Who’s your favorite heavyweight?
That’s the question you grew up asking back in the day. Here the question was asked by future Minnesota welterweight champion Don Weller, a third-generation boxing man, to his father, Emmett Weller, himself a former Minnesota champ.
It was the 1950s, recalled Don in 2013, so he was expecting to hear the name Rocky Marciano. Instead he heard a tale he’d never forget.
As a boxing promoter Emmett Weller had brought Joe Louis to Minnesota in the late 1940s for an exhibition tour. The final show was good, featuring Joe in a six-rounder with Hubert Hood out of Chicago. The trouble was attendance. Later Emmett was driving Joe and his seconds to the airport.
“How much did you lose on the gate?” asked Joe.
“$2,200,” answered Emmett.
“Write him a check,” Joe said to his man. “Nobody loses money on Joe Louis.”
If you figure a conservative four percent annual inflation rate, $2,200 in 1949 might be about $28,178 in 2015 dollars.
An amazing amount of money passed through the champ’s hands. In 1949 alone Joe grossed $304,000 from his exhibition work, including his South American and Far East exhibition tours. (The Ring Boxing Encyclopedia and Record Book 87 (The Ring Book Shop 1979).)
Three hundred four thousand dollars in 1949 might be about $3,893,710 in 2015 dollars, using a four percent annual inflation rate.
Born May 13, 1914 in LaFayette, Alabama, Joseph Louis Barrow was as complete a boxer as the world has ever known. Consider the following observations:
Joe was a master of distance and deception. Louis used his footwork to put subtle pressure on his opponents and then would take small steps back to draw his opponents into him. By pressing forward he would close the distance and then by stepping back Louis would appear vulnerable, but when his opponents moved in they were setting themselves up for his lethal counterpunches. Joe Louis hit you twice as hard as you were coming in.
(Monte Cox, Understanding Boxing Skill, www.coxscorner.tripod.com/boxingskill.html.)
Biographer Randy Roberts describes some of the Detroit Brown Bomber’s final days as a boxer: “He officially abdicated his crown on March 1, 1949, after eleven years and eight months as heavyweight champion and twenty-five title defenses. His life, however, did not change dramatically. He continued to box exhibitions….” (Randy Roberts, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, Chapter 9 (Yale University Press 2010), Kindle Edition.)
Louis is ranked number four on the Bert Sugar list of the top 100 fighters of all time, after only Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, and Willie Pep. (Bert Randolph Sugar, Boxing’s Greatest Fighters, 10 (The Lyons Press 2006).)
So it was an honor for Jim O’Hara in 1949 when he was matched with Louis in a four-round exhibition at Fort Snelling. Jim said he never feared any man. His manager, Murray McLean, commented that Jim would fight anyone anywhere. “Jim never asked who the foe was, only what time was the fight and what was the payoff,” said McLean. (McLean is quoted by Don Riley, Don Riley’s Eye Opener, St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press, June 13, 1976.)
McLean, who managed Minnesota’s heavyweight contender Lee Savold, also is quoted in the same column as saying: “O’Hara’s guts and Savold’s body would have made a super machine.”
Along with guts, Jim had street smarts and ultimately made his own decisions. After meeting Louis at the weigh‑in the night before the bout, Jim realized there was no way he was going to out-think the champ. He told the promoter, “Find another Palooka. There’s nothing going to be accomplished in that ring.” At the time Joe Palooka was a lovable, if not the brightest, heavyweight boxer depicted in the then popular comics of the same name.
Emmett Weller, the promoter, was a nice man, recalled Kitty in 2013. Back in 1949 she and Jim were still newlyweds. Emmett and Jim were close, confirmed Don Weller in 2013, and Emmett and Murray McLean were close. McLean had managed him, too.
So there wasn’t any arguing. Everyone knew Emmett cared more about his fighters than himself. After Jim bowed out Emmett went to work finding another heavyweight. After some phone calls a gladiator was driven up from Milwaukee.
If street smarts is the ability to beat a guy at his own game, it’s also the ability to size up a situation and walk away when it’s prudent to do so. Everything is timing. You might first look everyone in the eye, then walk away. There’s no shame. In fact, Jim taught there’s dignity in walking away. The shame is risking what can happen, such as in boxing. “One should know,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates, “that a well-aimed punch with a heavyweight’s full weight behind it can have the equivalent force of ten thousand pounds….” (Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing (HarperCollins e-books 2006), Kindle Edition).) Hyperbole?
“His chest was this thick,” Jim recounted, placing his hands sufficiently apart to suggest you’d have to be a numbskull to mix it up with Joe Louis. Indeed, in 1949 Louis scored at least five knockouts in recorded exhibition matches. (The Ring Boxing Encyclopedia and Record Book, supra, at 199-200.)
A couple years later Jim would mix it up with a world champ all right, but one with less of a punch. In 1952 he was hired as a sparring partner by the then world light-heavyweight champion Joey Maxim, who naturally retaliated when Jim got in a good shot. Maxim was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994. He’s ranked number 12 on the list of the top defensive fighters of all time. (Bert Randolph Sugar and Teddy Atlas, The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists, 161 (Running Press 2010).)
“Don’t try to play someone else’s road game,” Jim said often. His advice includes boxing the puncher, as Gene Tunney did when he took the crown away from Jack Dempsey in 1926, as well as sidestepping the over-match. See Round 2, entitled Dignity & Sportsmanship.
Back in 1949 Louis wasn’t done boxing. Two years later, in June 1951, he knocked out Lee Savold in the sixth at Madison Square Garden, demonstrating he could still put together effective combinations. Two old pros giving all they got, this main event holds the distinction of being the subject of the essay entitled The Big Fellows: Boxing with the Naked Eye in A.J. Liebling’s book The Sweet Science (The Viking Press 1956). In 2002 Sports Illustrated ranked this book the number one sports book of all time. For his essays on boxing, Liebling was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992. He believed television would put boxing into a coma. See his comments quoted near the end of Round 13, entitled The Businessman.
