The Perfect Execution:
Joe’s KO Of Walcott One Of Greatest Ever
By Mike Casey
was an avid golfer for most of his life, even though that gentlest of games hit
him harder in the wallet than any opponent ever hit him on the chin. So let us
kick off with a quick golfing tale, which, I promise you, bears great relevance
to our main story.
to the amazement of the golfing fraternity, the great Jack Nicklaus failed to
win a tournament for the first time since turning professional in 1962. For
seventeen monotonously punishing seasons, the Golden Bear had caned a succession
of challengers. Then nothing. The genie had seemingly escaped from Jack’s
bottle. The drought persisted into the summer of 1980, and then the Bear
suddenly roared again. Out of nowhere, he won his fourth US Open title.
kicked him back into life? Well, a certain mischievous reporter had written a
scathing assessment, quite possibly tongue in cheek, of Jack Nicklaus at the age
of 40. The impudent scribe described Jack as “… done, finished, washed up….”
pinned those words to his refrigerator door and kept looking at them before
going out and winning one of golf’s greatest prizes against all expectations.
thirty-three years earlier, on the morning of December 6, 1947, Joe Louis had
been faced with a similar challenge. The previous night at Madison Square Garden
had been a painful experience for Joe. Thirty-three years of age but looking
suddenly much older than his years, he had apparently been deprived of his
wonderful gifts all at once by the temperamental gods.
panther that had destroyed a generation of challengers had lost its bite and was
limping. The spring and the speed had gone out of Joe Louis and the quick-fire
guns at the end of his arms were no longer firing. Jersey Joe Walcott, arrogant
and smiling, feinting and side-stepping like a ballroom dandy, had outpointed
the great Brown Bomber in the eyes of most and won the heavyweight championship
that had been locked in Jolting Joe’s grasp for more than ten years. Louis,
perhaps sentimentally, was awarded a split decision, but his disgust at his
performance was evident as his handlers were forced to prevent him from leaving
the ring before the verdict was announced.
It had to
be the end, surely. Joe would get Walcott in the return, insisted the faithful.
Joe always got ‘em in the return. Nobody made the Brown Bomber look bad twice.
But how could Louis come back from this? Even Joe couldn’t beat Father Time, and
the old white-haired fellow had finally nailed him.
“I won but
I was disgusted with myself,” Louis said. “It was a bad fight. I always said I
wasn’t the man I was at twenty-three.”
to the two knockdowns he had suffered, Joe added: “The reason I stepped into
rights is that I was going in. If I’d stayed back, it would have been a lousy
fight. He’s not the smartest fighter nor the trickiest I faced.
“I got hit
hard a few times. I thought he had five or six good rounds. I won’t be satisfied
till I fight him again. History generally does repeat. I do better in my second
trainer Mannie Seamon also tried to put on a brave face. “I could have made it
look more like a fight, but I told the champ to keep boring in, trying for a
Louis-Walcott match wasn’t just a fight. As ever with Louis, it was a major
event that captured the interest of the world. Joe, like Jack Dempsey before
him, transcended boxing to reach out and touch those who normally wouldn’t have
given a hoot about two guys going at each other in a ring. A crowd of 18,194
poured into the Garden on the night of December 5, 1947, fully expecting the
great Louis to add another glorious chapter to his legend. Oh, yes, their Joe
was ageing and his stint in the army had slowed him down and put some premature
years on that famous poker face. But no matter. Walcott would go the way of all
receipts of $216,477 made it a record gate for the Garden and Joe was favoured
at 1 to 10. Even money was being offered on Walcott failing to survive beyond
the fifth round.
seemed to be in favour of Louis, who was the bigger man by nearly seventeen
pounds at 211 to Walcott’s 194 ˝.
all started to go wrong, with Walcott setting the tone in a shocking first round
as he fired a hard right to the head that toppled Louis to his knees for a count
of two. Jersey Joe was all movement, a veritable ball of confusion. There was no
definitive pattern to his repertoire of shifts, feints, back-pedalling and
side-stepping. Louis kept pursuing his elusive challenger, but this hunt yielded
nothing but booby traps and ambushes. In the fourth round, another flashing
right from Walcott spilled Louis, and Joe rested on one knee until the count
reached seven. The Brown Bomber’s left eye was already swelling and the buzzing
crowd began to contemplate the unthinkable. Was this really it? Was the Bomber’s
great reign coming to an end?
