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The story of Joe Louis vs Jersey Joe Walcott

Joe Louis vs Jersey Joe Walcott
John Jarrett tells the story of Joe Louis’ Madison Square Garden clash with Jersey Joe Walcott, and how the integrity of referee Ruby Goldstein never wavered

RUBY GOLDSTEIN was having a tough day, working for the big Schenley distillery with Christmas only three weeks away. But Ruby had something else on his mind that December day in 1947. Back in his New York office, he called his wife, Mae, at home. “Any messages for me?” he asked.

Mae sounded excited. “Yes, yes,” she blurted out. “You have to call the commission as soon as possible.” A few minutes later, Ruby, a licensed referee, was on the phone to the offices of the New York State Athletic Commission. He was told to be at Madison Square Garden at eight o’clock that night. Ruby knew what that meant, he was going to work the big one. Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott for the heavyweight championship of the world. He was still smiling by the time he got home.

A quick shower and he had something to eat as Mae packed his bag, putting in the gray flannel shirt and trousers, the black bow tie, the boxing shoes. Then Ruby was off, heading for the subway, already crowded with people going to the Garden for the fight.

The fact that Joe Louis was a very good friend of his didn’t bother Ruby one little bit. He would later admit, “At no time did it occur to me that, as Joe’s friend, I was in a singular position. I did not have to say, even to myself, that I would allow my great liking for Joe to sway me in the slightest.” Their friendship went back three years, to 1944, when both the big African-American champion and the little Jewish ex-fighter were serving in Uncle Sam’s Army.

Sergeant Louis was with the Army’s Special Services Branch when he reported to Camp Shanks, near New York. Joe became friendly with Sergeant Goldstein and they worked together on the camp boxing shows, sharing referee spots, kidding each other as they worked in the ring. When the top brass decided to send Louis on a tour of bases in the Aleutians, Joe took Ruby along with him.

Joe Louis
Joe Louis was with the Army’s Special Services Branch and worked on camp boxing shows

Out of uniform, the heavyweight champ returned to the ring while Ruby took a position with Schenley, a sort of travelling public relations emissary. He also retained his interest in boxing. A top liner in his ring days as a lightweight with a terrific punch and a flair for the sport that made him a tremendous attraction, Ruby drew packed houses to the Garden fighting guys like Ray Mitchell, Sid Terris and Jimmy McLarnin. They called him the “Jewel of the Ghetto”.

But Ruby had one major flaw in his fistic make-up. He just couldn’t take a stiff belt on the whiskers. It proved his downfall in the big ones, against Ace Hudkins, Terris and McLarnin. He couldn’t stay away from the ring however, becoming a referee while in the Army, and he was still in service when he applied for a licence with the New York Commission. Out of uniform, he soon became one of the top officials in the game.

Ruby took his job seriously, adopting strictly impersonal feelings to people he knew in boxing. Nobody got any favours when Ruby was working a fight, he called them as he saw them, no matter who they were. And as his prestige grew, so did he become ultra cautious. If he saw someone walking towards him whom he knew from his days on the East Side, he would cross the street to avoid a meeting. Once, when a stranger asked if he might be photographed with him, Goldstein diplomatically refused. “He’s probably okay,” he told friends, “but I don’t know him, he could be a gambler, and it wouldn’t be nice for me as a referee if such a picture turned up sometime.” With that outlook on his duties as referee, it is easy to see how Ruby arrived at Madison Square Garden with a clear and open mind that December night in 1947.

“I took the subway to Manhattan, read a newspaper on the way, got out at 49th Street and walked across to the Garden.” At 10 o’clock, the officials appointed for the main event were announced. Goldstein would be third man in the ring, judges at ringside were Frank Forbes and Marty Monroe.
World heavyweight champion for 10 years, 23 challengers sent packing, Joe Louis was 33 years old, balding on top, heavier for this fight than for any other at 211 pounds, with Walcott scaling 194 1/2. But “The Brown Bomber” was still the number one ring attraction as a crowd 18,194 paid a record gate for the Garden, $216,477. As champion, Joe would receive 37 1/2 per cent, with Jersey Joe collecting 22 1/2 per cent.

