We picked up with Joe Louis’s boxing journey when he faced Jacob Henry “Buddy” Baer, younger brother (by six years) of Louis’s former opponent and the former world heavyweight champion Max Baer.
Although a 10-1 underdog, Buddy Baer was a legitimate contender for the world title. Like his brother, he was a pure slugger in style and had an impressive 85% KO record. Some records have him fighting 58 times, others 62. All have him losing a total of seven times. Like Max, he had a large Jewish following, claiming ancestry on his father’s side, and wore the Star of David on his shorts when fighting in the ‘30s and ‘40s. However, neither of the brothers was religiously observant and unlike, Benny Leonard and Barney Ross, their claims of ancestry were questioned by the Jewish trainer Ray Arcel.
For the record, Arcel was responsible for training Benny Leonard, Ezzard Charles, Jim Braddock, Barney Ross, Bob Olin, Tony Zale, Billy Soose, Ceferino Garcia, Lou Brouillard, Teddy Yarosz, Freddie Steele, Jackie Kid Berg, Alfonso Frazier, Abe Goldstein, Frankie Genaro, Tony Marino, Sixto Escobar, Charley Phil Rosenberg, Roberto Durán and Larry Holmes. Throughout his career, from the 1920s to the 1980s, he trained 18 world champions.
Buddy Baer matched by then the tallest heavyweight champion in boxing history, Jess Willard, at 6’6½”. However, unlike Willard, he would never win the belt. Max Baer had only been 6’2½”. Both brothers were managed by Ancil Hoffman. Buddy was trained by Izzy Klein who, like Arcel, trained Barney Ross, Ezzard Charles and Tony Zale, and he also trained Sugar Ray Robinson for his Middleweight Championship match against Jake LaMotta in 1951. Ray Arcel would also be Buddy’s corner on the night he fought Louis. In his autobiography Buddy describes him as his cut man.
Whilst on the subject of trainers and corners, Joe Louis’s trainer was Charles Henry “Jack” “Chappie” Blackburn. Blackburn’s own life story is quite exceptional. He was a veteran of 178 recorded professional fights, finishing his career with a boxing record of 99-26-19 excluding newspaper decisions. One of those newspaper decisions was a non-title bout he apparently won against the great Joe Gans. He fought Gans to three official no-decisions. Blackburn was a lightweight and weltweight fighter who had a notable match against World Middleweight Champion Harry Greb, eventually losing but gaining a lot of respect especially given the age difference between the two. This was characteristic of him often fighting opponents that outweighed him, including the legendary Coloured Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sam Langford who he faced six times. Other notable opponents were Harry Lewis, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien. Blackburn also earned himself a prison sentence for manslaughter due to his frequent street fights. 11 years after his retirement from boxing, he was recruited by one half of the Joe Louis management team, Julian Black. The other half of the team was John Roxborough, a retired professional basketball player who gone from a bail bandsman to running a real estate office as a front for a numbers racket (an illegal form of lottery). Roxborough had first spotted Louis coming off his Golden Gloves wins (amateur boxing). His partnership with Julian Black came from their mutal backgrounds in running numbers rackets and Black already having experience managing a stable of fighters. Louis famously recalled the way his trainer and his managers looked after him during and after his first loss. Louis said,”I remember Chappie saying, ‘Don’t go for the knockout yet. Keep jabbing him off balance so he can’t get that right in, and for God’s sake keep your left arm high.’ I wish I had listened to him.” After the match he recalled, “Roxborough and Black took care of the reporters. They told them that Schmeling got me with a ‘Sunday punch’ in the second round, but even with that, it took him ten rounds to take me out.” Blackburn, Roxborough and Black were Louis’s trio, promoted by the notorious Mike Jacobs. Other notable trainees of Blackburn included Light Heavyweight Champion John Henry Lewis, Lightweight Champion, Sammy Mendell, Bantamweight Champion Bud Taylor, Art Lasky, Jackie Fields, Lew Tendler, Sailor Freedman and Von Porat as well as brief stint working with Jersey Joe Walcott when he was in Philadelphia. Blackburn saw Louis from his professional debut through his title victory against James Braddock and all his title defences, still working his corner up until a month before Blackburn’s premature death by heart attack during a routine physical examination for pneumonia. Blackburn’s funeral was attended by several thousand mourners and was inducted into both the Boxing Hall of Fame and International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Buddy Baer’s professional debut was on 23 September 1934, having had no experience at amateur level, where he knocked out Tiny Abbott in the first round. Abbott, who stood at a hulking 6’8”, was nearing the end of his career, but he had faced Max Baer twice previously with both boxers winning a match each. Buddy didn’t lose until his 13th fight, which was on points to Babe Hunt, a veteran of more than a 100 fights. Up to that point all his victories had been by knockout and nine of these within the first round. This same fate would await Babe Hunt in their rematch two years later.
