During a particular nine-month stretch, the great Joe Louis had a run of eight fights and won them all. Joe was a busy and determined man who was desperately seeking a crack at the world heavyweight championship. Earlier in Joe’s first year as a professional in 1934, he was unbeaten in 12 fights. In 1935, there were 11 more victories. And while Joe remained active in the years ahead and through his reign as heavyweight champion, he was never more active again until the year in question, which was Louis’ last year of fighting, 1951.
The Comeback Time Forgot
Joe had retired as heavyweight champion in 1948, then came back in 1950 and lost to Ezzard Charles. But Louis kept on fighting. A disgraceful and unjust levy of tax bills hounded Louis, and he drove his 37-year-old body through a gauntlet of eight fights.
These were dark days for the former champion, and a period of his career often brushed over. Most accounts note the Charles comeback fight and then skip directly to Joe’s heartbreaking knockout by Rocky Marciano a year later. What interested me were the bouts in-between. I wanted to learn more about those “lost” fights, to see how Louis looked, fought and prevailed in these final performances against an emerging division of heavyweights.
All of Louis’ fights in 1950-51 were broadcast on television, though several exclusively on closed-circuit which may not have been archived. Fortunately, several TV kinescopes survive as well as film footage. What I didn’t have in my collection, a fellow collector graciously provided me with additional material including Louis vs. Cesar Brion I (11/29/50), Freddie Beshore (1/3/51), Omelio Agramonte II (5/12/51), and Lee Savold (6/15/51).
The Elder Statesman
Joe Louis was a popular figure throughout his career and during his comeback as well. But by no stretch of the imagination did Louis resemble the champion of old, or even the weathered elder statesman who came from behind to pound Joe Walcott to the floor in his last fight as champion in 1948. The 1951 Louis was thicker and slower, and his face revealed every mile of his 37 years.
Louis said that he was overconfident and unprepared against Charles and believed that regaining the title was a matter of conditioning. In the bouts that followed, Joe trained hard and appeared cool and ready at each opening bell. But Joe’s performances were erratic. In November 1950, his first fight after Charles, Joe struggled with his timing against Cesar Brion, the Argentine champion and Rocky Marciano sparring partner.
Louis won a 10-round decision but “couldn’t get the combinations going.” Joe’s punching power had declined as well, and manifested only on the few occasions that year when the stars aligned and the entire Bomber package came together.
The respect for Louis is obvious in every fighter Joe faced, but with each passing round the opponents were more and more willing to fight in close and trade punches—suicide just a few years earlier. Remarkably Louis was never more than stunned in any of these fights, but the amount of punches he took as compared to his earlier fights is disturbing to watch.
In January, against Freddie Beshore, Louis rebounded and delivered a “savage beating” before Joe’s hometown crowd of 13,096 in Detroit. It was the comeback fight that Joe needed to get back on track.
Twice in 1951, Louis fought the kinetic Cuban heavyweight champion, Omelio Agramonte. Agramonte resembled a king-sized Kid Gavilan, and spent much of their first fight on the defensive. In their second fight, three months later, the Cuban upped his work rate and confidence. Louis found his mark though and dropped Agramonte for a nine count in the second round, but Omelio recovered and the fight went the distance.
In June, against veteran Lee Savold, it was again, “like old times” as Louis crushed the comparably aged 35-year-old former British champion in six rounds. Much promoted and twice postponed, Louis and Savold clashed at Madison Square Garden in New York on June 15. Savold forced the fight, but was battered as he repeatedly came straight in to Louis, whose left jab and hook packed plenty of power and snap. The fight was enough of a sensation that the films were later replayed in movie theatres.
By this point plans were in the works for a Louis-Charles return match to be held that September. But it was not in the cards. That July, Joe Walcott put a royal flush upside Ezzard Charles’ head in the seventh round of their third fight to take the heavyweight title. It was perhaps heartening for Louis to foresee a title fight with Walcott, a man he had defeated several years earlier, but Louis would have to wait his turn again.
Louis at the Alamo
In the meantime, Louis met Cesar Brion for a return match on August 8 and won a 10-round decision. Fourteen days later Joe stalked and chased Jimmy Bivins for 10 rounds. Joe cut loose at the finish, but the power wasn’t there and Joe settled for a decision win. The inevitable fight now loomed. If Louis was to remain in contention, and silence his critics, he would have to beat a top contender. That contender was Rocky Marciano, a fighter of great promise, but still considered untested. The “make or break” fight was held on October 26, and we know the result, which sent Louis into retirement for good.
A Lion in Winter
This video shows excerpts from the above mentioned fights. I made adjustments to contrast and audio, but otherwise the images are close to what viewers witnessed during the original TV broadcasts. Enjoy this look at the late career highlights of Joe Louis.