18.09.07 – By Carl Thompson: “I resent that because if a kid’s a fighter, he can’t be a bum. You’ve gotta be a special individual to be a fighter. I blow my stack when I hear that because it’s one on one; anything can happen. Any bum can get lucky. There’s no bum of the month.” – Angelo Dundee
From December 1940 to May 1941 Joe Louis took on a series of challengers at the rate of one per month. Prior to these bouts neither of the challengers were considered as worthy tests for the champion. Rightly or wrongly, history as labeled this series of fights as “The Bum Of The Month Club”. Has history been fair to these fighters? Did these fighters deserve to be associated with such a derogatory title? This article is a closer look at the fighters and the fights that made up “The Bum Of The Month Club.”
By December of 1940, it was felt by many that Joe Louis was in a class by himself. Up to that time eleven men had tried to wrest his crown away from him and eleven men had failed. There didn’t appear to be any significant opponent out there that could extend the champion. Only Max Baer and Billy Conn seemed to have any kind of credentials and even they were thought of as merely opponents.
On the 5th of December 1940, Joe Louis’s promoter, Mike Jacobs, announced that Joe was going to take on a number of challengers to his crown at the rate of one per month. The bouts were to be indoors and would be climaxed by an outdoor bout against a worthy challenger, who would most likely be Billy Conn.
Boston was treated to it’s first ever Heavyweight Championship fight when the first fight of this series was scheduled for the 16th of December 1940 at Boston Garden, Boston. The name of the challenger was Al McCoy, heavyweight champion of New England. At the time McCoy had a record of 115 wins, 31 losses with only 4 of those losses by KO; he was twenty-six years old and was in his thirteenth year as a professional. During that time McCoy had fought in every division from flyweight to heavyweight, having mixed success. He had a reputation of being a pretty skilled boxer with a decent punch who could handle a beating. In his previous fight he had put up a spirited performance against Billy Conn. Despite this, he was thought of as just cannon fodder for the champion and the odds on the fight reflected this.
13,334 fans packed into the Garden to watch the bout, more so to catch a glimpse of the Brown Bomber than the expectation of a competitive fight. Most people expected McCoy to crumple from the first punch that Louis threw. They were surprised by what they saw.
When the bell rang for the start of the first round, McCoy came out of his corner bobbing and weaving from a crouched position, at times he was crouched over so low that his head was below the champion’s trunks. The fight appeared to be following expectations when Louis floored McCoy in the first round with a right to the jaw. Surprisingly the challenger was back on his feet by the count of one and fought back, somebody had forgot to show the script to McCoy.
Despite the first round knockdown, McCoy showed himself to be an elusive target; bobbing and weaving from his crouch, he constantly made Louis swing and miss with his fight ending right. Most of Louis’s success in the bout came from his powerful left jab, whose effects were evident on McCoy’s face as his left eye began to swell from the second round onwards. In the fourth round McCoy started to come on, hammering Louis with a left and right to the head.
In the fifth, despite a completely closed left eye brought about by Louis’s incessant left jab, McCoy attacked the champion, driving a right into Louis’s face. Angrily, Louis backed McCoy against the ropes. When the bell rang for the end of the round, the crowd was in full voice, screaming encouragement to the now confident challenger. Unexpectedly there actually appeared to be a competitive fight occurring.
When the bell rang for the start of the sixth round Louis arose from his stool, McCoy did not. Despite McCoy’s willingness to continue, McCoy’s trainer, Ray Arcel, summoned referee Johnny Martin, over and informed him that he was stopping the fight, due to the severe condition of McCoy’s badly swollen left eye. When this situation was announced to the crowd, the Garden erupted into a storm of jeers. It was of the opinion of many in attendance, that without the eye injury, McCoy would have lasted at least ten rounds. Regardless, Louis won the fight and was still the champion. It was noted by many, that at times Louis had been made to look ludicrous as he generally appeared baffled on how to solve his opponent’s crouching style.
Next up for Louis was Clarence “Red” Burman of Baltimore. Burman had a record of 71 wins, 16 losses with only 3 of those losses via KO. Burman was a protégé of Jack Dempsey, his specialty was body punching. Whilst he hadn’t fought the most outstanding opponents he had beaten Tommy Farr two years earlier. Previous to this fight he had also taken an impressive decision over Tony Musto, in a wild bout that had featured both fighters visiting the canvas. Due to Louis’s difficulty in handling McCoy, Burman was extensively drilled in the art of fighting from the crouch. The odds on the bout were so skewed in favor of the champion that almost no betting took place.
