The motley cast of characters who punctuated the Joe Louis’ early title reign.
As Joe Louis was coming up through the ranks and then again in the aftermath of his world title win one thing was always clear about the surging ‘Brown Bomber’ that he was better when he was active. Before he lost to Max Schmeling in 1936 he had a full five months out of the ring, although this seems normal today it was an anomaly for most top flight fighters at the time. Louis, relaxed in his position as the top contender to the crown that then belonged to Max Baer and spent more time hitting with five irons than hitting the heavy bag in preparation for the bout. Schmeling however was not playing golf but fighting and training, and after Louis lost the fight and therefore his shot at the title his management and trainer Jack Blackburn became obsessed with activity. Louis, to be at his best had to stay in camp permanently, always training always ready for the next bout.
Once Louis had won the title from the Baer conquering Jimmy Braddock and avenged his defeat to Schmeling there was no obvious next contender. Jack Blackburn and the promoters of the day began to find a weird and wonderful array of men to challenge for the heavyweight crown in order to keep Joe busy and cash in on his enormous fame and popularity. These opponents ranged from able to outmatched, from farcical undersized to gargantuanly overweight, some had four losses others had thirty. They became known to the newspapermen of New York the ‘Bum of the Month club’. Some of these men have compelling stories and are in of themselves amazing characters, these are some of the best.
The first man that fell foul of the now infamous club was Jack Roper. Born Clifford Bryan Hammond and brought up in the backwoods of Ponchatoula, Louisiana he changed his name to be more appealing to boxing fans to try and help him sell tickets as he turned Pro in 1924. Like many men of the era his decision was about money and turning a buck or two on the coattails of mega stars like Jack Dempsey, instantly turning pro despite his lack of skill. Roper lost his pro debut and never quite recovered the momentum he failed to gain that night against Charley Belanger in San Diego. He was 64-39-11 when he took on the newly crowned champion, an unflattering record for a heavyweight title challenger from any era. Despite his reputation as somewhat of a veteran by this point, famed mostly for his crafty ambidexterity Joe took only 140 seconds to separate Jack from his consciousness. “I zigged when I shoulda zagged!” Jack quipped when asked about his ill fated effort at glory. The fight was so one sided there was even a short campaign for an investigation as to why the fight was sanction in the first place, giving rise to the newspaper narrative of the ‘Bum on the Month’ club.
“Two-Ton” Tony Galento
Possibly the most famous alumni of the ‘Bum Of The Month Clubb’ ‘Two Ton’ Tony is an icon of the 1930’s boxing scene in America. At 5”9 and 240lbs the man shaped like a barrel was as much an entertainer as a boxer. He was famous for his New York wit, publicity stunts, bizarre tactics and culinary habits as he ever was for his brawling style or punishing left hook. Joe Louis was often compared to a wild animal for his killer instinct in the ring, but these animalistic traits would not phase Tony as by the time he fought Joe had had wrestled an octopus, a kangaroo and even a 550lbs grizzly bear as publicity stunts to promote his fights. His appetite too was legendary, he once ate 52 hotdogs before a fight as a bet, when he got to the changing room his waistline has expanded so much he no longer fit into his shorts! Drink too was a huge part of Tony’s diet exclusively trained (and often fought) fueled by beer and red wine from his bar the Nut Club. A normal meal for Tony was 6 whole chickens and spaghetti, a diet even modern nutritionists wouldn’t be brazen enough to try and sell. His gargantuan size meant that his sweat was also a weapon. He would go days before the fight unwashed to distract and put off his opponents, Max Baer described him as smelling of “rotten tuna and old liquor” something that doesn’t seem to far fetched looking at old Tony.