By 1937 Buddy Baer faced his first highly regarded opponent in the form of Abe Simon. Simon had turned pro whilst in high school was just two years older than Baer and although two inches shorter outweighed him by seven pounds. During his career highlights he would knock out the great future world champion Jersey Joe Walcott – the man who beat Archie Moore three times – and he would challenge Joe Louis for his world title twice. In round one Simon had Baer hanging off the ropes, but the tide began to turn in the second and Baer won by stoppage in the third. Despite suffering his first stoppage via Gunnar Barlund who used effective footwork to keep away from Baer’s right, he went on to win three fights in row including an important match against Lee Savold in 1939 who would go on to win the British Board of Boxing Control’s version of the World Heavyweight Championship in his 153 fight career. He would be out-pointed by Eddie Blunt in 1941 but would earn a tremendous amount of respect for the beating he took and for winning the last round.
After facing “Two Ton” Tony Gelento, who retired in the seventh round claiming he had injured his hand, Baer was ready to challenge Joe Louis. Baer had lost the first round to Gelento, evened up in the second and won all the subsequent rounds where he used his range advantage to prevent his opponent’s charges, staggered him in the fourth and knocked his mouthpiece out in the sixth.Buddy Baer entered the fight also with 49 wins but with four losses to Louis’s one.
The Joe Louis fight was the first World Heavyweight Championship to be fought in Washington D.C. This was Joe Louis’s sixth title defence in six months, leading to the press calling his opponents “bum of the month”. In retrospect all of these opponents were top-ranked legitimate contenders for the belt, all regulars in The Ring ratings, and some gave Louis a hard time, even knocking him down, but he just seemed unstoppable. Joe Louis came into the fight with 49 wins and one loss. Unlike other champions in the lower divisions, every single one of Lewis’s fights since he won the belt from Braddock had been a title defence. Besides the British and Empire Heavyweight Champion Tommy Farr and the former South American Heavyweight Champion Arturo Godoy, every one of these 16 victories had been via stoppage and usually a knockout. His opponents had included Gelento, former Light Heavyweight Champion and future Hall of Famer, John Henry Lewis, and the aforementioned Abe Simon. Louis fought anyone who was a genuine challenge, including five former world champions and would fight three future world champions. There is no evidence of him actively ducking anyone.
Due to it raining in the morning it looked like the fight might be postponed. However, due to the scheduled return of the Senator’s baseball team this would mean the Griffith Stadium would not be available for days. The weather cleared up fairly quickly, but not before referee Arthur Donavan had got royally drunk at the bar and had to do desperate fast sobering up. In his autobiography Buddy Baer claimed that there were many other qualified referees who could have done the job and believed Donovan was on the payroll of Mike Jacobs, Louis’s promoter, insisting that he referee most of Louis’s fights. Jacobs was a promoter who took 10 per cent of Louis’s earnings from his fights.
Like many boxers, Louis’s first loss to Schmeling was Baer’s inspiration that he could win. In his autobiography Buddy Baer described his forward pressure battle plan as follows: “Use my weight and reach to force Joe backward, into the ropes, into the corners…Don’t let him get set, or I get hurt… Respect his lethal power, fight close in, move out of range fast, move back close, tie him up, hit on the break.”
Round 1 – Baer moved in on Louis from the start. Louis used his sliding footwork to play a counter-punching game at the start. This resulted in a lot of in-fighting for the first minute with both fighters trying to connect with hooks and uppercuts. Louis was usually an aggressive fighter but Baer had the range advantage. Eventually he was able to move to long range and begin scoring, successfully tying off one of Baer’s arms when the larger man clinched. However, just as he was getting comfortable at his preferred range Baer caught him with a hook that sent him through the ropes. This was the first this had occurred in a World Heavyweight Championship since Luis Firpo did it to Jack Dempsey in their first round back in 1923. Louis was up at four and looked dazed. Later Baer would state in writing that he felt Arthur Donovan started the count slow. He immediately clinched to regain his senses before returning to his familiar range. Baer later noted Louis caught him with a good punch to the ribs before the end of the round. Rather oddly the pair suddenly stopped and walked towards their corners as if it was the end of the round. Donovan then waved them back on for the remaining few seconds.
Round 2 – Louis took charge early despite Baer closing in on him. There was more active work in the clinches with Louis managing the mid-range, landing with telling straight rights and overhands as well as ducking Baer’s punches. In Baer’s words, he got through his defences. Baer appeared to be trying to press in with his clinch as he described years later and he using the classic inside uppercut we have seen used by Primo Carnera and prior to that by Jack Johnson. However, Louis fought his way out. The round finished with Baer weathering several of Louis’s overhands, basic jabs and signature one-two combinations.
Round 3 – This was pretty much a repeat round. Baer’s strategy came into play, but it didn’t appear to be delivering a lot for him. Louis’s pivots and turns were impressive as was his defence. A retrospective commentator gave this as an even round, but even Buddy Baer – who believed he was robbed of the title – gave it to Louis.
Round 4 – This is the round where Buddy Baer claimed he shook Louis for a moment with a right. With the first few seconds you can see Baer advancing quickly. There is a brief exchange and after Louis pivots Baer lands with a right uppercut that definitely jars the champion. However, Louis takes it in his stride and continues.
