- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

Even if Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis had engaged in fisticuffs at MCI Center, the affair might have had trouble matching the District's first heavyweight title bout 61 long years ago for sheer nuttiness. All it lacked was the kind of prefight brawl in which Tyson specializes.
The bout featured heavyweight champion Joe Louis, making his 17th title defense, against hulking nonentity Jacob "Buddy" Baer at Griffith Stadium on May 23, 1941. This was Louis' fifth bout of 1941 in what was derisively called his "Bum of the Month" campaign. Baer fit that description, except for a couple of golden moments on the way to a walloping defeat.
At 25, Baer was two years younger than Louis and dwarfed the stolid champion at 6 feet 6 and 237 pounds. But he was slow of hand and foot, presumably making him an easy target for Joe's pulverizing punches. Louis was an 8-1 favorite, but there was little action in betting circles. Some observers figured Buddy had gotten the title shot mainly because he was the younger brother of former champion Max Baer, a Louis victim six years earlier.
Many well-known members of the black community from Washington and points south flocked into town for the fight. Said Louis: "People here in the South are expecting a lot of me, and I want to do all right for them. They've been hearing I'm a great guy, and I don't want to let them down. Folks are coming all the way from Alabama and Georgia, and I gotta do good."
Louis' manager, the wily Jack Blackburn, predicted, "Joe will know how to handle this guy. If Buddy behaves and don't get too tough right away, Joe might not get too tough, either. But the first time Joe figures he'd better get rid of that big guy before something bad happens, it ain't gonna last long."
Well, yes and no. Something bad did happen to Louis, and quickly, but it took him a while to close the deal.
Midway through the first round, Baer stunned Louis, and 23,912 paying eyewitnesses, with a left hook that knocked the champion out of the ring and practically into the lap of Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich. Louis was back into the ring at the count of four, but there was a glint in his eye and a snarl on his lips. The damage had been done to both fighters.
"As I saw him coming back into the ring, I said, 'My God, what have I done?'" Baer recalled years later. It was an appropriate lament. For most of the next five rounds, Louis pummeled Buddy unmercifully. But the challenger made up for his lack of boxing skills with endurance and courage.
In the fifth round, Baer launched another surprise a right that opened a gash over Louis' left eye. Brushing the blood out of the eye several times, Louis went after Baer harder than ever. The champion knocked him down three times in the sixth, the last with a punch that appeared to come seconds after the bell.
Asked afterward if the sight of his own gore dripping onto the canvas had angered him, Louis replied, "Well, it didn't do Buddy any good."
As handlers dragged the inert fighter back to his corner "as cold as 40 quarts of ice cream," according to one report Baer's wizened little manager, Ancil Hoffman, hopped into the ring and commenced screaming at famed referee Arthur Donovan about "down-and-out robbery" perpetrated against his pug.
"Get out of here," Donovan shouted above the roar of the crowd. "Get out of here or I'll disqualify your man."
Baer's manager stayed, yowling. At the bell, Louis advanced to mid-ring and found no opponent there except Hoffman. Meanwhile, Baer, a man of amazing recuperative powers, was on his feet in his corner, ready to absorb more punishment. But Donovan waved his arms, signaling that the fight was over.
Officially, it was a seventh-round TKO for Louis. For his pains, Baer earned $10,843. Louis' share of the purse was $36,866.
Said Baer after the bout, speaking in the argot of the times: "Joe's a great fighter and a credit to his race but he hit me after the bell."
Hoffman was somewhat more emphatic. Into a network radio microphone, he screamed the classic complaint of losing managers: "We wuz robbed," or words to that effect. Actually, though, he might have been pulling off a brilliant strategem designed to lessen the impact of his fighter's defeat an early example of spinning, as it were.
"He was saving his man from an inevitable knockout, beclouding the issue and salvaging from the mess … a popular return bout," Povich wrote perceptively two days after the bout.
And so he was. The two met again Jan. 9, 1942, and this time it really was no contest. Louis, taking no chances, knocked out Baer in the first round at New York's Madison Square Garden.
There was sort of a local aftermath, too. A week after the bout here, the D.C. Boxing Commission scheduled an inquiry at which Donovan was expected to testify. But the referee, who inexplicably had been imported from New York to work the fight, blew off the commission by saying bad flying weather made it impossible for him to attend. End of inquiry.
Although Muhammad Ali outpointed Jimmy Young and Alfredo Evangelista in title fights at Landover's Capital Centre in the 1970s, there would not be another heavyweight title fight in the District until 1993, when Riddick Bowe knocked out Jesse Ferguson in the second round at RFK Stadium. And who knows when the next one will be, now that Tyson and Lewis have taken their business to Memphis?

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide