Lou Nova’s Finest Moment

By Pete Ehrmann on September 29, 2014
Lou Nova’s Finest Moment
Dr. von Kleinsmid wasn't your ordinary academic snob. He helped popularize eugenics.

Boxing has had plenty of high-brow, double-domed defenders through the years, from George Bernard Shaw to Joyce Carol Oates…

As all interviews with Nova are bound to do sooner or later, the discussion got around to the strange theories that come spilling out of the mind of this strangest of heavyweight boxers—his “cosmic punch,” his idea that he had learned to punch with gravity instead of against it [,] and his supreme confidence.

                                          – New York Post, August 15, 1941

Twice on this date in history the lights went out for Lou Nova. On September 29, 1941, Joe Louis stopped him in the sixth round of their heavyweight title fight in New York City. Exactly 50 years later, cancer put 76-year-old Nova down for good.

Nowadays Nova is mostly remembered as the guy Tony Galento almost killed with his fists and thumbs in their 1939 bout; and, as in the above quote, the moonbeam whose training for the Louis fight included standing on his head and other yoga rituals imparted by Dr. Pierre Arnold Bernard, whose real name was Perry Baker and whom the press derided as “Oom the Omnipotent.”

An entire chapter is devoted to Nova in Robert Love’s hugely entertaining 2010 biography of Bernard, “The Great Oom: The Improbably Birth of Yoga in American.” It recounts that Nova hooked up with the famous yogi before Lou’s 1939 fight with Max Baer, and how what started out as a publicity stunt to hype interest in the fight became to Nova an integral part of his life and career. “He practiced meditation and headstands before each contest,” says Love, “and put himself into such deep pre-bout trances that his handlers had to scream in his ear to get his attention.”

(Love’s most mind-boggling revelation: That after drawing Nova into the fold, Bernard hoped to also convert Tony Galento to the ancient art. It never happened, but what fun it is to picture the Jersey Beer-Barrel grinding out his asanas.)

Many of Nova’s detractors in the press felt threatened by boxers who considered themselves at least as smart as the reporters that wrote about them, and were palpably relieved when a Louis right hand put Lou in a fight-ending trance at the Polo Grounds. That proved he was just a flake after all.

Nova proved he wasn’t in 1945, after he retired from boxing with a record of 49-9-5. It happened when there was talk of holding the long-awaited heavyweight title rematch between Joe Louis and Billy Conn at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home of the University of Southern California football team — a prospect immediately shot down by the president of USC with a name and face straight out of a Marx Brothers film — Rufus B. von Kleinsmid.

According to Dr. von Kleinsmid, that would be akin hosting a revival of the disgusting, bloody spectacles involving ancient Roman gladiators.

Herr von Kleinsmid wasn’t your ordinary academic snob. In addition to presiding over USC, he was a noted social scientist and a guru of the “Human Betterment Foundation,” which according to the Los Angeles Times in 2003 “hoped to direct the fate of the human race” by forcibly sterilizing more than 20,000 patients in California mental institutions and “helped popularize eugenics [a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed — Merriam-Webster] around the world, including Nazi Germany.” Then-Gov. Gray Davis issued an apology to victims of the HBF’s machinations.

Whether von Kleinsmid equated boxers with mental defectives (and it’s not such a wild guess that he did), his arrogant pronouncement putting the Memorial Coliseum off-limits to Joe Louis and Billy Conn made no bones about his contempt for them.

“He has a noodle that would fit a man of 40,” Dr. Pierre Bernard once said of Lou Nova (to whom he gave the mystical name “Paramahamsa” — “He who has achieved perfect balance of mind, body and spirit”) and it was Nova who now rose up to take the imperious Dr. von Kleinsmid to the woodshed.

Boxing has had plenty of high-brow, double-domed defenders through the years, from George Bernard Shaw to Joyce Carol Oates, but no one hit it out of the park the way Nova did in a speech at the Will Rogers Optimist club in Beverly Hills.

“I believe I can speak with authority,” he said, “because I have been a college man [Nova had attended Sacramento Community College] and I have been a prize fighter. This professor (von Kleinsmid) is sponsoring hatred against a clean profession. Boxers lead a cleaner life than college students. I know — I have been both.

“From what I’ve seen of college boys, I’d say boxers could teach his students something about clean living.”

Citing the entertainment provided by both Louis and Conn in benefit sparring matches at military bases during World War II, Nova said, “I don’t recall ever reading where a professor gave a benefit performance for the boys.”

Did some boxers end up punch-drunk? Sure, said Lou, winding up with the haymaker that made headlines around the country the next day — “but I have found there are just as many punch-drunk professors — or maybe I should say ‘education happy.’”

Nova challenged Dr. von Kleinsmid to debate him at the Memorial Coliseum about whether boxing or higher education had been a bigger boon to society. The eugenics czar didn’t budge from his ivory tower, but back at the ashram Oom the Omnipotent probably did a unyogalike handspring or two.

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