Tuesday, 17 January 2012

TV before we had a TV: The Champ

By 1948 we still didn't have a TV set, but our next-door neighbor did.

On June 25, 1948, the aging heavyweight champion Joe Louis defended his title against Jersey Joe Walcott in a highly anticipated rematch. The previous December I'd been been listening on my bedside radio as Louis defeated Walcott in a controversial split decision at Madison Square Garden. "Controversial" is a kind word. It was a horrible decision, as is clear in the films. So convinced was Louis that he'd lost, so disgusted was the champion with his performance that he tried to leave the ring even before the decision was announced to resounding boos.

The June rematch at Yankee Stadium had originally been set for the middle of the week but was postponed twice by rain. Main events always began at ten o'clock, prohibitively late for a school night when a nine-year-old's bedtime was nine. But now it was taking place on a Friday, so at the last minute our neighbor invited Dad and me to come over and watch it. (I remember solemnly assuring Mom we would come home as soon as it was over, as if Dad and I might otherwise have gone out to a tavern with the boys for a post-fight bull session until one in the morning). Thus by happy meteorological circumstance and special parental dispensation, I got to see the big fight on TV -- a huge deal for me.

If you're put off by "the sweet science," as writer A.J. Liebling called it, you have my permission to skip the clip below, skip my pugilistic musings, and go directly to the musical dessert at the end of this post. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

As a kid well-schooled in my sports history, I knew the details of Joe Louis' legendary career, and his significance in twentieth-century American life. (On this subject I recommend David Margolick's Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink.) But to me, in 1948, Joe Louis was the overdog of overdogs; like Army, Notre Dame, and the Yankees, he always won. And since I always rooted for the underdog, I was fervently in Walcott's corner. To me justice demanded a Walcott victory, after he'd been robbed of the title so egregiously the previous December.

So on this June night I was thrilled and encouraged when Jersey Joe (in white trunks) dropped Louis in the third round with an overhand right, his third flash knockdown of Louis in two fights. (The overhand right was an old vulnerability of Louis', going back to the first Schmeling fight.) Following the knockdown, the contest settled into dull routine, drawing boos from the crowd for its lack of action in the middle rounds. Walcott, clearly ahead on points, was content to feint and box and keep his distance. Louis, a slow, heavy, rusty imitation of the Brown Bomber of the 1930s, stalked his shifty opponent patiently but was unable to nail him. It seemed a new champion was in the offing.

Then in the eleventh round, with a suddenness I was unprepared for, everything changed. I had listened to boxing on the radio and seen it in newsreels; I'd watched classic old fights on hand-cranked flip-book viewers in Coney Island penny arcades; but I'd never seen a bout live. To my untrained nine-year-old eyes, one minute my guy Walcott is outboxing the champ, building a solid lead through ten-and-a-half rounds, then a quick furious exchange and before I know it my guy is on the canvas being counted out, Louis triumphant again. I went home disappointed and bewildered that night, unable to grasp what I'd just witnessed on our neighbor's tiny TV screen.

What I'd just witnessed was Joe Louis' last great knockout -- one of his most remarkable, given his age and the circumstances, the circs being a reign of 11 years, 25 title defenses, one world war with its enforced absence from serious ring activity, and a clever, dangerous opponent.

As the eleventh round begins, at 3:36 on the clip, Walcott's body language reveals his confidence. After facing Louis for 25 rounds over two fights and winning most of them, he's convinced the over-the-hill champion cannot hurt him. By 4:31 Walcott has proceeded from confidence through over-confidence to cockiness, in the form of flashy head-feints, hand-feints, and sprightly footwork. For good measure, he connects with solid lefts at 4:40 and 4:43. Then at 4:47,  in a gesture of defiance and disdain, Walcott does a little shuffle-step (adopted years later by Muhammad Ali and called the Ali Shuffle). Big mistake.

Jersey Joe was a veteran fighter but not quite old enough to remember a ring-wise wag named Herodotus, who said of hubris: "Seest thou how God with his lightning smites always the bigger animals, and will not suffer them to wax insolent." With his little shuffle-step Walcott was waxing insolent big-time, and sure enough, lightning struck: Louis catches him in mid-shuffle with a solid right hand to the whiskers. It's the punch that turns the fight. The stung Walcott responds by throwing his battle plan out the window and deciding to stand and trade punches with Louis. Bigger mistake.

Joe Louis has rightly been called the best finisher in boxing history; once he had an opponent in trouble, it was over. The impassive Louis never showed emotion in the ring, but you can see the moment when he spots his opening, when Walcott staggers just a wee bit from that right hand. It may be Louis' only opportunity of the night, and he doesn't waste it. For one last time in his career, the champ's finisher's instincts kick in and he summons the prodigious skills and technique of old, punching in combinations with a precision and power no other heavyweight could match. The contest is over within twenty seconds of Jersey Joe's ill-advised shuffle. No wonder I was one bewildered nine-year-old watching my first fight on TV - I was stunned that the end had come so suddenly, so quickly.

Ring justice was served that night, punishing Walcott for his insolence. In time, though, the deserving Jersey Joe, robbed of the title in his first fight with Louis, got his just reward, winning the heavyweight championship from Ezzard Charles in 1951, at age 37.

And now, because you've been such a patient reader, a musical treat: Joe Louis Stomp with the great trumpeter Bill Coleman, recorded in Paris in 1936 when the Brown Bomber was boxing's newest sensation. The tenor saxophonist-clarinetist is Edgar Courance, the guitarist Oscar Alem├ín.

1 comment:

  1. Joe Louis, Herotodus, Oscar Aleman, and Bill Coleman... a very generous posting from our Kid!