News April 2012

Who wins mythical fight: Muhammad Ali vs Brown Bomber

12.04.12

Could “The Brown Bomber” have beaten “The Greatest”?

By Michael J. Jones

Ali with Sugar and Joe

The question of who was the greatest heavyweight champion of all time is still to this day causing frequent debates among fight fans. Could a prime George Foreman have licked a peak Mike Tyson? Would Rocky Marciano have been too small to compete with the Klitschko brothers, so much taller and heavier than “The Rock”?

Although the discussions continue, most agree Muhammad Ali was the best heavyweight boxer who ever laced-on gloves. Not only was Ali a three-time heavyweight champion, the hugely-charismatic “Louisville Lip” fought a virtual who’s who of contenders and champions in the golden age of heavyweight boxing.

Before retiring for good in 1981 with a 56-5 (37) record, Ali had fought and beaten several fighters who themselves are featured in many expert’s heavyweight top ten. Ali’s dazzling blend of speed, skill and bravery saw off the likes of murderous-punching Sonny Liston, human wrecking machine George Foreman and scores of other talented contenders in a near-faultless career blighted only by the legendary fighter’s inability to leave the sport before sad losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.

Many fans and experts point to both Mike Tyson and Rocky Marciano as prize-fighters who could have given Ali tough fights, maybe even have beaten him. While I don’t doubt a prime Tyson had the style and speed to give a peak Muhammad a decent test, the fact remains to this day; “Iron Mike” never prevailed in a tough fight when his back was against the wall. Ali, as brave and durable as he was brash, did so many times (many even attribute this fact to the ill-health that ravishes the former champion to this day).
Rocky was short, strong and bullish like Joe Frazier who famously provided Ali with his first defeat in the “Fight of the Century”. Rocky, who retired with a perfect 49-0 (43) record, would have pushed Ali all the way, but it is hard to envision the “Brockton Blockbuster” actually winning the fight. Ali’s fast, slashing punches, would have had the smaller man’s face cut to ribbons within a few rounds.

The only fighter, in this writer’s opinion, who could have defeated a prime Muhammad Ali was a fellow legend and another champion who transcended the sport; Joe Louis.
Louis, born Joseph Louis Barrow, was heavyweight champion for an astonishing 11 years and 8 months, making 25 straight title defences. The two records stand to this day; if Louis hadn’t have been so actively involved in touring duties during World War II, the figures could have been even more.

Joe Louis was a formidable fighter at his peak, not to mention a national hero. Blessed with solid boxing skills, a hard, authoritive left jab and crunching power, Joe was never beaten in his prime from 1937-1941, when he took time out from boxing to fight dozen’s of exhibition bouts for troops fighting in the War. Louis’ record was an outstanding 68-3 (54), his losses to all-time-greats Max Schmeling, Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano (the latter two defeats coming at the tail end of “The Brown Bomber’s” career).

Note: there are many variants of Joe Louis’ record due to the fact that many of his bouts were exhibitions over ten-rounds, making it hard to tell conclusively whether it was a real fight or not.

Despite his incredible achievements, there are still many common misconceptions about “The Brown Bomber” to the majority of casual fight fans. Before we analyse an Ali-Louis contest, let’s break down some of the myths surrounding Joe Louis.

1) Joe Louis was too slow as a fighter

Joe Louis, trained by Jack Blackburn, stood a shade under 6ft 2ins and usually weighed around the 200lb mark. In terms of footwork, Louis could appear shuffling whilst on the attack. Not exactly light on his toes, Louis none-the-less had respectable movement that could cut off the ring to launch blistering attacks to body and head. While Joe would edge into position to strike, his hand-speed could reach an opponent from virtually any range. A ram-rod jab would set up either an explosive right hand or left hook.

Louis’ flat feet were exposed a little against speedy fighters in Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott, yet he still triumphed in both contests. Once an opponent would show any weakness, or slow down a shade, Louis would pounce. A prime Louis never let a foe off the hook once they had been initially hurt.