Like a man
who taps his chest and discovers to his horror that his wallet is no longer in
its safe and familiar cache, Louis kept fumbling for his old firepower. It
wasn’t there. The steam had gone out of that ramrod left jab and the famous,
shattering right cross. He was constantly confused by Walcott’s herky-jerky
style, which one reporter compared to ‘a backfield shift in football’. Jersey
Joe would often take three steps backwards or three steps sideways and then fire
a left hook or right cross with great speed.
pushing forward, trying to turn the tide with one magical combination of
punches, but an incident in the ninth round summed up his plight when he
cornered Walcott and couldn’t pull the trigger.
of the crowd was deafening as the fight drew to a close, most expecting to see a
new champion crowned. Louis’ left eye was nearly shut and blood leaked from his
nose as he made his vain attempt to duck through the ropes at the final bell and
spare himself further agony.
was saved. Referee Ruby Goldstein scored the fight 7-6-2 for Walcott, but was
outweighed by judges Frank Forbes and Marty Monroe, who saw it 8-6-1 and 9-6 for
Louis respectively. The aggregate points of the scorecards showed Walcott
winning by 37 points to 32, but aggregate points didn’t cut any ice in New York
in those days.
announcer Harry Balogh declared the decision, he took the Bomber’s glove and
tried to raise his arm. Louis resisted. He was an honest professional to the
core and would have no truck with shallow celebrations.
trainer Dan Florio was angry and animated in the challenger’s corner before
defiantly leading Jersey Joe to centre ring and raising his arm.
Now let us
carefully consider Walcott’s comments, which tell us quite a bit about him. “I
was robbed tonight without a pistol. He’s a great fighter. He had to be to take
the punches he did tonight. I can beat him every time. I can trick him into any
move I want to make. I’d like to fight him again tomorrow or any time. I was so
far ahead, they (my handlers) told me to slow up in the last three rounds.”
revisit Jersey Joe’s cocky streak at a later point.
three o’clock in the morning during a warm August in old New York in 1911. Eager
young reporters Nat Fleischer and Dan Daniel heard police whistles and ran to a
building where a couple of patrolmen were chasing a fleeing suspect. It was one
of many adventures that Fleischer and Daniel would share during a friendship
that endured for many years. Both were men of forceful opinions who often saw
eye to eye.
regarding the question of the greatest heavyweight in history, Nat and Dan went
their separate ways. To the day of his death in 1972, Fleischer, founder and
editor of The Ring magazine, insisted the all-time king was Jack Johnson.
Dan Daniel’s opinion: “The Joe Louis who knocked out Max Schmeling in one round,
the Louis who took the title from Jimmy Braddock, the Louis who went up and down
the line taking them all on, the Louis who dodged nobody and was eager to meet
everybody, was the greatest heavyweight of all time.
who was threatened on points by Billy Conn and then stopped him, the Louis whose
second effort against Jersey Joe Walcott was devastating, the Louis who could
box, who could hit, who could pile up points or end a fight with one punch -
that man had no equal among the heavies I have seen.”
Fleischer’s son-in-law, Nat Loubet, who would take over the reins of The Ring,
was similarly swayed by Louis: “Although I saw Dempsey, Tunney and Max Baer in
action during my childhood, my first connection with boxing as a profession
began during the reign of Joe Louis. I have seen motion pictures of championship
bouts previous to this but I still vote for Louis as the best of the heavyweight
defended his title twenty-five times, more than any other title holder, barred
no one, faced all contenders, possessed a dynamite-loaded left hand with
possibly the best jab of them all.
fighting machine, he was not fabricated. He was born to his profession. A
natural with all the instinct of a great fighter and superb gentleman.”
Eskin said of the Brown Bomber in 1962: “My days on the boxing beat go back only
to the rise of Joe Louis to fistic fame I first saw him when he was somewhat
past his peak, at the time when he engaged Billy Conn in their second fight.
From what I saw then and what I have seen since Joe’s retirement, I place him as
the number one heavyweight, at least of the last two decades.
