When Joe Louis stepped into the ring to challenge heavyweight champion Jim Braddock on a pleasant summer evening in 1937, he carried more than his 197 pounds. He also carried the hopes and dreams of his fellow African Americans, the majority of whom were still being denied the most basic civil rights. It was a sign of the times that Louis was described by the Tribune on the morning of the bout as the “sleepy-eyed son of an Alabama cotton picker” who was “no more excited about tonight’s encounter than if he was going a-huntin’ or a-fishin’.”
The unassuming 23-year-old Louis was seeking to become only the second black man to win the heavyweight title. The first, Jack Johnson, had been anything but unassuming, and when his controversial reign ended it was widely suggested that no other black man ever would, or should, be given a title shot. But now, after two decades, a black man did have the opportunity. Millions prayed that the man in question, Louis, would make the most of it.
Braddock, for his part, was a champion of questionable quality. At 29, he had wrested the title from Max Baer—who, the Tribune’s Arch Ward claimed, “would have been a setup for any well-conditioned plumber in an informal bust-as-bust-can street corner brawl.” Now, two years later, he was making just his first title defense. Like Louis, Braddock weighed in at 197. He was a mediocre 50-21-5, with 26 knockouts, and thus a decided underdog against Louis, who was 33-1 with 28 knockouts. Nonetheless he put on a brave face, professing to be unconcerned about the awesome punching power of the man known as the Brown Bomber. “There will be a knockout tonight,” Braddock said, “but it will be Louis, not I, who will be counted out.”
An estimated 50,000 spectators filled Comiskey Park for the bout. Among them were Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, who had met at Soldier Field ten years before in the famous “long count” title fight.
Louis and Braddock electrified the crowd in the first round, as they charged out of their corners and slugged it out in the center of the ring. A wild haymaker by Braddock missed, and Louis responded with a left-right combination that dazed the champion. Then, out of nowhere, Braddock landed a right uppercut that floored Louis. Joe was back on his feet in an instant. The two fighters traded hard rights to the head at the bell.
In the second round, Braddock was the aggressor. He pounded Louis’s body, then scored with a right to the head followed quickly by a left to the midsection. Just before the bell, Louis delivered a pair of solid rights to the side of Braddock’s face.
Louis gradually took over from then on. The third through sixth rounds were fairly uneventful, but Louis had more spring in his step and began to wear the older man down with well-aimed jabs and crosses. By the seventh, a cut over Braddock’s left eye was bleeding freely. Early in that round, Louis rocked Braddock with two short lefts to the face. The champion was game, and he kept battling—but even his better blows failed to faze the challenger. Braddock was fading fast by the end of the round.
In the eighth, Braddock presented a stationary target for Louis’s volleys. Louis deftly stepped out of the way of a right and responded with a stinging left to the forehead. Braddock flailed in vain with his right, and Louis sent a left hook into his breadbasket. Then Louis planted his feet and delivered a smashing right to the jaw. “Braddock’s knees sagged,” Ward wrote. “He did not stagger back as he might have from a less deadly wallop. He started to sink slowly but certainly.” Braddock toppled over onto his right side, and he was out cold as the 10-count was administered. It took two minutes more for him to regain his senses.
Braddock had done his best, but after all he was merely a good fighter who found himself confronted by a great one. Less than eight rounds into his first title defense, his tenure as champion was over. The reign of his successor would last almost 12 years and include 25 successful defenses, both all-time records.
The people throughout the nation who had huddled anxiously around their radios and then erupted in celebration might not have realized it fully, but a corner had indeed been turned. Joe Louis had taken the first step in what would eventually become a parade of great African-American athletes destined to dominate the world of sports.
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert