Lou Nova vs. Max Baer 1939-1941

By Norman Marcus on August 23, 2012
Lou Nova vs. Max Baer 1939-1941
Lou Nova, who twice fought and beat Max Baer, was an amazing character in his own right.

Nova was good-looking and the ladies loved him. He had a good right hand, which he called his “cosmic punch…”

“Sometimes a guy just has your number…”

What is it about some guys? They seem to pop up at the worst possible times and wreck all your plains. Lou Nova had that role in the career of Max Baer. The ex-heavyweight champion of the world had been on a five-year mission to get another shot at Joe Louis and the heavyweight title. But every time Baer got on a roll and seemed about to get into a ring with Joe, Lou Nova would show up and play the spoiler. Nova, aka the Alameda Assassin, always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lou Nova was a heavyweight contender but never won the title. He is a fading memory in boxing history. Let’s take a look at him, where he came from, and what he was all about in the 1930s.

Nova was good-looking and the ladies loved him. He had a good right hand, which he called his “cosmic punch.” It could put you down at any time. He was a boxer who worked at his craft. He was a good counterpuncher and the only heavyweight contender who practiced yoga and deep breathing exercises before his fights. Nova had a 75-inch wingspan and liked to work inside, using body shots to slow his man down. Lou reportedly did a 30-minute headstand in his dressing room the night of his fight with Joe Louis. He claimed that the blood rushing to his head before a fight cleared his mind. (“He not only has to worry my muscle,” Nova said, “he has to fight my mind.”) He was an amazing character in his own right.

Jay L. Nova was born in Los Angeles, California on March 16, 1913. He became the U.S. and World Amateur Boxing Champion in 1935. He won his first 22 pro fights.

On December 16, 1938 at Madison Square Garden in New York, Lou beat Tommy Farr on points over 15 rounds. Nova had Farr TKO’d against the ropes in the 14th round, but referee Eddie Joseph’s count stopped at two when Tommy rallied to finish the round and go the distance. The victory over Farr, a world ranked contender, led to Lou’s next fight with the “Livermore Larruper” Max Baer.

The two men met on June 1, 1939 at Yankee Stadium, in the first fight ever televised by CBS in New York City. Former champ Jimmy Braddock was in Nova’s corner that night. Braddock, who had beaten Max for the title in 1935, had imparted all his secret knowledge about Baer to Nova. Max had an 81-inch wingspan and, unlike Lou, could throw bombs from a far distance. Baer also had super wide shoulders that enabled him to swing those long arms around with a lot of juice on them. His friend Jack Dempsey had taught him to pivot from his waist when he threw a punch, to take advantage of his big upper body. So wide were Max’s shoulders that he had to turn sideways to pass through a doorway.

Nova, unlike Baer, was an excellent boxer and followed Braddock’s advice to the letter. It paid off. Nova opened up a bad cut on the inside of Baer’s bottom lip midway through the fight. Max was covered in his own blood by the end of the 10th round. Both men had been standing and landing shots on each other. The left side of Baer’s face was so swollen and battered that he was almost unrecognizable. He had swallowed so much of his own blood that he could hardly breath. Max lost the fight. “Too much Nova-caine” Baer joked. Referee Frank Fullam stopped the bout on cuts in the 11th round, a TKO for Nova. Ironically, Baer was ahead on points when the fight was stopped. After this loss to Nova, Baer would have to wait, yet again, for that rematch with Joe Louis.

Lou’s next opponent was “Two Ton” Tony Galento at Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia on September 15, 1939. Tony was the number one ranked contender that year. Now this was one of the dirtiest fights of the decade. Galento, aka the New Jersey Nightstick, knew all the tricks and made use of them. Backhand blows, head butts, eye gouging, you name it—and Lou was the recipient. The referee was the respected George Blake but even he couldn’t keep this fight kosher. Nova was thumbed in the eye so many times by Galento that he was virtually blind in his right eye by the seventh round. The Ring magazine’s Nat Fleischer described the bout as “One of the most disgraceful fights staged since the days of barroom brawls. Referee George Blake would have retained his reputation as a great referee had he disqualified Galento.” In the 14th round the fight was given to Galento on a TKO. The Ring reported that the final blow was another foul by Two Ton Tony. Nova was taken to the nearest hospital after the fight. He took almost a year to recover. The doctors were amazed that he kept not only his sight in the right eye but the eye itself! Some experts say that Nova was never the same fighter after having been brutalized by Galento. Something had gone out of the man. Nova had lost his edge.

