Friday, March 11, 2016

Jack Johnson's Waterloo

Jack Johnson vs. Jess Willard
100th Anniversary
Havana, Cuba, April 5, 1915
Fight Highlights and Rare Footage

The Fight
One hundred years ago today, the World Heavyweight Championship changed hands. On the afternoon of April 5, 1915, for over an hour and a half, champion and challenger battled through 25 three-minute rounds in 100+ degree heat in a ring standing at the finish line at the Oriental Race Track in Havana, Cuba. The pace of the fight was more like a baseball game than a boxing match, but it lacked neither drama nor excitement. By the end of the contest, the 37-year-old champion Jack Johnson had thrown every punch, tried every physical and verbal tactic in his arsenal on his unyielding challenger. 

Jess Willard, the 33-year-old, 6’6” giant, a man with limited skills but immense size and strength, would not only withstand an hour of relentless attacks, but stick to his fight plan of probing and leading with long left jabs followed by overhand rights and uppercuts. After 20 rounds, Johnson was leading on points. His lead was due to work rate rather than domination. Willard was never seriously hurt and many of Johnson’s punches were blocked by the challenger’s arms and gloves. As the champion slowed down, Willard drove the once untouchable, unbeatable Jack Johnson into exhaustion and retreat. Shortly into the 26th round, Willard scored with two rights. The first one grazed the champion’s chin, and the second slammed squarely against Johnson’s jaw, dropping him to the canvas where he lay on his back as the referee counted him out. The crowd stormed the ring and Willard was besieged by fans. Johnson was lifted to his feet and led across the ring by his handlers.

After it was over, the New York Times quoted Johnson, the first black man to win and lose the Heavyweight Championship, as saying, “It was a clean knockout and the best man won. It was not a matter of luck. I have no kick coming.” From the Chicago Tribune Johnson continued, “I was sure my experience and generalship would be too much for Willard, but I was mistaken. He gave me a beating, but I took his blows without wincing, and he can hit.” Two days after the fight, in front of a crowd of well wishers, Willard boarded a steamer bound for Key West. Johnson came down to see him off. According to the Toronto World, Johnson shook hands with Willard saying, “I wish you all the luck you could wish for yourself. I hope you make a heap of money. Be sure to save it.” Willard answered gratefully, “I’ll see you in Europe.” Willard had already received an offer to fight contender Frank Moran in London, and Johnson would soon leave for France. It was a rare and brief display of consolation by Jack Johnson. When one considers the well documented racial abuse and injustice Johnson had endured during his reign from the public, the press and from the boxing community, his gesture of respect toward Willard was testament to the strength of his character. But détente sailed away with Willard’s steamer. In the months that followed, a series of events would spark controversy over the knockout, calling into question the legitimacy of the finish and the reputation of both boxers.

A Picture Tells A Thousand Lies
Photographs of the fight were widely published. Both the press as well as audience members captured numerous images of the fight. The single most enduring image, however, was taken a moment after Johnson hit the canvas. Johnson is seen lying on his back with his arms over his head, while Willard, who was walking away, appears instead to be standing stoically over the fallen champion. But this image of the defeated black champion became Johnson’s last laugh. Despite all reports of the knockout, Johnson would soon announce that he had faked the finish for a $30,000 payoff. The proof of fake, Johnson insisted, was in the photo. Once on the canvas, Johnson’s arms flung up over his head. Johnson insisted that this action was deliberate and he was consciously shading his eyes from the sun. The claim was never substantiated, and the whole story never added up. Why wait 26 rounds to throw a fight? Not to mention that Johnson’s eyes were not shaded in the photograph. The author of the book Unforgivable Blackness, Geoffrey C. Ward, wrote that Johnson had already been paid in full the morning of the fight, and then promptly left the promoter’s office to place a bet on himself. Johnson’s claim of fake went viral anyway. Jack spent the rest of his life profiting from the story and embedding it into boxing lore.

The Film Nobody Saw
There was great anticipation by the public to see the actual films of the fight, and if the footage proved Johnson’s story or not. The Johnson-Willard fight had not only been filmed, but it was the most photographed prizefight of its time. Hollywood actor and director Fred Mace partnered with promoter Jack Curley to film and photograph the fight from multiple angles, including from ringside. This had never been done before. To capture a boxing match this way was a huge undertaking compared to the customary single camera shoots going back to the 1890s. A camera platform was built on the racetrack adjacent to the ring for the primary angle, facing east, away from the sun. A second camera was placed for a wide shot facing north toward the grandstand, and finally, a ringside camera was stationed near Willard’s corner. Those are the views we see in the film. It was a near perfect setting for the cameras. The day had begun overcast, but the air was hot, and the temperature rose to 100+ degrees. The fight started an hour behind schedule—apparently someone had forgotten to bring the “gong.” As the fight progressed through the afternoon, the sun appeared, casting long shadows in the ring.

Johnson came to the fight as confident as ever. For Johnson the showman, the ring was his grand stage. He bantered with hecklers, laughed, chatted and joked with the audience. He baited, taunted and frustrated his opponents. Johnson used his strength and defensive skills to control nearly every aspect of a fight, including how long they would last. Up to this fight, Johnson had relished every moment in the ring. The champion had reigned for seven years over a depleted division of white boxers who were either too small or too old to be a challenge. Johnson could have fought more worthy challengers among the league of gifted black heavyweights, but none was given the opportunity. Johnson wasn’t satisfied being the first black Heavyweight Champion, he wanted to be the only black heavyweight champion.

Once inside the ropes with Willard, and faced with the reality of Willard’s size, Johnson became intimidated. Years earlier, in the first round of Johnson’s fight with Champion Tommy Burns, Jack immediately knocked Burns to the canvas to establish dominance. In his first round with Willard, the films shows Johnson trying the same tactic, but his punches had no effect. In the second round, and most unusual for the champion so early in a fight, Johnson tried to knock Willard out. Johnson rushed Willard to the ropes with looping lefts and rights. Jack wanted to get this one over with. Again the punches had no effect. Through the next dozen rounds Johnson was often the aggressor, and attacked Willard more often and with more intensity than in any of his previous title defenses. Through it all, Willard blocked many of Johnson’s punches and kept Johnson at bay with a long left jabs and rights to the head and body.

By the 14th round, Johnson slowed and his rallies appear desperate. He begins to bide his time. Johnson’s busy pace had given him a good lead, but Willard had prepared for this. When the fight was set for 45 rounds, Willard’s team planned for an endurance contest. While Willard had little of the boxing skills and experience that Johnson had, he had the discipline that Johnson had abandoned. Jess had been a farmhand, a trade requiring strength and endurance above all else. Jess worked the fight like a day in the fields—stalking and punishing Johnson at a constant steady pace. Had the fight been scheduled for 20 rounds, referee Welsh would have given Johnson the decision. But even so, with Willard coming on at the end, Johnson would have looked more like a survivor than a winner.

