WHAT can you write about Joe Louis that hasn’t been written before? What can you talk about to Joe Louis that hasn’t been talked about before?
That was my problem when I knocked on the door of his room at the new Cavendish Hotel, in London’s Jermyn Street. The time was 4.30 in the afternoon, but as Joe opened the door and said, “Please come in,” he was pulling on his dressing-gown, having obviously just got out of bed.
Reason – Joe had been working at the Pigalle Sporting Club, and that establishment doesn’t close until the early hours of the morning. He had proved a popular attraction, and patrons have been clamouring to shake hands with him, and get him to talk about his fights.
So Joe stretched himself out on his bed, saying “Grab a chair,” and all that remained was what to talk about.
So I said to him – “Joe, you must get fed up with telling your life story over and over again. I’ve got your complete record here. Why don’t we go through it, and you pick out a dozen fights which you think were important or proved turning points in your career, or just fights that you like to talk about. Our readers would be more interested in the background to those fights than what actually happened.”
“Fair enough,” replied Joe. “Actually, there are many things which pass through my mind when I’m looking at the record, and many incidents which I remember. And of course I’ll never forget my professional debut.
JULY 4, 1934, JACK KRAKEN W ko 1 CHICAGO
“Naturally I was a little apprehensive. I had been a very successful amateur, but this was different. The pressure was on and there was a large crowd there to witness my start in the paid ranks. They expected something good from a Golden Gloves and National AAU champion.
“However, when the bell rang I forgot all about the spectators. The first accurate left hook did it, and I was launched on my pro career. I felt on top of the world.
JUNE 25, 1935, PRIMO CARNERA W ko 6 NEW YORK
“I was still unbeaten after 12 months, and now had been matched with a former world champion. It was also my first appearance in New York, and you can imagine how I felt as I made my way to the ring with 90,000 enthusiastic fans standing up and cheering, at that great ball park, the Yankee Stadium.
“Carnera had, of course, lost his World title about the same time as I turned pro, but prior to meeting me he had won all three successive fights, and all inside the distance.
“He was indeed a huge man. But I had been training with big fellows, and had some idea if what to expect and what to do.
“When we went into our first clinch I picked him up and set him down in a corner. He sure looked surprised and it gave me a lot of confidence.
“There was no real snap in his punches, and once I had solved the problem of his size it was easy. In the sixth he mumbled something to the referee, and he stopped it.
“This was my first real important win.”
SEPTEMBER 24, 1935, MAX BAER W ko 4 NEW YORK
“After meeting Carnera I had only one bout, stopping Kevin Levinsky in a round, before being matched with another ex-champ in Maxie Baer.
“Here was a man who could well have been one of the all time greats if he had not liked the bright lights quite so much.
“I was right in at the deep end at this time, for Maxie had been a World champ only three months previously. Then he lost it to Jimmy Braddock. Jimmy was a real gent, both in and out of the ring. But I little realised I should be fighting him for the World title within two years.
“Anyway, back to the Baer fight. This was a fantastic day for me. I got married two hours before the contest.
“This was one fight I badly wanted to win. It would establish me as a top contender. Yet I was surprised how easy it was. I don’t think I have ever fought better. And one prominent American boxing writer said that I had landed 254 punches in those four rounds and missed with only four. He didn’t hit me at all. My hands were certainly sore after this one.
“Yet another former World champion. Schmeling had lost his crown four years previously, but he was still among the leading contenders. He had been inactive for 12 months, and at the age of 22 and still unbeaten, I was the favourite to win this one.
“But it didn’t work out that way. I treated it as just another fight and I trained hard. But Schmeling was a good puncher and a good fighter. He was quoted as saying he had found a weak link in my defences. Whether that was true or not I don’t know. But he beat me fair and square.
“However, I didn’t think it was the end of the world. I knew I could do better, and resolved to get back into the ring again as quickly as possible.
“As you know, two months later I was in with Jack Sharkey, again an ex-champ, and stopped him in three rounds. This helped to restore my confidence.
JUNE 22, 1937, JIMMY BRADDOCK W ko 8 CHICAGO
“This was it, I was fighting for the World title. I thought I had chances, for Braddock was then nearly 32 years old, and hadn’t fought for two years.
“They said I looked poor in training. But you can imagine that I wasn’t going to show all my wares in the gym. Actually, I was as fit a fiddle.
“In the first round I went down, but was caught off-balance and up before the count could be started, but it must have given Braddock encouragement.
“However, as he tired so I put on the pressure and in the eighth he left his jaw exposed, so I threw a right cross. As he went down I knew he would never beat the count. It sure was a wonderful feeling. World champion at 23!
