Final Hurrahs for the Five Kings (diary entry)

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Tuesday night continued fight history and analysis in my teacher consultancy/training service. As far as the 1930s heavyweight division goes, there appears to be two distinct stages. The first stage was a battle between five world champions and several rising stars. This could be charted from 1930 when the vacant title was first contested to 1937 when a sixth king claimed the title and held onto it and actively defended it for the longest period of time in the history of gloved boxing. In other words, we have the pre-Joe Louis era and the Joe Louis era. The latter part lasted until Louis’s temporary retirement in 1949. However, the first era was action packed and demonstrative of boxing’s evolution as a sport and art. It also includes Louis as a supporting player and he made an early appearance in the final bout of tonight’s discussion. These fights were selected for a few reasons. The prevailing one is that these were the stand out final victories in the careers of three of the six kings – James J Braddock, Max Baer and Max Schmeling.

James J Braddock versus Max Baer World Heavyweight Championship 1935

After his 1929 defeat by Tommy Loughran, which we covered two lessons back, James Braddock appears to lose a lot of confidence. This coincides with the problems he incurred due to The Great Depression. He broke his right hand, his main weapon at the time, and then kept re-breaking it as he lost fight after fight. From January 1930 until May 1933 he lost a total 17 fights before making the decision to box in the heavyweight division. He won two fights, but then re-broke his hand in a fight with Abe Feldman on 25th September. During this time, Braddock had no money to pay trainers and tried to subsidise his family with longshore work and this would help strengthen his left hand. However, his injuries would see him eventually claim benefits. After his fight with Feldman Braddock would not step back into the ring until 14 June 1934. Seeming to be at rock bottom, Braddock agreed to fight again. This time he was selected as a stepping stone to help the career of apparent rising star Corn Griffin. Confirming the predictions of most fight promoters, Griffin knocked Braddock down in round two. However, Braddock was far from out. He got back up and sent the younger fighter to the canvas before dominating throughout the rest of the round. By round three the referee had seen enough and stopped the fight in favour of Braddock. Again, Braddock was chosen for his journeyman status to fight the future world lightweight champion John Henry Lewis. Braddock shocked everyone by winning the fight by decision. His next opponent was Art Lasky who was being groomed to face Max Baer for the World Heavyweight Championship. Lasky was a more natural heavyweight and outweighed Braddock by 15 lbs. Braddock demonstrated his superior boxer-puncher skills by using the footwork to score points off Lasky, again winning by decision. By this stage the press had taken to calling Braddock the “Cinderella Man” due to his amazing rags to riches comeback.

The stage was set for the world title match. Max Baer had just won the belt (covered last lesson) in brutal technical knockout over former world champion Max Schmeling who, as we will see later, was still very much in his prime. Braddock with his history of injuries to his best punch, which was never as good as Max Baer’s best punch, and long list of defeats didn’t look like much of an opponent to the new champion. Braddock’s record was worse than Schmeling’s and he was around the same time. Baer had looked visibly larger than Schmeling when he had destroyed him in round 10 of their match. However, Braddock was a different fighter to Schmeling. Max Baer’s wins and losses are cause for a lot of discussion. His overhand right, a technique that Rocky Marciano amongst others would solidify as a punch unto itself, was undeniably a powerful weapon. When we look back at his victories, the punch resembles a wrecking ball that few can withstand and he can successfully swing repeatedly. 51 of his 68 wins were by KO – that is one more than the great Jack Dempsey and puts him in the over 50 KO club. This is before we look at the damage he inflicted on his opponents. Need we remember the deaths of Frankie Campbell and Ernie Schaaf that were directly and indirectly attributed to Baer’s relentless right hand as well as the month’s hospitalisation of the giant Primo Carnera. He is often regarded as having little technical ability, but I don’t think that is entirely fair especially if we compare him to the likes of Luis Firpo, Tony Galento and Primo Carnera. His swiping right hand has credibility in its execution and at least a small amount of Tommy Loughran’s outside footwork stuck with him. However, what is often put over was his problem with focusing. After Campbell’s death it is argued that Baer lost his killer instinct and yet that did not seem apparent in the fights we watched last lesson with Schmeling and Carnera. Others put it that Baer was a celebrity and entertainer first, often clowning around in the ring and not taking his training seriously enough. Critical contemporary and retrospective boxing commentators point out his two only performances for the World Heavyweight Championship as proof that Baer was either holding back due to the fear of killing his opponent or joking around way too much in the ring. It looked like the fight was going to end for Carnera in the first two rounds when Baer knocked him down and then the fight became much more competitive with Carnera even winning a round before his destruction restarted in round 10 and he was knocked out in round 11. Looking back, as we did last lesson, it appears that although Baer scored a decisive couple of knockdowns in round 1 and at least one in round 2, much of the knockdowns in the second were really just the two wrestling to the ground. Carnera also slipped in round 10.

