The Champ Nears The End

33-year old Joseph L. Barrow from Buckalew Mountain, Alabama, is the hardest hitting human on planet Earth, which means he is the hardest puncher in the solar system.  Men who have felt the force of Mr. Barrow’s blows liken the experience to suffering an automobile wreck.  Better known as Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber”, Mr. Barrow is the world’s heavyweight champion, and his title reign has already outlasted both the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler’s thousand-year reich.

Joe Louis has been a professional boxer since 1934.  He has been victorious in 60 of 61 outings.  He has knocked out 51 opponents, 12 within the first three minutes.  He has not lost a fight for eleven and a half years.  But he will be 34 years old in a few months, and even Joe Louis cannot K.O. the clock.

Louis is aware of the deterioration of his skills—-he had known he was slipping even before the material evidence provided by his last bout, last December’s title go at the Garden against lightly regarded challenger Arnold Raymond Cream, nee “Jersey” Joe Walcott, a contest that everyone except two of the three scoring officials believed he had lost.

“I’m not as good as I was ten years ago against Braddock,” Louis had admitted before the fight.  “I think I hit as hard now as I did, but I’ve lost some speed.  I get hit now with punches I used to be able to get away from.”

The Bomber’s twenty-fourth title defense had been a near-disaster almost from the moment he entered the ring.  Joe’s hands had always been quicker than his feet, and he sometimes had trouble chasing down stick-and-move sharpies who refused to stand still long enough to be executed; but championship bouts were scheduled for 45 minutes, and even the nimblest of opponents could rarely sprint that long.  Walcott was the exception.  No spring chicken himself, Arnold Ray spent his evening deftly avoiding the axe, but he stopped backpedaling long enough to floor the Champ twice–a first round flash knockdown from which Louis arose quickly at the count of two; and a fourth round right to the jaw that dropped Joe to the canvas on his hands and knees with his head full of cotton until Referee Ruby Goldstein ticked seven.  Getting whacked around by a 10-1 underdog was embarrassing; still, the challenger had not fought consistently enough to convince judges Marty Monroe and Frank Forbes that he deserved the title.  Goldstein, on the other hand, an old pug himself, and closer to the action than anyone except the participants, had it 7-6-2 for Walcott.

After the bout, the Champ’s dressing room was as gloomy as winter in Berlin.  Joe was a likable guy when he wasn’t trying to beat your brains in, and the visible erosion of his skills worried everyone except the Bomber.

“Diet and drying out,” explained Louis.  “I made the fight tough for myself.  He didn’t make it tough for me.”

Walcott thought differently.  Like every boxer who had ever been on the short end of a close decision, Jersey Joe believed he had won the fight.

“They told me in my corner that I was way ahead, and that all I had to do to win was avoid any risk in the last round.  If I thought it was as close as it turned out, I’d have traded punch for punch in the fifteenth.”

Swapping shots with a man who had bludgeoned 84% of his opponents into involuntary unconsciousness had not seemed prudent to Arnold Ray’s manager, Joe Webster.  Aging and slowed as he was, that was still the Brown Bomber out there, and there was no way that Webster was going to advise his man to finish a close fight by amiably sticking his head onto a chopping block where the Champ would have ample opportunity to lop it off.  Besides, Jersey Joe had been way ahead, at least under the backup point system devised by Colonel Eddie Egan, the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission.  Judge Frank Forbes, who had awarded the bout to Louis, 8 rounds to 6 with 1 even, had Walcott winning on points 12-9.

Forbes’ bi-polar scoring gave Jersey Joe another opportunity to win the belt, albeit on a technicality, but the State Athletic Commission handily nixed the Walcott-Webster protest, stating, “Joe Louis has always been a true sportsman, and the New York Commission assumes he will give Joe Walcott another chance at the heavyweight title.”

The Champ was amenable to a Walcott rematch, but only if the challenger agreed to fight at a significant discount, and Jersey Joe balked at being marked down.

“When I signed for the last bout, I agreed to give Louis a return bout if I won, and the terms were to be 30% for Louis and 30% for me,” said Walcott.  “Louis won a disputed decision, and now they want to give me 20% of the gate.  I don’t believe that is fair.”

Fair or not, if Arnold Ray wanted another shot at Joe’s crown, he could accept what the Bomber was offering or commit to a non-title bout next summer, then try and wheedle championship recognition from the National Boxing Association.  Good luck.

Louis professed not to care who he battled as long as he garnered 40% of the take.  If Walcott failed to agree to terms, Joe said he might take on Gus Lesnevich, the light-heavyweight champion, and Ring Magazine’s 1947 Fighter Of The Year.

“I’d prefer fighting Walcott again, but Lesnevich is pretty good too.  Personally, I think Lesnevich would give me a harder fight.”

“I earned the right to fight Louis again,” countered Jersey Joe.  “I always considered him a great champion and a fine sportsman, but now with him talking about meeting Lesnevich instead of me, I don’t know.”

At any event, the Bomber had already decided his next opponent would be his last: “After that, the next fight I have will be in a bar room.  I’ve had enough.”

—Excerpted from Nobody Loves You When You’re Down & Out: On & Off The Canvas In 1948 by Bob Mack

About Bob Mack

Retired since 2003. Military Service: U.S. Army, 36th Artillery Group, Babenhausen, Germany 1966-67; 1st Signal Brigade, Republic of Vietnam, 1967-68 Attended University of Miami, 1969-73
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