The Stylists: Why Joe Louis Was Unique

By Mike Casey on April 4, 2013
The Stylists: Why Joe Louis Was Unique
He couldn't be specifically categorized. It was his uniqueness that made him so special.

Why is it that Joe Louis isn’t more greatly studied and at least impersonated by the hopeful heavyweights of today? Why is the Louis style still unique?

Rising all the way up the ranks from copy boy to famed writer and columnist, Gene Ward almost become part of the furniture at the New York Daily News, where he spent forty-six years. Ward was an avid boxing fan and a very good and knowledgeable writer on the fight game

He was also a great student of the turf, covering twenty-nine consecutive Kentucky Derbies and was no less efficient and engaging when he turned his attention to football and hockey.

Back in 1960, Ward was highly amused when he overheard a couple of guys trying to describe the boxing style of Joe Louis. One fellow summed up the Brown Bomber as an aggressive counterpuncher. His pal insisted that Joe was a two-fisted slugger.

Gene Ward felt the urge to put the record straight. Very simply, he argued that Louis couldn’t be specifically categorized. It was Joe’s uniqueness in this area that made him so special.

“Louis had many imitators,” Ward explained, “but none came close to copying what, in actuality, was a perfect blend of several fistic styles. Rocky Marciano, for instance, was a slugging, two-fisted fighter and can be placed in no other category. Henry Armstrong was a go-go-go type who parlayed pressure and stamina for his ring successes.

“They called Jake LaMotta the Bronx Bull and it was the perfect nickname for a fighter with a bulling style.

“Some are slicksters, some are spoilers and many adapt the best and the worst ingredients of several styles. They are the hodge-podge fighters.

“Ray Robinson was a boxer-puncher pure and simple, and the ‘was’ is intentional because over-the-hill Sugar now has turned more and more to slugging in the twilight of his career, winging his punches as so many have done when their reflexes deteriorate. His idea now is to try for a quick knockout, since age has taken its toll and he no longer can depend on speed and cleverness.

“But not Louis. He never changed. Even on the night that Marciano maced him into the ring apron at Madison Square Garden, Joe’s methodical style, with its upright stance and snapping short punches, remained unchanged. And the jab, the basic weapon in his arsenal, retained all the old bruising power. Rocky’s battered face was testimony to that.”

As Ward pointed out, it was a case of maximum and deadly economy with the Bomber: “There was nothing flashy about Louis’ style. He was a dead-panned stalker who wasted nothing in fancy-Dan moves or desultory sparring. He was geared and gaited for destruction.

“Certainly he was aggressive and he could counter punch. Also he could slug, and his two-fisted flurries were barrages in which more solid blows were unleashed than the average fighter throws in a full round. But his slugging was not slugging in the modern connotation of the word, because it was harnessed and controlled with almost machine-like precision.

“Sometimes it was the cumulative effect of the Louis punches which beat his victim rather than any one blow or series of blows. But more often than not, it was the sequence of his socking which created the havoc. By punching to the body, he would force the opponent to drop his guard and leave the way open for an attack to the head.

“This is old-stuff strategy, of course, but none used it quite as well as Louis, at least none of the moderns. Stanley Ketchel probably was his equal as a two-fisted hitter, but he was of the slam-bang school and developed his power from an open stance.

“There isn’t a fighter in action today who uses anything remotely resembling the Louis style or the Louis blend of styles. Sonny Liston has a power-packed jab, but he employs it far less effectively because he throws it from longer range and from a less compact stance.”

Important

It was at this point that Gene Ward made two important observations: “To find the Louis lookalike as to style, one would have to go back to Jack Johnson. And to find artists of the short punch, blows that never traveled more than a foot, and seldom that, one would have to go back to Sam Langford and Bob Fitzsimmons.”

In identifying Stanley Ketchel, Jack Johnson, Sam Langford and Bob Fitzsimmons, Ward names four of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters of all time. Ketchel was a natural born puncher who generated his great power from wide shoulders, beautifully muscled arms, a generous stance and a wealth of natural talent.

His stamina was exceptional and his sense of balance was extraordinary. Damon Runyon wrote of him: “Ketchel had a curious style as his own. He fought from a widespread stance. He was a slam-bang type of fighter, driving in with desperate courage, and he had a peculiar shift, so that if he fired with one hand and missed, he could let go with the other hand without losing his balance. Ketchel didn’t bother much with the fine scientific points of boxing. He just tore in and let both hands rip.”

Jack Johnson’s expansive set of skills was magnificent. Wonderfully athletic, he possessed great intuition and foresight and was constantly inventive. His reflexes were super quick and he could block an opponent’s punches before they arrived at the target. His talent for avoiding blows was enhanced by his fencer-like, on-guard stance, which played havoc with his opponent’s ability to judge the correct punching range.