The Knockout
By the 26th round, Johnson knew he was finished and asked that his wife be escorted out of the stadium. For a moment it looked like Johnson was going to quit on his stool. Referee Welsh had to call Johnson from his corner. Johnson came forward and tried once more to drive Willard back. Willard cut off the ring and trapped Johnson in a corner. With the fighters in full view of the cameras, Willard lunged forward, putting his full weight behind a right to Johnson’s jaw. The punch pitched Johnson backward, not unlike the impact Joe Frazier suffered from George Foreman nearly 60 years later. Johnson tried to grab Willard as he fell, pulling Jess forward and into the ropes. Johnson landed hard on his back. His arms went up as they naturally would when a person falls backward, and his gloves briefly hung over his face before sliding back over his head, his legs collapsing to the canvas.
Advocates for Johnson, as in the Ken Burns documentary Unforgivable Blackness, insisted that Johnson could have gotten up if he had wanted to. Bert Sugar even states that Johnson didn’t rise because “He was a business man” who knew it wasn’t his day. The notion is little more than wishful thinking, as if an exhausted fighter suffering the brown-out of a knockout punch has the presence of mind to ponder his career options. Geoffrey C. Ward wrote that Johnson’s seconds in fact had to help him to his feet. Johnson was still dazed enough to believe the fight was still on and had to be held back by Sam McVey. In a rare photo taken moments after the knockout, Johnson is seen still on the canvas with a corner man trying to lift him.

The Sims Act
The American public never saw the films. Boxing films had been banned in the United States since 1912. The Sims Act had been passed by Congress in response to the race riots that occurred after the Johnson-Jeffries fight in 1910. The law allowed for prizefights to be filmed, but barred their distribution across state lines. The concept behind the law was that a community hosting a prizefight could see the films, but that they would also have to deal with any consequences. The law ended boxing films as the movie industry’s main attraction, paving the way for Hollywood.
Internationally the film was a success. According to the review in the Ottawa Citizen on June 1, 1915, the movie was feature-length, with scenes of Havana, the fighters’ arrival and training, and then every round of the fight plus titles. The newspaper proclaimed, “Undoubtedly the best that have ever been taken of a prizefight.” The film was also shown in London and widely screened in Australia, where the connection to Johnson was strong and boxing thrived.

Into History
Eventually the movie run was finished, and prints were stored, discarded or lost. The clamor of all great fights inevitably fades when the next big fight comes along. That was when Willard was gladiatorially dispatched in three rounds by Jack Dempsey in July 1919. Willard’s reputation diminished as the Heavyweight Championship succeeded to Jack Dempsey through Rocky Marciano. Thanks to the infamous photograph, Jess came to be regarded as a big fighting cowboy of the disgraceful White Hope era who happened to fight Jack Johnson at the right time. It also didn’t help that the marginal success of the big men who followed Willard, like Primo Carnera, Abe Simon, Buddy Baer and others furthered the belief that boxing talent leveled off beyond a certain height and weight. Johnson’s life has been well documented. After losing to Willard, Johnson fell on hard times. Returning to the United States in 1920, he served a one-year prison sentence for a fabricated criminal conviction. Johnson remained in the public eye thereafter as a boxer and celebrity, promoting his reputation and discrediting Willard at every opportunity before his death in 1946.

A Discovery Down Under
Decades passed. No prints of the Willard-Johnson film were thought to exist. Sometime in the 1950s, one or more copies of the Willard-Johnson film surfaced in Sydney, Australia. The circumstances are unclear, but boxing archivist Steve Lott suggested that it was not uncommon to find vintage films stashed away in abandon properties like old movie theaters. Whatever the specifics may have been, Willard and a screenwriter named Joe Stone negotiated with the dealer in Australia to obtain the film. The print instead ended up in the hands of film collectors and television producers Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs. Willard was left out of the loop and he sued. The case was eventually settled with access to the film going to Willard and Stone and with rights to Cayton and Jacobs. In 1965 Stone went to the newspapers with the film which he said, “We picked it up in Australia where Johnson had sold it or pawned it.” Johnson’s copy, which Joe Stone had acquired, was not only in marginal condition, but Willard’s knockout punch had been cut out—perhaps Johnson couldn’t bear the sight. Though a complete film had yet to surface, viewers were surprised by what they saw.  Not only did Johnson fight to win, but Willard was far more effective than previously thought.

Willard’s Requiem
Willard was not among the best of the heavyweight champions, but he’s been underappreciated. His boxing skills were limited, but he was in some ways ahead of his time. Despite his late start in boxing at age 27, Jess nevertheless was schooled and conditioned to make full use of his size advantage, which he and his trainers accomplished, perhaps foreshadowing the goliaths of today, who fight almost exclusively at long range. Jess was among those fighters whose overall career was not impressive, but like Buster Douglas many decades later, Jess put it all together for the one fight in his life that mattered most.

For the Johnson fight, Willard accomplished what seemed impossible at the time. He took Jack Johnson out of his comfort zone and forced the defensive master to come to him. Johnson’s practice of holding and hitting didn’t work against Willard. Willard was just too big and Johnson eventually became exhausted. It was a feat that only Willard could have pulled off at the time, and he delivered. Tom Flanagan, who trained Johnson for many of his fights, stated in a 1928 Pittsburgh Press article that the Willard fight was on the level and added, “The truth of the whole affair is that Johnson, whose pride in holding the title was so great, could not stand to think of another man beating him. Remember, too, that Willard was trained up to the minute, scaled over 240 pounds and was bigger and stronger in every way. When Jack found that Jess took everything he had and came back stronger in every round, he just lost heart and knew he could not win.” In a 1939 interview for the St. Petersburg Times, Willard said of Johnson, “One of the best in the ring. I don’t think there was a more clever man. He knew all the ropes of the game and used them. He never let a blow get near him. I mean he was that good.”

Willard died in 1968, but not before newly restored footage of the Johnson-Willard knockout was featured in the Cayton-Jacobs-Chapin documentary, The Legendary Champions, which chronicled the heavyweight championship from John L. Sullivan to Gene Tunney. In the Academy Award-nominated film, Willard’s infamous knockout punch was shown uncut “for the first time,” complete and in slow motion. The knockout was no longer in doubt and Johnson’s claim of fake was now indefensible. Fifty-two years after the fight in Havana, Jess Willard got the last word.

The Video
In the video I produced for this article, I assembled Willard-Johnson fight footage from several documentary and archival sources including 16mm prints in my collection.  There’s too much material to include everything, but I wanted to show a good portion of the fight plus rare footage and photographs. There are two versions of Round 26—the first is the original release with edits from two camera views, and the second is the complete round uncut. As the ring is stormed by the audience, Cuban soldiers enter and eventually clear the masses. Knowing that the fighters were trapped in the ring, I scanned the film to see if I could locate and show them. In two shots immediately after the knockout, the picture zooms in to show Willard besieged by fans and Jack Johnson, in the background, being escorted to his corner. In the second shot, Johnson can be seen standing in his corner, putting a towel over his head with Sam McVey nearby. There are also post-fight scenes that were likely in the original release, promoting Willard on tour. Finally, Jack Johnson is seen shaking hands with a crowd of well-wishers that was likely filmed sometime before the fight.