A year later on July 2, 1940, Baer defeated the same Tony Galento by TKO at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. Tony fought dirty again but Baer split Galento’s lip early on and Tony couldn’t answer the bell for the eighth round. This time it was Galento who swallowed too much of his own blood.

After his fight with Tony, Max told the New York Times, “Sure I want another chance at the title. You fellows say I’m a bum, but I can hit, and any man I hit is apt to go out. Great a fighter as Louis is, there is always a chance that my right will put me right back in the championship.”

When Louis and Baer saw each other in Baer’s dressing room after the Galento fight, Max told Louis, “I want another chance.” The Times reported that Louis answered, “You can have it in September.” Promoter Mike Jacobs and Baer’s manager Ancil Hoffman shook hands for a fight in Chicago in the fall. “I’m still a pretty good puncher and if I can tag Louis with my right hand, I’ll be the champ again,” Baer told Mike Nichols of the New York Times. “I showed you fellows last night that I could fight and I’ll want to fight when I get into the ring again with Louis.”

The fight never happened. Jacobs instead demanded that Baer face Nova again and this time emerge the winner, before stepping in the ring with Joe Louis.

On April 4, 1941, Lou Nova and Max Baer met a second time. The fight took place at Madison Square Garden and over 20,000 people showed up to see the rematch. Arthur Donovan was the referee, as he was in many of the big fights of this era. In round four Max knocked Nova down for a one-count. When Nova got to his feet he was wobbly and appeared to be on “Queer Street,” as they used to say. He had been staggered by the same right hand that had been lights out in 1933 for Max Schmeling. But Baer didn’t press his advantage this night. Perhaps the thought of Frankie Campbell, the boxer Max had knocked out and killed in 1930, made him pause. Or maybe time was just catching up with him. He couldn’t connect with Lou’s chin again before the fight was over. In fact Nova caught Baer twice in the eighth round, the first time for a nine-count and another knockdown for a short count of one. It was enough for Arthur Donovan; he stopped the fight again on cuts. It was a TKO for Nova, this time in the eighth round. The shot at the champ would now go to Lou. Nova would meet the Brown Bomber in September.

Baer retired that night, packed his bags and went home to Sacramento. Max was only thirty-two years old. He finished with a record of 66-13 (51 KOs). He is best remembered for his TKO win over Max Schmeling in 1933, The Ring’s Fight of the Year, and for his having lost the title in 1935 to the “Cinderella Man” Jimmy Braddock.

Nova’s career reached its peak when he met Joe Louis on September 29, 1941, at the old Polo Grounds in Brooklyn. The bout went just six rounds. There was no snap to Nova’s punches that night, no bounce in his step. He was finally knocked down at the end of the sixth round. Referee Donovan stopped the fight and awarded a TKO to Louis. According to Nat Fleischer, Nova took a terrible beating: “The end was controversial because the fight was stopped with just one second left in the round when Nova arose unsteadily from the knockdown.” The judges gave all six rounds to Joe Louis.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Max Baer vs Lou Nova, I

Max Baer vs. Lou Nova - II - Part 1 of 2

Max Baer vs. Lou Nova - II - Part 2 of 2

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  1. NICOLAS 10:36pm, 06/01/2017

    Wow, egg, I guess you are new to this site, and commenting on an article when this site was really great,which is not as good as it used to be, and we had more cordial comments and some diplomacy. Now this site has gotten to the nastiness almost as bad as Eastside boxing. Perhaps not as bad though. Your comment is well taken. At the time though New York like Las Vegas in later years was the mecca of boxing. I am also sure that there was a lot more money to be made in New York then there was in San Francisco. When you wanted to be3 someone, not only did you have to come to the US if you were from a foreign country, but you also had to go back east if you were living out west.

  2. rgg 08:09pm, 06/01/2017

    What’s so unusual about this rivalry…. Baer was at the time from Livermore, and Nova was from Alameda… both are medium sized towns in Alameda County, California whose largest city is Oakland.

    For two Alameda County fighters, the San Francisco Civic Auditorium would’ve been a natural for them… Instead they fought their battles in the East Coast.