Tony was only 29 when he took on Louis despite looking like a man in his late 40’s and with a record of 76-23-5 he again seemed like a subpar challenger to the champion. He always had flare and charisma promoting the fight endlessly saying things like “Joe who? I never hoid of da bum” in his New York drawl. At the weigh ins he stated “I’m gonna moida him!” and however unlikely it may seem now it very nearly happened. Despite being on the end of a hellacious beating and being knocked down for the first time in his career in the second, in the third Tony winged a huge Left hook and clobbered the poised Louis knocking him down. In a scene all to familiar in 2019 but unheard of in most years in boxing a short fat man stood over a chiseled Adonis, unfortunately for Tony however he had simply poked a tiger with a stick. The ‘Brown Bomber’ rose to his feet and unleashed a hurricane of sledgehammer like blows that left the referee with no choice but to stop the fight. Gushing with blood from lacerations to his nose, eyes, mouth and cheeks Galento was inconsolable, despite the heartbreak however he would continue to fight until 1944 against top competition before retiring to his tend his bar.
Less than three months after the Galento fight Louis took on the relatively unknown Chilean Heavyweight Arturo Godoy. Another fighter deep into his career Godoy was 54-10-7 when he first took on Joe in February 1940 he was another contender billed as a “bum” by the New York press junkets despite having won his South American heavyweight title only a year earlier with a dominant win over Alberto Santiago Lovell, an Olympian who had beaten him in the past. A street kid in Iquique, Godoy had had many more fights than his record suggests starting with unlicensed bare knuckle fights for pennies.He steadily rose to fame across Latin America for his pugilistic prowess beating the first war horse of Argentinian boxing Louis Firpo before coming to america and defeating the aforementioned Tony Gelanto twice in eliminators. He was a huge star by the time he became a challenger to Louis and and the once street urchin had now married famous Argentine actress Leda Urbinati and was living a life of relative affluence.
This affluence did not however affect him in the fight and it was very much the Chilean brawler that stepped in the ring at Madison Square Garden. The fight was back and forth and despite his “Bum” billing he rose to the occasion and tested Louis, winning rounds and at the end of 15 even being called the winner by one of the judges. As boo’s aimed at Louis rang out he was mercifully saved by the referees scorecard that saw him win a Split decision against Godoy. Louis would later say he was demotivated by the lack of quality opponents and that he would get revenge on the resilient Chilean. His words were prophetic as four months and one fight later Louis would step back in with Godoy and force him to live up to his sub par billing. Joe dominated throughout their second encounter, using his piston jab and almost napoleonic ability to control the space in the ring to smash into Godoy and systematically break him down. The fight was stopped in the 8th round with Godoy simply annihilated by the all too powerful Louis. However, someone who the newspapers labeled a bum, a nobody, had gone out against the best heavyweight of the era and fought 23 rounds giving his all and proving his worth, hardly a “Bum” at all.
In between Godoy fights Joe would take on a man with a name that could not be more fitting as it reads just like the thing that acted as an incentive for most of these men to take the fight with Joe, the Paycheck. His began his boxing career on Chicago’s South Side and won the Golden Gloves heavyweight title in 1933 before moving to Des Moines Iowa and begin a bizarre double life of professional fighter and Bellboy. He started with 15 wins on the bounce against some tough veterans of the American small hall boxing scene including King Levinsky and Charley Belanger all while working his days hauling bags for tourists at the Hotel Chamberlain. It is in this first run where he inherits one of boxing’s most entertaining nicknames the “Corn Belt’s Pride”. If that wasn’t enough he began to tour the country taking several of depression era America’s toughest fighters and usually coming out on top. The 6 foot, 180lbs Paychek was a bizarre sight in the ring, awkward, balding and covered in scars he gave the impressions, like Gelanto, of a man 10 or 15 years his senior. He fought how he looked, rough. He had a slashing technique to his punches that would leave his opponents bruised and bloodied, coupled with the occasional elbow and thumb, fighting Johnny was a far from leisurely activity. He continued to win though and by the time he got his shot he was 41-4-1, a fairly well rounded record when compared to his club compatriots.
The fight however was far less interesting than Johnny’s career in the build up. Johnny ran around the ring like a man possessed, jumping on the balls of his feet zigging left to right in the way a nervous deer would when being stalked by a tiger. Louis of course was the predator to Paychek’s prey, following him, barley throwing anything just waiting for his chance to pounce. In the second round Johnny stopped on his feet for a split second and Louis found his distance with a wrecking ball right hand that in 2019 would have gone viral the world over. Johnny mainited his exact standing posture as he toppled, like felled tree he clattered into the canvas and his title dreams, were over.