Jack Johnson’s Waterloo

Reconstructing Jerry Quarry

Jerry Quarry vs. Alex Miteff
Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles
April 27, 1967
16mm Film & Network TV Audio, 10 Minutes

Jerry Quarry was an immensely popular fighter during his career. His story is familiar to all boxing fans of a certain age. After an excellent amateur career, Jerry rose with great promise in the professional ranks during the mid-1960s. After an unsuccessful bid to win the heavyweight championship in 1968, Jerry fought on, at times a brilliant though erratic performer. During the era where African-Americans were most prominent in boxing, boxers like Quarry, an Irish-American, thrived while facing enormous social pressures. His wins against Thad Spencer, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Jack Bodell, and Mac Foster were thrilling and unexpected. But so were his dramatic losses to Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, with equally unexpected fails against George Chuvalo and Jimmy Ellis. The competition was steep, but he was often his own undoing, unable to manage not only his personal demons, but those who guided and misguided his career.

However, appreciate him or not, the young Jerry Quarry was something to see. In 1967, at nearly 22 years of age, he was lean, skilled, athletic and conditioned. Just shy of his physical maturity, Jerry was still light-years from his late career transformation into the heavy-set brawler who came back and briefly peaked in 1973. Film and video of Jerry during his early career however is scarce. Home VCR recorders were not introduced until the end of the 1960s, so as with all broadcast content up to that point, preservation was up to the networks and venues. In those days, the networks disposed or reused much of their post-broadcast video tape save for the most high profile coverage. Venue films, often owned by promoters, were rarely stored long term.

Alex Miteff
Of Jerry’s early fights, one of the surviving films is Jerry’s April 1967 match with heavyweight veteran Alex Miteff at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. The fight was broadcast on network TV and also filmed with a single in-house camera. Originally from Argentina, the 32-year-old Miteff had a promising career of his own. After arriving in the United States in the 1950s, Miteff was a contender, but struggled against much bigger opponents than he had fought in his home country, many of whom—including Zora Folley, Eddie Machen, Henry Cooper, Billy Hunter, George Chuvalo and Muhammad Ali—were among the best of the day.

The Fight
The Quarry-Miteff fight started quickly. Miteff had trained seriously for the match and immediately brought the fight to Jerry. Jerry scored a knockdown in the first round, but Miteff recovered and kept the pressure on Quarry through round two. In the third round, Miteff began to slow down and Quarry beat him to the punch repeatedly. Late in the round as Miteff drove Quarry to the ropes, Jerry countered with a sweeping left hook and Miteff collapsed. Alex beat the count, but Jerry sent him down again and referee George Latka stopped the bout at 2:18. It was Miteff’s last fight.

The Film
The fight was captured on 16mm color film with live audio. At some point the film was transferred to video tape which has been in circulation, though rare, among collectors for many years. On the footage I received, the live sound glitches in and out. Though was no home video recording in 1967, there were cassettes, and while the official network broadcast is lost, someone captured much of the program audio on a home tape recorder. A few years ago, I received copies of both the video and audio sources and recently decided to see how much of the fight could be pieced together. As it turned out, most of the three rounds were captured in one form or the other. But there were problems. The film was edited worse than a home movie, incomplete and out of order. Random long shots of the ring are followed by close-ups and audience cutaways. The knockdown is missing as is much of the third round. The audio was noisy, distorted, and incomplete as well. At times, it’s nearly impossible to hear the announcer’s call above the tape hiss to determine what action is taking place.

The Restoration
Film editing is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. As each new piece finds its place, the picture becomes clear. First I look for markers. The end of rounds one and two were filmed, so I matched them with the ring bells. Once those were locked in, I worked backwards into the footage. The second round is nearly uncut, which filled the biggest gap. The audio became a better editing guide after some fidelity was restored to the recording by cutting the hiss and boosting the vocal range. Once that was done, the announcer’s call of the action pointed to specific moments I could also spot on the film. Slowly, sound and picture all began to match up.

This is by no means a complete production. In several portions the audio runs where the picture is missing and vice versa. But it’s a faithful working print of the fight in the correct sequence of events.
I enjoyed watching both fighters in action, but especially Jerry. His hands are quick, his footwork is fluid, and his counterpunching is lightning fast. He looks relaxed and confident. Jerry’s use of the ropes to trap and counter opponents is still one for the books, and we see some of those tactics here. There’s also Jerry’s defense, which was often more than a little transparent. Or as his brother James once jokingly observed to me, Jerry “ate left jabs for breakfast.” It’s jolting to see when Miteff does get through, as when he smacks Jerry with a big right late in the first round. But Jerry answers and regroups throughout the fight. The knockout punch is a work of art.

This was Jerry’s last fight prior to the big stage. Six weeks later he was in the ring with Floyd Patterson. Jerry was brought in as an “opponent” for Patterson in the first round of the 1967-68 Heavyweight Championship Tournament. But Jerry surprised the establishment by overwhelming Patterson early, and holding the ex-champion to a draw. In their October rematch, Quarry won a very close decision and went on to the tournament finals. Quarry remained a leading heavyweight contender for the next eight years.

Reconstructing Jerry

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Other Jack the Giant Killer

Jack Sharkey vs. Primo Carnera I
Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, NY 1931
16mm Sound Transfer
Speed and Audio Restoration

A recent article I wrote was accompanied with newsreel footage of Jack Sharkey in training for his first fight with Primo Carnera in 1931, including rare footage of Ernie Schaaf. As I described in the piece, Sharkey went on to win a 15-round decision. The victory propelled Sharkey back into contention and to his rematch with Max Schmeling for the heavyweight championship in 1932. Sharkey was given what many regard as a gift decision against Schmeling, and held the title for only one year. I was planning to move on from there, but by chance I recently found and acquired a rare 16mm print of that first Sharkey-Carnera fight.
The Film
The print arrived marked as part of the Schlitz Famous Fights TV series, which ran for a number of years beginning in the 1950s. Excerpts of this film have been circulated for some time among collectors, and versions have also been posted on YouTube, often as projector screen videos or from old VHS tapes. I wanted to show a clean telecine transfer of some of this film. A drawback of today’s boxing coverage is that it widens the gap between contemporary HD quality and the analog films of earlier eras. Younger viewers are used to seeing fights in amazing detail and have, unfortunately, less appreciation for earlier boxing. The networks today don’t help either. I’ve expressed before my frustration with ESPN for showing classic footage on an as-is basis with little or no picture restoration.

Fortunately this print arrived in excellent condition, with few breaks or scratches. The ring photography was average for the day. The exposure was dark, but the density provides some extra detail often lost in films of this period. Notably, many films made under the bright ring lights were poorly exposed, sometimes to the point of completely blowing out Irish complexions into a ghostly white. There is no live audio, but the great Sam Taub provides the narration. Most famous as a live blow-by-blow radio announcer, Taub delivers a classic style narrative of the fighters and action.

The one drawback of the film is the projection speed. As Steve Lott once explained to me, it was during the Depression of the 1930s that film stock, like most everything, was in short supply. To conserve footage, films were often taken at the silent speed of approximately 16 frames per second instead of the standard 24 frames per second established for sound movies. Movie theaters may have slowed their projectors to compensate at the time, but the surviving prints, such as this one, runs at a speedy 24fps. This is why most early 20th century fight films appear more like Keystone Cop movies than historic sports events. For this video, I not only slowed the film down to standard speed, but I kept Sam Taub’s narration is as well. If Sam sounds a little lethargic, it’s because he’s actually speaking about a third slower than normal, though I kept his voice at a natural pitch. 