Regardless of the reasons, his defeat to Braddock is generally accepted as Baer not taking his challenger seriously, which is something everyone had done for the past two fights. Baer also put it down to him have damaged a finger before the fight, but given the amount of breakages Braddock had suffered to his right hand up to the stage I don’t think that is a very credible excuse. Another point worth noting is that Braddock was trained by Mike Cartwell who had been Baer’s trainer. The odds against Braddock winning this fight were given at 8-1.

Round 1 – Braddock came forward early on and ensured that he won every exchange with Baer in the opening round. Baer seemed to sit back and sneer in response, but he definitely lost the first round.

Round 2 – Braddock continued to pile on the points and Baer continued to hold back, losing the second round.

Round 3 – We saw an example of overt clowning when Baer bowed to the audience after the referee warned him on a foul in the clinch. Meanwhile Braddock kept busy with his better developed jab and also went to the body a lot for his third round win in a row.

Round 4 – Baer pulled Braddock into the clinch and began to show more aggression in a similar fashion to the way he had manhandled Schmeling. However, he also clowned about again. Braddock continued putting on the pressure. This round is often given to Baer possibly due this renewed show of aggression, although a smaller number give it Braddock. It seemed fairly even to me.

Round 5 – Finally, Braddock resumed his more outside counter-puncher role and began to circle away from Baer. From here he kept landing jabs and combinations. Some have given this round to Baer again, but I see Braddock demonstrating much better ring generalship and landing more punches.

Round 6 – The action increased in this round as Baer mounted his attack. He threw uppercuts in the clinch and began launching his trademark swiping overhand. Braddock was caught by one solid punch but immediately clinched up demonstrating his extraordinary resilience. Baer might have had a truly impressive KO record, but of Braddock’s 28 losses only two of them were by KO the last occurring in the penultimate match of his career against the great Joe Louis. This fight might also be seen not only as slugger versus boxer-puncher/counter-puncher but KO merchant versus iron chin. Regardless of Braddock’s weathering the blow, he did well to keep out of its path as had been the plan from the beginning. This was possibly Baer’s best round.

Round 7 – Baer responded to being booed for his inactivity by charging forward with his signature big right. This did not deter Braddock who just continued to score points from the exchanges and the outside.

Round 8 – With Baer now coming forward Braddock could comfortably continue circling and landing shots. Baer was never a swarmer. Like all great sluggers, he could certainly pile on the pressure there was blood in the water and his overhand right got through, but everything was about finding that opportunity to land the big punch. This is the pure slugger style fighter in a nutshell and it is why a very good outside boxer should win.

Round 9 – Matters appeared to change back to the way they had started in the opening rounds. Baer had either sussed what was happening with Braddock’s strategy or he was proving his critics right that his heart wasn’t in the match.

Round 10 – Nothing remarkable turned up in the highlights for this round although I noticed Baer using a pawing jab in an attempt to set up his big right. Braddock was took clever.

Round 11 – Baer again persisted with trying to land the big right hand – pretty much his only strategy. With both men visibly tired, Braddock wisely closed down Baer’s range each time the champion took a swing. This was what Braddock was famous for doing: spoiling.

