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The First Louis Walcott Fight

70 Years Ago
Louis Won A Controversial Decision

By Bobby Franklin

December 5th marked the 70th anniversary of the first meeting between Champion Joe Louis and challenger Jersey Joe Walcott which took place at Madison Square Garden in 1947.

Louis had been a very active champion and this was to be his 24th defense of the title. Up until 1942 Joe defended the title often and always successfully. In 1941 alone he had met eight challengers including his historic match against Billy Conn. Things would change at the beginning of 1942 as the country was now focused on World War II. After defeating Abe Simon in March of 1942 Joe would not defend the championship again until his rematch with Billy Conn in June, 1946.

Louis stepped up and supported his country during the war by enlisting in the Army. During this time he fought a number of exhibition matches at Army bases around the world, but for such an active fighter the four year layoff took its toll. The Joe Louis who returned to the ring after the war was older and slower than the devastating fighting machine who had dominated the division throughout the 1930s and into the 40s. While Joe’s physical abilities may have faded a bit, he was still a very great fighter.

The long awaited rematch between Louis and Conn turned out to be a disappointment as it didn’t come close to having the excitement of their first go. After the Conn fight Louis dispatched Tami Mauriello in the first round of their fight. At this point the heavyweight division was looking quite weak with no truly outstanding challengers.

Promoter Mike Jacobs decided to go with a former sparring partner of Joe’s for his next title defense. Jersey Joe Walcott was a very slick boxer with a solid punch who never seemed to get a break. Walcott had been a pro since 1930 and was now having a fairly successful run of it. He had only lost 3 of his last 21 bouts which took place since 1944. He avenged all three of those losses. Joe had also missed a few years during the war not fighting since being stopped by Abe Simon in 1940. Walcott was back and giving it one more try in an attempt to get a title shot.

It should also be noted that early in his career Walcott had been trained for a brief time by Jack Blackburn. Blackburn ended up taking on Joe Louis as a pupil so Walcott and he parted ways.

Jersey Joe wasn’t given much of a chance of defeating Louis who entered the ring a ten to one favorite. The challenger made the oddsmakers look a bit silly when he decked the champion in the first round. The two fighters were mixing it up with Louis having Walcott against the ropes. Suddenly, Walcott landed a short right hand that was a solid punch but also caught the Brown Bomber off balance. The Champ went down for a two count.

In the fourth round Walcott would again deck Louis with another right hand. This time Louis was down for a count of seven and hurt. Louis got up and fought his way out of trouble avoiding numerous rights thrown by the challenger.

The rest of the fight was a cat and mouse game with Walcott using his brilliant boxing skills, his feints and shuffle, to keep Louis off balance. Louis’s left eye was swelling while Walcott had no marks on his face. Louis, while determined and steadfast, just could not land a solid combination on Walcott. Jersey Joe, who had started the fight quite aggressively, seemed to be content to keep at a distance as much as he could and rely on his speed tasty out of trouble. Perhaps he was thinking back to when Billy Conn fought Louis the first time.

Before the start of the 15th and final round Walcott’s cornermen told him he had the fight and he should play it safe. He followed their instructions and spent the final round moving and circling Louis intent on not being knocked out.

When the decision was announced two of the judges gave the fight to the champion while the referee scored it for Walcott. The crowd also thought the challenger had done enough to win.

It has been written that even Joe Louis believed he lost the fight. There are two reasons for this. One, Joe tried to leave the ring before the verdict was announced. Second, Louis went over to Walcott and told him he was sorry.

In an interview years later with Curt Gowdy Louis made it clear that while he was not happy with his performance he truly believed he did enough to win. He said he left the ring early because he was disgusted with himself and felt he should have done better. And as far as why he told Walcott he was sorry, Joe responded “I said that to everyone I beat.” Louis felt that in order for Walcott to win the title he would have had to fight more aggressively and not run so much. Apparently, the officials agreed with him. The press, however, did not. 21 out of 32 boxing writers that were polled said they saw Walcott as the winner.