“…a long way to climb to reach that chin.”—Jack Sharkey

The first Sharkey-Carnera fight was held at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, on October 12, 1931. It has largely been lost in history. It wasn’t a title fight, and the rematch two years later was an upset that forever cast a shadow over both fighters. This fight, however, appears to have been a legitimate contest and a turning point for both boxers. Carnera had come up the ranks very quickly, and suspiciously, and was still a question mark as a title contender. Sharkey needed the win to secure a rematch with Schmeling. The fight was not as close as some contemporary descriptions indicate. Despite being five inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Carnera, Sharkey shook the bigger man repeatedly throughout the contest, including a knockdown in the fourth round. The Barrier Miner Daily wrote, “Well advised by his seconds, Sharkey continued to rip into the body, which forced Carnera to drop his guard. Then Jack would crack Carnera’s jaw so hard that he wobbled repeatedly, but did not fall. The eleventh and twelfth were like a terrier worrying a St. Bernard. Carnera was weary and staggering in the fourteenth, and just before the final bell reeled and swayed drunkenly on the verge of a knockout, as Sharkey riddled his head with lefts and rights in a tempest of battering that left him unable to defend himself.” It was a decisive win.

Primo lost the fight but won the public’s respect. He proved to be a courageous boxer, and while not a resourceful fighting machine, he was durable, strong, and very agile for a man his size. Since the entire film of the fight is nearly 50 minutes long, I’ve included only the last two rounds. I wanted to show how Sharkey closed the show. Jack had a good night, in front of 30,000 spectators who watched the match in weather “so cold that most of the spectators wore mufflers and overcoats.” Not only moving well to evade Carnera’s attacks, Sharkey was very effective at getting inside Primo’s defenses, closing the distance to finish the fight with the kind of action rarely seen today among heavyweights. At the final bell, Sharkey rejoices, discarding his mouthpiece and pushing referee Gunboat Smith aside as he follows Carnera to his corner to pay respect.

The Warrior's Bond

Jack Sharkey & Ernie Schaaf
Newsreel Interview 1931
Primo Carnera vs. Ernie Schaaf 1933
16mm print Transfer

Newsreels contain a wealth of hidden historical treasures. There are hundreds of thousands of hours of film now being curated in archives around the world. But due to the amount of material and limited resources, the archives often provide limited information for each entry, with some material going undocumented. Recently I was scanning through an index of boxing newsreels made during the 1930s, looking for alternate footage not used in the officially released versions. At the bottom of one listing, I spotted the word Schaaf. When I obtained and finally viewed the film, I saw that it was a promotional reel featuring heavyweight Jack Sharkey training in May 1931 to fight Primo Carnera. Included in the footage, as I had hoped, was rare film of Sharkey’s friend and protégé, Ernie Schaaf.

Rich Man Poor Man

Sharkey and Schaaf exemplified the warrior’s bond. Sharkey, who was six years older than Schaaf, was already an established boxer when they met as Navy seamen on board the battleship Denver. The two boxed, and Sharkey, admiring Schaaf’s determination in the ring, began mentoring the teenager. After the Navy, the two remained friends as they climbed the professional ranks during the 1920s. Both experienced mixed luck with their careers. Sharkey fast-tracked during the mid-1920s, before losing to Jack Dempsey and later to Max Schmeling. But on the rise again, he defeated Primo Carnera in 1931, and then won the Heavyweight Championship in a disputed decision from Max Schmeling the following year. 
Meanwhile, Schaaf’s record was spotty. So in 1930, Sharkey acted on both faith and loyalty to Schaaf when he and his manager, John Buckley, bought Schaaf’s contract. The two boxers became official stable mates and Schaaf began to prosper—with victories over a youthful Tony Galento, Paulino Uzcudun, Jim Braddock, Tommy Loughran, Max Baer and Young Stribling. There were also losses, including a rematch with future champion Max Baer, where Schaaf was battered unconscious just seconds before the final bell, suffering, many believe, permanent brain damage. By 1933, however, Schaaf was a top-ranked heavyweight, right behind his friend and champion Jack Sharkey.
Dual fighter/manager partnerships are not uncommon, but Sharkey and Schaaf were unique, remaining friends while ascending the ranks to within one fight of facing each other. There was talk of Ernie hiring a new manager in the event that he would challenge Sharkey for the title. After Schaaf’s victory over Young Stribling, The Reading Eagle reported, “The victory may have moved Schaaf into the somewhat embarrassing position of crowding his co-manager, who was in his corner, for a place in the heavyweight sun.” In The Gettysburg Times, the two reportedly joked about the prospect, with Sharkey suggesting a way “to devise some painless means of passing the crown along to him” when Sharkey tired of the title.

The Last Fight

 Instead, events soon played out like a Greek tragedy. On February 10, 1933, at Madison Square Garden, it was Schaaf’s turn to fight Primo Carnera, a boxer that neither Schaaf nor Sharkey should have lost to. Ernie appeared to be having an off night during the battle, and in the 13th round, Carnera hit Schaaf with a stiff left jab. Even today, the sequence that followed is chilling to watch on the film; the sight of Schaaf tumbling to the canvas, struggling with sudden paralysis, and then collapsing. As the ring fills with Primo’s well-wishers, Sharkey drags the unconscious Schaaf back to his corner. Unable to wake him, Schaaf’s limp body is lifted out of the ring and carried off. All this under the roar of 20,000 boos raining down from the crowd calling out “FAKE.” Even the best Hollywood boxing movies would have trouble matching a scene like this.

At the hospital, belief was that Schaaf might recover. He eventually came to and was speaking. Sharkey reportedly stayed with Ernie through the night. The following morning, the doctors expressed hope regarding Schaaf’s condition. Only then did Sharkey leave town on a trip with his family. Schaaf died after emergency surgery on Valentine’s Day 1933 and Sharkey never saw his friend alive again. Carnera, it was reported, was crushed by the news of Ernie’s death, and cried for hours. For a detailed story on the circumstances of Schaaf’s death, please read the excellent article by Norman Marcus, “The Strange Death of Ernie Schaaf.”

David Loses to Goliath

 The epilogue to this drama came four months later when champion Sharkey faced Primo Carnera in their rematch. This was the title challenge intended for Schaaf. Now instead, Sharkey was facing Ernie’s killer. After a competitive six rounds, an uppercut/shove by Carnera dumped Sharkey on the canvas like a beached whale. He lay motionless as he was counted out. Rumors have circulated for years that the knockout was not on the level. There were mob connections, primarily involving Carnera. Sharkey denied the loss was anything but genuine, adding famously that he was distracted by the sight of Schaaf’s ghost standing in the ring. “I had no trouble, physically fit and everything and I boxed the guy (Carnera) before . . . I looked and I see a vision of Ernie Schaaf. There’s no pain . . . like in a dream. Of course when you snap out of it, that’s when the shame comes. You know you’ve lost.”