I have seen in person and the movies of old-time contests, I cannot concede that
even the old-timers were greater than the Brown Bomber. He had everything that
goes to place a heavyweight in the class of greatness.”
the frightening number of years that have slipped past since the Bomber left the
stage, many of today’s historians are no less impressed. Monte Cox says of
Louis: “He was quite possibly the greatest boxer-puncher of all time, certainly
the best among the heavyweights. Louis’ style was to put subtle pressure on his
opponents, cutting the ring, forcing them back and then taking precise steps
backwards to lead his opponents into his terrifying counter punches.
prime, Louis threw perfect jabs, triple left hooks and short jolting right hands
that landed literally with bone-crushing power and laser accuracy. The Brown
Bomber also threw some of the most magnificent combinations ever seen.
was Louis a feared puncher, but he was a great boxer who had learned how to set
up his opponents and catch them coming in as a true master of the
Callis adds: “Many experts consider Louis to be the greatest counter puncher
among the heavyweights. When the slightest opportunity presented itself, the
offensive capability was most likely unequalled in the ring. He performed at
optimum efficiency, with little wasted motion. His style was that of a stand-up
boxer with quick reflexes. He carried his guard moderately low. His defence
consisted of a superb offence.”
ago, reporter Sid Feder simplified the appeal and greatness of Joe Louis in
describing Joe as “… a fellow of first principles, a fellow of fundamentals.”
Feder: “There has never been anything intricate about the mechanism of Joe
Louis. As a fighter, the heavyweight champion has gone into the ring with these
rather important fundamentals: a punch in either fist. Condition and fitness.
His full share of courage. Respect for the other fighter but belief in himself.
No thought of an alibi or an advance excuse. No thought of a foul punch. The
ring has known no finer sportsman.”
people have described Joe Louis as robotic and predictable. I have never been
too hard on those people. I can see where they are coming from. For the most
part, Joe was a flat-footed fighter, a shuffler, very purposeful and deliberate
in his approach. Perhaps that is why his opponents stumbled and fell. They
watched the slow shuffle and missed the lightning quick fists and the clever
and sci-fi enthusiasts tell us that man will only survive the torrid conditions
of future worlds by evolving into a highly sophisticated android with a human
brain. Joe Louis might just have been boxing’s prototype of this irresistible
fast he could punch. Damon Runyon never saw anyone faster. But it is the
correctness and superb timing of Joe’s punches that never ceases to fascinate
this writer. There was a purity about Joe’s hitting that I haven’t seen since.
At short range especially, his left hooks and chopping rights were devastating.
Ponder all those films you’ve seen of Louis and consider, for one thing, the
terrible mess he made of opponents’ faces.
importantly of all, perhaps, Joe Louis was a genuine two-fisted knockout
puncher, and those birds are very rare. He could take you out with one shot or
any number of shots you cared to take.
Johnny Paychek with a single right cross. He did likewise to Jim Braddock after
clearing the path by cleverly shoving Jim’s left out of the way. Braddock, never
an excitable man of purple prose, would later compare the Louis jab to an
electric light bulb being rammed into the face and then shattered.
before Joe’s shocking loss to Max Schmeling, Damon Runyon was convinced that the
Bomber belonged in the highest echelon. Writing about Louis in 1936, Damon said:
“He is without doubt one of the greatest punchers that ever lived, but why?
Kindly bear in mind that we don’t say Louis is THE greatest puncher of all time,
merely one of the greatest. We have seen a lot of fellows, who, pound for pound,
could punch just as hard, but in an entirely different manner.
we never saw but two or three who could punch with both hands as Louis can,
which happens to be part of the secret of his punching power.
tag an opponent with a left hook, for instance, and finish him with a right
hand, whereas a strictly one-hand puncher has to keep repeating with that
rated Louis close to Stanley Ketchel as a two-fisted hitter and also cited Sam
Langford as a master of that art. Of Stanley, the great Michigan Assassin,
Runyon wrote: “Now Ketchel had a curious style as his own. He fought from a
widespread stance. He was a slam-bang type of fighter, driving in with desperate
courage, and he had a peculiar shift, so that if he fired with one hand and
missed, he could let go with the other hand without losing his balance. Ketchel
didn’t bother much with the fine scientific points of boxing. He just tore in
and let both hands rip.”
