After Joe Louis lost to Ezzard Charles two things were obvious: he could no longer lay claim to the world heavyweight title and he had to keep on fighting in order to keep the IRS from his door. He was in huge debt and had negotiated a deal where the net proceeds of his purse would go directly to pay off his tax bill. Unfortunately the Charles bout had not made him much. He had retired as world champion with many, including Ring and the NYAC, still not recognising Charles as his successor until he beat Louis. Although he remained popular, his star pulling power as a fighter was in the wane.
He returned to the ring to beat five club-level opponents. Only two of these resulted in stoppages, which was a drastic change of pace for Louis at this point. Although he was boxer-puncher, the overwhelming majority of his victories on record were knockouts.
His next opponent was Lee Savold (Lee Hulver). Savold never got an official world title shot with the major governing bodies in the USA (NBA, NYAC and Ring), but the European Boxing Association recognised him as their world champion after he stopped Bruce Woodcock in round four in 1950. The EBU was formally the IBU and was founded 10 years prior to the US bodies. Despite to this day being considered the most prestigious body to recognise European titles, their rules that included such stipulations as boxers must have residency in a European country and all fights must be held in Europe have prevented them from becoming a necessary stepping stone to the world championship. They no longer hold a world championship but in 1963 they became affiliated with the newly formed World Boxing Council, which attempted to create a truly international boxing body to recognise titles. Savold fought regularly in the heavyweight division fighting several of the big names. He would finish his respectable career of 153 fights with 104 wins, 72 by KO, 45 losses, two draws and two no-contests. He was a surprising fighter who won Ring magazine’s greatest upset of the year in 1942 when he knocked out Lou Nova in round eight. He also set the record for the fastest knockout in a Madison Square Gardens main event when he KO’d Gino Buonvino. Savold had been a 48 hour substitute fighter and went in as a severe underdog, again defying popular expectation. It wouldn’t be equalled until 1981 and it wouldn’t be beaten until 2007.
Savold was knocked out by Louis in round six and the EBU no longer recognised their man as the world champion. Louis didn’t qualify for their title. The Brown Bomber then went on to beat Cesar Brion and Jimmy Bivens by unanimous decision. With eight wins to his name since losing to Charles, Louis was offered $300,000 to face Rocky Marciano. The undefeated Marciano had just added yet another knockout to his record after he put away Freddie Beshore in round four following his KO of Rex Layne. He was now closing in on the world title.
Rocky Marciano versus Joe Louis 26.10.1951
Joe Louis was Rocky Marciano’s boyhood idol. There was nine years between them. Louis had a 76” reach, Marciano’s was just 68”. Louis weighed in at 214lbs and Marciano at just 184lbs. Even though Louis was 13 to 15 pounds over his optimal fighting weight, he still had the weight advantage. Louis was the 6.5 to 5 betting favourite. The film was broadcast on TV, radio and on cinema theatres netting Louis $132,000 and Marciano $44,000 on the gate.
Early on the match was competitive. Louis used his footwork to set up his shots as always did, but he was going to have problems working as a pressure fighter against Marciano. The Rock entirely relied on coming forward in a relentless fashion. Louis needed to exploit his range advantage to set up those powerful left hooks and his one-two combinations. However, Marciano was never going to allow him to do that. Every time Louis’s jab shot out, Marciano shot in. If Louis didn’t initiate an attack that was even better as Marciano just charged forward. Louis’s next strategy would be to use his size and weight to wrestling Marciano in the clinch. The problem here was Marciano had adopted a compact style where his crouching served as a solid, supporting structure able to withstand the weight of heavier men. He was at the lighter and shorter end his weight division, and had based most of his career on handling this type of tactic. However, above all, Marciano’s youth over Louis’s age and mileage at the top would win the day.
Round 3 was one of Louis’s better rounds. He preserved more distance and dodged more of Marciano’s bullets. He also landed a few sharp, mid-range hooks.
According to the judges, Louis won the fourth and fifth rounds.
