giants: Chilling lessons from Jolting Joe
By Mike Casey
Like the little boy who keeps banging his head against the wall
because it feels so good when he stops, I guess I will continue to preach about
punching technique and its many intricacies until the day I die. I imagine too
that I will continue to be countered by those who insist that Jim Jeffries was
an overrated plodder, Jack Dempsey was a crude banger and that David Tua could
knock all the old champs into a cocked hat.
How desperately starved of thrills we were before the Klitschko
brothers came charging over the horizon with assorted puddings and tubs of lard
to back them up! When Rocky Marciano wandered off into the sunset, the only guys
we had to cheer us up and pleasantly shatter our senses were the cream puff
likes of Sonny Liston, Cleveland Williams, George Foreman, Jerry Quarry, Ron
Lyle, Earnie Shavers and Mike Tyson.
Then along came the muscle-bound cavalry of slow-mo androids with
their big biceps and big bellies and other interesting parts that jiggled and
wobbled. Never mind their lack of enthusiasm and their somewhat inappropriate
reluctance to have a fight. These guys could punch because they had muscles like
boulders, super-duper nutrition and because they were…. BIG!
Well, if white men can’t jump, then big men don’t move around too
easily and precious few of them can punch their full weight. In my lifetime, the
very special talent that was the young, 220lb George Foreman was the only ‘super
heavyweight’ who could hit like the wrath of God and scare opponents with his
shadow. That particular Foreman, of course, would not be a super heavyweight in
the present era. He would be described as ‘small’, even though I believe that he
would wreak just as much havoc. Indeed, I would confidently wager my limited
possessions on George very quickly butchering Nikolay Valuev and needing less
than four rounds apiece to decimate the Klitschko duo.
Giants in boxing have consistently been members of a curious
breed. Rarely are they natural fighters or, more importantly, natural born
killers. It doesn’t require much tapping of the memory wires to compile a list
the length of your arm of big men who were not aggressive by nature, couldn’t
hit with any great power, couldn’t take a punch and didn’t actually like the
business of having a scrap.
Hand speed, good footwork, timing, balance and snap are all
essential ingredients of the true puncher and rarely come naturally to men of
excessive bulk. One really doesn’t have to be a scientist or a biologist to
appreciate the reasons why, even though punching technique is about science and
biology. For me, it is a wonderfully intriguing subject to study, one that
requires little more than common sense and logic to comprehend.
So why do so many boxing ‘fans’ fail to take the trouble to learn
or misunderstand the simple equations when they do? Many, I am sure, do little
more than count the knockouts on a fighter’s record in order to measure his
power of punch. Punch stats and the ceaseless stream of other facts and figures
have become as much of a curse as a blessing.
Surfing the various boxing forums, I feel my eyes boggling at
some of the quaint lists I see of the all-time heavyweight punchers. Joe
Frazier, a great sentimental favourite of mine, is a regular people’s choice as
one of the top five hitters, which he never was. Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Bob
Fitzsimmons and Max Baer are regularly pushed out of the reckoning by the likes
of Gerry Cooney, Ron Lyle and Bernardo Mercado. Let me add quickly that I do not
mean to demean the latter three gentlemen. Each could wallop and then some.
Cooney, for all the ridiculous hype that surrounded him, had a wrecking ball of
a left hook. I can just think of plenty of other fighters who had a lot more.
During the course my career as a boxing journalist, which adds up
to some thirty-plus years, I have been to countless fights and watched many
others on film. I love fighters of all weights and styles but accept that the
heavyweights are, and always will be, the ‘wow’ factor of boxing.
That being said, I don’t have to get too heavy in naming the two
men I regard as the most knowledgeable, skilful and effective punchers in the
history of the dreadnought division: Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis.
It is no coincidence that Jack’s best weight was around 190lbs or
that Joe was at his ferocious best between 200-208lbs.
It is a proven fact, like it or not, that fighters of between
190-210lbs generate more measurable power than heavier men.
Dempsey and Louis were natural athletes and possessed natural
killer instinct inside the ropes. Both got excellent leverage on their punches,
moved intelligently and with specific purpose, and had great timing and hand
speed. Bulking up might well have increased their already formidable power, but
their other important advantages would have been blunted. In short, they would
have sacrificed the significant ingredient of athleticism.
Jack Dempsey cut his teeth on knocking out far bigger men. From
the tender age of sixteen, Jack’s famously large and mighty fists were smashing
through the toughs of the mining camps, saloon bars and hobo jungles. The
bronzed and muscled youngster who would become the Manassa Mauler consistently
astounded colleagues and onlookers with his savagery and natural punching power.
Not for nothing was Jack known as the man killer.
