Tuesday night’s second lesson continued by client’s fight history lessons. This time we looked at 1941’s Fight of the Year (according to Ring magazine) followed by Buddy Baer’s rematch with Joe Louis in January 1942.
Joe Louis versus Billy Conn 1941
Billy “The Pittsburgh Kid” Conn was from Irish American heritage and the eldest of five children. He was street-fighting by the age of 13 and never attended high school. Instead he got work East Pittsburgh gym owned by Johnny Ray, a former professional boxer. For three years he trained with professional fighters under the auspices of Johnny Ray and never fought as an amateur. Instead he became a professional at 17 and began fighting as a welterweight in 1935. You will recall from the last lesson that this was the same year he had looked after Joe Louis’s bucket during his match against Hans Birkie. Freddie Fierro became his permanent trainer. Conn rose up the weight divisions from welterweight to middleweight in 1936 and then in 1937 to light heavyweight. He lost six of his first 14 fights but won the next three, drew in a match against Teddy Movan and then won 24 matches straight before losing to Young Corbett III in 1937. This would soon be avenged. After 11 wins and two more losses he earned the right to challenge for the vacant Light Heavyweight Championship of the World on 15 July 1939 against Melio Bettina in his first defence. Conn would defend the title successfully three more times and fight 13 times in total, winning every match, before he challenged Joe Louis for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1941.
In 1938 and 1939 Joe Louis’s unprecedented title defences had earned him Ring magazine’s credit as “Fighter of the Year”. In 1940, Billy Conn’s year of fighting above his weight in the heavyweight division gave him that award. With Louis needing a worthy opponent and Conn hungry for the opportunity, the match seemed like a natural choice. The fight with Conn was scheduled to be the climax of Louis’s tour where he fought one boxer a month for seven months. Louis went into the fight with a 50-1-0 record, including 16 defences. Conn was 59-10-1.
Conn refused to gain weight for the fight believing it would slow him down. He was no slugger or boxer-puncher who chased the hope of landing presented by Max Schmeling’s victory and had served to inspire the likes of James Braddock and Buddy Baer. Instead Conn was a consummate out-boxer that made his intentions clear he would work Louis from the outside. It would prove to be a highly effective strategy. Prior to the fight, Conn said “Louis is a big, slow-moving Negro. Nobody knows this better than Joe himself. He’s a dangerous fighter, because he can punch and because he’s been taught well, but he’s a mechanical fighter, doing only what he’s been told. He can’t think under pressure in the ring, and he knows it.”
Louis replied, “I never heard of him getting no college degrees. He talks too much and I’m going to push some of his gab down his throat.” However, he had underestimated Conn and later wrote, “I made a mistake going into that fight. I knew Conn was kinda small and I didn’t want them to say in the papers that I beat up on some little guy so the day before the fight I did a little roadwork to break a sweat and drank as little water as possible so I could weigh in under 200 pounds. Chappie [Louis’s trainer, Jack Blackburn] was as mad as hell. But Conn was a clever fighter, he was like a mosquito, he’d sting and move.” This would definitely work against him in their match.
However, neither Conn’s strategy nor Louis’s admitted mistake seemed evident in the match’s first two rounds. Louis’s strategy throughout appears to have been to go to the body and, as with any lighter fighter, corner Conn whenever possible. Round one began with Louis confidently stalking with his single jab and minimalistic footwork. Conn circled off back-peddling. There are signs that this outside footwork isn’t Conn’s masterful ring generaliship and he seems nervous and even off-balance. An early stumble foreshadowed an actual slip and fall that would occur later on in the round as Conn tried to land with a fast jab. There was a very small amount of manhandling by Louis in the clinch – not his preferred range – and then the two were back to slipping and parrying each other jabs. Round two saw Louis press further into mid-range with his signature one-twos and again some more manhandling. Conn still appeared to be somewhat off-balance. Louis set up onto the ropes a few times, easily deflecting Conn’s right hook on his arm and shoulder. I think retrospective reviewers tend to under-rate Louis’s dominance in these two rounds especially the second one where he was clearly more in charging, pinning Conn down, putting in his combinations, including landing two of his notorious rights, and regularly turning him into the ropes. Conn certainly fought back, but he was never going to win a fight with the heavier Louis at the mid and close range and it showed. This was definitely something he would have done well to keep in mind in round 13.
Round three saw the first signs of Conn’s plan beginning to take effect. Louis was continuing to stalk but this time the challenger’s long-range shots were finding their mark now and also being followed up with some well-executed right hooks. Conn was fast and mobile. Louis pressed hard with his own methodical approach, but as he would admit later it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to catch up with his wily opponent. This was not going to be a short fight. However, round four was the first round that Conn truly won. His shots were landing and Louis’s were beginning to miss. At one point a right from Conn appeared to make Louis buckle and clinch. Conn, smelling blood, immediately began brawling, almost putting Louis in a headlock as he repeatedly struck with his right.
Round five saw Louis up his game more by closing in and going to the body. He threw big hooks and uppercuts at all ranges and Conn blocked and evaded although a left hook caught Conn in the eye. A regular feature here consisted of Louis hooking on the inside and Conn moving to long range with jabs and lead hooks. Louis landed a good body jab and a sharp hook to the jaw that visibly shook Conn who seemed to stagger back to his corner. His ring corner used smelling salts to get his head back in order. Round six was fairly uneventful with Conn now on the defence, avoiding the ropes and corners, circling the stalking Louis. Louis caught him once on the ropes and dropped some hard punches to Conn’s ribs. Conn was clearly game for a row and gave as much as he took up until the bell rang.
Round seven had Conn become markedly more aggressive with this tactic and his battle plan was now in motion. His circling was tighter and now he was landing effective jabs and long-range hooks. Even as Louis tried to pin him down in a clinch he was active throwing close-range punches from all angles. This is the round most boxing commentators say that showed Conn had taken control of the fight. He built on this initiative in round eight by crowding Louis with an onslaught of punches. Louis tried to press on in the clinches, but Conn clearly had command and began winning the exchanges along with the round. At this point Louis began suffering from dehydration. He later said, “By the time the eighth round came up, I was tired as hell, and I stayed that way until the twelfth. I was completely exhausted and he was really hurting me with left hooks.”
Round nine was all Conn again as he began taking the fight to Louis and landing combinations off the ropes and finally holding ground in the middle of the ring. He apparently said to Louis at the round’s end “Joe, you’re in a fight tonight” to which the champion replied, “I know it”. It might not as been as slick as it sounds as Louis had to then remind Conn he was walking to the wrong corner. Round 10 saw Conn step out confidently and work a tight circle around Louis pumping his jab to the composed champion. Conn regularly advanced with power punches and then moved to the outside and also made use of a collar tie to put these shot into Louis. Conn slipped again near the ropes. The round finished in a clinch with Louis showing signs of tiredness now as they both pummelled away.
Round 11 was all Conn. The Pittsburgh Kid was landing combinations at all ranges whilst Louis looked tired as he threw slow body shots in the clinch. At one point it was even Louis back-peddling from an aggressive series of punches thrown by Conn. An exaggerated version of this would follow in round 12, unquestionably Conn’s best round of the fight. Despite a few sharp short hooks thrown in the clinch by Louis, it was Conn completely running the show now. He was clearly winning and Louis didn’t appear to have an answer. His punches were landing and this was best demonstrated when Conn emerged from their clinch and moved back into it. Having blocked Louis’s uppercuts and right hook, with a double hook to the liver and head followed by a right hook to the head another left to the head, a long range left hook to the head, he then moved back into the pocket with a lead uppercut to the chin and then turned Louis round with a collar almost unbalancing him. It was a combination any modern day nak muay or mixed martial artist would have been proud of executing. Conn finished the round continuing his offensive from the outside and ended the twelfth round ahead on the scorecards.
In Louis’s corner Blackburn told him straight he needed a knockout to win. Meanwhile, Conn was riding high on the knowledge he was in touching distance from the World Heavyweight Championship. The trick now was to keep the out-boxing that had served him so well and worn out Louis. However, there was a problem. With Louis visibly rocked by unanswered and undefended combinations thrown by Conn at close range it dawned on the challenger that he could knock the champion out. Of the 64 wins of his career he only knocked out 15 of his opponents. He had a good chin and was only knocked out three times in his entire career, but one of those KOs would be this one.
Conn went in confidently. The last round had seen him outbox Louis at all ranges. Now he stood toe-to-toe. His distinctive circling style was absent. He still worked the outside, but he was hungry for the centre and that is where the two fighters stood at the beginning of the round. Conn even feinted and it seemed to work. Louis flinched and backed up. Conn was still running the show. However, they were well and truly in Louis’s domain now and the Brown Bomber had been given his orders. Conn let fly two punch combinations and pushed the champion back. They circled and briefly clinched and were separated before going back to trading ground again. Again Conn stamped his authority with feints and a long hook that sent Louis back again.