Round 6 saw Louis visibly tired now and not taking advantage of any distance options. He tried to lean in the clinch and to get in shorter punches, but Maciano’s were landing to the body and to the head. This wasn’t a fighter Louis wanted to attempt to outlast as he had done with the majority of his victories since he came out of retirement. Like Galento, Schmeling and the Baers, this was a big, dangerous hitter that needed putting down.
In round 8 Marciano’s relentless attacks finally caught up with the tiring Louis. Not long before the end, Louis appeared to be getting into a counter-punch mentality. He always had his check-hook; maybe the punch that could put away a charging Marciano. Sadly for the former champion, he would never get to find out. Just as he stepped back the Brockton Blockbuster caught Louis with a powerful left hook of his own sending Louis down. The Brown Bomber rose to one knee and took the count, leaning on the ropes. He met Marciano again who pushed inside to send in constant hooks and uppercuts whilst ducking and rolling. Louis tried to control the smaller man with some hand grappling but it was to no avail. Backing Louis onto the ropes, Marciano’s punches found there mark. A light angled hook clipped his jaw only to be followed by the Suzie Q overhand that sent Louis through the ropes and onto the edge of apron. Louis, seeing that the end was nigh, said “I saw the right hand coming, but I couldn’t do anything about it.” The match was over and, as Louis bowed out of the fight game for good, history would see this as a passing of the torch. However, onlookers would remark that no joy could be seen in Marciano’s face. He told the press, “I feel sorry for Joe…I’m glad I won but I feel sorry.”
Louis’s changing room sounds like a wake. Sugar Ray Robinson a regular touring companion of Louis during the war years, was there in floods of tears. Marciano, also tears, said “I’m sorry, Joe.” Louis said, “What’s the use of crying? The better man won. I guess everything happens for the best.” He would say to the press, “This kid knocked me out with what, two punches? Two punches. (Max) Schmeling knocked me out with must have been a hundred punches. But I was 22 years old then. You can take more then than later on.”
Louis’s official professional career was over. However, he had to keep working in some capacity in order to pay off his enormous tax debts, which accrued interest at 90% each year. All of Louis’s various business ventures had fallen through during his boxing career and a good deal of his money had either been spent on his family, extended family, friends and ex-wives (he was married four times). Having picked up a passion for golf in the 1930s, he had also helped sponsor the future careers of several black golfers in the ‘40s as they fought segregation laws in the sport. To this day, The First Tee is a charity set up by Louis and overseen by his son, Joseph Louis Barrow Jnr, to introduce underprivileged children to golf. For the rest of 1951 he appeared in exhibition bouts, sometimes several times a day with the army. Throughout November he fought in Tokyo Japan against a couple of unnamed servicemen he knocked out and Corporal Buford J. deCordova who he sparred the most. He fought his last exhibition on 16 December that year against the aforementioned Corporal Buford J. deCordova in Taipei, Taiwan.
In 1953 Louis’s mother died and IRS appropriated the $667 she had willed to Louis. He took whatever paying celebrity work was available, frequently appearing on quiz shows. In 1956 he debuted as professional wrestler, playing the babyface against Cowboy Rocky Lee and with Jersey Joe Walcott as the referee. The two became regular wrestling rivals until Louis’s career was cut short with the discovery that he had a heart condition. However, he still found work as a wrestling referee until 1972. In his later years, it would become public knowledge that Louis also battled cocaine addiction that led to several of his heart-related health issues.
Louis’s steadiest job was greeting people at Caesar’s Palace. By the end of the ‘50s he was in debt for $1 million to the IRS. His boxing friends who could help rallied round. His old rival, Max Schmeling, now the head of Coco-Cola in Germany, became a good friend and gave him financial assistance. Jack Dempsey chaired a fund to help him. Finally, in the early ‘60s the IRS agreed to only collect an amount based on Louis’s current income. This enabled for him to live comfortably for the rest of his life. Louis was hospitalised in 1969 for a “physical breakdown”, which was later disclosed in a 1971 biography as being drug related. After 1972 he suffered strokes and heart attacks. After an operation to correct an aortic aneurysm in 1977 he had to use a mobility scooter. He eventually died in 1981 of cardiac arrest.