The fight took place on the 31st of January 1941 at Madison Square Garden, New York; 18,061 fans were in attendance and just as in the McCoy fight, the fans were treated to an entertaining battle. Burman had come to fight! As the bell struck for round one, Burman charged across the ring, sprung out of his crouch and caught the unaware, flat-footed champion with a left hook to the face. Almost instantly blood appeared over Louis’s right eyelid. Infuriated, the champion launched his assault. Stalking Burman, he pummeled him around the ring with lefts and rights to the head. Burman started the second round with another left hook. This time to the body, causing Louis to back up against the ropes. For the remainder of the round he crowded the champion, forcing the fight.
In the third, Burman looked like a champion, again he opened the round with the left hook, this time two of them, one to the body and one to the head. Working past the champion’s left jab he waded in and managed to back Louis into a corner. In an attempt to fend of the challenger Louis missed wildly with a left hook. The momentum of which caused Louis to lose his balance and stumble through the ropes. If not for the middle strand, Joe would have sailed clean out of the ring. Many in attendance thought that a punch from Burman had caused the stumble and they roared on the challenger in anticipation of an upset. Encouraged by the crowd, the challenger charged at the champion, only to be met by a volley of lefts and rights. Undeterred, Burman continued to come forward but was constantly fended off by rapid blows to the head.
By the fifth round Louis had seized control of the fight. The gallant Burman was still pushing forward, trying to force the action, only to be met by a barrage of punches. The end of the fight came suddenly for Burman. Towards the end of the fifth round Joe worked the challenger into a corner and slammed home a body punch that caused Burman to double over. Bravely, Burman rushed forward at the champion. Joe unleashed another punch to the body that caused the challenger to gasp for air and immediately followed it up with yet another crushing body blow. Burman went down like he had been shot. Referee Frank Fullam, counted out the game Burman, as he lay motionless on the canvas. After the ten count the challenger was carried back to his corner and smelling salts were required to revive him.
In his dressing room after the fight, Louis referred to Burman as a pretty tough guy and told reporters that the final body shot was one of the hardest punches that he had ever landed.
In February of that year, Gus Dorazio of Philadelphia was invited to join the club. Dorazio had a record of 50 wins, 9 losses with only 3 of those losses by KO. He had lost to the likes of Billy Conn and Arturo Godoy but he had beaten Bob Pastor and the aforementioned Al McCoy in previous bouts. He fought from a half crouch with a bobbing and weaving style. Just like the previous inductees, he was not expected to be much competition for the Brown Bomber. This bout was considered such a mismatch that a State Senator had threatened a legislative investigation into the fight. When Dorazio heard of this, he responded by stating that he would look for the Senator during the fight and knock Louis right onto his lap. Unfortunately for Dorazio, the Senator was right.
15,902 people showed up on the 17th of February 1941 at the Convention Hall in Philadelphia to witness the mismatch. True to his style, Dorazio came out in the first round in a crouched position so low that his head almost touched the canvas. In this position he would make Louis miss with many of his punches but that was about all the success he had in this fight. The first round featured a champion content with feeling out his opponent, sticking out his left jab and throwing the occasional left hook. Whenever Dorazio came in close, Louis more than matched him with his own inside fighting.
This pattern continued into the first minute of the second round when suddenly Dorazio straighten up and rushed forward at Louis. That was all the opportunity that the Brown Bomber needed and as quick as a flash he unleashed a short right to the challenger’s jaw. Down went Dorazio and the fight was over at one minute thirty seconds of the second round.
After the fight was over, Louis was quoted as saying of his challenger, “At least he tried”. That was about all that could be said of the over-matched Dorazio.
March’s opponent was the giant 6’4’, 255lb Abe Simon of New York. He had a record of 34 wins, 7 losses with only 1 of those losses coming as a result of a KO, at the hands of fellow giant Buddy Baer. Amongst his opponents were Lou Nova, who he’d lost to on points and Jersey Joe Walcott whom he’d knocked out a year previously. The common consensus of this fight was that Simon would be lucky to last five rounds with the champion. This view was not shared by Louis’s trainer, Jack Blackburn, who stated that, “I look for Joe to knock him out, but he ain’t gonna have near the easy time doing it that a lot of folks think”. Despite Blackburn’s wise words the odds makers made Louis a 1-4 favorite to end the fight within five rounds.