2) Joe Louis never fought anybody great

It is unquestionable Louis’ list of opponents doesn’t read quite as impressively as that of Ali but he still fought some very good fighters. Primo Carnera and Max Baer were both former world heavyweight champions when Louis destroyed them on his march to the title. Baer had never been stopped but was target practise for Joe, who won easily in four, terribly one-sided, rounds.

After suffering his first taste of defeat to German former champion Max Schmeling, Louis added Jack Sharkey to his list of stoppage victims before claiming the world heavyweight championship against James J. Braddock in 1937. Braddock, the legendary “Cinderella Man”, was a cagey and experienced fighter who hadn’t been beaten in years before Louis came off the canvas to stop him with a single right-hand in the eight. It was only the defending champion’s second stoppage defeat in his long career; the first had been on a cut-eye six years previously.

During his near-twelve year title reign, the new champion defended against all comers; nobody was ducked or avoided in what became known as Louis’ “Bum a Month Club”. They may not have been out-and-out legends Louis was beating, but the likes of Welshman Tommy Farr, Schmeling (butchered in the very first round of their highly-anticipated rematch) and former light-heavyweight champion Billy Conn, were all top-rated fighters at the time. Other contenders vanquished by the young champion were; Arturo Godoy, Buddy Baer and Lou Nova.

3) Joe Louis wouldn’t have been able to touch Ali because of the Billy Conn fight

By far, the greatest misconception when analysing the career of Louis was his bout with Billy Conn. The legend goes that light-punching “Pittsburgh Kid” Conn boxed rings around Louis, making the 18th defence of his crown, to forge a big lead on the cards before foolishly trading with the bigger, stronger, champion and getting stopped. This isn’t quite true.

Firstly, let us point out that Conn was at his absolute peak at 23-years-old, 59-9-1 (13) and had only vacated the light-heavyweight championship a year before his heavyweight title shot. Before fighting Joe, Conn had gone 7-0 (5) in his heavyweight campaign, beating top contenders Bob Pastor and Lee Savold. He had more-than earned his shot in the higher division.

Although in the fight Billy was out-weighed by 25lbs, he was almost the same height as Joe at 6ft 1ins. Rarely mentioned in accounts of this fight either is Billy Conn’s durability; before his first fight with the champion, Conn had suffered just one stoppage defeat in 69 pro bouts. The lone stoppage loss occured seven years earlier when Billy, aged 17-years-old and then a lightweight, bizarrely quit on his stool after the third stanza of a six-rounder against Pete Leone (there was no apparent injury at the time of his corner retirement).

The Billy Conn that fought Joe Louis fought the fight of his life. From the start, Billy used lateral movement to stay a hair away from the big-punching champion. Conn was elusive, but also took the odd punch that caught him flush. By round twelve, Billy held a slight lead when he opened up on his stalking foe. A flurry of hooks from either hand set up a massive left hook that exploded onto Louis’ unprotected jaw. The champion was staggered but held on until the bell. It was a big round for Conn, who was ahead by scores of 7-5 and 7-4-1 on two of the judge’s cards (even on the third) after a dozen completed rounds; hardly the massive points deficit many have been lead to believe over the years.

At the start of the thirteenth round, Billy tried to finish the champion off but by midway through the round the younger man was taking a fierce beating, finally getting dumped on the canvas by two heavy rights. It was a memorable fight and one of the all-time great heavyweight contests.

It may have been Louis underestimated Billy, maybe just had an off-night while the Pittsburgh-native had one of his best. Whatever the reasoning; Louis still won against a very good fighter.

The two fought a rematch five years later. Both men had slowed after losing some of their best years during World War II, but Joe had more left and stopped his friend and former foe in eight one-sided rounds.

4) Joe Louis had a poor chin

The great Sugar Ray Robinson, a close friend of Louis, once said his buddy would have been an even greater fighter if his balance had been better. Joe constantly sought the knockout whether it was the first or fifteenth round; it’s why he was so exciting to watch. He didn’t wade in with his hands down, everything was controlled off the jab and if he couldn’t reach the head he’d sink in sickening punches downstairs. He could be caught and, off-balance or not, be dropped.