Unfortunately Liebling found it necessary to write that Savold wasn’t much, wasn’t good and even called him a “third-rater” and a “clown.” Liebling’s job was to call it as he saw it. Fair enough. But consider that Savold, a Minnesota Boxing Hall of Famer, had 150 recorded professional bouts with 101 wins (72 by KO), 42 losses, and six draws, including newspaper decisions. (A newspaper decision is a bout left in the hands of the sportswriters.) The British Boxing Board thought so much of him that they recognized him as heavyweight champion of the world after his TKO win in the fourth over Bruce Woodcock in London in June 1950. Boxrec.com reports that the British recognized Ezzard Charles as the champ after the Louis-Savold bout.
Jim fought in an era when there were many boxers but few who could support their families long-term with their boxing earnings. He advised boxers to get and keep a day job not only to augment their boxing income but to give them something to fall back on. He didn’t believe in winning at all costs. “If you’re taking more punches than you’re landing,” said Jim, “you’re in the wrong business” – and here he meant even if you’re winning the fights. Along these lines he said:
There were a lot of fighters around when I was young, and everyone had cauliflower ears and busted noses. I saw a lot of broken people. When they were through with boxing, there was nothing left for them. I buried some of those guys.
(Jim is quoted by Mike Mosedale, The Ring Cycle, April 3, 2007 (www.citypages.com).)
An exhibition can get as rough as any match, especially if the fighters have not boxed each other before. Sparring is flat-out dangerous, as demonstrated by some famous rounds that may never have occurred if it weren’t for St. Paul’s Billy Miske. In September 1920 Jack Dempsey, known as the Manassa Mauler, was training to defend the heavyweight title against Miske when Dempsey’s manager invited middleweight Harry Greb, known as the Pittsburgh Windmill, to spar with the champ. As the story goes:
The Pittsburgh Windmill was in Benton Harbor, Michigan, for a fight with a fairly good light‑heavyweight named Chuck Wiggins…. The bout was to be on the undercard of Jack Dempsey’s first title defense, against Billy Miske, on Labor Day.
Dempsey was already in training in Benton Harbor, and his manager, Jack Kearns, got the idea of asking Greb to spar with Dempsey. Kearns’s reasoning was that Greb – like Miske more of a boxer than a puncher – would provide the Manassa Mauler with a good workout. With scores of sportswriters among the spectators looking on, Greb gave Dempsey more than a good workout. For three rounds, Greb darted in and out, peppering Dempsey with punches and eluding whatever blows Dempsey threw at him. If anyone had kept score, Greb would have won all three rounds handily. When it was over, Dempsey was left embarrassed and also angry at Kearns for inviting Greb to spar with him. As for the sportswriters who witnessed the session, they had a field day reporting how Greb – five inches shorter and thirty-five pounds lighter – had boxed the ears off the great Dempsey.
Upset over the newspaper accounts of the sparring session, Dempsey asked Kearns to try to get Greb back in the ring with him…. Kearns did not think much of the idea, fearing that Greb would embarrass Dempsey again. But Dempsey insisted and Kearns … found Greb eager to box with Dempsey again the next afternoon. Kearns was right; it was a mistake. Dempsey, trying desperately for a knockout, found nothing but air with most of his punches. Meanwhile, Greb … peppered the champion at one juncture with about fifteen unanswered punches. Kearns … let the round go for almost five minutes, feeling that the Manassa Mauler inevitably would land a haymaker that would knock out Greb. Dempsey never even came close….
Dempsey’s embarrassment was palpable as he left the ring. And when Greb sought a fight with Dempsey several years later, Kearns said, “The hell with that seven-year itch. We don’t want any part of him.”
(Jack Cavanaugh, Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey, Chapter 8 (Ballantine Books 2007), Kindle Edition.)
Jack Dempsey is ranked number nine on the Bert Sugar list of the top 100 fighters of all time. Harry Greb is ranked number five out of the top 100. (Bert Randolph Sugar, supra, at 14 and 26.) Miske was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2010.
If an independent thinker, the newly-married Jim may have been too cautious in sidestepping the Louis vs. O’Hara exhibition. “Joe would’ve taken it easy on him,” said Don Weller in 2013. “Joe was that kind of guy.” Maybe so. But then again for 1949 the record books show Louis scoring five knockouts in exhibition matches. (The Ring Boxing Encyclopedia and Record Book, supra, at 199-200.)
On April 12, 1981, Joe Louis died a month shy of his 67th birthday. President Ronald Reagan made sure Louis was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. (John E. Oden, Life In The Ring, 156 (Hatherleight Press 2009).)
The champ’s son, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., has summed up his father’s contribution thusly:
“During World War Two, my father had volunteered for the Army, conducted ninety-six exhibitions, and entertained two million troops, not to mention donating purses from two championship fights to the United States Army Relief Fund.” (Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, Chapter 5 (First eBook Publication 2012 (Initially Published in 1991), Kindle Edition.)
Arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, Joseph Louis Barrow reigned over boxing with dignity, never letting fame go to his head. Muhammad Ali observed: “Everybody loved Joe. From black folks to redneck Mississippi crackers, they loved him. They’re all crying. That shows you. Howard Hughes dies, with all his billions, not a tear. Joe Louis, everybody cried.” (Patrick Myler, Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling: Fight of the Century, Chapter 19 (Arcade Publishing 2012), Kindle Edition.)
Copyright 2012-2016 by Steven T. O’Hara. All rights reserved.