World Heavyweight Champion: 1937-1949
Joe Louis’s victory over James J. Braddock in Chicago, on 22 June 1937, ushered in an era of supremacy the like of which had never been seen. He would remain the champion for the next 12 years, during which time he defended his title 25 times. His victims would doubtless have numbered many more had it not been for the Second World War, which meant a lay-off of more than four years. He beat all the top contenders of the day, including five former champions and one future title-holder. He retired undefeated at the age of 35. There followed an ill-judged comeback, largely for financial reasons. Louis suffered two defeats, against Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano, the men who dominated heavyweight boxing in the early 1950s. These reverses shouldn’t be allowed to taint the reputation of a man who is widely regarded as being among the top five heavyweights of all time. There are even those who put him at the top of the pile.
Louis grew up in Detroit, in straitened circumstances. His rise to the top is an archetypal story of a youngster who used boxing – for which he showed a remarkable natural aptitude -as a means of escaping grinding poverty. Louis’s chief weapons were speed and awesome punching power. To make matters even worse for his opponents, his defence was also technically excellent. Louis was confident that he could take on anybody and beat them, and he had every reason to be.
But there was a problem. The rising star of the boxing world faced an obstacle that was potentially far trickier than any fighter in the opposite corner. He was black. Memories of the Johnson era came flooding back. The thought of a black heavyweight champion was still anathema to a lot of people, including many in the boxing establishment. Over the years, several very talented black boxers had been denied a shot at the title, passed over in favour of less talented fighters who were politically more acceptable.
Louis simply let his fists do the talking. Boxers of the stature of Primo Camera and Max Baer were dispatched, and Louis was already being dubbed the champion-in-waiting.
Setback against Schmeling
His rise was halted in dramatic fashion in June 1936, when he met another former titleholder, Max Schmeling. Schmeling was given no chance, but arguably had his greatest fight ever in handing Louis his first defeat. Two of the German’s trademark rights did the damage: one floored Louis in the fourth, the other finished him in the 12th.
Louis was soon back on track, putting away his opponents with monotonous regularity. But when a first challenger to reigning champion James J. Braddock was being lined up, Louis could not have argued at being behind Schmeling in the pecking order. However, on this occasion, prejudice worked in Louis’s favour, not against him. Schmeling abhorred Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, but his roots cost him what most pundits believed would have been a second stint as champion. Schmeling was passed over, and Louis was given a crack at the title.
He and Braddock met in Chicago, on 22 June 1937. Braddock fought magnificently for six rounds. In the first he actually dropped Louis to the boards with a right to the jaw. The challenger cut loose in the sixth with a series of pulverising rights to the head. A bloodied Braddock gamely came out for the seventh, swinging wildly in the hope of landing a lucky punch. He didn’t connect, and Louis did even more damage. It was all over in the next round. One swing too many left Braddock exposed and off balance. Louis put him down – and out – with yet another terrific right.
Two of Louis’s first three defences were routine early knockouts; the first was anything but. It pitted him against Tommy Farr, whom Braddock had outpointed after losing his title. Farr took Louis all the way, too, becoming one of only three fighters to go the distance with the champion.
Louis’s fourth defence was all about settling unfinished business. His defeat by Schmeling still rankled, and the way the German had been so cynically overlooked as number one challenger to Braddock also gnawed away at him. The issue was decided in the most dramatic fashion, on 22 June 1938. The fight took place against a backdrop of personal rancour and political propaganda. There was little love lost between the two men, and before the contest Louis had ominously declared: ‘It’s revenge I’m after.’ On an ideological level, Schmeling was lauded as the symbol of Aryan supremacy. A thoroughly decent man, Schmeling was horrified at such talk. He was a victim of circumstance.
It was one of the most brutal contests ever seen, and lasted barely two minutes. In that time Louis unleashed a ferocious attack on his opponent. One body blow brought a cry of pain from Schmeling that was heard all round the arena. It later transpired that the punch had broken one of his lumbar vertebrae and driven it into a kidney. Schmeling would need weeks of hospital treatment to make a full recovery.
German radio was covering the fight live, anticipating a famous victory. Mysteriously, the plug was pulled on the broadcast before the referee called a halt to proceedings and allowed Schmeling to be stretchered out of the ring. This was seen by many as Louis’s finest hour, a remarkable combination of raw power and artistry. The man himself later said that Schmeling was the only fighter he ever really got mad at.
Louis had a six-month lay-off after the Schmeling fight, returning to the ring in January 1939. In just over three years, he proceeded to see off no less than 17 challengers. The highlights, for very different reasons, were wins over Tony Galento, Arturo Godoy and Billy Conn. ‘Two Ton’ Tony Galento was a hulk of a man, who famously trained on beer, cigars and steaks. He refused to be intimidated by the champion. Galento took the fight to Louis, and even managed to put him down in the third round. But superior skill told in the end, and the end wasn’t far away. Louis cut loose in the fourth, and Galento was a bloodied mess when the referee finished it.
Chile’s Arturo Godoy was an unconventional boxer and an awkward customer. He frustrated Louis when they met in New York on 9 February 1940, and joined a very select club who would take the champion the distance. Louis had Godoy worked out when the two met again four months later; the fight was stopped in the eighth.
Conn’s costly mistake
The last great bout before the Second World War caused a four-year hiatus saw Louis take on light-heavyweight champion Billy Conn. Conn was lightning fast, very skilful and ultra-confident. He matched Louis for 12 rounds, and Louis later said he came perilously close to losing his title on that June day in 1941. Conn only had to stay clear of trouble for the last three minutes and victory was assured. But he made the mistake of trying to slug it out with Louis in the 13th round, and a grateful champion put him out for the count.
A rematch with Conn was Louis’s first fight after the war, on 19 June 1946. As usual, Louis didn’t make the same mistake twice and this time Conn was knocked out in the eighth.
Time had taken its toll on Louis, and he was now a declining force. He still had too much punching power for most challengers, though. There were three more wins after the Conn fight, two of them against Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott was already a veteran, even older than Louis. The two men met for the first time in New York, on 5 December 1947. Walcott became the third boxer to take Louis all the way. Unlike the Farr and Godoy fights, however, many thought Louis fortunate to get the decision this time.
One last hurrah
The two met again in June 1948. Louis was still the favourite, but nowhere near the 10-1 on odds which had once been the norm. His training displays were described as lazy and lacklustre; in sparring he looked ponderous and vulnerable. Stung by the criticism and worried that he might be outboxed, Louis broke his own rule and taunted
Walcott to come forward and make a fight of it. For nine rounds Walcott had much the better of things. The next six minutes witnessed one last hurrah for a great champion. In rounds 10 and 11 he rolled back the years, fighting like a man rejuvenated if not possessed. Observers said that Louis hit Walcott with every punch in the book. It was all over in the 11th, and it would have been a perfect way to bow out of the sport. After the fight, Louis said that even after Uncle Sam had taken his cut, the $250,000 purse would help him to enjoy life as an ex-champion and help support his business ventures. It was to prove an ominous remark, for crippling tax bills would force Louis back into the ring just two years later. It was to prove an unedifying spectacle.
Nickname: ‘The Brown Bomber’
Bom: Lafayette, Alabama USA May 13 1914
Died: April 12 1981
Height: over 6’ Weight: 196 lbs.
World Heavyweight Champion: 1937-1949
Record: Won 63 (49 KO’s) Lost 3