Of the ten career knock-downs Louis suffered, two were in his first loss to Schmeling and five came at the tail end of his career; three came from two fights with Jersey Joe Walcott and two in his last, heart-breaking loss to a young Rocky Marciano.
The other three knockdowns came in world title fights vs Braddock, “Two Tonne” Tony Galento and Buddy Baer. All three knockdowns were of the flash variety and Louis stopped all three with ease after climbing off the canvas.

Joe Louis was only stopped twice in 71 pro bouts; early in his career by Schmeling and in his final bout against Marciano. Max Schmeling devised a game-plan to launch his pet right-hand over the young contender’s low-held left hand. The result was devastating; Louis was dropped heavily in the fourth and took a beating until finally being floored and counted out in the twelfth round. Louis learned from his loss and wouldn’t be beaten again for over thirteen years.

Old, washed-up Joe was a shadow of his former self when he took on the relentless Marciano at Madison Square Garden some fifteen years later (in his last contest). Fighting for the eighth time that year (1951) the 36-year-old former champion used his jab to good effect early in the fight. By the eighth session, with Marciano slightly ahead (one judge had it just 4-3 in rounds to “The Rock”) the younger man’s extra youth and fitness started to take over. Poor Joe, who should have retired at least five years earlier, was dropped twice in the concluding round. The final knock-down came via a monstrous right hand that dropped the aging champion heavily, leaving him draped through the lower ropes. Referee Ruby Goldstein didn’t bother to count and there wasn’t a dry-eye in the house; even Rocky wept at his fallen idol.

Louis could be dropped, but to say he was chinny or glass jawed is an injustice. In his prime, Louis only ever rose to win from trips to the canvas and was only ever stopped after sustained beatings before and after his peak years.

Why Joe Louis would have been dangerous for Ali

Joe Louis’ greatest attribute was his numbing power. He could hit like a mule with either hand and didn’t seem to need much space or leverage to blast in powerful punches. Louis’ punching-power was so great, many opponents’ were almost comedy-like in getting knocked-out. Many durable, granite-jawed contenders crumbled under Joe’s awesome artillery, whether a fighter was 174lbs like Billy Conn or over 250lbs like Carnera, Buddy Baer and Abe Simon; all stoppage victims of the heavy-handed champion.
Whenever Muhammad Ali met big punchers, none had the arsenal or intelligence of Joe Louis. Sonny Liston, a little past his best when he took on the-then Cassius Clay, didn’t have the variety of shots or hand-speed to catch his younger, faster, foe. Remember also that prior to Ali’s upset-stoppage victory, Liston had only fought one round in 17 months since winning the title off Floyd Patterson. He completely underestimated his brash young foe and paid the price.

Similarly, George Foreman was a monster of a fighter when he met “The Greatest” but could anyone imagine Joe Louis throwing punch after punch with the wild abandon Foreman did in “The Rumble in the Jungle”? Louis wouldn’t have wasted punches like George or burned out after five or six rounds.

Ali never seemed to struggle against aggressive, heavy-handed types of fighter. The boxers who tested the 6ft 3ins Ali were usually smaller, faster contenders. The prime example of this was when Ali was dropped heavily by Henry Cooper, 6ft 1ins and weighing 185½lbs, before rallying to stop the brave Brit on cuts. Eight months later Ali was toying with Liston and a star was born.

The fight before the Cooper contest, Ali also won a highly contentious decision over another smaller heavyweight in Doug Jones. Jones pushed the young contender all the way, losing by just one round on two of the judges cards. Jones weighed just 188lbs. Ali also had his hands full in a 1966 title defence vs Germany’s Karl Mildenberger, meeting stout resistance against the speedy southpaw before forcing a stoppage in the twelfth round. Mildenberger was just 195lbs but more than held his own for the majority of the contest.