Joe Louis remains the longest reigning world heavyweight boxing champion in history. His lasting epitaph, quoted by Philip Roth is “I did the best I could with what I had.”
Sugar Ray Robinson versus Rocky Graziano Undisputed World Middleweight Championship 14.04.1952
After the defeat of Tony Janiro, Graziano ploughed through Eddie O’Neil and Roy Wouters in fourth and first round stoppages respectively. After 21 fights in less than two years, he had earned back the right to challenge for his old title. Robinson, who had been named “Fighter of the Year” in 1951, had fought one bout since winning back this same title from Randy Turpin. His opponent had been future World Middleweight Champion, Bobo Olson, by unanimous decision.
This was a celebrity matchup with both fighters being huge draws. A crowd of 22,254 produced a gross gate of $252,237.66. Robinson’s purse was $82,208.40, and Graziano’s was $68,507. Graziano was was 160lbs and Robinson was 157lbs.
Most had Robinson as the hot favourite although, given his performance over the last 21 fights, there was a lot of speculation that Graziano had a strong puncher’s chance. The debate was mainly centred on whether Robinson would use his out-boxing skills or enter into a slugfest. Most would have opted for the former, but the crowd and Graziano were delighted he went for the latter.
Round 1 – Both men came out firing. Robinson went straight into Graziano’s range and beat him the punch. They clinched and Graziano repeatedly rabbit-punched for which he got a warning. Robinson seemed determined to the play the great slugger at his own game and even pushed him into the ropes with an onslaught. His lead hook repeatedly found its mark as did his body shots. Graziano’s only success seemed to come from the rabbit punching as the champion took the round.
Round 2 – Robinson changed tactic and began to slow down. This allowed Graziano to gather momentum and he began stalking Robinson, finding his range and beginning to land blows. Robinson took stock and rallied back at one point with a stinging series of hooks to the head sending Graziano back to the ropes. However, the Rock came forward again, beginning to dictate the pace now that Sugar had eased off the initial pressure from the first round. After the bell rang, Graziano waved his hand up in confidence.
Round 3 – The round began with a lot of back and forth. Graziano pushed forward, occasionally landing his jab and just missing with overhands; Robinson pumped in his lefts in succession. Then Robinson caught Graziano on the inside with a left hook sending him backwards with a barrage of powerful, telling shots off both hands. The Rock retaliated with a desperate right haymaker that clipped the champion and sent him tumbling into the ropes and onto one knee. Without the mandatory eight-count in place, Robinson sprung back up to continue where he had been interrupted. It seemed the momentum had temporally been lost and Robinson back-peddled from the lunging Graziano who believed he could capitalise on the knockdown. Robinson out-positioned Graziano and then deftly turned him towards the ropes avoiding a lunging right. Here he landed a chopping right and the challenger fell into his clinch. It had hurt him. A short sharp right uppercut or angled hook caught Graziano on the jaw. This was followed by arguably Robinson’s great punch, two left hooks that hit their target and sending the challenger into the ropes before landing a powerful overhand. Robinson backed off as if knowing he had done enough. Graziano lay suspended against the ropes for a moment, his head drooping, before he slid to the ground. On the canvas he moved his right leg trying to get back up but, in his own words, “I thought I had time to get up but my legs were gone”. He later said, “One second I’m winning, the next I’m hearing the count. Boy, the guy can belt! A great fighter.”
Graziano’s hopes to regain his title were dashed. He fought one more time, five months later, losing a decision to rising star, Chuck Davey. Deciding to hang up his gloves for a successful life in showbusiness, Rocky Graziano retired from professional boxing. He became an actor in the sit-com Henny and Rocky Show and became a regular in various other shows, including the crime series “Miami Uncovered”. He also created a small franchise of pizza restaurants, Rocky Graziano’s Pizza Ring, and even ran a bowling alley. His married life, by all accounts, was a very happy one, and his biographer remarked that, unlike many of his celebrity friends, he was never unfaithful. They had two children and grandchildren. He died in 1990.
Sugar Ray Robinson said of Graziano’s punch: “Good thing it didn’t get me on the chin …I’ve met many tough fighters … but no one ever stung me more than Rocky.”