- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington has hosted a number of nationally televised fights of late, placing it in the boxing spotlight. Over the years, the Washington area has hosted some major title fights — some more successful than others.

The fight for the heavyweight championship, though — the biggest event in boxing before the drought that has ruined the division recently — has only been staged in Washington a few times.

There was Muhammad Ali’s title defense against Jimmy Young at the Capital Centre in April 1976, followed up by another forgettable Ali defense at the Capital Centre against Alfredo Evangelista in May 1977. Both drew about 12,000 fans. There was Riddick Bowe’s defense against Jesse Ferguson at RFK Stadium in May 1993, which reportedly drew 12,000 spectators.

But 75 years ago Monday, Washington hosted one of the most memorable heavyweight title fights of that era — a fight that legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote was “one of the most exciting heavyweight title fights” in history.

It was a fight in which 24,000 people at Griffith Stadium saw the great Joe Louis nearly get knocked out in the first round.

Griffith Stadium hosted the heavyweight title showdown between the champion Louis, 27, and challenger Buddy Baer, 26, the brother of the more famous Max Baer, who had already lost to Louis by knockout following an upset loss to Jim Braddock in 1935 made famous by the film “Cinderella Man.”

Baer had just fought in Washington six weeks earlier in April against “Two Ton” Tony Galento, stopping him in seven rounds reportedly before a standing-room only crowd of 10,000 at the Uline Arena.

As is the case with fight week, Washington became the center of the sports world for the week leading up to the bout. Baer, who would weigh 236 pounds for the fight, set up training camp at a farm in Olney, Maryland, while Louis, at 202 pounds, trained at Riverside Stadium, which was since demolished to make room for The Kennedy Center.

Baer was the clear underdog going into the fight and was viewed as a novelty as Max’s brother. In a column leading up the fight, The Washington Star’s Francis E. Stan wrote about his visit to Baer’s training camp in Olney.

Baer was asleep in a room with a group of writers when his trainer, Izzy Klein, woke him up. Baer smiled and welcomed reporters, which drew a response from his press agent, Harry Mendel.

“He’s the best natured fighter I ever saw,” Mendel said. “Can you imagine [Jack] Dempsey waking up to a roomful of people just before a championship fight and grinning?”

Baer seemed too good-natured to be a fighter. Stan wrote, “Even his best friends think that Buddy doesn’t care much for fighting.”

Ancil Hoffman, Baer’s manager, told Stan, “The first time I saw Buddy, I wouldn’t have given a nickel for him. He was a big, fat, moon-faced kid who wanted to be a plumber. When he got so big, he weighed 285 pounds [and] he had to give up plumbing because he couldn’t get under a house.”

The Star reported that “members of the District boxing commission made a hurried trip to Olney for an 11th hour check on the challenger, and were satisfied with the result. Buddy, they were convinced, is ready to give the champion a run for the marbles.”

Baer began fighting in 1934 and was 53-5 when he faced Louis. Despite being a heavy underdog, Rice gave Baer a puncher’s chance.

“He isn’t good enough to turn the show into a boxing match and wait his time,” Rice wrote in a column leading up to the bout. “He must find an early spot before he has absorbed too much ring nitroglycerin. His main mental approach must be along the lines of assault, not defense.”

Rice turned out to be prophetic.

Baer, a 10-1 underdog, pummeled Louis early, knocking him through the ropes on the field at Griffith Stadium within two minutes of the first round.

Baer charged after Louis like an enraged bull seeing red when the champion, dazed and wondering, climbed back into the dueling pit,” the Star’s Lewis Atchinson wrote; the dueling pit, of course, being the ring. “He clubbed Louis with ponderous lefts and rights, rushed him in the ropes and fell upon him like a hopped up drummer in a swing cat band.”

(Tell me that isn’t one of the great comparisons in sports writing history.)

Louis plainly was in distress,” Atchison wrote. “Here was the heavyweight toga changing hands in one of the ring’s most dramatic moments as Baer’s fists pounded out a heavy rhythm in time with the excited gutural of the mob.

“Suddenly Buddy stopped. … Louis looked at him bewilderedly as Buddy strode toward his corner and his seconds began to place his stool in the rain with puzzled expressions,” Atchinson wrote. “Referee Arthur Donovan [the father of future NFL Hall of Famer Artie Donovan] looked from one to the other fighter with unfeigned dumbness. The roar of the crowd subsided in mute mystery. The bell hadn’t rung and the round wasn’t over, although Baer evidently thought it was. Donovan waved them to gather again, shooing Baer seconds away from his corner, and in that split second Louis regains the strength and presence of mind to meet this grave blustering challenge of his supremacy. In that one fleeting second the heavyweight title with its pot of gold slipped through Buddy’s nimble fingers. He had the crown within his grasp one moment, and the next it was gone.”

The fight ended in dramatic and controversial fashion at the end of the sixth round when Baer, after getting knocked down twice, was hit again by Louis and went down one more time — but after the bell had sounded to end the round.

Baer’s corner — which included Ray Arcel, who years later would be Roberto Duran’s trainer — protested and refused to let their fighter return for the seventh round. They argued Louis should be disqualified and Baer declared the winner. After the fight, Donovan insisted the final punch landed before the bell.

“I told them to clear out of the ring or I’d disqualify Baer,” said Donovan, who would referee 23 of Louis‘ title defenses. “What did they want me to do — give them the title on a foul? It was for the heavyweight championship of the world, not just another fight.”

Baer told reporters after the fight that despite getting knocked down three times, “He really didn’t hurt me. I got up, didn’t I? And I was ready to come out for the seventh if they had let me. I could have gone the full distance.”

Stan wrote that Louis said, “He didn’t hear the bell. We wouldn’t doubt his word. That gong was the one thing promoter [Mike] Jacobs didn’t bring down from New York. He used the local contraption, which undoubtedly was bought at the 5 and 10 store.”

Louis reportedly made $36,866 for his night’s work, while Baer was paid $10,843. Baer declared he wanted a rematch “right away, tomorrow if possible, right here in this ballpark.”

Jacobs said a rematch at Griffith Stadium was possible in October, and there was a rematch — in January 1942 at Madison Square Garden. Louis, who fought seven times in 1941, had fought twice since his first bout with Baer, stopping Billy Conn in a legendary bout in which Conn was winning but got knocked out with two seconds left in the 13th round, and then beat Lou Nova.

In the rematch, Louis knocked Baer out in what was a charity bout for the Navy Relief Society. That would be the end of Baer’s career.

Louis would enter the service for World War II and fight exhibitions. He would return from the service and fight until retiring in 1949, but returned a year later to fight and lose to Ezzard Charles. Because of financial problems, Louis continued to box until being knocked out by Rocky Marciano in 1951.

Louis would make a sad return to Washington in March 1956 in his debut as a professional wrestler at Uline Arena.

His 1941 appearance is far more memorable — perhaps the biggest boxing moment this town has ever seen.

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