Langford, of course, was a wholly different animal, of whom Runyon wrote: “Sam
at his best was a great puncher with both hands. He was a fine boxer as well as
a puncher, in which Louis resembles him.
had a great left hook and he also had a corking right hand. He was death on
other left hookers as a rule. He would knock ‘em bow-legged with a short right
inside a hook.”
ability to knock out a man from short range is a wonderful gift, very probably
an innate gift. Historian and film researcher Mike Hunnicut certainly believes
so. Through a process of admirably detailed measurements taken from original
16mm films, Mike has proved that Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey stand alone as the
assassins who could end a fight from the shortest distance. “Of the many films I
have, Louis and Dempsey scored the most knockdowns or knockouts from very close
to two feet or less. Jack’s percentage is about 30, and Joe’s 20. None of the
others even get close to those percentages. The set-up shots by Louis and
Dempsey were sometimes even shorter – classic six-inch punches. These were the
two aces who could punch short or long and get you from any distance.
have been many other great punchers of course. Marciano got tremendous leverage
on his shots, but only Louis and Dempsey could knock out the toughest men with a
blow from two feet or less.”
fight between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Walcott, originally slated for June 23,
1948 at Yankee Stadium, was twice postponed because of rain and reset for June
there was a big swing of public opinion in favour of Walcott as fight time
approached, the general feeling of those in the know was that Louis would
produce one final burst of the old magic.
Joe’s runaway tactics in the first fight, and his subsequent rants about the
injustice of it all, hadn’t endeared him to many writers.
sports editor of the Oakland Tribune, had some strong feelings on the subject:
“I like Joe Louis to cool Jersey Joe Walcott within nine rounds, but the champ
may have to climb off the floor to do it. As far as the first Louis-Walcott
fight was concerned, I’ll repeat what I said then. Walcott may have won that
particular bout, but he didn’t win the title.
Joe may have had a small technical edge, but he showed little that would
establish him as worthy to follow the likes of Joe Louis, Gene Tunney, Jack
Dempsey or even Jim Braddock.
champions don’t run to protect a lead and Jersey Joe showed more rabbit than I
care to observe in a top flight fighter in several rounds of the December
others who predicted a Louis victory were Dave Egan of the Boston Record, Lawton
Carver of the International News Service, and Joe Vella, the manager of Gus
champion Jim Braddock was also riding with the Brown Bomber. “Louis will win
this time the way he always does. He’s a great fighter and never makes the same
years before, Billy Conn had discovered that even an old and rusty Joe Louis
could learn new tricks and fashion new game plans. Billy, the hero of 1941 after
his epic stand against Joe, could not hoodwink the creaking but still dangerous
Brown Bomber of 1946.
writer Oscar Fraley’s humorous account of that second engagement: “Joe Louis,
still heavyweight champion of the world, abandoned his poker face Thursday and
actually grinned because he called his shots – and the rest of the boxing world
called him ‘too old’ and it had called him ‘too slow’. And it said that the
younger Billy Conn might lift boxing’s biggest crown off from over that famed
the poker face is gone – but the crown still is there over an unfamiliar grin.
Brown Bomber proved after a five-year layoff that he was none of those things
but still the deadliest puncher in the ring. Three sharp, conclusive blows had
made Billy The Kid a retired citizen of Pittsburgh, Pa.”
the great anticipation, for all the great expectation of Joe Louis reclaiming
the glory days of his prime, a familiar story took shape at Yankee Stadium, a
depressing story for fans of the Bomber. Knocked down briefly in the third
round, Louis appeared once again to be chasing a jigging, side-stepping ghost.