Johnson did not possess the knockout power of Louis, but the Galveston Giant was still a very hurtful and quick hitter. His balance and punching leverage were top notch and he was a great jabber.

A genuine student of the game, Jack was a master craftsman constantly seeking to improve his game. Through hard work and diligence, he made his naturally weaker left arm almost as powerful as his right. The mechanics of the game were everything to Johnson, yet he never looked mechanical.

Langford

Sam Langford, in his best form, was also beautifully economical. Sam wouldn’t throw a punch unless he was sure in his own mind that he could hit the target. Apparently he never had a formal boxing lesson, but he was a thirsty student who learned much from his idol, Joe Gans.

Broadway Charley Rose, the veteran boxer, trainer and manager, saw all the great heavyweights up until his death in 1974 and would not budge on his choice of Langford as the greatest fighter he had seen among the elite of the heavyweights. That is some compliment when one considers that Sam was never more than a middleweight with lofty aspirations.

Rose said: “Sam Langford was the greatest fighting machine I have seen. He could box, he could hit, he could out-think his rivals and display the most consummate ring generalship the sport yet has seen.

“When Langford hit you on the button, there was no need to wait and count over the fallen fighter. I remember when he stopped Al Kubiak in New York. He belted Al with his famous right, and as Kubiak toppled, Sam left the ring. He knew that the fight was over.”

Langford’s physique was astonishing. For while Sam stood just 5’ 7’’, he was a quick and agile powerhouse. Broad shouldered and deep in the chest, he also possessed incredibly long arms that consistently fooled opponents who thought they were out of his punching range.

Sam was able to take full advantage of these physical gifts. His speed in the ring was frequently described as “phenomenal” and he was a thunderous puncher. His stamina was never questioned and his boxing brain was as sharp as that of Ray Robinson or any other fighter in history.

While Langford used lightweight maestro Joe Gans as his guiding light, Gans worshipped at the altar of Bob Fitzsimmons, the mighty triple weight world champion who was arguably the template for all things to come. Gans got himself a job at Fitz’s training camp and watched the great man for hours.

Scientist

A true scientist of the game whose knowledge of punching technique was unmatched, freckled Bob made a habit of incapacitating far bigger men.

“Fitzsimmons was the greatest short punch hitter I ever saw,” said Jim Jeffries. “He could sure snap them in with a jar. You remember how everyone thought he knocked Jim Corbett out with a solar plexus punch? Well, old Fitz told me years afterwards that he didn’t hit Corbett in the pit of the stomach at all.

“He got Corbett to leave an opening, shifted and just stiffened his left arm out and caught Corbett on the edge of the ribs on the right side of the solar plexus, to drive the ribs in with the punch. I used the same punch on Corbett myself in San Francisco, and you remember how he went down. That was Bob’s greatest punch and nobody else ever learned to use it the way he did.”

The young Joe Gans ditched his job in the Baltimore fish market when he got word that Fitz was staging a roadshow and taking on anyone who would fight him. Night after night, the eager and fascinated Gans studied Bob’s moves.

Finally, Joe plucked up the courage to approach Fitz and engage him in conversation. Bob liked what he saw and heard. He recognized at once that Gans was a willing and intelligent student and imparted much invaluable advice to the youngster in their time together.

What Joe saw fascinated him. He believed Fitz to be the master strategist of the ring, in a league of his own. He was cunning, versatile and thought out every punch and maneuver. And still he was holding back and not showing all his cards. Gans, for all the brilliance he saw in Bob, was convinced that the Cornish wonder was keeping his aces craftily tucked up his sleeve.

McCoy

The great Kid McCoy, who would wreak havoc among the middleweights and light-heavyweights, was no less entranced by the workings of the Fitzsimmons mind. So eager was the Kid to learn from Fitz that he took a job as the great man’s dishwasher before progressing to the prized role of sparring partner.

McCoy had a devilish and deceitful mind of his own and was determined to equal and surpass Bob as the fox of the roped square by playing him at his own game. McCoy would learn new tricks from every session whilst holding plenty of his own moves in reserve. It seemed like a great plan. Fitz knew that he was dueling with a like-minded soul and upped his work rate accordingly, showing the Kid more and more. But McCoy, like Gans, could never ferret out all of Bob’s jewels.

“Whenever I thought I had learned everything, Fitz knew it. The old fox would slip something brand new over on me. He always had something up his sleeve that I never thought of. That is why I never fought him afterward. I never could get to the bottom of his mind the way I could with all the others.

“Fitzsimmons was an adept at protecting himself. Let fly a swing at him and 99 times out of 100 your glove landed on one of those freckled shoulders of his.”

