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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 18 2010

Leonard man was a real heavyweight contender

One of the top heavyweight boxing contenders of the early 1930s was born and raised in North Dakota.

Famous sports writer Damon Runyon wrote that Charley Retzlaff was “the best-looking heavyweight prospect that had bobbed up in a long time.” Retzlaff was undefeated in his first 21 professional fights, losing for the first time by disqualification. He avenged the loss to that opponent one month later and followed it up with 11 more victories before suffering another loss.

When Retzlaff went undefeated in his next 10 bouts, his promoter was lining up a title fight with heavyweight champ Primo Carnera. In his tune-up match on Aug. 9, 1932, Retzlaff was upset by Isidoro Gastanaga and didn’t get another legitimate crack at the title until over three years later.

On Jan. 17, 1936, Retzlaff needed to get past the No. 1 contender, but young Joe Louis was too fast for the older Retzlaff, knocking him out in the first round. After the defeat, Retzlaff retired to his farm in rural Cass County.

Retzlaff was born Oct. 28, 1904, to William and Marie (Gottschalk) Retzlaff on a farm north of Leonard along the Maple River. It was rumored that Charley started boxing after attending a carnival. The report is “he got out of the audience and knocked out the featured touring boxer who was taking on all comers.”

In 1929, Retzlaff came under the guidance of Jack Hurley of Fargo, of whom Sports Illustrated wrote, “Experts have called him (Hurley) the best boxing teacher ever.”

To Hurley, Retzlaff was a perfect student. He said Retzlaff “loves to train, and loves to fight. (He) doesn’t think of anything else but being champion of the world. (He) goes to bed early, doesn’t drink, and doesn’t smoke. (He) never asks who he is going to fight, but only when.”

Hurley got Retzlaff his first professional fight on April 9, 1929, in Sioux Falls, S.D. He knocked out his opponent in the second round. Retzlaff had eight fights in 1929, winning all of them. In seven of those bouts, he scored knockouts.

In 1930, Retzlaff had 15 bouts. One of his biggest fights was on April 16 at the Fargo Auditorium. His opponent was Italian Jack Herman, a veteran pugilist who had previously fought heavyweight champ Gene Tunney, Luis Firpo and Young Stribling. The referee for Retzlaff’s Fargo bout was former champion Jack Dempsey.

Retzlaff knocked out Herman in the first round. Retzlaff won 14 of his 15 fights in 1930, losing only to Antonio de la Mata on a disqualification. Retzlaff avenged that loss one month later, knocking out de la Mata in the first round.

Hurley lined up another 15 fights for Retzlaff in 1931, the first on New Year’s Day in Fargo. Most of his opponents in 1931 were seasoned fighters with winning records against some of the highest-ranked heavyweight boxers. After Retzlaff won his first six fights in 1931, Hurley was interviewed by Damon Runyon. Hurley raved about his fighter, and Runyon decided to check Retzlaff out for himself.

Runyon wasn’t disappointed. In July, he watched Retzlaff knock out Marty Gallagher, Ralph Ficucello and Mateo Osa in early rounds. On Aug. 1, Runyon’s nationally syndicated column spoke glowingly about Retzlaff. Runyon wrote that Retzlaff was the “best of the new heavyweights. … He’s got what it takes. … I haven’t seen a fighter in a long time who has impressed me so favorably.”

Runyon and other writers compared Retzlaff to Jack Dempsey because of his prodding style and the force of his punches. Max Schmeling, the heavyweight champion at the time, predicted “Retzlaff is the next heavy king.”

After winning his first six fights in 1932, Retzlaff was believed ready for a title fight against heavyweight champ Primo Carnera that fall. His fight against Gastanaga was considered nothing more than a tune-up. The title fight promotion was cut short on Aug. 9 when Gastanaga knocked Retzlaff out in the first round.

His next opportunity at a shot for the title was when he faced Joe Louis on Jan. 17, 1936. Retzlaff believed if he was aggressive and came directly at Louis, he could beat him. Louis knocked him out after only 1 minute and 25 seconds of the first round had elapsed.

After the defeat, Retzlaff retired to his farm near Leonard and spent time as a referee at wrestling matches in Fargo. One of the popular wrestlers, Abe Kashey, had pinned Retzlaff in a wrestler vs. boxer match in 1934. On Feb. 20, 1940, Retzlaff came out of retirement to challenge Kashey in a rematch. The event took place in the physical education building at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University). Retzlaff knocked Kashey out in the fourth round. Retzlaff fought two more fights, winning one and fighting to a draw in the other. He then hung up his gloves for good.

In 1944, Retzlaff became one of the first noted North Dakota athletes to endorse of a major national product – Ford vehicles. In 1950, he moved to Detroit Lakes, Minn., to operate a car agency. He died on June 4, 1970.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.