I have discussed Dempsey’s many attributes in recent articles, so
let me now come in praise of Joe Louis. With an irresistible combination of
speed, timing and explosive power, Joe would prove that he was no less an
indiscriminate destroyer. Indeed, he shared Dempsey’s relish for hunting bigger
game. The only question to be answered was how Louis would choose to chop and
Boxing correspondents in Joe’s time were true boxing writers who
loved the sport and understood its many shades and hues. Reams were written on
style and technique, talent and attitude, by worldly lovers of the game who took
the trouble to talk at length to the deep pool of fighters, managers and
trainers. Bob Davis was a columnist for the New York Sun who saw all the
heavyweight champions from the time of Jim Corbett. Right from the start, Davis
saw something special in Joe Louis. “When he hits, something just has to go,”
Davis explained, noting the slight sway and lift of Joe’s legs as he moved into
an opponent and started to punch. “Louis has everything – power, weight,
marvellous co-ordination and the slash of a rapier in either fist. I watched him
fight and watched him train. The kick in his blow is something terrific, for he
gets everything in his legs and body into it, all swinging in perfect rhythm as
he drives the fist for a vulnerable point.”
New Jersey sports editor Al DelGreco was another fan of the Brown
Bomber. “I think that Joe Louis was the greatest heavyweight of all time because
he was the greatest offensive leather-pusher I ever saw since 1925 when I first
went to fights. He batted out rivals with such swiftness that writers at the
ringside couldn’t pick out the finishing blow and by which hand it had been
delivered. He had a defensive weakness, true, but when he was in his prime he
overcame it with his offensive ferocity.”
Henry Cooper, no mean left hooker during his long reign as
British champion, has long admired Louis. “When I watch his old films, it is his
style that I so like. It was sheer economy of movement as he shuffled round,
always keeping just out of range with the left going jab, jab, jab until he
could unleash that fearsome right that put so many opponents away.”
Columnist Jim Murray loved to write about Joe and did so
frequently. Murray once described the Bomber as “…two hundred pounds of tawny
fury, the hands so fast they were a blur on cameras that would stop milliseconds
There was certainly no doubt in Murray’s mind as to how hard
Louis could punch. “Louis hit Braddock so hard, the sweat and water from his
hair sprayed as far as Row 6. He knocked Paolino Uzcudun’s gold teeth in so many
directions, the ring looked as if somebody had stepped on a railroad watch.”
After the brutal dismantling of Uzcudun, the inimitable fight
manager Joe Jacobs memorably remarked, “A guy who can break gold with a punch
shouldn’t be licensed.”
Joe Louis was highly fortunate, of course, in having that
wonderful, battle-scarred sage Jack ‘Chappie’ Blackburn as his trainer. But
while Jack’s immense influence on Louis cannot be sufficiently praised, nor can
Joe’s natural aptitude ever be underestimated. Let us remember that fighters can
only be taught how to think up to a certain point, whatever their degree of
talent. Thereafter, instinct must kick in and take over.
Louis was a great thinker and an accomplished planner who could
always vary his strategy when required. Jack Blackburn drilled him, just as Jack
Grout drilled Jack Nicklaus on the golf range, but the cleverest form of
indoctrination still requires an exceptional and versatile talent to start the
engine and make it purr to its optimum capability.
Joe Louis was as much of a boxer as he was a puncher, something
that cannot be said of too many heavyweight champions. When some critics accused
the young Louis of being a ‘dumb fighter’, Jack Blackburn gave a little smile
and responded, “There are a lot of fighters smarter than Joe, but that don’t
mean anything. Lots of times, smartness and meanness don’t mix and you gotta
have the means to be a great fighter.”
‘Quick like’ was Jack’s favourite little way of describing Louis.
would have known, for he wasn’t too shabby a fighter himself in his day. Sadly
for Jack, he toiled as a lightweight in the less enlightened age of boxing when
a legion of talented black fighters never got their just rewards. For all that,
Damon Runyon rated Blackburn as one of the five greatest boxers he saw. Like
Louis, Blackburn could box and fight. Unlike Joe, Jack was also partial to a
good old scrap beyond the confines of the roped square, picking up plenty of
facial signatures for his troubles. He was once memorably described as ‘an
animated razor scar’.
Damon Runyon wrote of him thus: “Jack Blackburn stood upright and
somewhat flat-footed in his boxing prime. He carried his hands up, each always
in exact position for the delivery of a blow His posture was the acme of boxing
grace. When he moved his feet, it was for a definite purpose. He made a study of
the position of the feet with reference to boxing, and when he advanced or
withdrew one foot or the other, it was with all the calculation of a man playing
a game of checkers.”
in Runyon’s view, was not as nimble on his feet as Benny Leonard, but Jack had
the superior hand speed. “Benny’s hands were not as fast as Blackburn’s, nor
were those of any boxer of my observation save one. That is Joe Louis, to whom
Blackburn passed on his speed of hands. Louis is slow of foot movement but he is
one of the fastest punchers that ever lived.”