Unique

While such genuinely unique talents as these men can only ever be imitated and never duplicated, one wonders how many of today’s young professionals bother to research these aces and try to understand what it is that still makes them so special.
Why is it that Joe Louis, a gloriously radiant example of the perfect heavyweight, isn’t more greatly studied and at least impersonated by the hopeful heavyweights of today? Why, quite simply, is the Louis style still unique?

Well, for starters, any student would have to be a natural athlete of suppleness as well as power, of hand speed and flexibility, of fluid movement, imagination and creative flair. And it is impossible to have all that once you have grown beyond a certain size and weight. Not unless you are fortunate enough to be the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Guy Ward 06:25pm, 12/25/2014

    Thank You everyone on here for the great comments about my father
    Last week would have been his 101 birthday (Dec. 13 1913) if he was still alive
    But as long as he is alive in the hearts and minds of you great people his fans
    Then he will always be Immortal

  2. Guy Ward 03:43pm, 12/25/2014

    Thank You
    Mike Casey Great !!!! article about my Dad
    Would love to sit down and talk with you someday about my father

  3. TRAVIS R0STE 12:59am, 09/28/2014

    I also have Louis at the top of my all time fighters. Harry Thomas fought him in April 1, 1938, just before Louis - Schmeling II and Thomas was from my home town of Eagle Bend, MN. This fight is also lost or not available as no one has ever seen it surface. I wish i could find a copy. But Louis was an original and the best in my opinion.

  4. Leigh 01:02pm, 09/26/2014

    Great piece mike ,love this site

  5. Mike Casey 02:01am, 04/08/2013

    Thank you, Mike! Yes, Jack was a wonder in his own right.

  6. Mike Silver 09:10pm, 04/07/2013

    Great observations Mike. We have no films of the great Jack Blackburn but if you want to know how he fought just check out Joe Louis’s films. Joe was a heavyweight clone of Blackburn. Early in his career, before he himself became seasoned, Joe Louis was programmed by Blackburn—his brain—Joe’s body.

  7. Mike Casey 06:34am, 04/07/2013

    Joe lost a lot of money on the golf course - often to the likes of Sam Snead.

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:30am, 04/07/2013

    Was Joe Louis really “good ol’ Joe”....how the heck would I know. The closest I ever came to this ATG was when I came” face to belt buckle” with him when I accidently walked into him in the early Fifties at a black golf tourney at South Park Golf Course outside of Pittsburgh (de facto segregation up north Y’all) where I was caddying and BTW getting good tips from these golfers some of whom who could drive a golf ball a dadgummed mile!

  9. The Fight Film Collector 02:24pm, 04/06/2013

    Louis’s public image was certainly managed as he came into the ranks and when he won the championship, but the notion that he wasn’t able to be himself isn’t true.  By the time Joe retired, there had been a sea change in the diversity of boxing, and yet he presented himself as the same focused soft spoken person because that’s who he was.  As for Jack Johnson’s domination, as great as he was, he reigned over perhaps the century’s weakest division of heavyweights, not counting the African-American fighters he avoided.  Louis, on the other hand, may have had his share of B level competition, but he also defended against a number of fighters who were or went on the be all time greats.

  10. Clarence George 01:31pm, 04/06/2013

    No little irony there, given the championship fiber of D’Amato’s man, Floyd Patterson.  No disrespect at all toward Patterson, but he’s hardly among the greats and doesn’t compare favorably with guys like Corbett or Jeffries.  D’Amato knew Liston would destroy him.  His other guy, Tyson, is a more impressive, if less appealing, champ, but not in the same league as the handlebar-mustache legends.

  11. Mike Casey 12:24pm, 04/06/2013

    I know.

  12. Bob 12:15pm, 04/06/2013

    Neither Cus D’Amato nor Jim Jacobs were proponents of Bob Fitzsimmons, Jim Jeffries, Jim Corbett or many other champions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They regarded those fighters as far less than great.

  13. George Thomas Clark 09:39am, 04/06/2013

    Mike., I’ve enjoyed your articles here and on your website.  You could economically package all of them in a eBook I’d buy and others would as well.

  14. Mike Casey 06:20am, 04/06/2013

    Good observations, Irish! Yes, poor Joe was very much in a straitjacket regarding his image and how he presented himself.

  15. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:09pm, 04/05/2013

    In the name of diversity here’s another take on the great Joe Louis. He was the antidote to Jack Johnson….he was Jackie Robinson before Jackie was and his temperament seemed to be well suited for the role. His athleticism and skill set were at least a level above all of his opponents save a few. Due to this huge disparity, some of his adversaries were little more than barely moving targets for him and his right cross which some swore traveled only six inches was damn near guaranteed to find the sweet spot on most of his hapless victim’s chins. I have always suspected that more than any fighter in history he “fought down” to the level of his opposition because if he was too damn dominating (ala Johnson) during that era he just might not have been perceived as a “credit to his race” by at least some in his very large white fan base.

