This article explores the historical significance of the heavyweight title bout between Joe Louis and John Henry Lewis and the events leading up to it.
On January 25, 1939, John Henry Lewis, age twenty-five, became the fifth person to challenge Joe Louis for his heavyweight title. It held historical significance because for the second time, and the first time in America, two black men would battle for the heavyweight title; the first was on December 19, 1913, in Paris, France, between Jack Johnson and Battling Jim Johnson. The Louis-Lewis bout took place a little over seven months after Louis’ last fight where he had avenged his only loss, at that point, by knocking out Max Schmeling in the first round.
There was discrimination in boxing at the time of this battle—many greats weren’t afforded the opportunity to fight for a title—but it was far ahead of other sports for inclusion. African-American Joe Gans became the world lightweight champion on May 12, 1902. Jack Johnson followed by winning the world heavyweight championship on December 26, 1908. By August 1938, a total of six of the eight world championships belonged to nonwhites with one weight class vacant. The color barrier in baseball went unbroken until April 15, 1947, with Jackie Robinson.
(Joe Gans "the Old Master" and Jack Johnson "the Galveston Giant")
John Henry Lewis was the current world light heavyweight champion and had held it for three years when he met Joe Louis. For those three years, Lewis discovered it was hard to make money from the light heavyweight title. Lewis moved up to the heavyweight division where the purses were larger. Many said the fight amounted to his friend Joe Louis giving him an opportunity to make money by giving him this bout.
Born in California, May 1, 1914, John Henry Lewis moved to Arizona when his father took a job as a trainer for the University of Arizona. Lewis turned professional at the age of fourteen as a welterweight. In 1932, he rose to prominence when he defeated James Braddock in San Francisco, the man from whom Joe Louis took the heavyweight title. In addition to Braddock, he defeated Maxie Rosenbloom, Bob Olin, Red Burman, Al Ettore, Bob Godwin, and Johnny Risko.
(Joe Louis, promoter Mike Jacobs, and John Henry Lewis)
John Henry Lewis hired Gus Greenlee as his manager in May 1935. He became the light heavyweight champion under his guidance on Halloween night 1935 in St. Louis. Gus Greenlee was an African-American businessman, numbers runner, bootlegger, and racketeer. In 1933, he was the owner, officer, and founder of baseball’s Negro National League. He owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords that everyone called the Craws. A wealthy man, he spent his money freely. He showed generosity with his baseball players that included Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, and Cool Papa Bell. He built a stadium that seated about 7,500 at an estimated cost of $100,000. Greenlee financed half of the cost. He named the team after his Crawford Grill. The Crawford Grill was one of Pittsburgh’s favorite nightspots, where Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Stanley Turrentine, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstein, Miles Davis, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson entertained. The club became a hangout for both black and white entertainers and sportsmen. The football Pittsburgh Steelers owner, Art Rooney, a friend of Greenlee, frequented the Grill. With his money, Greenlee built the Pittsburgh Crawfords into one of the best teams.
(Gus Greenlee and his Crawford Grill)
John Henry Lewis came to a boxing camp in Chatham Township, New Jersey, on December 27, 1938, to prepare for the most important match of his career. Greenlee came to the camp to watch John Henry Lewis. When John Henry Lewis arrived, he learned that The Ring magazine in its annual boxing rankings had made it unanimous in placing him at the top of the light heavyweight division. Joe Louis was ranked as the top heavyweight. Noticeably missing from the list of ranked heavyweights was Max Schmeling, who was thought of as part of the German regime.
Joe Louis trained for the fight at his Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, camp. Joe Louis spared six rounds in one of his finishing preparations. One of Joe Louis’s sparring partners was the future world heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott. Louis punished him so much during a sparring session that Walcott darted from the ring and refused to fight longer.
John Henry Lewis harbored a secret. He was nearly blind in his left eye. If that fact reached the authorities, his boxing career would have been over. No organization would allow him to fight with so much at risk. He had concealed it for four years. Lewis would later admit that the injury, which had led to the blindness, occurred during a 1935 bout with Abe Feldman, a fight he lost. John Henry Lewis would win the world light heavyweight title in his next fight three months later against Bob Olin. He fought over three years with the handicap and never lost the light heavyweight title in the ring.
When John Henry Lewis met the camp’s proprietor, she gave him the most coveted room in the house. He would be sleeping in the bed where Gene Tunney once awaited his first heavyweight title fight with Jack Dempsey. Accompanying John Henry Lewis were his manager, trainer, publicity man, and four sparring partners. Lewis’s trainer, Larry Amadee, was once the assistant to Jack Blackburn, the trainer for Joe Louis. John Henry Lewis’ manager, Gus Greenlee, had confidence he could defeat Joe Louis, as did his trainer and publicity man, John Clark. The public and the press did not share their view. Installed as a seven-to-one underdog, no one gave John Henry much of a chance. The press at Lewis’ camp found his confidence nothing short of surprising.
As the fight approached, reporter Chester Washington drove to Lewis’ Camp to watch him work. Beside him sat Joseph Forcier, the trainer who worked with Gene Tunney when he readied for his fight with Jack Dempsey. They watched John Henry’s workout. John Henry Lewis went through six rounds of boxing. He worked with a light heavyweight and a middleweight for speed and skill and two heavyweights for power. He demonstrated to be fast and elusive against his lighter sparring partners, strong and rugged against the heavier foes. Against heavyweight Bob Smith, a slugfest developed with John Henry revealing punching power in his right hand. Forcier expressed his opinion that the boxing history that Gene Tunney made the night he outsmarted Jack Dempsey might be repeated when John Henry Lewis went against Joe Louis.
“Gene was the master boxer,” Forcier said. “And so is John. Jack was the hardest hitter, and so is Joe. But the master boxer won, and I think John will win, and so does John’s trainer, Larry Amadee.”