Round 12: Braddock kept the punches coming and also demonstrated some slipping and weaving from Baer’s punches.

Round 13: If anyone was in any doubt who was winning this match, this round demonstrated the art of the pure boxer. Braddock was now clearly making Baer miss with most of his shots and began landing with his own overhand rights.

Round 14: Now we saw Braddock’s extensive use of his jab at long range whilst also continuing with the overhand rights. Opinions are split on whether Baer claimed this round with a comeback or if Braddock did enough to win it.

Round 15: It was now all about not getting knocked out. Braddock, although tired, used his footwork to get out of trouble. He moved in and out strategically. Baer gets this round, but it is a case of too little too late.

Braddock won the World Heavyweight Championship by unanimous decision.

 

Max Baer versus Tony Galento 1940

It wouldn’t be until 1959 that Floyd Patterson would be the first world heavyweight champion to win back the title. However, with the exception of Braddock, all of the six kings were hungry to be the first to achieve this prestige. I broke my decade rule in this instance because it works as something a postscript to Baer’s career after losing the title. He fought a lot afterwards. This started with a shot at the new champion, Joe Louis, who put him away inside of four rounds. Baer said that Joe Louis hit him so hard that he saw seven of them out there. When he tried to hit the middle one the other six beat the hell out of him. However, taking around the same amount of time Braddock took off prior to his warm-up matches Baer was back in the ring the following year and on a fresh winning streak. He fought 22 times in 1936, sometimes fighting just days apart and the vast majority were won on knockouts proving his legitimacy. However, 20 of these fights were for a scheduled six rounds which did not count much in a campaign for the title. He lost his 21st fight of that year to Willie Davis on points before knocking out Dutch Weimer in round two of his first match scheduled for 10 rounds that year. The re-sharpening  of tools time was over as his next series of bouts until the end of his career were all for 10-15 rounds. He would lose three more times from 1937 until 1941 when he retired. However, during that period he won seven more times, five by KO. His manager was keen to get him in the ring with Joe Louis again, but it would never happen. The ’40s and ’50s would see Baer continue his acting career first in movies and then on TV, working with many of the big names of the time. His third to last fight is particularly noteworthy and a subject of tonight’s study for several reasons.

His opponent was “Two Ton” Tony Galento, another larger than life figure and self-publicist that used his own rather unique qualities to push his way into the higher echelons of the heavyweight division. Galento began his career in 1928 and ended it in the mid-40s. What he lacked in looks and charm he made up for his sheer audacity. Already by the time he faced Baer, he had signature phrases like “I’ll moider the bum”, always had answers for the press and indulged in every publicity stunt imaginable. This included wrestling an octopus, boxing a kangaroo and wrestling a bear. He ran a bar and famously would go training at 2 a.m. when it closed. Galento was visibly overweight and didn’t care, often over-hyping his huge food and beer consumption as part of his image. Galento was a crude brawler who cared little for rules and often made that part of his personality. He put his loss to Max Baer down to the fact that he couldn’t hook Baer around the head and butt him. He beat the high prospect and former amateur world heavyweight champion Lou Nova in one of the dirtiest fights in gloved boxing history. Nova almost lost his eye and on at least two times he was knocked down, Galento landed on him knees first this was in addition to the low blows and butting. In addition to his shameless and unashamed dirty fighting and his publicised over-eating and drinking, Galento added to his image by not washing before fights. It was yet another tactic used to psychologically affect his opponents. Max Baer, who took a rare dislike to the man, described the odour as “rotten tuna and a tub of liquor being sweated out”. By nature Galento was a slugger and several of his opponents, including Joe Louis, testified to the power he possessed. He is also another boxer blamed for the death of Schaaf having fought him before Max Baer and dealt out a disproportionate amount of punishing via his dirty tactics such as repreatedly rabbit punching.

The Max Baer fight was a promoter’s dream given their different colourful public personas and willingness to play up to the media. We watched a 1940 promotional film that was included in the posthumous 1964 Max Baer documentary “The Tender-Hearted Tiger” showing Galento in a staged phone conversation with Max Baer. Galento is in his bar smoking a cigar and dringing an absurdly large glass of beer and Baer is quipping from a public telephone booth using Galento’s “bum” insult against him. It’s a good early prototype of the banter that would follow in the wake of Muhammad Ali’s grandstanding decades later. Indeed, Galento took the type of campaigning Jack Johnson had done back in the 1900s to a new level. In 1939, in his bid for the world title, he would regularly phone Joe Louis and his wife to tell him how he was going to “moider him”. Louis, like Baer, confessed this was an opponent he really wanted to hurt. Later, after being knocked down by Galento, Louis said he had to knock him out as soon as possible due to the clear danger he posed. The great Jack Dempsey was no fan either. He was one of Galento’s many managers, but left after hurting his charge in a heavy sparring match he ordered in response to Galento’s attitude. Dempsey, then 45, had had enough of Galento missing training sessions, turning up late and his regular insults. Interestingly, Galento was one of the boxers who came to the aid of Joe Louis when the ex-champion was in serious tax problems in the 1950s.

The Baer/Galento fight is an outright bloody brawl that lasts for seven rounds. Galento rushes in trying to clinch so he can hit Baer at close range. Interestingly, Baer doesn’t use the same tactics he used with the big hitter Primo Carnera 16 years previously. He doesn’t circle or fight defensively. In fact, he met Galento in the centre and traded blows with him. This was an all out slug-fest and brawl. Galento appeared to be all the cruder qualities of Baer distilled into a relentless fighter. In the end Galento didn’t leave his corner for the eighth round.

 

197254468_10159717534008804_6143355253471535867_nMax Schmeling versus Joe Louis

If the Braddock versus Baer match exemplified the boxer beats slugger rule then Schmeling versus Louis I gives us the exception. Max Schmeling did very well to survive and even thrive in Germany given his actions. He became a darling of the Weimar Republic inter-war period in Germany, hobnobbing a lot with racing car drivers, actors and artists who he identified with. When the Nazis came to power he refused to join them but became a national hero and gained Hitler’s favour.  Having been inspired to take up boxing after watching the Jack Dempsey versus Georges Carpentier bout, he was very much representative of the next generation of heavyweight champions that preceded Joe Louis’s reign. He would also be the first man and the only one of the six kings of the ’30s to decisively beat “The Brown Bomber”. There will be plenty of time to discuss Joe Louis in the approaching period but it was important this lesson to convey his standing at the time of the fight. His management and training team were proud of the way they had groomed their future champion. Louis’s clinical and technical excellence of the time was and is often described in mechanical terms. Ernest Hemingway famous said he was “Too good to be true, and absolutely true… the most beautiful fighting machine that I have ever seen.” When he faced Schmeling, it was beginning to be accepted that the ex-world champion was on his descent. In fact, Schmeling’s odds were worse than Braddock’s against Baer at 10-1. Yet his record was clearly much better. After losing the title to Baer he immediately lost a decision to another American, Steve Hamas and drew with regular 1920s and ’30s title-circular, Paulino Uzcudun. However, he beat both these two boxers in rematches and also against German heavyweight Champion, Walter Neusel. Neusel is considered to be one of the greatest German boxers in history. Therefore, the odds against him might be more testament to the regard everyone had in the rising star that was Joe Louis.

If Tony Galento might be considered the roughest and crudest example of a slugger then Max Schmeling, at least for his time, is at the opposite end of that boxing style’s spectrum. Schmeling planned and strategised his fights around his big right hand. He studied boxers when they fought each other and when they fought him. When journalists questioned him about the calm confidence he showed in his belief that he could beat Joe Louis, Schmeling’s famous answer was “I see something”. He had watched his opponent intently and noticed that for an instant Louis dropped lowered his left hand after jabbing. This presented the perfect opening and window of opportunity for Schmeling’s right cross. His punch would neither be the wild and brutal wrecking ball of Max Baer nor the clean biomechanically superior straight right of Joe Louis, but Schmeling had his own style going on based off patiently studying human behaviour.  Joe Louis will very much represent the next generation of fighters and his influence over the art and development of boxing is undeniable. There are several theories put forward as to why boxing guards became higher. The most obvious reason comes from the inclusion of gloves and the exclusion of grappling (at least officially). However, Joe Louis might be seen as one of the earliest pioneers of holding a high guard and it got higher after his first fight with Schmeling.