If Blackburn had a key word in his early coaching of Joe Louis,
it was ‘balance’. Get your balance right, he told the Bomber, and all the other
pieces of the jigsaw will click into place. “Chappie had drilled me so much on
hitting and balance,” Joe once said, “that they were the main things I thought
about. I wasn’t worried so much about the hitting. But getting my balance right
was my main problem. As Blackburn said, ‘When you’re hitting right, you’re never
instilled much of his own feinting and general boxing ability into Louis during
the endless hours they laboured in the gym. Jack regarded the Old Master, Joe
Gans, as the perfect template, teaching Louis how to advance intelligently on an
opponent and never allow the other man to set the pace. The objective was to
make the opponent feel anxious, keep him ever guessing and never allow him
By the time all the seeds bore fruit, Joe Louis was as near a
perfect fighting machine as there could be, prompting Nat Fleischer to describe
him as “…a pugilistic symphony with a tempo geared to bring him across the ring
with all the grace of a gazelle and the cold fury of an enraged mountain lion.
He combined excellent harmony of movement with crushing power stored in each
In short, here was a very special heavyweight who could knock out
any man of any size – and did.
Buddy Baer stood 6’ 6 ½’’ tall and weighed 237 1/2lbs when he
stepped into the ring to challenge Louis for the heavyweight title at Griffith
Park in Washington on May 23, 1941. Baer was four-and-a-half inches taller than
the Bomber and nearly 36lbs heavier.
Big Buddy was also a lot more serious about his profession than
his famous brother, Max. Buddy could box well, hit ferociously and had scored 45
knockout in his 49 wins, against five defeats and a no-decision against Lee
Baer had got his shot at the title with a seventh round stoppage
of Tony Galento and had also notched wins over Nathan Mann and fellow giant, Abe
Buddy was rough, tough and durable, and I would accord him an
excellent chance of winning a portion of today’s sadly fractured heavyweight
championship. When Louis viciously knocked him to the canvas in the sixth round
for the third and final time, reporter Sid Feder wrote, “Buddy went down as
though one of Washington’s baseball Senators had bounced a ball bat off his
Baer tried his utmost against Joe in a thrilling contest with a
controversial finish. But watch the film of that fight carefully when you get
the chance and study the Bomber’s punching technique. It is a thing of beauty in
its perfect timing and correctness. For all of Buddy’s bravery and the fact that
he never stops punching back, he appears to disintegrate piece by piece as the
unerringly accurate punishment finally registers and dynamites the last of his
Let the point be made that Joe was not decimating a crude and
lumbering opponent with little idea of the mechanics of the game. Buddy Baer
moved very well for a big fellow and sensibly protected his chin with his left
shoulder. He punched hard, was fearless in attack and wasn’t hindered by the
ponderous footwork that betrays so many giants. Nor was he at all inhibited by
the big occasion or the mighty task of trying to topple a boxing legend.
Baer traded confidently with Louis from the opening bell and
didn’t back off when Joe spun him with a hard right to the head. It was quickly
apparent that Baer’s chin was up to the task as Louis cracked him with another
big right and a following left hook to the jaw. Buddy punched back and worked
the champion’s body when they clinched. Towards the end of the round, the big
man got his big chance. The Griffith Park crowd roared as a left hook from close
range found the mark and knocked Louis through the ropes. The champion clambered
back into the ring and fired back as Baer rushed him and tried to capitalise on
his golden opportunity. The action was halted when both fighters thought they
heard the bell and headed for their corners. Referee Arthur Donovan pointed out
the mistake and motioned them to continue, but Baer’s chance had gone and now
Joe Louis was more dangerous than ever. Indignity had been added to his already
formidable arsenal of weapons
The fight continued to be exciting and competitive through the
following rounds, but always there was the feeling that Joe was laying the more
solid and impressive foundations. The speed and timing of his punching continues
to floor the viewer all these years later. Whether punching short or long, Louis
threaded his blows through the tightest angles with marvellous precision. His
preparatory work could be alternately quiet and explosive: the constant jabbing
that never quite looked as damaging as it was, the short hooks to body and head
whose speed could make them look oddly lazy in the way of a spinning wheel, the
flashing right crosses to chin and jaw whose thuds carried above the noise of
the biggest crowds.
Baer needed all of his fighting spirit in the second round as Joe
went to work with that quiet terror that set him apart. Baer rushed Louis and
went to the body, then switched upstairs and connected with a left and a right
to the head. Joe shot a left-right combination to the jaw and staggered Buddy.
Louis then rifled home a series of hard and controlled shots that clearly hurt
Baer. Yet the big challenger showed commendable courage and durability in
continuing to chase Joe and fire back. At one point Buddy was struck by three
smashing rights in succession, yet kept coming.