Although only four months older than the champion, Walcott had been kicking around the fight game for some 18 years. He had quit half-a-dozen times to work at any kind of job in order to support his family of six. A cagey boxer with a mean punch in either mitt, Joe claimed to have decked Louis when he was hired as a sparring partner. In denial, Louis said he hit Jersey Joe too hard in sparring and he quit camp, never to come back. Now he was back, and he was still hungry.

The original plan was for Walcott to box Joe in a 10-round non-title bout, the Jersey veteran having to score a knockout to take the title. But Col. Eddie Eagan of the New York Commission summoned the champion’s managers and promoter Sol Strauss, standing in for the ailing Mike Jacobs, to insist that the fight between Louis and Walcott must be for the title over 15 rounds instead of an exhibition of 10.

The window dressing didn’t change the odds. When the two Joes climbed into the ring, Jersey Joe was any price, Louis being quoted 1/11 favourite. In fact, so little was thought of Walcott’s chances that an enterprising car salesman offered him $250 for exclusive advertising rights on the soles of his boxing boots in the floodlit ring. Yet, before the first round was over, it looked as though the offer had been made to the wrong guy.

“In round one,” said Louis in his autobiography (Joe Louis: My Life), “Walcott hit me with a bunch of left jabs and hooks right away. When I pressed forward, Walcott stopped dancing long enough and hit me with a solid right to my jaw and floored me for a two-count. I lost my head then, and I tried to take him out with lefts and rights, but Walcott ran away… In the fourth, with the round less than a minute old, Walcott smacks a right to my jaw and down I go again. When I got up after taking a seven-count, my head was ringing.”

Joe Louis
Walcott floored Louis

“The crowd was in an uproar at the spectacle of the champion on hands and knees,” wrote Nat Fleischer, editor/publisher of The Ring magazine. “When Louis got up he held the challenger until referee Ruby Goldstein, who did excellent work as third man in the ring, ordered the men to break… As round after round kept slipping away and it became obvious that the crowd was with Walcott. Mannie Seaman, the champion’s trainer, kept pleading with him to do something: ‘Get out and punch more often.’ In the ninth, Louis did just that and almost succeeded in accomplishing what the fans had expected him to do.

“The champion caught up with his foe in that round. For a spell Walcott couldn’t romp around as fast as he did in the other rounds and Louis set sail for him. Several jabs sent Walcott back on his heels. A right to the jaw jarred Walcott. A left opened a cut under his left eye. A right crashed him against the ropes. The crowd was for Louis this time and the yells and screams to finish Walcott rent the air.

“Walcott was pinned in a corner and Louis let go rights and lefts to head, face and jaw that was a reminder of the real ‘Brown Bomber’. Walcott finally got free and fought back… but the champ wouldn’t back away. He kept tossing the punches, winging away with short rights, one of which grazed Jersey Joe’s chin and almost toppled him. A left to the body stung the challenger, but he wouldn’t go down. Both were cheered when the gong ended this furious attempt of Louis to make up for lost time. It was his best round.”

“For the rest of the night,” recalled Louis, “Walcott got on a bicycle – like a black Bob Pastor – he was determined to stay the 15 rounds, and he just fought in spurts. When the fight was over, I just wanted to get out of the ring. I was so disgusted with myself and the way I had fought that I started climbing out before the decision was announced. I didn’t care about the decision. I knew I won, since Walcott didn’t come to me. After all, I was the champion, and he had to take the crown from me.”

Ring announcer Harry Balogh took his microphone as the huge arena fell silent. “Judge Frank Forbes scores six rounds Walcott, two even, seven for Louis.” The fans didn’t like that one. “Ruby Goldstein has it seven rounds for Walcott, two even, and six for Louis.” They liked that and a great cheer filled the Garden. Then Balogh looked at the final card. “Judge Marty Monroe has nine rounds for Louis…” The rest of his announcement was drowned out by the storm of booing that must have been heard in New Jersey. Joe Louis had retained his title on a split decision.

Ruby Goldstein recalled that as he stepped down from the ring, “Men and women yelled at me as the special police opened a path, some tried to shake my hand, others slapped me on the back.” He wasn’t looking for praise. He had just done his job the best way he knew how, even if it did mean calling the fight against his good friend Joe Louis.

“It remained for Joe to say now all I could wish from anybody,” said Ruby. “I was proud when I read what he said. ‘I know Ruby. He calls them as he sees them and that should be good enough for anybody.’”

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