From the early stages of the fight Schmeling noticeably kept his right hand up near his chin, tightly cocked and ready for his moment. From time to time he used Max Baer’s cross guard defence, but for the most part Schmeling got settled into the long game waiting for a chance unknown to virtually anyone but him and working his jab. He was also very aware of Louis’s strengths and did well to close down the range. Joe Louis was a boxer-puncher. He fought best from the outside and held his right further back for maximum acceleration. Schmeling jabbed a lot more than usual and worked on sneaking over his right cross to test his theory. In round two Schmeling landed the shot, but Louis took it. Round three saw Louis more on the offensive. His strategy was usually to press forward and then subtly move back to entice his opponent to react and fall into his trap. This worked in round three when he caught Schmeling, but with his lack of awareness that his opponent watching his jabbing error Louis did not realise his trap was set to backfire. We saw this happen in round four when Schmeling’s got the punch he had threatened two rounds back. Louis had thrown a slow pawing jab as Schmeling had backed off. Such jabs were part of Louis’s regular arsenal. He often used slap-down parries disguised as jabs and also pawing jabs to establish his power line for the ruthless right. Up to this point such a technique exacerbated Schmeling seized the moment he had been waiting for and let fly the first right. Louis staggered back visibly stunned and weak on his legs. Schmeling moved in with a flurry of unanswered punches, finally landing with another clean cross that sent Louis down for the first time in his career. A combination of courage and inexperience motivated the future champion to get back up and charge straight back at Schmeling who was happy to counter with clean rights and be patient again. Bad habits cannot easily be undone and the veteran fight knew this too well. Louis was down again in the next round. By round six Schmeling began manhandling Louis in a similar fashion as Max Baer had done in their fight and began to assert control. Louis kept on the front foot and even made Schmeling shell up from time to time, but this wasn’t changing the bigger picture Schmeling had seen. The German’s powerful rights kept on landing, stunning and frustrating the American.

By round nine a couple of similes are brought to mind. If Louis were to be likened to a robot – and this is something many have and continue to do so – then his pursuit of a regularly countering Schmeling was as if he was stuck on outmoded programme unable to cope with the new data. Likewise, we might see his continuous error of dropping his left to resemble the hole in a sinking ship. Schmeling was now throwing a variety of punches through this opening in his opponent’s defence. Louis just seemed unable to adapt at the time. Round 12 had Schmeling already miles ahead on points and Louis now having to work more like a slugger, which he could easily do given his own tremendous punching power, looking for one big shot. Sadly for Louis it would be the true slugger’s shot that would finish the job as Schmeling’s plan came to its natural conclusion. Louis’s chin might as well be yet another excellent attribute he possessed that made him such a great boxer. He had taken a huge number of Schmeling’s best shots by this stage and would withstand a lot before he was finally counted out. A clean right coming out of the clinch and staggered the Brown Bomber. He backed into the ropes and Schmeling chased him with lefts and rights. They clinched and were separated. Louis tried to fight from the outside using his jab, but we saw Schmeling bob and weave out of the way before penetrating his defences. There was more inside boxing with Schmeling landing all the punches. Another separation saw Schmeling standing toe-to-toe with Louis and winning the exchanges. Louis had taken way too much punishment now and still looked dazed. They clinched again, but Schmeling could smell blood and punched his way out. Louis’s ponderous counter-attack was spoiled – Braddock style – by Schmeling. Then it was series of 14 unanswered punches by the German and a visibly stumbling and vulnerable Louis was hit with one clean right that knocked him down for the full count.

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