The champion then moved back into his favoured ground currently being occupied by the would-be upstart. Louis began to see what was happening and responded with a feint of his own. This was followed by double jabs as he felt his way to target. Conn began backing up. The signature one-two landed and Conn clinched. Louis pushed out of it and jabbed away Conn’s hand, moving forward. Conn slipped the next jab and moved in close, but Louis was ready and landed a right hook followed immediately by a jarring uppercut that connected. Conn stayed in close for safety, but Louis hit his jaw with short left-right hooks. This did not deter the challenger. He covered up and pressed the champion towards the ropes deciding to trade blows and it seemed to work. The two-fisted assault led Louis to cover up this time and the two clinched again having to be separated by the referee.
A familiar pattern formed. Both men were after the knockout so it was back and forth heavy punching until they clinched and had to be separated. These exchanges eventually moved to rallies at mid-range, but now Louis was taking full control and easily winning them. Conn stayed game to the very end, keeping active when he could. However, Louis’s punches were getting through and a right-left-right series of short hooks sent Conn to the ground. The challenger made it to his feet, but the referee could see he was out of the fight and waved it off.
Joe Louis versus Buddy Bear II 1942
Buddy Baer had been Joe Louis’s final “bum” of his “Bum of the Month Club” where he had beaten a different fighter each month until facing Conn. However, Baer had defied expectations by knocking Louis threw the ropes in round one and giving Louis undeniable trouble in rounds three and four. However, throughout Louis had been the better fighter. By round six Baer was in serious trouble and Louis knocked him down twice. However, after the second time the bell apparently rung and Louis didn’t hear it. He knocked Baer down for a third time and Baer’s corner ran into the ring to drag their fighter back to his corner. They declared it was a foul, but referee Arthur Donovan disagreed and he was supported by the boxing commission resulting in Baer losing by disqualification. This was unfinished business as far as Louis was concerned and, like his boxing style, he like matters to be clean. Baer hadn’t fought anyone before this return match.
Between the Conn fight and Baer rematch, Louis beat Lou Nova by technical knockout. The fight had been fairly uneventful up until round six when Louis feinted with a left and caught Nova with a full-blooded right cross. The challenger barely made the nine-count and only then to receive a stream of unanswered punches just seconds before the bell rung and the referee stepped in. Nova’s manager had argued that the referee – Arthur Donovan yet again – should have let his man hang for the bell and been given a minute’s rest, but Nova disagreed: “Maybe I could have taken care of myself if I had had a rest,” he said, “but I’ve got no complaint about Donovan. He can referee all my fights.” There is no footage I can find of the bout, but contemporary boxing commentator and historian Neil Fleischer said that Nova didn’t win a single round against Louis. Nova was the World Amateur Boxing Champion in 1935 before turning professional. He was noted to have incorporated yoga into his training and apparently had been performing a headstand in the dressing room before his match with Louis. He also beat Max Baer twice by technical knockouts, the first match being the first boxing match to be recorded for television. Baer did score a knockdown in the second bout, but went out in the ninth when the referee had to step in. Nova almost lost his eye in a terrible brawl with Tony Gelento I previously mentioned.
Louis was always dangerous in his rematches. When he had a point to prove, he didn’t want any unanswered questions. We previously saw this with the way he put away the first and, at this stage, the only man to beat him, Max Schmeling. Just as Schmeling had lost in the first round so would Buddy Baer. I am not sure what Baer’s return strategy was, but I am guess it was much of the same. He tries to close in on Louis to outmuscle him, but the Brown Bomber was having none of it this time around. All business, he deftly moved out of the clinches and came in with his classic one-two combinations. A right stunned Baer just 20 seconds into the fight. From this point on Louis kept coming forward caring little for Baer’s attempts to use range or manhandling in the clinch. He simply outmanoeuvred the giant and kept landing combinations up and down the body. Finally at around the two minute mark Louis landed a left hook to the body and then a right across the jaw, sending Baer down for the first of three times. Baer would beat the count on each knockdown each occurring within the final seconds of the round. However, his third rise had seen him stumble his way up and use the ropes in one final effort. The referee stepped in to prevent more damage.
Occurring just one month after the US had entered the war, Louis would donate his entire purse to the war effort and he would enlist in the army the very next day. Baer would also enlist and retire from boxing permanently, returning from the war to pursue an acting career. Louis would only fight twice over the next four years, again donating his entire purse to war effort, something he would be cruelly punished for by IRS. When he returned many felt he was passed his prime and had been robbed four good years in his career.