On the 21st of March 1941 at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, 18,908 fans showed up to watch an entertaining fight. The experts appeared to be right on the mark, when in the first round Joe floored Simon with a right to the jaw. Simon quickly climbed to his feet and the fight continued. By the end of the round both fighters were trading savage body shots. In the next couple of rounds the challenger was successful in pumping his jab into the champion’s face and seemed to be getting the better of Louis when suddenly Joe threw a right and a left to Simon’s jaw. For the second time in the fight, Simon was on the canvas. He quickly assumed a kneeling position, winked at his corner and arose when the count reached eight. The next three rounds were back and forth with both fighters having their moments; Simon’s primary weapon being the left jab to the face of Louis.
It was in the seventh round that Joe showed Simon why he was the champion. Two rights to the jaw of the challenger forced him to hold on. Louis then pounded Simon with a left and a right to the head, which resulted in another attempt to clinch from the challenger. This time Joe neatly stepped out of the way and Simon fell to the canvas. He was on his feet immediately only to be greeted by a series of right hands. He absorbed the punches well and was fighting back by the end of the round. In all Simon was hit flush to the head at least ten times in this round without being knocked down. His ability to absorb the Brown Bomber’s best punches was earning him respect from the crowd.
The next four rounds were relatively close with Louis coming forward, stalking his prey, throwing lefts and rights at the challenger’s head and Simon for the most part retreating behind his left jab. Generally, the champion did have the better of these rounds but it was by no means one-way traffic.
In the twelfth round Louis almost floored Simon again with a powerful right to the jaw, but Simon, as game as they come, fought back. Near the end of the round the challenger took another hard right to the head and went into full retreat mode with Louis hot on his trail. It was the beginning of the end for the courageous challenger. Louis came out in the thirteenth round with knockout on his mind. First, he unleashed a right hand that floored Simon for a count of nine. Five more punches to the jaw and Simon was down again for another count of nine. When he arose Joe hammered him with a left hook to the jaw. The punch caused Simon to completely lose his senses and he turned his back on the champion and stared out at the crowd with a dazed smile on his face. Louis cocked his right arm, but instead of throwing it at his helpless opponent he looked over at the referee. At that point referee Sam Hennessy stopped the fight at 1 minute 20 seconds of the round and declared Joe Louis the winner.
Next up was Tony Musto. Due to his short, stocky build (5’ 7 ½”, 198lbs) he was known as the “baby tank”. He had a record of 28 wins 10 losses, with only 1 of those losses coming by KO, which was actually stopped due to a nasty cut. The bout was originally scheduled to occur in Cleveland on April the 2nd 1941 but the Cleveland Boxing Commission refused the fight on the grounds that they didn’t think it was a fair contest. As a result the fight was rescheduled for April the 8th 1941 in St. Louis.
As was the case prior to the Simon bout, Louis was a 1-4 favorite to KO his opponent within five rounds. Musto was thought to have no chance against the champion, however he did fight from a crouch, a style that had previously been proven to give Louis problems. As with three of the four previous fights, Musto defied the odds and gave Louis a much tougher fight than many people had expected.
From the onset of the fight Musto came straight at Louis, crouching so low he almost touched the canvas. The first six rounds of the fight were closely contested with each fighter giving and taking punches.
In the third round Musto temporary stood up out of his crouch and was instantly decked by a left hook to the jaw. He bounced back up before the timekeeper reached the count of one and in the resulting exchange landed several left hooks to the head of Louis. By the end of the round, both champion and challenger were exchanging punches. In the fifth and sixth rounds Musto had the better of the action, particularly in the sixth, where he swarmed all over the champion throwing lefts and rights, forcing Joe to retreat.
From the seventh round onwards Louis took control of the fight and methodically carved up the still crouching Musto with his left jab. The fight was eventually stopped at 1 min 36 sec of the ninth round. At that point Musto was still on his feet and eager to continue however his face had been cut to ribbons. It was obvious to everyone in attendance that Musto was a beaten man.
Following the fight, referee Arthur Donovan declared that Louis had seen better days. Many people in the boxing fraternity agreed, and soon afterwards Louis’s manager was bombarded with requests from fight managers throughout the country hoping to get their fighters a shot at the championship.
The next fighter to be given an opportunity at the championship was Buddy Baer, Max Baer’s brother. At 6’6 ½” and 237 lbs, Baer was a giant of a man. He had a record of 50 wins, 45 by knockout, with 5 losses with only 1 of those losses coming by KO. He had previously knocked out contenders Tony Galento and Abe Simon. As was the case with his previous five opponents, Louis was the overwhelming favorite and there was little betting on the fight.