In reality, this was a tough fight to judge. While Walcott fought beautifully, he also seemed to be playing it safety first. It is difficult, especially in that era, for judges take a title away from a champion when the challenger hasn’t won it decisively. It should also be remembered that the scoring of the fight was on the rounds system, so the two rounds where Walcott scored knockdowns did not count anymore than the other rounds he won. Even if it had been scored on points Louis would have won.

The two would meet again a little over six months later. Walcott would once again floor the champion, but Joe Louis would show the old fire in the 11th round when he knocked out Walcott with a blistering combination. Louis would announce his retirement after the fight, but unfortunately, he would’ve to make a comeback because of financial problems.

Jersey Joe would go on to fight for the title three more times finally winning it in the third try against Ezzard Charles. He was 37 years old at the time.

While the first Louis/Walcott may not have been the greatest Heavyweight Championship bout of all time, it was certainly an interesting one and very much worth watching.


Jersey Joe and Muhammad

Walcott and Ali
A Contrast

It was a tragic irony that Ali ended up worse off than any of those who came before him.

Muhammad Ali used to enjoy making fun of his predecessors. He would mock them for being punchy. I remember seeing him do this in front of Joe Louis. Ali would put his finger to his nose pressing it flat and then speak while slurring his speech pretending to stumble around on unsteady feet. He would talk about how guys like Louis and the other champs took too many punches, couldn’t box as well as “The Greatest”, and ended up with their brains scrambled. He bragged how that would never happen to him because he was so much smarter and better than they were.

Holmes vs Ali

It was a tragic irony that Ali ended up worse off than any of those who came before him. By the time he was training for the Larry Holmes fight Ali was already showing serious signs of brain damage. Watching interviews and training footage as he was preparing for that bout you can hear him slurring his speech. His coordination was deteriorating as seen in his difficulty hitting the speed bag. Ali was 38 years old at the time and would lose by stoppage to Holmes. It was a sad sight.

Why did this happen to such a great “boxer”? Let’s compare him to another former champ who was still fighting when he was in his late 30s; Jersey Joe Walcott.

Jersey Joe was 37 years old when he won the Heavyweight Championship by knocking out Ezzard Charles. He would defend it against Charles before going on to lose it to Rocky Marciano in a fight in which Walcott was leading on the scorecards when he was kayoed in the 13th round.

Walcott also had given Joe Louis more than he could handle a few years earlier when he lost a highly disputed decision to the Brown Bomber. He dropped Louis twice in that bout. Louis would win a rematch by knockout, but not before hitting the canvas one more time.

Jersey Joe was a master of the Art of Boxing.

Ali got a lot of laughs making fun of the greats of the past. He not only went after them for supposedly being punchy, but he also demeaned their skills. Well, if Walcott was lacking in skills and Ali was so brilliant why is it Jersey Joe retired with his faculties still intact while Ali ended up a mental and physical wreck? You just have to watch footage of the two men in action and you will see what made the difference. Walcott was a brilliant technical boxer. He could move, he could punch, he was always in good physical shape (except for the times earlier in his career the he was so poor he couldn’t eat properly). He also knew how to avoid taking punishment. Jersey Joe was a master of the Art of Boxing. Watching him move across the canvas is something to behold. Walcott could feint, he could parry, he was always in position and on balance. He would turn and start to walk away from his opponent and then suddenly turn back with a lethal combination. Witness his knock out of Ezzard Charles where Joe very nonchalantly steps in with a half hook, half uppercut to win the title. Just amazing.

Walcott vs Charles

Walcott and Ali both had their last fight at the age of 39. Ali had a total of 61 fights while Walcott had 71. Walcott fought professionally for 23 years, Ali for 21 years. Ali was off for three and a half years when he was banned from boxing, so he actually had around 18 years of activity. Walcott was stopped six times. With the exception of the Marciano and Louis fights these stoppages were earlier in his career when he was struggling to survive. Ali was stopped just once, by Holmes; however, he took a lot more punches than Walcott did.

