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Louis’ fights in 1950-51 were broadcast on television, though several exclusively on closed-circuit which may not have been archived.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.