  16. The Fight Film Collector 09:41am, 04/05/2013

    This is the quality of writing and discussion that makes this site so great.  I’d like to add that an unmatched quality of Louis was his ability to adapt in the long run.  Louis had fights where he was flustered (Conn, Walcott, Pastor) or outmaneuvered (Schmeling, Godoy) and matched in skill (Farr), but Louis was always a vastly more deadly fighter the second time around.  Few if any fighters have been as supremely effective in rematches.  BTW, great shot of Louis and Nova above.  One of the few Louis fights where the films remain lost or unavailable.

  17. walt 09:33am, 04/05/2013

    Excellent. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

  18. jofre 08:45am, 04/05/2013

    Terrific article about a very special fighter who combined every attribute you’d want in a fighter. I still consider him my #1 heavyweight of all time.

  19. Mike Casey 07:06am, 04/05/2013

    Good observations, NYIrish - you’re quite right!

  20. NYIrish 06:45am, 04/05/2013

    Gene Ward was a great sportswriter. Thanks for bringing him up Mike. I grew up reading him and Dick Young in the New York Daily News, which had great sports coverage, especially boxing, back in the day.
    Joe Louis was the incarnation of all the things the old trainers passed down. Jack Blackburn taught him balance and relaxation. Louis controlled the pace and kept so relaxed he could go 40 rounds. He could be hit and floored but when he got up he went right back to work and usually stopped his tormentor quickly. He was the greatest of “finishers.”
    Mike Tyson imitated Louis, right down to the plain black boxing shoes. Mike had the power but not the degree of relaxation and fluidity. I’m not slighting Tyson in any way by that comment. I think he would agree.
    When Joe Louis was in Herman Hospital in Houston in the 80s I knew a nurse on the team that took care of him. When someone asked the old champion why he was so great he replied; “I just kept gettin’ up.”
    Frank Sinatra paid the bill.

  21. Mike Casey 06:25am, 04/05/2013

    Yes, Ted, very true. Joe was Joe, a hero to everyone.

  22. the thresher 06:15am, 04/05/2013

    Louis transcended boxing. He was neither black nor white; he was Joe Louis, the most beloved heavyweight boxing champion in the world. Back in my day, every kid wanted to be like him. We all wept after Marciano KOd him. His worst enemy was an unforgiving IRS, but that’s another story that I’d just as soon not touch because it makes my blood boil.

    He invented the one-two.

  23. Mike Casey 05:51am, 04/05/2013

    Thanks for the memory, Jim. I always liked Gene Ward as a writer.

  24. Jim Crue 05:26am, 04/05/2013

    Good story.
    I am in touch with Guy Ward the son of Gene Ward. I sent him some videos of fights his dad narrated from a TV show years ago. My dad was in the 2nd Marine Division with the 18th combat engineers, flamethrower and demolition, at the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian. Gene Ward was a combat correspondent at Tarawa, Saipan and Tinian. So they crossed paths. Small world.
    Nicolas, good comment. I call it the Ali Syndrome. Throwing the arms in the air, bouncing around the ring and trash talking among the things you pointed out.
    Ray Robinson praised his opponents before the fight he did not demean them.

  25. the thresher 04:33am, 04/05/2013

    I have Louis at the top of my all time heavyweights.

  26. Mike Casey 12:34am, 04/05/2013

    Excellent point, Nicolas - and the Ali imitators keep on coming. A very dangerous style to copy unless you are special.

  27. nicolas 12:24am, 04/05/2013

    Interesting article. Perhaps though the answer to why more fighters today don’t study Louis is due to two words, a name, Muhammad Ali. I remember some fighters back in the 70’s trying to imitate him. They were quite often not as gifted as some to put it politely. Ali’s impact on the sport was huge, but perhaps it stopped fighters from wanting to learn another way.

  28. Clarence George 08:52pm, 04/04/2013

    Well done, Mike, as usual—another piece after my own heart.

  29. the thresher 08:15pm, 04/04/2013

    I made some long posts, but for some reason they didn’t stick.

    Arguello is a good comparison, but Joe was truly unique.  It’s a great word to use in describing him for a lot of reasons not the least of which was his boxing style.

  30. the thresher 08:10pm, 04/04/2013

    Isn’t it a tad early in the UK

  31. Matt McGrain 07:47pm, 04/04/2013

    I would compare him to Alexis Arguello most directly.  But I also think Juan Manuel Marquez can be compared to him in terms of draws and fluidity on offence, although he doesn’t quite have the jab or the physicality.

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