The Films

The newsreel footage is striking in several ways. Sharkey looks impressive during the training portion. Though only 6’ tall, modest height for a heavyweight, Sharkey appears strong, well-conditioned and projects great physical intensity and humor. Schaaf, though dressed in a suit and tie for the occasion, looks impressive as well. At 6’2”, he is clearly the bigger of the two men. Despite the scripting that was common for newsreel sound bites, it’s clear that the two are friends and trying not to crack up. The image of Schaaf in this film is a sharp contrast to the man who appeared dwarfed in the ring against 6’6” Primo Carnera. The newsreel also puts a face and a voice to a man, who has mostly been associated with images of his death.
I’ve also included the Official Films abridged version of the Carnera-Schaaf fight from an excellent 16mm print. With the exposure and film speed adjusted, the action suggests that Schaaf was in trouble even before the knockout. I also have a longer version of this fight, but the print quality is poor, though it does include the post-fight footage with Schaaf being attended to and taken from the ring. I have inserted that scene at the end.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"The Trouble with Harry" Harry Wills vs Firpo, Madden, Uzcudun, and Newsreels including Jack Dempsey

Rare footage casts a shadow on a Black Light

Myth-making is a large part of boxing. It raises the sport above statistics and enhances the historical narrative. The fact that boxers engage today under many of the same rules as those a century ago links boxers and fans generations apart as one community. And because boxing is staged in a theater setting, where the action is clearly displayed, it was naturally a focus of early motion pictures. Fight films have enabled past events to be preserved and witnessed from one generation to the next.  Some boxer’s legacies have grown despite the lack of surviving footage. The most notable is that of Harry Greb, who remains among the all-time greats, though no film of Greb’s fights have been seen for decades. Another boxer whose reputation has grown, despite a limited film record is the African-American heavyweight contender, Harry Wills.

The Black Panther

Born in 1889, Harry “The Black Panther” Wills began boxing professionally in 1912. He was among the youngest of the one-generation phenomenon of African-American boxers sometimes called “The Black Lights,” who unofficially dominated much of boxing’s elite fighters during the first two decades of the 20th century. Even today, Wills looks impressive in photographs. At 6’2” (or taller, depending on the record) Wills was a lean, imposing, chiseled 210-pound heavyweight. His victories over greats like the aging Sam Langford are often noted, and from 1917 through 1922 Wills had an amazing string of victories. It established him as a top contender.

Wills’ personal story, along with his rival Jack Dempsey, also represents one of boxing’s most famous unfinished chapters.  It’s a tale about race in post-war America and about Harry Wills—an African-American caught in the bitter tail wind of Jack Johnson divisive legacy—who took every public and legal measure available to him to secure a title fight with champion Jack Dempsey, but to no avail. Wills never got to fight Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship, in essence because he was black. Because of the unjust circumstances, there’s always been a question of who would have won. Profiles of Wills describe him as either a footnote or an uncrowned champion, depending on the biographer. Hearsay and speculation has fueled debate for decades. In any case, it’s clear that Harry Wills was a genuine force in the division. 
I’ve always wondered how good Harry Wills actually was, and the real story of his quest to fight Jack Dempsey. Going back to the records, I searched firsthand accounts. What I discovered was not simply a challenger who was turned away, but a convoluted trail of claims, counter-claims, public demands, court battles, reluctant investors, lawyers, feuding business interests, fearful politicians, and two boxers trying to earn a living.

Harry and Jack Sign the Dotted Line

After the success of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in 1921, boxing exploded into the mainstream and Jack Dempsey’s career as world heavyweight champion soared to great heights. Then it stalled. Dempsey didn’t defend his title for the next two years, during which time Wills and other prospective challengers were considered and reconsidered. Dempsey has been criticized for not fighting enough during his reign. He in fact wanted to stay active, but his manager Doc Kearns and promoter Tex Rickard insisted on “saving him for the big fights.” This was a profitable career strategy for managers, but rust-inducing for boxers. 
In early 1922, a national poll placed Harry Wills as the preferred next challenger for Dempsey, just edging out contenders Tommy Gibbons and Bill Brennan. It suggested that the public was ready for an African-American to fight for the heavyweight title once
again. Negotiations began. Dempsey himself lobbied for the fight, writes Roger Khan in the biography A Flame of Pure Fire, and his handlers relented, but conditionally. On June 11, 1922, Dempsey and Wills put pens to contracts. But the powerful New York Commissioner William Muldoon did not want the fight to take place in New York. To complicate matters further, Muldoon and promoter Tex Rickard clashed over, of all things, ticket prices. Muldoon wanted 40,000 tickets fixed at $2.00 for the “working people.” Rickard refused. In retaliation, Muldoon blocked the Dempsey-Wills fight from taking place in New York, even threatening to halt all heavyweight fights until prices came down. Frustrated, Rickard traveled to several states—even north to Montreal—to find a welcoming venue. None wanted the fight or had the money to host the event. When the contract deadline ran out, Wills sued. From then until 1926, as the legal proceedings dragged on, a potential Dempsey-Wills fight was often in the news as either under consideration, being planned, or “scheduled for next year,” but never became a done deal.

Of Mice, Men and Money

Dempsey, Wills, and their managers did not create the nation’s racial problems. They were caught up in it. And the timing could not have been worse. They were mired in the aftermath of Jack Johnson, the oppressed first black heavyweight champion (1908-1915). Johnson’s victory over champion Tommy Burns was an upset, and a racist campaign began to drive Johnson out of boxing. First unsuccessfully beating Johnson in the ring, and then by prosecuting Johnson in the courts. But Johnson fueled the fire as well. He didn’t try to change people’s minds. His behavior out of the ring unfairly stereotyped African-Americans, and with one exception, he even refused to give the other great black boxers of his day a chance to fight for the title. During the five years after the Johnson-Jeffries fight, the heavyweight championship franchise, perhaps the richest in all of sports, was reduced to Johnson and his nomadic entourage, or as Tex Rickard harshly stated, a championship that “…ain’t worth a nickel.”

Rickard has been singled out as the culprit for blocking the Dempsey-Wills fight, and there’s no question that he did not want a black man to fight for the heavyweight championship again. Rickard was a businessman above all, and evidence suggests that he simply didn’t want to be involved in another controversial title fight for legitimate reasons. The motivation for Rickard’s reluctance stemmed from his experience promoting the Johnson-Jeffries fight in 1910. That year, he had pulled every available financial and political string to make the historic fight happen, even moving the event from California to Nevada when California’s governor barred the match. His reward was to witness race riots following the event and to be among those blamed. He abandoned boxing for the next six years.

It’s easy for us to look 90 years into past and cast judgment.  And are we so superior today with boxing in its post-decline? Not to mention the four years waiting for an African-American champion to grant a Filipino his rightful challenge? Big as boxing had become in 1921, Rickard and the promoters were still at the mercy of political winds. Even if the fight ended fair and square for either boxer, race relations were bad enough so that no one knew what the public reaction might be. There was a lot at stake, a great deal of money to lose, a social and political cost, and possibly jail. Race riots were not going to be an option.

Harry Takes the High Road in Low Country

Though Wills was black, he was not without means, money and popularity. Suing your way into a fight without promoters may have been like suing the stock market for not going up, but it got Wills’ case on record. In the meantime, there were many other fighters other than Wills in competition for Dempsey’s title, and the contenders battled one another for position. But Wills and his manager Paddy Mullins choose not to fight and thus eliminate any of his leading rivals including Tommy Gibbons, Billy Miske, Georges Carpentier, Jim Maloney, Harry Greb, Young Stribling, and Jack Delaney, none of whom drew the color line. Even Gene Tunney offered in 1925. Rickard may not have wanted to take chances, but Wills didn’t want to take chances either. By helping to keep Dempsey in court instead of the ring—Wills also sued to stop both the Dempsey-Firpo and Tunney fights—Wills may further have dimmed his own prospects.