The difference between the two was in their skills. Walcott actually got better with age. Ali deteriorated as he got older. But why?  Ali depended on his speed when he was younger. He was amazingly fast and had great reflexes. As he got older he began to lose that speed, and without it he started taking punches. He did not have the skills to to avoid being hit. He was no Jersey Joe Walcott. In fact, Ali depended on his ability to take punishment in order to win fights. During training sessions he would allow his sparring partners to unload on him. In a bizarre way he seemed to think by taking more punishment he was toughening himself for his upcoming matches. This took a terrible toll on him. Sure it made for exciting fights, but as can be seen in his fights with the likes of George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, and very notably, Earnie Shavers, he took some fearful shots. It is no wonder he ended up the way he did.

Jersey Joe Walcott

Walcott, on the other hand, always worked on his defense. He would spend hours in training honing his defensive skills, shadow boxing, working in front of the mirror, watching other fighters. Most importantly, he would work at not getting hit while sparring. When it came to true boxing skills Walcott was miles ahead of Ali. Joe had a full palette to draw from, while Ali was sorely lacking in the finer points of the Manly Art of Self Defense. Walcott was a true master at his trade, in contrast to Ali who had always depended on his physical abilities, first his speed and then his toughness, to carry him through. Walcott was a technician, Ali was a tough guy.

Compare these two champs in their retirement years and you can see the difference. Walcott remained sharp and clear headed. He became the Sheriff of Camden County New Jersey and also served on the boxing commission until he was 70 years old. From then until his death at the age of 80 he worked helping handicapped and disabled children. His defensive boxing skills served him well as he showed no signs of brain damage.

Muhammad Ali

Ali’s deterioration had already started before he retired from the ring. While he made appearances in his retirement years he had become, to people who were willing to face the truth, a symbol of the dark side of boxing. He had become that which he had mocked. It was almost Shakespearean in that Muhammad Ali would become that caricature of the punch drunk boxer he said would never be.

Ezzard Charles, A Gentle Terror

Ezzard Charles; A Boxing Life
By William Dettloff
Published by McFarland, 232 pages $35.00

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

imagesEzzard Charles was not someone you would look at and think of as vicious fighting machine. He looked more like a member of Duke Ellington’s jazz band. He was also very mild mannered with a gentle air about him. As a kid in Lawrenceville, Georgia and later in Cincinnati, Ohio he was friendly but quiet. He did always love boxing and dreamed of one day becoming a world champion.

In 1949, after an amateur career and almost ten years of fighting pro he attained his dream by beating Jersey Joe Walcott for the title Joe Louis had vacated. Unfortunately for Charles he had two things against him. He was stepping into the shadow of the beloved Louis, and he did not possess the exciting and dramatic style of the Brown Bomber. The public just did not take to him. It’s not like Charles hadn’t earned respect. He had fought and beaten a number of the Black Murder’s Row fighters. He had two wins over the very great Charley Burley as well as a decision win and a knockout over Archie Moore.

It has often been said that Charles is the most underrated of all heavyweight champions.

While Charles may have looked more like a piano teacher out of the ring, when the bell rang he was a brutal competitor. As I was reading William Dettloff’s excellent biography of Charles I couldn’t help thinking that Ezzard had to have a lot of anger in him that he could only express in the prize ring. He could also be erratic in his performances, sometimes not looking motivated enough to win convincingly. Charles would be a ripe candidate  for some psychoanalysis, and in fact, before his rematch with Rocky Marciano the press, in an effort to drum up interest in the fight had a psychiatrist visit the camps of both fighters. The doctor described Charles as “A dreamer type…who loses the spontaneity in his dreams” because of his many “inhibitions”. Interesting insight even if it was just hype to sell tickets.

