PPNA Happenings

Happenings, history and news of the Prospect Park Neighborhood and Ypsilanti

Charlie Freeman — Champion of the World

Posted by ppna on December 18, 2007

Charlie Freeman —  Champion of the World

Charles Freeman was a citizen of Ypsilanti who became known as the pugilist (no glove boxing) champion of the world.  The start of his tale begins in the 1830s when he was first seen working among a gang of laborers on the Flat Rock and Gibraltar Canal.  According to the Ypsilanti Sentinel; 

“He moved among ordinary men like a son of Anak  He looked eight feet high, at least, and three feet across the shoulders.  His arms sprang from his chest as large as any middle-sized man’s body, and tapered down to a hand three inches thick and when doubled into a fist, as big and hard as a rail-splitter’s maul.  He gave out his age as seventeen, and he was growing.  He hired for the wages and work of an ordinary hand, but when he seized a shovel it went through the clay like a breaking-up plow, and the handle soon came off if the blade held.  An ordinary ax was but a feather in his hand.  It sank to the eye in the wood, and the helve splintered.  He dealt out strength by the wholesale, and he could not weigh out his force in the measure of ordinary men.”

After the Canal was built Charlie went on to work the flat boats up the Huron River.   In the time before the railroad and dams the Huron River was navigable all the way to Ypsilanti by smaller flat-boats while the larger boats had to unload at Rawsonville.   Charlie’s feats working these boats were again described by the Ypsilanti Sentinel; 

“He appeared again on the boats that plied along the Huron River, Michigan.  He was engine and tackle to handle heavy freight.  What others could not shove or roll, he could pick up and carry or toss.  When the heavily freighted boat stuck on the ripples he just stepped out of the stern and boosted her over.  Nobody would have felt surprised if he had taken the whole boat and cargo right under his arms, as a woman carries a dough tray, and marched across by land, when they came to long bends in the river. Nobody ever said he did this, because they never wanted to exaggerate his feats, any more than we do now.”


Shortly after the inception of commercial shipping on the Huron River the Michigan Central Railroad came through town from Detroit and ended the need for river shipping.   For Charlie this meant another change in profession.  Although his overall size was exaggerated by the Ypsilanti Sentinel, Charlie was the largest man many had ever seen. Charlie stood 6ft 101/2 inches tall and weighted 320lbs.    His feats of strength had been noticed and Charles Freeman was brought out East by the Barnum Company where he was presented to the public as a strong man.  During his strength exhibitions Charlie was able to lift 2000lbs 

In 1941 the English Pugilist Champion, Benjamin Caunt, had come to America to hold exhibition matches.  Caunt saw Charlie during a performance and decided to bring Charlie to England and hold a series of exhibitions against him.  It was Caunt who gave Charlie the title of “World Champion.”   This title was unearned as it was said that Charlie was too nice to fight but people showed up just to see his great size.     During these exhibitions Caunt and Freeman would challenge all comers as a promotion.  One fighter, William ‘the Tipton Slasher’ Perry,  met the challenge and posted his money to fight, “The American Giant.” 

            On December 6th, 1842 Charlie, “The American Giant,” Freeman had his first and only prize fight.   The accounts of the fight tell the tale of a boring match.  The rules of pugilism differ than boxing in that a round ends when one fighter goes to the mat.  William Perry used this rule to his advantage.  Perry would move in with body blows against Charlie, often hitting his arms,  then retreat to the mat.  When Perry would try to tie up Charlie, Charlie would throw him to the mat.   After 70rounds and 84 minutes the fight was called due to darkness.  The two men continued the fight on December 20th and after 39minutes the fight was stopped.  I have read reports that it was stopped due to a disqualification of Perry for his purposeful falling but I have also read it was stopped due to damage to Perry’s ear.  Both reports show Freeman as the winner of his first and only fight.  It should be noted that the reports of the Freeman v. Perry fight are very similar to the fight between Rocky and Thunderlips in the Sylvester Stalone movie Rocky III.

            On Oct 18, 1845 Charles Freeman died of Tuberculosis in Winchester England where he was buried. It was said of Charlie that he was a friendly giant who had the mentality of a child.  It was also said that he was taken advantage of by everyone he knew but lets hope he enjoyed his life as he visited the world stage and became Charlie “The American Giant Freeman – Champion of the World.”

Tipton Slasher and Charlie Freeman


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