Round 5 – With the first few seconds Louis landed a solid long left hook to Baer’s head. Baer used the collar tie and a fair amount of pressure from his head, clearly trying to keep to the battle plan of wearing Louis down with his weight and strength. According to Baer, his trainer, Izzy Klein, had advised him in the fourth round to evade more punches and come back with his own. He says he tightly ducked a right from Louis and caught him with a left hook that cut his eye. Baer gives us a bit of Rocky IV style romanticism with Louis dabbing his eye with his glove and in disbelief he was bleeding. Baer recalls thinking this round to be fairly even and this might down to the fact that he did well to press against Louis in the clinch for about two minutes of the round and looked like he was causing him problems. However, Louis’s comeback tipped the scales from my viewpoint. After exchanging a few close range punches, he found his way back to mid-range a couple times before dropping a telling left hook. This was followed by a hard right, a short left, a clean uppercut and a big left hook that clearly dazed Baer. From this point in the round it looked like Baer was just holding on as Louis unleashed a series of unanswered punches from different angles.
Round 6 – Louis led the way now throwing in hooks as Baer kept trying to smother and spoil. Baer recalled how surprised he was by the energy of his opponent thinking he would have been tired from the previous round. He also theorised that Louis wanted to finish the job quickly now for fear of being hit by one of Baer’s knockout punches. This might have been true. Louis had said as much about his match with Gelento and, like Gelento, Baer had knocked down hid down earlier.The champion was clearly taking charge at this point and into his groove. He threw a series of clean left and right hooks first to Baer’s body before working his way back to the head occasionally stiff-arming to set up the next rally. The punches were pretty much landing at will at this point and uppercuts began to join the regular hooks. What Baer did not mention was his surprising attempt at coming back at this point. It occurred inside the clinch as Baer suddenly started chipping away with hooks to Louis’s head. However, all of these seemed to have been caught on Louis’s cross-guard. After some ineffectual grappling, Louis then returned fire with single, hard punches finding their mark. In classic Louis fashion he slapped down Baer’s lead hand with right, feinted with a left pawing jab and threw a straight right to Baer’s jaw. The challenger brought his right hand up afterwards to protect. They clinched and Louis landed with a right uppercut. He then moved to mid-range on the back foot and landed a solid liver shot. His final single power punch came in the form of his perfect straight right that spun Buddy Bear, as if in slow motion, in a full 360 degree turn. His fall was described as resembling a falling leaf and Baer concurred this was the falling sensation he felt.
Baer was on his knee at six and back to his feet by eight. Louis jumped back on him and continued to unleash the single power shots. The first two telling blows were uppercuts off the back foot as Baer seemed to instinctively try press forward with his original plan only to receive punishment. Two right hooks followed as Louis pushed him back. Baer tried to close in again and, despite clearly teetering on the edge, remained active throwing weak punches when he could on the inside. A left hook then a right uppercut found its mark followed up by a powerful right hook sent him down. This time Baer said he took his time to get up, but we can see him staggering backwards after he has risen to his feet. Apparently Baer’s corner believed the bell had rung by this stage. Louis charged back in with an overhand right that sent Baer back down again like a felled tree.
Baer’s corner rushed to gather up their man, claiming that Louis had hit him after the bell. Bizarrely Baer claims that he threw a weak jab and Louis swarmed over him as the bell went. He then stumbled over to his corner only to be hit by a punch from behind. This doesn’t match with what we can see in the fight. At the time he also said that he heard the bell and dropped his hands, which was when Louis hit him. When round seven began Joe got up to fight, but Baer’s corner refused to let their man out. Ancil Hoffman claimed that Louis had fouled and this meant they were entitled to more recovery time. Donovan disagreed and when his corner refused to leave the ring disqualified Baer. Timekeeper Charley Reynolds apparently agreed with Baer’s corner that the bell had rung before Louis knocked him down for the third time, but also stated that Donovan had over-ruled him when he counted Baer out the second time Louis had knocked him down. Jimmy Sullivan, one of the two judges, also apparently supported Baer’s claim that the punch came after the bell and was a foul and argued this for days afterwards. Some reports say that the all the ringside officials supported this argument including the other judge, John Trigg, who Baer thought supported Donovan. Regardless of the protests, the boxing commissioner gave the final verdict and supported the referee.
Buddy Baer’s brother said of the fight: “I can’t understand why a fighter has to go into the ring, fight Louis, the two judges, the referee and the announcer. Buddy got the works. This is the first time I heard of a champion getting his eye cut and having it affect his hearing.”
Buddy Baer would get another shot at Joe Louis barely a year later. However, before this rematch Louis would have to defend his title against a very different type of challenger in the form of the master technician, Billy “The Kid” Conn. Back in 1935 Louis had been on the rise and fighting the German boxer, Hans Birkie, in Pittsburgh. Little did he know that the 17 year-old welterweight minding his bucket would give him one of the greatest fights of his career!