The last notable fighter is the enigma known as Al McCoy. Born Fleurent Alfred Lebrasseur in Winslow, Kennebec County, Maine he took up boxing young and in a character trait shared by almost all of the so called “Bum’s” he proved pretty good at it. His father was French-Canadian and his mother Irish, legend has it he got his name from one and his fighting spirit from the other. His stage name however is somewhat more controversial with many saying it was a homage to the former middleweight champion who took on the likes of Harry Greb and others (he was actually called Al Rudolph) others argue it is an amalgamation of his middle name and his mother’s maiden name. However it came about it was a hit with punters and Al was soon fighting regularly in his newly adopted city of Boston where he became a fighting fixture. He was small, fighting normally as a light heavyweight but he also competed against middleweight and even the odd welterweight if they fancied the challenge, he amassed a staggering number of fights and with every fight more fans as crowds packed to see the showman of Boston who even in defeat was famed for his hardiness. He was only stopped once in the first part of his career in Montreal, a 6’1 French canadian Andre Lengle who out weighed him by 30lbs, ever the theatrical fighter he was he held the return bout only two weeks later but this time in Boston. With the ring mobbed by McCoy’s rapid Boston faithful, a Boston newspaper said McCoy had “dealt him the beating of his life”, much to the excitement of the baying fans at ringside. McCoy would then go on to be one of only a handful of people to beat the all time light heavyweight great Tommy Loughran before moving up to heavyweight and again drawing huge crowds in both winning and losing efforts against the likes of Bob Pastor and Billy Conn.
Seeing this level of excitement and desperate for new challenges to keep their man active it was not long before team Louis came knocking looking to make the fight. It was made but on one condition, the fight was to be held in Boston. It was the first ever heavyweight championship fight to be held in the city and 13,334 turned out to watch their man try and beat the invincible Joe Louis.The fighters where night and day on the scales, Joe Louis a chiseled 202lbs and Al a meger 181 with the build of a bar fighter more than an athlete, the fight however was another altogether more difficult story than most would predict. It seemed to be going to plan as Joe floored Al in the first but with a 116-30-20 record Al was nothing if not a veteran, from the second this happened he ducked and dived, bobbed and weaved, slipped and parried defending intelligently and surviving the fabled onslaught of the champion. Working out of a crouch in order to nullify Louis’ right hand it was said that from ringside it looked as though Al was ducking so low his head was sweeping down by the bottom of the champions shorts. Still losing and falling victim to Joe’s accurate jabs McCoy began to gamble throwing hard looping punches that mostly missed, one however slipped through. In the 5th round a hard right slammed into Joe’s chin , the Associated Press reporter at ringside said “[Al hit Joe] so hard on the chin that he blinked like a fellow just waking up from a nap”. This seemed to simply anger the ‘Brown Bomber’ who proceeded to enter 5th gear and begin a barrage of punches that created a swelling that shut McCoys eye, broke his rib and dropped him hard. Never one to quit Al rose to his feet staggered to his corner as the bell rang, however a combination of his trainer, the fight doctor and the referee refused to let him continue. The Journeyman of Boston, the hometown hero was vanquished but he’d done far better than anyone thought he could, proved how tough he really was. Not done yet McCoy was decorated for gallantry in the Second World War serving as a part of the US navy in the pacific, further adding to the complex story of a complex man.
There we have it, the “Bum of the Month Club”, the intriguing, complex, resilient, entertaining, exuberant, defiant, charismatic and skilled fighters all tarred with one brush. One always hears of Louis and Marciano, Ali and Frazier but rarely of the underdog, the fighting men who’s losing made it possible for great champions to be great.the club didn’t end with these men and; Buddy Baer, Red Burman,Gus Dorazio or Tony Musto could all have easily been included as they too challenged the great Joe Louis and they too fell short. Each one has a compelling story, because ultimately everyone, including everyone spoken about here, who chooses to make his life’s work the art of pugilism, of violence for entertainment is bound to have a story, and it’s bound to be a good one.
By Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx🥊
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