A crowd of 35,000 showed up in Washington DC on the 23rd of May 1941 to see the fight. Again Louis’s challenger defied expectations and provided the champion with a particularly tough fight in which he was knocked out of the ring, he bled and at times was forced to hold onto the challenger.
Joe came out in the first and seemed to be in control of the fight, hitting Baer with lefts and rights to the head. Undeterred, Baer came forward and shocked the crowd when he landed a left hook to the champion’s head that caused Louis to fall backwards, through the ropes and onto the ring apron, narrowly avoiding falling into press row. Louis climbed to his knees and was back in the ring by the count of four.
In the second round, showing no ill effects of the knockdown, Louis took control of the fight and hammered Baer around the ring. The third round featured Louis still generally in control of the fight, however Baer did have some success late in the round when he forced Joe to the ropes with a barrage of rights to the head. The result of which caused a swelling over the champion’s left eye. Louis won the fourth round, but again Baer managed to land several rights to Louis’s head, which forced the Joe to hold on.
In the fifth round Baer fought inspired. Louis began the round by hammering the challenger to the head with two left hooks that he took without flinching. Baer’s response was to return the favor, which resulted in blood starting to appear around Louis’s left eye. Inspired by this sight, Baer came forward and slammed several punches to Louis’s head that forced the champion to clinch. Louis appeared to be in serious trouble. Suddenly, like a switch had gone off in Louis’s head, he came forward and hammered Baer’s head repeatedly with a series of lefts and rights. Baer’s balance seemed to waver but he managed to remain upright.
Louis came out in the sixth with blood on his mind and rocked Baer with a series of lefts and rights. Baer started to trade punches when BOOM! Louis landed a right to Baer’s head that floored Baer for a count of seven. Never one to let a wounded opponent of the hook, Louis stalked his challenger and let loose with a left and right to Baer’s head that sent him crashing to the canvas. The fight appeared to be over! Somehow Baer managed to clamber to his feet by the count of nine. By now the crowd was in a frenzy and the noise was deafening. Louis came forward to finish off his challenger. It was about this time that the bell rang to end the round, nobody appeared to hear it, least of all Louis who unleashed a right that almost decapitated Baer. Baer’s seconds ran into the ring and dragged their downed fighter to his corner. During the minutes break they worked on him furiously. By the time the seventh round was due to begin it was obvious that Baer had not recovered from the beating that he had taken in the previous round.
When the bell rang to start the seventh round, Ancil Hoffman, Baer’s manager, stood in front of his fighter, who remained seated on his stool. Referee Arthur Donovan waved Hoffman away and told him to get out of the ring. Hoffman refused, claiming that Baer had been fouled, insisting that the last punch had occurred after the bell. Again, Donovan ordered Hoffman to leave the ring. Again he refused, so Donovan disqualified Baer and announced Louis the winner of the fight on a technicality. There was no outrage from the crowd only applause. They realized that the better fighter had won the bout.
Due to an appeal by Hoffman, the District of Columbia Boxing Commission launched an investigation to examine the ending of the fight. It was determined that the final punch had been delivered several seconds after the round was over. Unfortunately for Baer, they were unable to reverse the decision due to a commission rule that stated that a referee’s decision, once given, cannot be changed.
This is where I’m going to end my article regarding the “Bum Of The Month Club”. Yes, Billy Conn was next in line, and yes, it was scheduled for the very next month, however Conn wasn’t expected to be a pushover and he was never considered a bum.
So back to the question posed at the start of this article. Has history been fair to these fighters? One thing that was obvious to many was that, although only 27 years old, this was not the same Joe Louis of a few years earlier. He could be made to miss wildly and he was also vulnerable to being cut. No longer did he have his lightning speed that had made him the destroyer of the past. He was now more like a heavy bomber, slower but still extremely destructive if he was able to release his payload on target. It has been shown that, despite Louis being an overwhelming favorite for all of these fights, five of the six men had extended the champion further than most people had expected them to. None of the challengers had been expected to hear the bell for the end of round five yet four of these so-called bums had achieved that feat. So were these fighters bums? It is of this writer’s opinion that anyone who could last more than a few rounds with a fighter of Joe Louis’s caliber should never be considered a bum by anybody. To finish of this article I think it is fitting to end it the way I started it with the wise words of legendary trainer Angelo Dundee:
“I resent that because if a kid’s a fighter, he can’t be a bum. You’ve gotta be a special individual to be a fighter. I blow my stack when I hear that because it’s one on one; anything can happen. Any bum can get lucky. There’s no bum of the month.”