After making his ring-return in 1970, the slower version of “The Greatest” met fewer of the smaller, faster variety of contender but did have three titanic battles with Joe Frazier, who relied on work-rate and a constant left hook to win the first and remain competitive in the subsequent two bouts. The series concluded with the famous “Thrilla in Manila”, of course.

Joe Louis was 6ft 2ins and usually weighed around 200lbs at his peak. He was a smaller heavyweight by today’s standards but only an inch shorter and approximately ten lbs lighter than Ali. Louis was quick of hand and slick, but carried far greater fire-power than other fighters his size. In terms of one-punch knockout power he was ahead of both Joe Frazier and Henry Cooper and on-par with Liston and Foreman.

Muhammad Ali had few weaknesses but one ‘Achilles heel’ was he was always open to the left hook. The punch contributed to three of the four career knock-downs suffered in the champion’s 61-fight career (to Sonny Banks, Cooper and Frazier). The three-time heavyweight champion was enormously durable, but never met a fighter with the natural KO instincts, punch selection and finishing skills of Joe Louis, who also had a peach of a left hook.

Who would have prevailed at their respective peaks?

This fight would have been an absolute classic; not only were the two fighters well matched in the ring but out of it they were polar opposites. The build up and intrigue would have been immense; the fight would have been a world-stopping occasion.

Firstly, I don’t think Ali would have simply boxed Louis’ head off; Joe was too smart to be dominated. Muhammad was an under-rated puncher, yet I don’t think he had the one-punch knockout power of either Max Schmeling or Marciano, so a conclusive stoppage win in his favour also has to be ruled out.

The first half of the fight would be easy to predict with Ali on his toes bouncing around, stopping to land quick flurries of punches to the head of Louis. Joe would stalk and patiently wait for any opening. I think Louis’ slower, but much harder, jab would have caught Ali and made him think on his feet. By half way the fight would have seen Ali forge a slight lead on the judges’ scorecards but it is the second half of the fight that becomes interesting; would Ali have stayed one step ahead of Louis throughout the fight or would Louis at some point tagged Ali with a few crisp shots and unloaded to take over? Ali was a far bigger target than Billy Conn to hit and Joe Louis was a more complete fighter than anyone Muhammad ever faced in his prime.

I sense Ali would have just about edged Louis in a fight where neither could settle and had to be at their absolute best form for the full route. I also think if there had been a knock-down along the way it would have come from Louis with a well-timed counter right or lead left-hook. The scores would have been close by the final bell after a terrific battle of wills between the pair.

The 70’s incarnation of Ali would have been beaten by the peak Louis. If only a fraction of the hooks that Joe Frazier landed to the chin of Ali had been that of Louis’ it would never have gone fifteen rounds; it probably wouldn’t have gone five.

The only remaining question? Could Ali have won a rematch against a fighter who was 10-0 (8) against former opponents who had pushed, dropped or, in Max Schmeling’s case, beaten him? We will never know for sure but it will always be open to debate.

Footnote; Joe Louis became great friends with Billy Conn after their first fight. The two toured together during World War II and remained friends for many years. In 1963 the two men were enjoying lunch together in a diner one day when Ali, then Cassius Clay, heard a rumour the retired champion was in town and quickly sped over to heckle Joe.
Clay walked in shouting “hey old Joe Louis, if you were fightin’ nowadays I would have whooped you, I’m the greatest of all time.” The rant went on until Joe calmly stood up and, with many spectator’s gathered around said “young man...if you even dreamed you could have beaten me, you’d wake up apologising.” Those gathered around broke into laughter and even Ali was chuckling at the quip. “You’re crazy old man” he said as he left.

Ali would use the line many times through the remainder of his career. There was a healthy rivalry between the two men all the way through “The Greatest’s” career.

When Louis passed away in 1981 after a long illness, Ali was quoted as saying “I called myself the greatest, but Joe Louis really was the greatest.”



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