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Joe Louis and the 'Bum of the Month' - Oh yeah?

Fact or fiction? The so called "Bum of the Month"


By John J. Raspanti

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Joe Louis world heavyweight champion.jpg
Joe Louis world heavyweight champion.jpg

The first time I heard the term "The Bum of the Month” was when my late father, in the midst of talking about his favorite fighter, Joe Louis, mentioned it.


I was about seven. My dad grew up in Chicago and boxed in the Golden Gloves. He loved Louis. Listened to every one of his fights on the radio. Lived and died with “The Brown Bomber.”


Being Italian, openly supporting a black fighter was not the most popular thing to do the ’30s and ’40s, but Dad didn’t care. Louis was the man. Period.   


Dad was telling me how Louis, early in his career, had fought every month from December 1940 to June, 1941. Seven months, seven fights. Nowadays, we’re lucky to see one of the champs fight twice a year.


I was intrigued.


Dad said, The media called it, "The Bum of the Month Club’.”


Then he added this caveat, “None of them were really bums. It’s just that he (Louis) was so much better.”


I hate it when the term "bum” and a fighter are used in proximity. To me, anyone who has the guts to get in a ring and throw hands with another man deserves respect. Boxers begin their career with a dream, and are likely the only ones who can see it happening. Their life is a crazy one, with many ups and downs and the fear of being disabled or, for that matter, dying threatening the future. 


Only a small percentage cash big checks. But there are many who work very hard, for little money, and take the risk in search of the ultimate prize.


It was obvious that Louis was an elite fighter. He had won the heavyweight title in 1937 by dispatching the “Cinderella Man,” Jimmy Braddock, in eight brutal rounds. His one round destruction of former titleholder, Max Schmeling, was perhaps his most enjoyable. Schmeling had knocked out the seemingly invincible Louis in 1936.


Louis told reporters at the time, “I won’t consider myself a proper world champion until I beat Schmeling.”  Louis accomplished the feat in two minutes and four seconds. His victory was explosive and definitive.


When he began what I’ll call “The Contender of the Month” campaign, he had made 11 successful title defenses.


His first fight was against Al McCoy in Boston. McCoy had defeated former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran, and contenders Natie Brown, Bob Olin, Nathan Mann, and Buddy Knox, over the course of his career. He wasn’t ranked in the (top-10) top ten but he was hardly an unknown before meeting Louis.  McCoy (69-16, 47 KOs) had lost by decision to up-and-comer Billy Conn. McCoy was game, but Louis stopped him after round five.


Next up was tough Red Burman (73-16, 30 KOs). Burman worked with the legendary Jack Dempsey before the fight. His game was body punching. He was told to stay low, since a crouch had given Louis problems in the past. Burman attacked Louis throughout the match, landing a left hook that drew blood in the opening stanza. He landed more shots, standing toe-to-toe with the champion, but by round five, Louis was attacking the body puncher’s belly. Three pulverizing shots left Burman immobile on the ropes and in no shape to continue. Louis told the Associated Press after the fight,


“He really came after me. I had to hit him the hardest I ever hit a man.”


Louis ventured to Philadelphia three weeks later to fight Gus Dorazio. The hometown hero entered the ring with a record of 49 wins in 58 fights. His biggest victory had been over third ranking contender, Bob Pastor. Dorazio employed a crouch as well, but a hook to the ribs in round two straightened him up. A combination ended things a few seconds later.  


Next up was big Abe Simon, ranked number six. in Detroit. Simon had been stopped by fellow giant Buddy Baer a few years before, but rebounded to knock out future heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott 13 months prior to meeting Louis.


Many thought Louis, fighting in his native Detroit for the first time in two years, would have an easy time against the hulking Simon, Louis trainer Jack Blackburn disagreed. He predicted a knockout victory for his charge, but also a tough fight. Blackburn was right on both counts. Simon found success with his jab, peppering Louis consistently. He was floored multiple times, showing the heart of a lion before finally succumbing in round 13.


One would think after such a grueling affair that Louis would go on a vacation and rest. Nope. Seventeen days after defeating Simon, Louis battled Tony Musto (29-10, 8 KOs) who was short and built like a tank, but didn’t punch very hard. Louis was winning easily when the bout was halted in round nine due to a bad cut.  


Louis fought former heavyweight champion Max Baer’s, brother Buddy, all of his 6-foot-6, 237 pounds, in Washington, DC, on May 23, 1941. Baer, ranked number seven in the heavyweight division, had won 55 of 60 bouts, with 51 knockouts. Louis felt Baer’s power immediately. A left hook knocked him out of the ring in round one. Louis made it back into the ring by the count of four. He dropped Baer with a blistering right hand in round six. He beat the count only to be floored a second time.


Up at nine, and badly hurt, Baer tried to stay away from the on-rushing Louis. Another right collapsed him, but had it been after the bell? Baer was unable to continue. His manager, Ancil Hoffman, jumped in the ring and screamed at referee Artur Donovan that Louis should be disqualified. Donovan demurred and told Hoffman, and trainer Ray Arcel, to leave the ring. They refused. Donovan disqualified the unconscious Baer. It was later reported that the timekeeper had counted Baer out.


Louis had one more fight on his campaign. His opponent would be smaller, but with faster hands and feet. It’s a matter of conjecture to imagine how worn out the champion’s body was after six fights in six months, two of them hard bouts. Common sense would suggest it had to be. No matter, he was signed to fight Billy Conn on June 18, 1941.


Former light heavyweight champion Conn was flying high after knocking out Bob Pastor in 1940. Conn,23, had replaced Pastor as the number one ranked heavyweight. He entered his fight with Louis having had won 19 consecutive bouts. Never considered a very hard puncher, he made it a point of sitting down on his blows. The result was four straight knockouts. Conn, giving up close to 30 pounds, was extremely confident he could end the title reign of Louis, and for 12 rounds he proved it.


Ahead on two of three scorecards, all Conn needed to do was to bank another round and survive for six minutes. He could do that, but he wanted a knockout. Badly. How dramatic would that be? But his ambition would prove to be his undoing.  Instead of boxing, he stood toe-toe with Louis, exchanging shots.


A minute in, a Louis right hurt him. Conn battled, but Louis fired punches in bunches, until, with two seconds to go in the round, a final flurry floored Conn for the count.


Hardly "bums,” any of the seven fighters Louis boxed. Some were better than others, one even a Hall of Famer, but all put forth maximum effort when they got their chance to fight one of the greatest fighters who ever lived.


They say that respect is earned, not given. I say let’s give the seven men who fought Louis all the respect in the world, because you know what? They earned it.


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