Shelby and The Wild Bull

1922 came to a close without a Jack Dempsey fight.  Money was being lost and the champion and his manager Doc Kearns got fed up. They traveled west in 1923 to promote a title fight without Rickard, and far from the legal melee. Montana businessman Roy J. Molumby, offered Dempsey and Kearns a $100,000 cash advance for a fight between the champion and the contender Tommy Gibbons. The infamous Dempsey-Gibbons fight got Dempsey back in the ring, where he won a 15-round decision. But the event resulted in a financial bust, sending the town of Shelby into bankruptcy. Lesson learned, Dempsey and Kearns returned to New York.

Meanwhile, the Argentine heavyweight, Luis Angel Firpo, had come to the U.S. and replaced Wills as top contender with a string of savage knockouts. Firpo was a wrecking machine in the ring and his knockout of former champion Jess Willard had created a sensation. Firpo was matched with Dempsey and the champion prevailed in their historic two-round war at the Polo Grounds in New York City, September 14, 1923. In the months following the fight, Dempsey broke relations with manager Kearns, acquiring yet another legal adversary. For the next three years, champion Jack Dempsey was a celebrity, a court defendant, and a mismanaged boxer.

Wills and Firpo

In 1924, Wills was offered a golden opportunity. He accepted an offer to fight the feared Luis Firpo, who had nearly dethroned Dempsey a year before. Promoted by Tex Rickard, Wills and Firpo met at Boyles Thirty Acres, New Jersey, on September 11, 1924. Jack Dempsey was at ringside. This intriguing matchup has largely been lost to history.

Both Wills and Firpo were knockout artists of roughly the same size. Firpo was slightly heavier and an inch taller than Wills. The Times Daily reported the odds at all but even on the day of the fight. The fight went the full 15 rounds to end in a no-decision contest. The newspapers including the Quebec Daily Telegraph hailed Wills as a winner who “took almost every round and in the second round floored his opponent.” In front of an audience 75,000, it was the highest profile fight of Wills’ career. But while the fight put Wills in the spotlight, it also put him under the microscope. After three years campaigning as top contender, some witnesses were not impressed. The Milwaukee Journal headlined, “Harry Wills No Match for Champion Dempsey. Wills general ability as a fighter would not be sufficiently high to stand the champion off.  Firpo not only telegraphs his wallops, but sends a letter of warning…but Dempsey doesn’t telegraph. His punches come from a short distance and behind them lurk oblivion.”

Jack and Harry Sign Again

There’s no doubt that Wills deserved a title fight, and even Dempsey expressed his regrets at not having the fight to set the record straight. The two respected each other. It was an injustice to Wills and to history. But while Dempsey’s persona was larger than life, control over his career was with Kearns and Rickard. It wasn’t his decision to make. He deferred to his managers for nearly all business matters, and if Dempsey lobbied, as he did to fight Wills in 1922, Rickard would talk him out of it. There is no indication in any testimony that Dempsey was afraid of Wills. No better proof of this came than when Dempsey and Wills signed to fight for the second time.

By March 1925, the New York Commission had reversed its position on sanctioning a Dempsey-Wills match. The Commission now declared Wills as Dempsey’s mandatory challenger and threatened to place Dempsey on the ineligible list if he did not comply. The Associated Press reported on July 17, 1925, that Dempsey appeared before the New York Licensing Commission and formally accepted Wills’ challenge.  With Kearns now out of the picture, Dempsey was managing himself. On his own, with a new promoter, Dempsey made a genuine good faith effort to be matched with Wills.

Show Me The Money

Midwestern promoter Floyd Fitzsimmons, who had produced Dempsey-Miske fight in 1920, proposed a Dempsey-Wills fight to be held in Michigan City, Indiana. Dempsey was guaranteed $1,000,000 for the fight with $300,000 due upon signing. Dempsey accepted the offer. On September 28, 1925, Wills, Dempsey, the promoter and investors met for the contract ceremony. The event made headlines. Wills received a check for $50,000. Fitzsimmons told Dempsey he would get his check the following day. The next morning, Dempsey accompanied Fitzsimmons to the bank, ready to receive the down payment. Fitzsimmons handed Dempsey a check not for $300,000 but only $25,000. “It’s all I got right now, but there’s plenty more where that came from,” said Fitzsimmons. Still willing to proceed, Dempsey asked for cash instead: “I want to see this in green…and when you give me the other two-seven-five, I’ll give you the contract. Signed.” As the tellers counted out the cash, the issuing bank was called and reported back that the Fitzsimmons account was empty. The check bounced. Fitzsimmons couldn’t even deliver one dime of a down payment. Dempsey walked. Not only had the fight fallen through again, but now Dempsey was no longer licensed to fight in New York.

The Panther Cries Wolf

The heavyweight division continued to shake out; Tunney, Maloney, Delaney, Wills, Sharkey, Uzcundun and others were now in contention. In early 1926, Wills was offered $250,000 to fight Gene Tunney in a title eliminator, with the winner to meet the champion. Wills turned it down. Wills believed that fighting Dempsey was now a matter of entitlement. It was fateful decision. A Wills-Tunney fight may have changed the course of events. In any case the Tunney-Dempsey match was then scheduled.

Still there seemed no end to the claims, even as the Dempsey-Tunney fight approached. On August 6, 1926, the Evening Independent reported that a Chicago matchmaker, Doc Krone, announced that a $300,000 check was waiting for Dempsey in a Chicago bank. On August 22, the Telegraph Herald reported that Wills’ manager Paddy Mullins tried to bluff Dempsey once more into a contract, and then reportedly “failed to come forward with $150,000” saying, “We’ll post the money immediately if Dempsey will sign to fight Wills before September 23.” It was all too late. The public wanted Dempsey back, and he was in the ring with Gene Tunney three weeks later.

Then everything changed. Dempsey lost in an upset to Tunney, who then became champion. In October, Wills himself returned to the ring. At Brooklyn National League Park, a young and hungry Dempsey-esque heavyweight named Jack Sharkey brought Wills’ winning streak to an end. According to Time magazine, “Sharkey chopped and hacked at Wills, closed his eye, made his mouth bleed; all through the fight.” Wills reportedly backhanded, butted, and hit Sharkey during the breaks in an effort to discourage his opponent. After numerous warnings by the referee, Wills was disqualified in the 13th round. Wills soldiered on for several more fights, but retired from boxing in 1932 and became a successful real estate investor.

Discovering The Films

For decades, the only surviving public footage of Wills in action was the short, and incriminating, film of his 4th-round knockout by Paulino Uzcundun in 1927. Issued by Official Films as part of a series called Monarchs of The Ring, the 38-year-old Wills is seen clubbed to the canvas in what was his last fight as a contender. It’s no measure of his skills. I’ve interviewed several leading film collectors about additional surviving footage of Wills, but nothing had been verified for many years. However, I did locate several newsreels highlighting footage of Wills posing for the cameras before the Firpo fight. They provide a glimpse of his size and stance, but little else. Then, a rare breakthrough. Footage recently surfaced of Wills and Firpo in mid-fight, plus training footage, and 1st-round action against Irish Bartley Madden in 1924.

