What it was like to fight Joe Louis

Louis v. Roper

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In nearly 12 years as heavyweight champion, Joe Louis met few challengers who could seriously test him. One, Nathan Mann, was knocked to the canvas several times before going down for good in the third round. Afterward, reporters asked him why he hadn’t taken longer counts to clear his head. “I didn’t know I was down,” Mann said. “Was I?” Another, Red Burman, stopped in the fifth, put it philosophically: “I was doing all right until I was knocked out.” And Jack Roper, dispatched in one round, memorably explained his performance by saying, “I zigged when I should've zagged.” It was as good an explanation as any.

Even the sparring partners could find it discouraging. "It's his eyes when you're in the ring with him,” one said of Louis. “They’re blank and staring, always watching you. Always that blank look--that's what gets you down.”

One of the best ways to get noticed in boxing in the 1930s and 1940s was to give Louis a reasonable battle. “Some fellows put up better fights than others and are invited back again,” wrote the New York Times’s John Kieran, of the handful of foes who got rematches with Louis. But no one was invited back more often than the great trainer Ray Arcel, who worked the corner for 14 Louis challengers. "It was about the fifth or sixth fight I had against Louis," Arcel remembered years later, "and when I took my fighter to the middle of the ring for instructions, Joe looks at me and says: 'You here again?’”

Above:  Joe Louis v. Max Schmelling II.  —> Watch