The crowd loved the action in what one reporter would call ‘a
whale of a fight’. Joe was winning the rounds with the superior quality of his
work, but Baer was a delicious loose cannon who never stopped threatening to
upset the apple cart. The action slowed in the third round, but Buddy enjoyed
some early success in the fourth when he raised a small mouse under Joe’s eye.
Baer was still trying to slow Louis by attacking his body, but the challenger
had to take some jolting blows for every small success he enjoyed.
The writing on the wall began to appear in the fifth round. After
taking a hard left hook, Baer bulled Louis into a corner and opened a cut over
the Bomber’s left eye with a hard right. The challenger would win the round with
his greater pressure, but more significant was the feeling that Louis was moving
up to that higher level that only great champions inhabit. Knowing that more
urgent measures were called for, Joe finished the session with a two-fisted
assault that was a portent of things to come.
The conclusive sixth round provided chilling evidence of how
quickly Louis could pounce and kill off a lively and dangerous foe. It was
fitting that Joe had been compared to a mountain lion, for one thought of that
stealthy predator and its famous bite to the neck that so suddenly terminates a
Things still looked pretty rosy for Buddy as he opened the stanza
with a left hook to the head. Louis replied by firing three lefts to the body
and slamming a right to the jaw. Back came Baer, game as ever, still looking to
repeat his sensational success of the opening round. Buddy was still hooking and
hustling when Joe manoeuvred him into the trap and belted him with a hard left
and two solid rights against the ropes. Having worked so hard to keep the fight
at close quarters, Baer was suddenly lost at long range as Joe at last had the
room to tee off in earnest. Louis was firing almost at will and there was
nothing for Buddy to grab and hold on to.
Despite the severity of the beating, Baer still found the heart
and resolve to punch back, but then a right from Joe finally unhinged the big
man and felled him for a six count. One of boxing history’s greatest finishers
was now in his element. Another cracking right sent Baer crashing onto his back
for the second knockdown, and this time Buddy only beat the count by a whisker.
The third knockdown was the true masterpiece, as Joe bowled Baer
over with a perfectly timed, whiplash right of terrific force. This was the
punch that enraged Buddy’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, who claimed that the hammer
blow was delivered after the bell. Referee Arthur Donovan ruled that the punch
was right on the bell and therefore legal. However, ringside reporters noticed
that Arthur had turned away from the fighters and was heading to a neutral
corner when Louis dropped the final bomb.
Hoffman refused to let Baer out for the seventh round and the
challenger was disqualified.
Buddy longed for the chance to put the record straight and prove
that he could take Joe Louis. Baer got that chance at Madison Square Garden in
January 1942. Louis knocked him out in one round.
Before 18,220 fans at Madison Square Garden on March 27, 1942,
big Abe Simon stepped into the ring for the final fight of his career. Scaling
255 1/4lbs, he was a massive, bear of a man who had once used his considerable
size and muscle on the gridiron. Abe outweighed Joe Louis by nearly 48 pounds,
but already knew the dangers of duelling with the Brown Bomber. Just a year
before at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, Joe had decked Simon four times and
stopped him in thirteen rounds.
Coming back for seconds was never a good idea against the prime
Louis. But Abe had heart, pluck and a big punch and everyone knew that anything
could happen in heavyweight boxing. Simon had knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in
six rounds, beaten Roscoe Toles and drawn with Turkey Thompson. Abe had also
waged a thrilling battle of the giants with Buddy Baer, in which he had beaten
Buddy severely in the opening round before being stopped in the third.
Simon had a wingspan of 82 ¾ inches and Louis had to get inside
it. It didn’t take the champion too long. Abe fought a gutsy battle, recovering
well after a second round knockdown to land some heavy punches and enjoy some
success at tying Joe up and nullifying his great power.
Louis, by his own later admission, rushed his work in the first
three rounds and had to be told to calm down and slow the pace by handler Mannie
The simple ploy worked. Jack Blackburn was ailing in hospital
with pneumonia that night, but Joe didn’t disappoint his great mentor. He went
big game hunting in the fifth round and set the traps with his usual skill. A
cracking left hook forced Simon to clutch for safety and then the storm raged.
Joe opened a cut under Abe’s right eye and unleashed a ten-punch volley that had
the giant from Long Island softening by the second. Simon, brave to the end,
continued to march forward and plug away, but then a pair of thunderous right
crosses dropped him in his own corner. The bell came to his rescue but only
bought him time and pain that he didn’t need.
Louis finished the fight quickly in the sixth round, sending Abe
down and out with a final left-right blast. Perhaps Joe had been riled after
first snapping Simon to attention with a quick-fire combination in the second
round. Big Abe had laughed at him.
That was a silly thing to do to Joe Louis. It still is.
Especially when the talk turns to big boys being the best.
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