Mr. Dettloff has done exhaustive research on the life and fighting career of Ezzard Charles. He takes us to the tragic night in 1948 when Charles fought Sam Baroudi. Baroudi would be carried from the ring and die the next day. Ezzard was devastated by this tragedy, but just three months later would step back into that same ring and knock out the very formidable Elmer “Violent” Ray. In fact, he would fight four more times in 1948 including a win over Jimmy Bivins.

Louis vs Charles
Louis vs Charles

Charles would continue winning and fighting often, finally landing a fight with Jersey Joe Walcott for the vacant heavyweight crown. Beating Walcott may have made him champion, but he still had to live in the shadow of Joe Louis. He defended the title numerous times and even went on to defeat his idol Louis in a brutal fifteen round affair that should have removed all doubt to his legitimacy as champion. It did not. The problem was, as Dettloff points out, Ezzard Charles was not Joe Louis.

This lack of public support may have had something to do with his not always being to motivate himself. Another reason was his fighting so often and against such tough competition. Ezzard rarely got an easy opponent. In fact, in reading this biography we are treated to a history of the light heavyweight and heavyweight divsions in the 1940s and 50s. Mr. Dettloff gives brief but very interesting biographies of many of Charles’s opponents; Archie Moore, Walcott, Bivins, Harold Johnson, Bob Satterfield, and many others. This all makes for a very interesting book.

Dettloff also introduces us to many of the characters who occupied the world of boxing during that era. One of the most quotable was Charles’s manager (he had many) Jake Mintz. Mintz could twist the English language in amazing ways. For example, when recounting surgery he had to repair a hernia he said “They thought I had some golf stones there so they took an autograph of my heart and said, ‘One of your ulsters is worn out’. William Shakespeare would be envious.

There are also other interesting facts related here. It turns out a young Charles while serving in the military fought a three round exhibition with Joe Louis. Also, while training for his bout against Bob Satterfield the Charles people brought in a crude young heavyweight by the name of Sonny Liston to be a sparring partner. Liston was not up to the task at that point in his career.

After Charles lost the title to Walcott, and a rematch with Jersey Joe, it looked like his hopes of ever regaining the title were over. He began campaigning for another shot at the title but lost back to back matches against Nino Valdez and Harold Johnson. Charles was getting tired and old, but he did come back to life with wins over Satterfield and Coley Wallace. It was enough to earn him a shot at the new and exciting young champion Rocky Marciano.

Dettloff writes about this fight in detail. He discusses Charles’s training and strategy for the fight, a strategy that at first glance may have sounded foolish but made sense. Ezzard went into the Marciano bout motivated to win but came up short. He did earned the distinction of being the only man to take the Rock the full 15 rounds and came closer than any fighter to taking the title from him, though the decision was clearly in Marciano’s favor.

Charles would get a rematch based on this performance, and even though he severely cut Rocky’s nose, he just did not have anything left. Though he would continue to fight on for another four years it was all downhill from there. He would end up broke, take up professional wrestling, and struggle to make ends meet. His final years were spent suffering from Lou Gehrigs Disease. A very tragic end for such a great fighter.

William Dettloff has written a fine biography of a great champion, and one that Ezzard Charles deserves. Boxing fans should take the time to read this very interesting book and learn about this man who deserves to be remembered. It has often been said that Charles is the most underrated of all heavyweight champions. Mr. Dettloff has down a terrific job in changing that history.

A Moment From Walcott vs Ray

Jersey Joe Walcott
Elmer “Violent” Ray
A Split Second In That Fight

by Bobby Franklin

Walcott Ray

Followers of this column know I occasionally like to take a photograph from a fight that took place years ago and study it to see what it shows about how the contestants plied their trade. The reason I choose photos from an earlier time in boxing is because it is impossible to find any taken today that show the fighters doing any of these moves.The art and technique no longer exist,

The art and technique no longer exist

and that is borne out by these photos.

The latest in this series is a shot taken during either the second or third fight between Jersey Joe Walcott and Elmer “Violent” Ray. Both fights took place within a few months of each other and both resulted in very close decision wins, one for Ray and the final contest for Walcott. The two had fought each other once before early in their careers when Walcott scored a knockout over Ray. The first fight was in 1937. The final two were in 1946 and 1947.

