fights was going to beat me,” said Brewer. “I saw tapes of his fights and felt he was no challenge to me. It might not have been my prettiest fight, but I did more than enough to win.”
For what it’s worth, The Ring magazine’s European correspondent Brian Doogan scored the bout 115-113 for Brewer. In other words, close enough to steal. There was a rematch, but the contract did not stipulate that it would be held in the United States, something that sill troubles Brewer. Following three inside the distance wins over modest opposition, the return match with Ottke was held in Magdeburg, September 2, 2000, where another split decision went the German’s way.
Fighting in the other guy’s homeland always adds an extra element of risk, but Peltz can’t forget what he saw a few nights before the second fight at a dinner for those involved with the promotion. “Judge Manuel Maritxalar (who scored the fight 116-111 for Ottke) was seated at the promoter’s table, downing liquor the way college kids would at fraternity parties, laughing and joking while the others at the table cheered him on.”
Regrettably, that sort of thing is to be expected but unnerving nonetheless.
It wasn’t all bad memories. Brewer laughed as he spoke about a culture shock experienced in Germany. “They took us to fitness club to work out and when we walked into the dressing room everybody was naked, men and women. Me and Boogalloo were like, what the hell is going on? We need some towels or something. We’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Maybe I should have gone with them,” said Peltz.
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Brewer’s day job when he was boxing had nothing to with punching anyone in the face. After he graduated from the Computer Learning Center and received his Network Administrative Diploma from Chubb Institute, he worked as a data analyst and consultant—tech geek by day, human hatchet by night. Boxing, however, was his passion.
He considers Antwun Echols, who he fought in May 2001, as the hardest puncher he ever faced. It was a brief but wildly entertaining brawl. The Hatchet knocked Echols down three times in the second round, only to be stopped in the third. “I have to give it to him,” said Brewer. “I almost blew his brains out, but he was able to come back and land a bomb.”
Brewer was never an easy touch and win or lose gave value for money. It was more world-class mayhem, April 20, 2002, when he challenged Joe Calzaghe for the WBO super-middleweight title in Wales.
“Some 7,000 impassioned fans at the Cardiff International Arena witnessed a real slugfest—not on the scale of the Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns classic Brewer had promised, but certainly a fight of relentless commitment,” wrote Doogan.
“That was hard. I really had to dig deep, but I’m a warrior,” said Calzaghe in the immediate aftermath. “I proved I can take a shot and showed championship heart.”
Calzaghe and Brewer stayed in contact over the years, and Joe gave his old rival tickets to his November 2008 match with Roy Jones at Madison Square Garden. The bill for the Calzaghe fight and the punishing ones that preceded it was almost past due, but Brewer had one extraordinary fight left in him. It came at Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, August 2, 2002, against New England bad boy Scott Pemberton, who would soon be busted for providing muscle and delivery service for a regional drug ring.
After a close opener Brewer was punishing Pemberton on the ropes in the second when his adversary slumped sideway, prompting referee Steve Smoger give him a standing eight count. Pemberton rallied in the third and fourth, giving Brewer such a drubbing it’s was a wonder he managed to stay on his feet.
In the sixth Brewer staged his final Matthew Saad Muhammad-style comeback, caving in Pemberton with a two-fisted body attack. Smoger gave him another standing eight count, and when the fight resumed Scott pitched forward and landed on his head without taking another punch. It was all over—as was the best part of Brewer’s career.
After going 2-2 in his next four fights, he retired in April 2005 with a record of 40-11, with 28 of his wins inside the distance. Charles was stopped in the final two by Mario Velt and Lolenga Mock, respectively.
“Charles Brewer fought as if you had insulted his mother,” said Peltz. “He tried to take your head off with every punch. Forget about pacing yourself, Brewer wanted to knock you through the canvas floor and that made him one of the most exciting fighters of his generation. “Unfortunately, the geniuses at HBO and Showtime were more interested in big names than in good action. Consequently, for most of his career, Brewer fought in boxing outposts, away from the bright lights and the big money he deserved.”
“Mind and body I was driven by the challenge,” Brewer said. “I gave boxing so much dedication. I loved it. It’s like me and Hatchet are two separate people. You’re speaking to Charles Brewer right now and Hatchet is standing right next to him. That person was a monster.”
When the interview was over the erstwhile grumpy monster removed his facemask for a photo — he was smiling.