The Brown Bomber as #1

By Ted Spoon - To this writers mind history's greatest heavyweights are incorrigibly difficult to arrange. James J Jeffries’ amazingly quick rise, Rocky Marciano's perfect run, Lennox Lewis’ victory over the heir apparent - in each there are aspects unique to them, and depending on how you value those aspects will influence the number you stick by their name.

The consensus is a different ball game and two men customarily make up the tip of the iceberg.

If Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis are not numero uno it tends to disturb our innate love of order, and if neither are in second place you can be sure of some keyboard hysterics.. It's acceptable practice to swap the order of Detroit's Bomber and Louisville’s Lip, but while you won't get many complaints having Louis as top dog, reality prefers a 70/30 split in Muhammad’s favour.

For that 70% (possibly more) the best they can do is grade Joe ‘1B’, and the argument has sound reasoning. With Ali having fought and stood aloft in the heavyweight division’s most treacherous era he generally pulls an ace when we decide to weigh legacies.

However, something Teddy Atlas once spouted called for a little rethink.

Concerning Mike Tyson he thought the squat slugger to be no more than brilliant, like a shooting star; not great because he lacked longevity. And without any intentions to provoke our iron-clad compadres it was a neat way of expressing the main defect in his career.

Longevity is the essence of greatness. We have a sprinkle of exceptions, but when we comprise our lists you will see that mileage generally decreases from top to toe. Longevity is where Joe Louis shines especially bright. Not just longevity but dominance.

In a sense, Louis was the fully-realised Tyson, somebody who managed to preserve the crown for over a decade while taking people’s heads off. Not to dismay Ali here, 19 defences is hardly paltry, but while there are more incredible single wins in there it wasn’t quite as convincing a run.

For all the glory of Zaire, heroics in Manila and scalding of a Big Ugly Bear, Ali’s career has an unresolved aspect that Louis’ is attractively free of.

You may appreciate the comparison between ‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott and Kenny Norton as the tactical thorns in each fighter’s side. Where Louis trumps Ali here is that, when it was all said and done, there was no question as to who was the better man. Conversely Ali’s last fight with Norton is the most popular choice for a gifted decision.

When in fine trim he fairly beat Norton, but by the slimmest of margins. There was no mastery. It could be reasoned that Ali was not the same man at this point, but it’s more accurate to say he was different as opposed to inferior. In Louis’ case he was indisputably inferior - a machine gun that had lost accuracy and often jammed when trying to reload. With that said he still left the future heavyweight champion of the world on his back, and it wasn’t just because he could punch.

Louis’ ability to wipe up spilt milk was unmatched. Changes didn’t happen overnight, but once he knew what he was dealing with ten knockouts in ten rematches say it all. Chile’s Arturo Godoy gave the primed version his ugliest ordeal, but it spawned a most brutal rebuttal when the game challenger was flailed into a lumpy mess.

A gripe you often here with Louis is the handful of times he was floored, but it means little when you continually dust yourself off. Balance was a bit of a problem for Joe who kept his feet close-knit for power, inadvertently getting him caught square a couple of times like it did against Braddock and Galento. Getting floored however can help a fighter grow more assertive, and we all know what happened to the 'Cinderella Man' and 'Two Ton'.

Underlining this supposed vulnerability is Louis' implosion against Schmeling. The defeat was avenged as emphatically as defeat can be, but the image of Louis insensibly grovelling about the floor can’t be erased. It required a truckload of right hands to bring Louis down for good (it would be ludicrous to suggest the man was anything less than solid) but Ali suffered no such dishonour, even when far past his best.

The beating Muhammad’s body registered against Joe Frazier was unlike anything anyone over 200lbs ever suffered, and we are sure to marvel at the man’s resolve in that fifteenth round for decades to come. Their first fight was special for numerous reasons, but it also opens up another wormhole in Ali’s career. Like the series with Norton it concluded at 2-1 in Ali’s favour, but the true nature of this dominance is often debated.

Any discerning fan knows that Frazier left a sizeable chunk of himself in the Garden. The Ali of ‘72-74 still had lots to offer while Smokin’ Joe continued as a pudgy apparition of his former self. The win over Foreman cannot be downplayed, and he definitely had the slugger’s number, but it remains a fair question whether Ali could have ever beaten Frazier at his grunting best.

It is equally reasoned that the Ali of the late ‘60s would have been too slippery for any Frazier, but others feel the physically stronger Ali of ’71 did everything he possibly could have and still lost. As such you have a strange dynamic where Muhammad rightly receives praise as the man of his era, but not the absolute ruler like Louis.

No, Louis never had to deal with a Frazier or Foreman. He did once have to deal with a Rocky Marciano but by that time those thirty seven years were hooked onto his limbs like anchors, further degrading the machine gun into a faulty Lugar. His famed ‘Bum of the Month Club’ was an amusing way of summing up a collection of fighters lucky to get a title shot, but his resume is not short of name fighters.

Max Baer, Braddock, Tommy Farr, Galento, Billy Conn and Walcott aren’t a collection of boxers anyone is going to cut down in a hurry. Men like Jack Roper, Red Burman and Gus Dorazio weren’t so hot, but Louis scores subliminal points here for the simple fact that the more one fights there more room there is for error. Similar to a king who crushes small communities en route to crushing a city; it may not be laudable, but it does expand his reign of terror.

On the point of each man’s less memorable bouts, Ali generally made a bigger meal out of them which calls into play the less significant, though nonetheless contributing factor known as style.

How you win may seem trivial but it is the cousin of dominance. Again, Ali racked up some brilliant performances, but he could also fight quite negatively. Here Muhammad’s cinematic persona is guilty of putting a nice slant on instances that any other fighter would get stick for.

Chuck Wepnar was game and not a lot else. For a guy who had already been stopped a few times, for him to even make it into the fifteenth round was a bit of an insult. Most are aware that this bout was the inspiration for the ‘Rocky’ franchise; irrelevant of course, but these kind of facts help redirect attention.

Ron Lyle then proceeded to give the most famous man in the world a tough set-to, pushing him close on the cards. A lovely cross stopped anything too drastic occurring. Ron Lyle wasn’t a bad fighter, but neither was Tommy Farr. Difference being you’ll have fans tell you that Lyle ‘rose to occasion because he was fighting Ali’ whereas Louis simply shouldn't have been troubled.

And this all stems from the sour perspective time delivers. People fail to comprehend the impact Joe Louis had, why men like Joe Frazier and George Foreman rated him the best, why huge segments of New York were brought to a standstill when ‘Deadpan Joe’ came with his thunderous waltz. With Ali's charm and charisma, with his historically popular choice to resist induction, Louis comes out of the ages like some subservient pawn when in reality that subdued brilliance helped prepare the speakers for Ali's voice.

Our current generation can still recall that electric vibe 41 years ago when a convoy of celebrities forever became a part of the ‘Fight of the Century’. Very few if any can recall the Armageddon quality to that night when over 70,000 people watched to see which political automaton would win, democracy or Nazi Germany.

Jack Blackburn once told his hushed student, "You need to make your right hand your judge."

When it came purely to fighting, Joe's fists did more talking than everyone’s.

Article posted on 05.05.2012

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