Fight fans are well versed in the career of Walcott, the man who at the time was the oldest to win the Heavyweight Title. It can be strongly argued he was the best heavyweight of all time when it came to technical skills. He was fast, agile, could punch with the kick of a mule, and had great stamina. He was a true artist when in the ring, and like any great artist he constantly practiced his craft,

like any great artist he constantly practiced his craft

always striving to improve and learn new things. I have been told that if he was in the gym and through working out he would sit and watch other fighters training, even the amateurs. When asked why he would take the time to observe amateurs sparring he reportedly answered, “Because I might learn something, a new move, that I don’t already know.”
Walcott was a master tactician who studied boxing the way a medical student studies anatomy. He would practice his footwork as if it were choreography, which it actually is. To watch Jersey Joe in the ring is to watch a true master at work. Relaxed yet intense.

Elmer “Violent” Ray is an intriguing figure. The man had an incredible record; A total of 108 bouts with 85 wins. A remarkable 64 of those wins were by knock out. He lost just 17 contests and had 5 draws.From October of 1943 until his third fight with Walcott in March of 1947,

Elmer had 50 consecutive fights without a loss

Elmer had 50 consecutive fights without a loss Not only is that an outstanding accomplishment given the period he was fighting in, it is also a huge number of fights to have in approximately 3 and a half years.

While some may question the quality of the opposition he faced, a few names do jump out at me. He kayoed Lee Savold and Jay D. Turner as well as having the win over Walcott. He couldn’t have been fighting all stiffs and been able to come up with those wins.

There is little known about Ray. No film exists of his fights, and nobody seems to know what became of him after he gave up boxing. He just seems to have disappeared. If he had won the third fight with Walcott it is likely he would have gotten the title shot against Joe Louis instead of Jersey Joe. Instead, he fought on for a couple of more years, winning a close decision over Ezzard Charles and then being kayoed by Charles in a rematch. Not long after he quit boxing and vanished like Keyser Soze in the movie “The Usual Suspects”.

Now to the photo. This is another of those amazing pictures that captures so much of what is happening in this fight. Though it is just a fraction of a second of action, it shows us two very skilled fighters at work. We see that Walcott has moved to his right and has let fly a very hard right hand. It is possible he feinted Ray with a jab before doing this as Elmer’s right hand appears to be in position to parry a jab. His left is low but also in position to deliver a hook to the body.

Joe is putting the force of his entire body behind the blow. You can see how he has shifted the weight of his body from his right foot to his left, up on the toes of his right and flat footed with the left. He has also dropped his right shoulder further increasing the force of the blow. Just look at the power and torque in his shoulder and chest muscles. His eyes are focused on Ray, and you can see he is ready to follow up with the left hook.

Jack Dempsey used to say he got his power by punching from his hips

Jack Dempsey used to say he got his power by punching from his hips You can clearly see how Joe has put his hip into this blow. His entire core is at play here. In this photo Walcott is giving a master class in how to throw a right hand.

So, what about Elmer Ray? Well, he certainly is no slouch. As great a move as Walcott has just pulled off, it appears from Elmer’s position that he was sucked in by the feint, but he has reacted well to the move. As soon as he realized what was coming he went to a defensive move and slipped under the punch. Because it happened so fast he is still feeling the power of the blow, but Walcott does not connect to a vulnerable area of Ray’s anatomy. Elmer Ray shows us the art of slipping a punch. Remember, he didn’t have time to think about what he was going to do. He made this great move because he had practiced it over and over again. You are seeing two masters at work.

I would also call your attention to the referee. He is on his toes and as focused on the action as the boxers. He is out of the way but in a position to step in if needed. All three of these men are consummate professionals.

I get more enjoyment just looking at this photo than I can get out of watching any of the so called champs of today in a live fight. Maybe they should take some time to look at pictures such as this. They might learn something. Of course, it would probably just confuse them.