When boxing comes under fire, which it does with considerable regularity, the fight mob has little enough to point to in its defense. There is always Joe Louis, of course. Yet the night of January 9, 1942, which was one of Louis' finest hours both as man and fighter, can be spoken of by an orthodox member of the mob only with acute embarrassment. In giving away his entire purse to charity, Louis was considered by the fast-buck men to be a fighter afflicted by a grave defect in judgment.
The U.S. had been at war for just over a month. On the day of the fight New York's newspapers painted for their readers a frightening picture of the world. An American army was trapped in the Philippines. The Japanese had smashed through British defenses north of Singapore. The besieged Russians fought the Nazis along the eastern front from Leningrad to Sevastopol. An Axis submarine was reported lurking off the coast of New England.
Turning to the sports pages, the reader found little relief. Grantland Rice's column was dedicated to the proposition that football offered a boy the best training for war. It was reported that baseball players would pay inflationary prices for their gloves and shoes in the spring. The Yale Club had canceled its historic squash tournament because of a shortage of good-quality rubber balls.
It was Joe Louis, of all people in sports, who was making the first grand gesture on the home front. He had agreed to defend his heavyweight championship against Buddy Baer and donate his purse to the Navy Relief Society. Louis' share was to be 40% of the gate. Baer was giving a small portion of his 15%, and Promoter Mike Jacobs all his profits.
The fight stirred unusual interest in New York. Even though this was the 20th defense of his title, Louis created excitement as a matter of course.
Buddy Baer, Max's kid brother, was an attractive challenger. He stood 6 feet 6½, weighed 250 pounds and, unlike most ring giants, punched with considerable power. In Washington the year before Buddy had knocked Louis through the ropes, lasted until the seventh round and escaped with both his life and his prestige—he had been disqualified when his handlers, claiming a foul by Louis, refused to let him continue. To the reputation of the fighters add the emotional state of a country which had just entered the greatest war in history and the quasi-military nature of the event, and one can account for the match's unusual appeal.
That night a crowd of 18,870, paying $189,701, packed Madison Square Garden. Boxing basked in Louis' reflected glory. The Stars and Stripes hung everywhere. The arrival of champion and challenger in the ring was heralded by spirited bugle calls, played by a sailor and a marine in dress uniforms. A telegram of thanks from Frank Knox, the Secretary of the Navy, was read to the crowd. Wendell Willkie, a recently disappointed challenger for a weightier title, made a speech which proved to be longer than the fight. He ended his speech with: "As for you, Joe Looey, and you. Max Baer, I know you will put up a great fight!"
The crowd momentarily set aside its good manners to inform Willkie raucously of the challenger's first name. Willkie apologized and concluded by hoping that after the battle the two boxers, and everybody else, would unite to fight the Japanese. Lucy Monroe appeared in the ring, wearing a blue gown adapted to the occasion with a red-and-white sash, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner. The crowd, edified and combative, roared in anticipation. In the absence of Nazis and Japanese, any victim would do. Buddy Baer jogged in his corner and tried to look calm.
The bell rang. Baer rushed Louis, using his bulk to push him into the ropes. He flailed at Louis' side. Louis twisted away and jabbed Buddy once or twice, then rocked him with a two-fisted attack. Baer fought back ponderously, cutting Louis' mouth, but Louis did not back off. Punching swiftly and accurately up at his target, he took the steam out of Baer. The fans were standing now, aroused by an aggressive and savage Louis they hadn't seen since his second fight with Max Schmeling.
Baer sagged, then clutched at Louis, but Joe pushed him away again. They stood in mid-ring, frozen in a classic pose for a moment, then Louis followed a jab with a short right to Baer's chin, and Buddy's long legs folded under him and he sank slowly to the floor.
Baer rolled over onto his hands and knees. He had trouble locating Louis, then he turned to face him and got to his feet at nine. Louis knocked him down again. Buddy struggled up, turning uncertainly to meet Louis' rush. Alternately he punched back at his tormentor and clung to him, but nothing slowed Louis' attack. Louis threw a right upper-cut and Baer went down on his back, his hair flying as his head struck the canvas. He was still trying to stand up when the referee counted 10. The time was 2:56 of the first round.
A few minutes later Louis sat hunched on a rubbing table in his dressing room, eating an apple and telling the reporters in a soft voice that he would donate his next purse to the Army Relief Society. Baer, sucking an orange through puffed lips in his dressing room, said that Louis' next opponent "better go in there armed with a baseball bat." The fans, streaming out of the Garden onto Eighth Avenue, compared this with Louis' other great fights. And more than one cynical old fight manager mused on 40% of $189701, and wondered what their world was coming to.