  3. nicolas 01:26am, 01/30/2013

    Fight Collector: I have to take exception to your comment about Louis fighting worthy challengers. First of all, did he really fight worthy contenders even going on the way. Lou Nova and Max Baer hardly have any black fighters on there resume, I think they like Louis at the time avoided them. Even up to the time of Nova’s rise he never fought a black fighter before he fought Louis.  On the way up did not fight Leroy Haynes or Jack Trammel, or Obie Walker, a fighter many said guys like Louis and Schmeling and Braddock wanted nothing to do with. During Louis’s championship rein he never gave title shots to Roscoe Toles, Turkey Thompson or Lem Franklin, who was ranked at one time number two by ring magazine at the end of 1940.  Why did Louis give Tami Mauriello a title shot but not Jimmy Bivins when he came back from service. Bivins had beaten Mariello and was unbeaten for most of the war years. Yes he fought Bivins later, when Bivins had already lost some over 20 fights, but it was not really by a big margin, and they were both past there best years. Jack Johnson was accused of using the color line when he was champion, but Louis was really not that much better. At least Johnson had to defeat guys like Sam Langford, Sam McVey and Joe Jeanrette on the way up. finally think about this, yes Louis did give John Henry Louis a shot at the title, the light heavy weight champ, but when he finally defended against Walcott, has it ever been mentioned that Walcott, who gave Louis hell, was actually a little older than Joe? I will not say that Louis would not have beaten these black fighters I mentioned, but like Jack Dempsey, sometimes I think we forget that Louis was only a little bit better.

  4. FightFilmCollector 12:38pm, 01/29/2013

    Excellent article.  Nova was a very good boxer, but he was also durable as hell.  Max clocked him good a number of times in their first fight, but Lou kept coming.  Still, I believe Max was the better man that night and would have one the first fight had he not been cut.  The story reminds us that the contender fights of the era were plenty exciting, and Louis had his fair share of worthy challengers.

  5. Mike Casey 07:47am, 08/30/2012

    Late getting to this one, Norm - very good article on Lou and Maxie.

  6. AaronT 07:08pm, 08/27/2012

    It’s an interesting analysis of what went on during the fight against Galento. It seems the damage was more than just ‘flesh-deep’.  Equally interesting is how the article points out that Nova ‘used to’ take pride on fighting not just with his body but with his mind. We can all rest assured now that yoga and headstands are california soft BS

  7. nick 09:38am, 08/27/2012

    Great article. I remember hearing that Galento said that Nova always was bitter for the rest of his life at Galento, would always ignore him when Galento tried to say hello. The one thing I did not like about Nova, he used to do TV commentary on Kick Boxing matches, was that in the late 70’s, of all the contenders, he only felt that Ken Norton was good, and that all the other guys he would have beaten easily. Funny when we look at the late 70’s as perhaps the greatest era of the heavyweight division.

  8. Bob 05:57pm, 08/26/2012

    Wonderful article and insight into two most interesting and unique fighters, Nova and Baer. Great piece of work here.

  9. Jack Louis 10:21pm, 08/24/2012

    Great read as usual, comments just as good. If the street is queer does that it a gayborhood/ ?

  10. the thresher 01:59pm, 08/24/2012

    That’s why I like living where I do. No seat belts. No trans fat rules re: food. I can pack a gun or clip knife and keep it hidden. In short, f—k political correctness and f—k zero tolerance. However, we do have a “Queer Street” here in town—-just saying.

  11. Norm Marcus 01:47pm, 08/24/2012

    FrankinDallas: You made my day. When I read your comment about “Queer Street” I couldn’t stop laughing. I could just see Teddy Atlas in my mind—hilarious! You know it makes us realize in our politically correct world today how things have changed.
    Reminds me of an English girl I dated in college. One night as I dropped her off at her home she said “Don’t forget to knock me up next Saturday!” The language is definitely changing!
    Glad you liked the story.

  12. AndyPapoj 12:51pm, 08/24/2012

    Queer Street comes from the origin of Carey Street in London, where the bankruptcy court was in London in the 1800s. It was corrupted to Queer Street at a later date and used to cover things other than financial ruin, such as a fighter taking a beating. Good article here.

  13. Evan 12:45pm, 08/24/2012

    I once read that Lou Nova practiced yoga. The first major fighter to do so. Nice read.

  14. FrankinDallas 12:41pm, 08/24/2012

    LOL “Queer Street” I love that phrase. Wonder what would happen now if Teddy Atlas, during a FNF telecast, started screaming “Stop the fight, he’s on Queer Street!”

  15. Doc Ellis 12:41pm, 08/24/2012

    My grandfather knew Nova out in California after he finished his career. Great guy, very funny, loved to horse around. Thanks for the story.

  16. the thresher 06:12am, 08/24/2012

    Really fine piece of work here and important historical knowledge for the young fans and young writers out there.

  17. JimmyD 05:06am, 08/24/2012

    Maybe Jacobs saw something in Baer that he feared and he was protecting Louis. Maybe Baer could’ve reclaimed the title with one big right hand if he got the shot. It wasn’t to be. Baer’s only shot at Louis came with broken hands. Great article Mr. Marcus.

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