“I didn’t hang around once the fight was over. I wanted to get home. But it was a wonderful thrill to see about 20,000 fans milling around in front of my house. I went out and waved my hand in acknowledgement. I was much too overcome to say anything.”
AUGUST 30, 1937, TOMMY FARR W pts 15 NEW YORK
“This was my first defence and it was one fight in which I wasn’t happy with my performance. It was a jab v. jab contest. I’d never seen Farr before, so didn’t know what to expect. He put up a great fight, took a punch well and had a lot of heart.
“In my estimation he was the best heavyweight that Britain has ever produced, and it was a real pleasure to meet him again recently.
“It has been suggested that Tommy and I could groom one of our young sporting prospects who would be sponsored by the Lonsdale Sporting Club.
“This is something I would very much like to do.”
JUNE 22, 1938, MAX SCHMELING W ko 1 NEW YORK
“There’s no need to tell you how badly I wanted to win this one. I’d never forgotten that defeat, and now that I was champ it was up to me to prove that I was the better man.
There’s nothing much I can tell you about the actual fight. You’ve probably seen the film several times. I just knew I couldn’t lose. I’d learned a lot since our last meeting, and on the night it seemed as if every fan in the arena was in my corner.
“We had planned that I should go all out for a quick kayo, and that’s what I did.
“I guess I was the most popular man in the United States that night, and I had millions of congratulatory letters.
“I still see Max from time to time. We met recently in Germany when Muhammad Ali fought Karl Mildenberger, and I was a guest at his house.
“This was the one that nearly got away. I made it tough for myself. He came in under the cruiserweight limit, and I wanted to break 200lb. to get more speed, but in doing so weakened myself. It was the only argument my trainer and I ever had.
“I knew he was ahead on point, and I kept saying to myself,
“Make him fight your fight.” Something told me that my chance would come, and it did.
“He had a great twelfth round, and his manager told him,
“Keep him boxing.” But Billy had other ideas.
“Let’s have a fight,” he said at the beginning of the thirteenth. “I’m going to knock you out.”
“But this was playing right into my hands, and I knocked him out instead. I was still World champ – but it had been a near thing.”
JUNE 19, 1946, BILLY CONN W ko 8 NEW YORK
“This was something of an anti-climax. The war had intervened with both our careers, I was in the U.S. Army giving exhibitions for the troops. Conn was no longer the fast-moving young cruiser, he’d put on half a stone and wasn’t so mobile. I had kept in shape pretty well, and had no trouble stopping him this time.”
SEPTEMBER 27, 1950, EZZARD CHARLES L pts 15 NEW YORK
“I had announced my retirement as undefeated World Champion in March 1949, but continued to box exhibitions with good opposition.
“The lure of the ring was proving too much, and I decided to make a comeback. Charles had beaten Jersey Joe Walcott for the crown that I had relinquished, and we were matched.
“I was rushed into this one. I could have done with another month’s training at least. But it was an outdoor show, and the date couldn’t be altered.
“Anyway, Charles won, the only point in my whole career that I had lost a contest on points. It wasn’t that he was a better fighter, but he was in better condition.”
OCTOBER 26, 1951, ROCKY MARCIANO L rsf 8 NEW YORK
“There was no thought in my mind about trying to get my title back. I needed the fight. Uncle Sam was getting tough with me over taxes he said I owed. The only way I knew to raise money was to fight.
“This match with Marciano took my mind back many years to when I was the one being groomed for a title shot, against people like Carnera and Baer. Now it was Rocky, and I was the trial-horse, so to speak.
“Since the Charles defeat I had won eight straight, but Marciano was young and fit and strong. Although I did my best he was too good for me. It just wasn’t there any more.
“Anyway, less than a month later I was out in the Far East giving exhibitions for the troops involved in the trouble there, right up to just before Christmas 1951.
“The last one I gave was in Formosa. And that was it. This time there would be no more comebacks. And there never was.
“You know, Ron, we’ve only dealt with a dozen fights, but they have virtually covered my career. And it’s surprising how many details I can remember.
“If I had my time to go over again I would have done exactly the same.
“These days I am working in Public Relations all over the world, and love meeting people, especially my old opponents and acquaintances in the fight game.
“My only real relaxation is golf. I play from a four handicap with people like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Andy Williams and Fred Astaire.
“Please, Ron, thank everyone concerned for their courtesy during my stay. I have thoroughly enjoyed being in Britain and meeting people at the Pigalle, also attending fights and functions all over the country. I was agreeably surprised to find that I am still so popular.
“Now I think I’d better get some sleep.”
And before I had reached the door on the way out, Joe was already closing the curtains.
Good night, champ. I know who I think was, is and always will be THE GREATEST.