Joe trailed on points after ten rounds and the crowd was booing the lack of
cocky streak in Walcott showed itself. It did so disastrously. Breaking into a
little shuffle and strut, he decided to trade punches with Louis. Jersey Joe had
been strictly advised not to do this. A thunderous right to the temple severed
all movement in Walcott, rooting him to the floor and teeing him up for one of
the greatest combinations ever thrown.
ripping punches that followed, short and perfectly sweet, stretched Jersey Joe
flat on the canvas. He clambered to his knees, nearly made it to his feet at the
count of nine, but fell back down to take the count.
writer, that wonderful and immaculately timed salvo continues to represent
economical power punching at its most sublime and thrilling. I have yet to see
it eclipsed for its strange beauty and disciplined savagery.
places that great knockout into its overall perspective: “World War II robbed
Joe Louis of his gifts. Four years of inactivity without serious competition
seriously diminished his skills. Joe’s sense of judgement, distance and timing
marvelled the boxing world in his prime. Now an old, slowed, balding Louis had
lost the reflexes that had made him so special at his best. His last great
effort was his rematch against Jersey Joe Walcott.
a must-win for Louis, his reputation as an all-time great was on the line. Louis
was foiled by a sharper Walcott, whose moves, jukes and multiple feints could
bewilder almost anyone. Louis simply had trouble finding the range. In the
eleventh round, after an exchange, Louis stepped back. Walcott, believing he
might have Louis in a peck of trouble, moved in. It was the spider leading the
fly into his trap.
missed a right as Louis moved back and the Bomber caught him with a right hand
that froze him. Now with Walcott momentarily stunned, Louis opened with a flash.
The final devastating combination was Louis’ last flurry of greatness. For a
moment we saw the Joe Louis of old, not an old Joe Louis. Walcott crumbled to
the canvas and was counted out.
retired after that fight. He came back but we never saw the real Louis again. He
was still a solid fighter, still had a good jab and was fundamentally sound, but
his once great punching skills were gone. He scored only three knockouts over
the last ten bouts of his career.”
Hunnicut couldn’t help seeing the funny side of the classic knockout: “It was
another fine example of what happened when a Louis opponent got too cocky. Even
against a shot Louis, the opponent got splattered. Everyone knows that Louis was
perhaps the most effective puncher in heavyweight history. Louis let that
range-finding jab out and then the fight was over when he smashed that right to
almost humorous. To finish things up, he drove home the final shots as if he
were going straight through good old Joe Walcott.
how discouraging it must be to fight a Joe Louis. You use all the well trained
leverage you have at your disposal, only to discover that he hits way harder by
a comparative tap.”
was understandably happy after the fight. “You know, that finishing job I did on
Walcott was one of the best I ever put over,” said the Bomber.
asked me what punch put Walcott on the way out. Who knows? I don’t. I was
throwing them so fast, I couldn’t remember. It doesn’t matter.”
dejected Walcott had strong words for referee Frank Fullam. “I thought I had
Louis. Then the referee kept telling me to come out and fight. He didn’t tell
Louis – just me. It got me confused. I changed my style of fighting and this
happened. I only remember that first punch – a right to the head. They say he
hit me some more – I don’t remember.”
This was a
familiar squawk from Jersey Joe. Here is a man, some revisionists would have us
believe, who has been underrated and unappreciated. I don’t think so. I don’t
think history has misjudged Jersey Joe Walcott any more than it has sold short
the greatly gifted but fatally temperamental Jack Sharkey. I don’t believe that
either man was deceiving us. I don’t believe that either possessed a reserve
store of magic that never saw the light of day.
got five cracks at the championship in the days when most others got one. He
dropped the ball four times. By his own admission, he eased up in the last three
rounds of the first Louis fight. Why? A challenger should never do that. Jersey
Joe complained that the referee caused him to revise his game plan in the second
match. More fool Walcott for his lack of discipline and commitment. Louis would
have politely acknowledged the referee and then carried on at the same sweet
was still whining five years later in his return go with Rocky Marciano. After
going out like a lamb and missing the ten count by the proverbial street,
Walcott got up and complained with far greater gusto than he had shown during
the brief contest.
He was a
grand ring mechanic at his best, but he had the hot head and cocky streak of
Billy Conn. Billy, at least, could smile at his own folly. A likeable soul, he
was even partial to an amiable chat in the clinches. He spoke to Joe Louis twice
in their return battle.
Conn: “In the first round I told him to take it easy – he still had fifteen to
go. Then later, when he had me on the ropes and was swinging, I said, ‘What you
trying to do to an old pal?’”
In all his
playfulness, Billy had forgotten one of Joe’s most stringent rules in life: Pals
don’t count during business hours.
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