The Restoration
Though only a few minutes long, the footage of Wills and Luis Firpo is remarkably well preserved, and while the film of Wills-Madden is poor, the action is clear. The Wills-Firpo footage suffers jump cuts and gate slipping. I re-edited the shots into a new sequence and adjusted the speed and exposure. The Milwaukee Journal’s assessment that Dempsey need not “be cautious about meeting Wills in the ring” turns out to have some validity. The footage shows Wills’ defensive style, but without Jack Johnson’s speed or ability to control a fight. Wills’ greatest assets may have been his size and strength. Though Firpo was strong, and slightly larger than Wills, he displays none of the tenacity he did against Jack Dempsey. Firpo throws, with little accuracy, one overhand right after the other. Wills slips them with ease, but otherwise has no tactical answer of his own, and the two spend most of the time dragging one another around in clinches. The footage also includes the much-noted 2nd-round knockdown where “Wills floored Firpo with a right to the jaw. When Firpo arose Wills swarmed him with a flock of rights” reported United Press. The film tells its own version. The knockdown actually comes as Wills hits Firpo on the break. Firpo is more surprised than hurt and recovers quickly, as the two struggle for punching room. Wills was 35 years old, (Firpo was 30), but even a 35-year-old healthy, trained and experienced boxer will show flashes of youth for the first few rounds. This 1st- and 2nd-round action suggests that Wills was either a very slow starter, or as Firpo said, he was “more of a wrestler than a boxer.”

In the second film, Irish veteran Bartley Madden, who had also fought Harry Greb, Gene Tunney, Fred Fulton, and Tommy Gibbons, brought respectable ring experience. He was good enough to draw with Bill Brenan, and I show clip of his KO of George Christian in 1923. The Wills-Madden fight footage is dark and lacks detail, but the picture is steady, and the action is clear. Wills won a 15-round decision. But even in this losing effort, Madden exposes some of Wills’ weakness. Wills, the much bigger man, stalks aggressively, but Madden, who was only 5’11”, appeared able to close the distance and hit Wills with relative ease. This would have been fatal against Dempsey.

Dempsey and Wills were a lot closer in size than has often been suggested. At approximately 210 pounds, Wills was about 20 pounds heavier on average than Dempsey, but only one inch taller. In an article I wrote for (“A Duel in the Sun”) is a film of Jack Dempsey sparring with Big Bill Tate in 1919. Hired by Doc Kearns in 1918, Tate had become a chief sparring partner in the Dempsey camp, where he remained until 1927. At 6’6”, he was vital in preparing Dempsey to fight Jess Willard. Tate was an African-American who was also an experienced contender, and his experience included five fights with Harry Wills, including one DQ win, two close decision losses and a draw. In viewing the clips of Wills and Tate, it’s striking how similar in style and technique they were. Had a Dempsey-Wills fight actually gone forward, Tate would have provided a great tactical advantage. And one has to wonder, what does it say that one man’s opponent is another man’s sparring partner?

A Panther in Winter

In Roger Khan’s excellent biography of Jack Dempsey, he observes that while the skills of Georges Carpentier have dimmed over the decades, the skills of Harry Wills have grown. He also quotes Trainer Ray Arcel in describing Wills as “a very good journeyman.” Arcel, who had apprenticed with Wills’ trainer Dai Dollings, also told referee Arthur Mercante, “Wills was big and none too fast. It was a terrible injustice that Wills never got a title shot, but those big, slower guys were made to order for Dempsey.” The sportswriter James P. Dawson, who wrote for The New York Times, testified after Wills’ loss to Sharkey, “None who saw last night’s battle can doubt that Dempsey would have annihilated Wills four years ago, three years ago, or a year ago.”

Roger Kahn “A Flame of Pure Fire”
Jack Cavanaugh “Tunney – Boxing’s Brainiest Champ”
Arthur Mercante “Inside The Ropes”
The New York Times
Time Magazine
The Times Daily
Alton Evening Telegraph
The Evening Independent
The Milwaukee Journal
The Quebec Daily Telegraph
The Telegraph-Herald
Rochester Evening Journal
The Border Cities Star

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Lost Fights of Joe Louis

During a particular nine-month stretch, the great Joe Louis had a run of eight fights and won them all. Joe was a busy and determined man who was desperately seeking a crack at the world heavyweight championship. Earlier in Joe’s first year as a professional in 1934, he was unbeaten in 12 fights. In 1935, there were 11 more victories. And while Joe remained active in the years ahead and through his reign as heavyweight champion, he was never more active again until the year in question, which was Louis’ last year of fighting, 1951.

The Comeback Time Forgot

Joe had retired as heavyweight champion in 1948, then came back in 1950 and lost to Ezzard Charles. But Louis kept on fighting. A disgraceful and unjust levy of tax bills hounded Louis, and he drove his 37-year-old body through a gauntlet of eight fights.

These were dark days for the former champion, and a period of his career often brushed over. Most accounts note the Charles comeback fight and then skip directly to Joe’s heartbreaking knockout by Rocky Marciano a year later. What interested me were the bouts in-between. I wanted to learn more about those “lost” fights, to see how Louis looked, fought and prevailed in these final performances against an emerging division of heavyweights.

All of Louis’ fights in 1950-51 were broadcast on television, though several exclusively on closed-circuit which may not have been archived. Fortunately, several TV kinescopes survive as well as film footage. What I didn’t have in my collection, a fellow collector graciously provided me with additional material including Louis vs. Cesar Brion I (11/29/50), Freddie Beshore (1/3/51), Omelio Agramonte II (5/12/51), and Lee Savold (6/15/51).

The Elder Statesman

Joe Louis was a popular figure throughout his career and during his comeback as well. But by no stretch of the imagination did Louis resemble the champion of old, or even the weathered elder statesman who came from behind to pound Joe Walcott to the floor in his last fight as champion in 1948. The 1951 Louis was thicker and slower, and his face revealed every mile of his 37 years.

Louis said that he was overconfident and unprepared against Charles and believed that regaining the title was a matter of conditioning. In the bouts that followed, Joe trained hard and appeared cool and ready at each opening bell. But Joe’s performances were erratic. In November 1950, his first fight after Charles, Joe struggled with his timing against Cesar Brion, the Argentine champion and Rocky Marciano sparring partner.
Louis won a 10-round decision but “couldn’t get the combinations going.” Joe’s punching power had declined as well, and manifested only on the few occasions that year when the stars aligned and the entire Bomber package came together.

The Surge

The respect for Louis is obvious in every fighter Joe faced, but with each passing round the opponents were more and more willing to fight in close and trade punches—suicide just a few years earlier. Remarkably Louis was never more than stunned in any of these fights, but the amount of punches he took as compared to his earlier fights is disturbing to watch.

In January, against Freddie Beshore, Louis rebounded and delivered a “savage beating” before Joe’s hometown crowd of 13,096 in Detroit. It was the comeback fight that Joe needed to get back on track.
Twice in 1951, Louis fought the kinetic Cuban heavyweight champion, Omelio Agramonte. Agramonte resembled a king-sized Kid Gavilan, and spent much of their first fight on the defensive. In their second fight, three months later, the Cuban upped his work rate and confidence. Louis found his mark though and dropped Agramonte for a nine count in the second round, but Omelio recovered and the fight went the distance.

In June, against veteran Lee Savold, it was again, “like old times” as Louis crushed the comparably aged 35-year-old former British champion in six rounds. Much promoted and twice postponed, Louis and Savold clashed at Madison Square Garden in New York on June 15. Savold forced the fight, but was battered as he repeatedly came straight in to Louis, whose left jab and hook packed plenty of power and snap. The fight was enough of a sensation that the films were later replayed in movie theatres.

By this point plans were in the works for a Louis-Charles return match to be held that September. But it was not in the cards. That July, Joe Walcott put a royal flush upside Ezzard Charles’ head in the seventh round of their third fight to take the heavyweight title. It was perhaps heartening for Louis to foresee a title fight with Walcott, a man he had defeated several years earlier, but Louis would have to wait his turn again.

Louis at the Alamo

In the meantime, Louis met Cesar Brion for a return match on August 8 and won a 10-round decision. Fourteen days later Joe stalked and chased Jimmy Bivins for 10 rounds. Joe cut loose at the finish, but the power wasn’t there and Joe settled for a decision win. The inevitable fight now loomed. If Louis was to remain in contention, and silence his critics, he would have to beat a top contender. That contender was Rocky Marciano, a fighter of great promise, but still considered untested. The “make or break” fight was held on October 26, and we know the result, which sent Louis into retirement for good.

A Lion in Winter

This video shows excerpts from the above mentioned fights. I made adjustments to contrast and audio, but otherwise the images are close to what viewers witnessed during the original TV broadcasts. Enjoy this look at the late career highlights of Joe Louis.

Jim Jeffries - A Champion Lost and Found

James J. Jeffries vs. Gus Ruhlin
World Heavyweight Championship
Mechanic’s Pavilion, San Francisco, California
November 15, 1901
Muteoscope Film Restoration

The Champion

Few boxing champions have been so revered in their time, and so dismissed by history as Jim Jeffries, Undefeated Heavyweight Champion 1899-1905. He was perhaps the first post bare-knuckle champion who showed that even gloved boxing could be brutal and explosive. He reigned supremely over the last and best heavyweight division of the 19th century. His retirement in 1905, followed by the brief but prolific campaign of the next champion Tommy Burns, left the heavyweight division all but swept for the 10 years that followed. This summation excludes of course the handful of brilliant African American boxers who were denied title fights because of racism, not only by the establishment including Jeffries, but also by one of their own who was not denied, the great Jack Johnson.

The Defeated

Against his better judgment, Jeffries came back to fight Johnson in 1910 and lost “The Fight of the Century” which was as equally anticlimactic as was the promotion overblown. Jeffries stature all but crumbled to dust under the Nevada sun. This single professional loss tarnished Jeffries entire career, not only due to the fight result, but from the unfair public rejection expressed by many whites toward Jeffries in the aftermath. It wasn’t until the second Louis-Schmeling fight that boxers such as Johnson and Jeffries fought each other with so much social and political weight on their backs.

Adding insult to injury, the Johnson-Jeffries fight films triggered race-riots which resulted in the banning of boxing film distribution for the next 30 years. With each new telling of this chapter, and from ever more youthful and contemporary perspectives, the old footage is run over and over with Jeffries gleefully described as a tired old man, and Johnson as a superhuman athlete. Neither was true, but it’s not a difficult argument to make, due to the wealth of Johnson footage against inferior competition, and to the lack of film showing Jeffries in his prime.

Lost and Found

Jeffries’ misfortune was to reign during the dark ages of early fights films. Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons, who preceded Jeffries as champions, were both filmed in action with some success and the movies were widely distributed and have since survived. However, beginning with the attempted filming of the first Jeffries-Fitzsimmons fight in 1899, there were a series of failures in fight film production. Between 1902 and 1906, nearly all major bouts went partially or completely un-filmed due to equipment breakdowns, lack of investment, court battles over copyright or the constrictive demands of the promoters. It wasn’t until 1906 that these issues began to shake out and film crews with better technology began recording fights on a more frequent basis.

Fortunately, just prior to this period, Jeffries was filmed in at least two of his championship fights. The first was the Jeffries-Sharkey fight in 1899. By all descriptions and based upon the few movie frames that still exist, the film and fight were a success in capturing Jeffries and the great Sailor Tom Sharkey in their primes. But that footage has been lost, though a movie of the same bout was also taken independently by a cameraman in the audience. That film, distant and shaky, offers only a glimpse of the event.

The Edison Company

Fortunately, there is one more Jeffries fight film that exists today. In 1901 the Edison Company, who had previously filmed Jim Corbett in a staged studio match in 1894, wanted a bigger stake in the fight film business. Traveling from New Jersey to San Francisco, the Edison crew set out to film Jeffries defending against contender Gus Ruhlin in San Francisco on November 15. The fight is among the most obscure heavyweight title bouts in boxing history, but there was great anticipation at the time. Jeffries was immensely popular and Ruhlin was considered a real challenge. Both Jeffries and Ruhlin were first filmed in training as they prepared for the match.

The Fight

As for the fight itself, the contest failed to deliver the excitement that Jeffries was known for. To make matters worse, Ruhlin quit after only five rounds. There were calls of a fake, but Jeffries later wrote in a biography published in The Pittsburgh Press, “Ruhlin was a good fighter…who just couldn’t get up for the next round. My heavy body punches had nearly broken him in two.”

Cameras rolled throughout the entire fight, but it was another production failure. The exposure was poor, and the inexperienced director positioned the camera much too far from the ring. The film had a limited release, but with the fight being a bust, the movie was promoted as a “sparring session” to lower audience expectations.

The Restoration

The surviving footage of the Jeffries-Ruhlin fight is taken from Muteoscope cards (vintage hand-cranked flip card viewers) and not directly from the film negatives. This is likely the only reason the film survived. The image is cloudy and poor. I used several restoration treatments to improve the film. Nearly every frame is either washed out or very dark, which results in the flashing effect, but I did adjust the exposure of several sections. The sharpening tool helped restore some detail, though resulting in some pixilation. Finally, the video stabilizer softened the frame jitter and during key exchanges, I also zoomed in on the fighters, despite the poor quality, to bring the action a little closer. The technology didn’t perform any miracles here, but this humble restoration gives us a better look at Jeffries than the original copy. 

The Film

As the film starts, there are two very brief clips including the end of a round and the rest period as cornermen fan the boxers with towels. Jeffries is wearing dark trunks, and he stands in front of his stool in the left corner, oddly bending over. Only a single full round of the fight is shown, and it’s unclear if it is round three or four since Ruhlin was knocked down in both. We see Ruhlin score a good right to the body early in the round, but it’s all Jeffries thereafter, primarily using his left hook. As witnesses testified, Ruhlin was outclassed from the start and Jeffries spent much of the fight in pursuit. But there are some vivid moments of the champion during the exchanges that show what a dangerous fighter he was; including his speed, power and ability to cut off the ring. Jeffries is often likened to Rocky Marciano, but in watching him against Gus Ruhlin, his rigid stance, ever stalking and “slam-bang” attacks compare more to Gene Fullmer. In any case, the Jim Jeffries in this film is not the same man who lumbered after Jack Johnson nine years later.