Reporter Chester Washington declined to endorse Forcier’s assessment. He had seen both Joe Louis and John Henry Lewis train. He concluded Joe Louis to be the most powerful puncher in the ring. He conceded John Henry Lewis may be the best foe yet to face Louis, but Louis’ punching ability stood out. Washington said it would be the old story of the master boxer versus the superior puncher, and this time it looked like punch prowess would win out. Washington supported another Joe Louis victory.
Gus Greenlee continued to defend his fighter.
“John Henry has had ninety-nine fights and has lost only five,” Greenlee explained. “Jimmy Braddock and Izzy Gastanaga are the only fighters to have him on the floor, and he beat both of them. Braddock won in the Garden, but John won out on the Coast, and my fellow came back to beat Gastanaga in a return bout. Nobody has knocked John Henry out and nobody, not even Joe Louis, figures seven to one over him.”
Amadee expressed satisfaction with John Henry’s condition, and Lewis exuded confidence. John Henry Lewis, so convinced that neither Louis nor any other boxer deserved seven-to-one odds over him, instructed Greenlee to bet $1,000 on him. That was provided he could persuade Mike Jacobs, the promoter, to loan him the money against the 17.5 percent he would receive as the challenger.
“I sure have waited a long while for this chance,” John Henry Lewis said as he mused while sprawled on a table at his camp having his hands bandaged for the last few rounds of sparring before the fight.
“I know what I’m up against. I don’t know, though, just how I’ll work in there against him. Naturally, I’m not going to try any slugging. But I’m not going to run either. I think it’s possible to beat him with experience, speed, and boxing ability. I think these are in my favor. Of course, if I see a chance to throw a finishing punch, I’ll try that.”
Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the world heavyweight championship, came to Lewis’ camp to watch him in his final days of training. Johnson held the title from 1908 to 1915. Much had been written about Jack Johnson. Aside from being the first African-American heavyweight champion, it befell on him to be the first African-American pop culture icon. He was photographed in excess. Newspapers scrutinized him. The masses had been eager to read about him. Time had passed and Jack Johnson’s notoriety with it. At sixty years of age, no longer the object of scrutiny, he was not hounded by the press. Gone was the time when there could not be found enough space in newspapers to print all the stories, both true and fabricated, about Jack Johnson. Older, no longer champion, neither the press nor public cared about his sex life, statements, conduct, nor even his opinion on boxing matches. The press relegated his newspaper space to a few quotes about his view on the historic bout of Lewis versus Louis.
“John is a much better boxer. I think he will outpoint Joe,” Jack Johnson declared after John Henry Lewis’ workout.
(John Henry Lewis and Joe Louis weigh-in)
On January 25, 1939, the crowd at Madison Square Garden exceeded promoter Mike Jacobs’s expectation. It started with empty seats, but they filled during the preliminary fights. At the close, attendance reached 17,350, with the gross gate at $102,015.43. The crowd and gate were a tribute to the lure of Joe Louis. With the night’s financial gross, the champion’s four times at Madison Square Garden had never failed to attract less than $100,000. For those that thought Joe Louis would not fight hard with his friend, they were mistaken. Undetectable was the friendship between the two when the bell rang. Joe Louis showed no mercy.
Sparring for a brief time in the first few seconds of the opening round, neither threw anything hard. Then Joe Louis threw a right that whistled by John Henry’s head, just missing. That punch gave warning to John Henry Lewis. He did not occupy the ring with a friend. He represented to Louis any boxer trying to take away what he had worked so hard to obtain. The world champion would end this as quickly as possible, intent on nothing but a win. Joe Louis wasted no more time sparring. A right hit John Henry on the jaw. He went down. John Henry, shaken, got up at the count of two. His legs were uncertain. He lurched forward and somehow managed to land a good right-hand punch to Joe Louis’s ribs—it would be the last punch he threw worth mentioning.
Joe Louis rattled rights and lefts into John Henry’s head. He forced him to the ropes, worked him on the body, and had him bleeding from the nose and mouth. There came regular flurries from Joe Louis, and John Henry pitched to the ropes, falling half over the lower strand. He hit the canvas for the second time. He rose at the count of three. John Henry tried to stumble away, but Joe Louis pursued. He pumped blows to the head and body, and John Henry fell back on the ropes. With no compassion, Joe Louis landed a hard right on his chin. John Henry plunged over and felt the canvas for the third time in the first round. He got up at the count of five. Referee Arthur Donovan saw enough. He waved Joe Louis away. The fight was over. Joe Louis won by a technical knockout at two minutes, twenty-nine seconds into the fight.
(Two of the three knockdowns)
According to figures from the Twentieth Century Sporting Club, Joe Louis received $34,413.70. John Henry Lewis took $15,056. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis earned money at the rate of $230.96 a second at the calculation of a writer. He neglected to figure into his calculation the great many hours of hard work and sacrifice to get to the point where he could display such a brilliant performance. It takes effort to make your performance appear effortless.
“It was tough luck,” Mrs. Mattie Foster, mother of John Henry Lewis, said from the house her son built for her.
“It’s all over, that’s all,” dejected, Lewis’s younger brother Paul, remarked.
People packed Joe Louis’s dressing room immediately after the bout. The champion posed for photographers and shook the hands.
“What was the time of the knockout?” someone asked.
“Two minutes, twenty-nine seconds.” someone replied.
“Shucks, that ain’t as good as I done against that feller Smellin’. I done knocked him out in two minutes four seconds, didn’t I?” Joe Louis said.
“I didn’t think he hit me at all,” he explained to the press later. “It was an easy fight—I just worked up a light sweat, and that was mostly from the lights.”
In John Henry Lewis’s dressing room, the vanquished challenger made statements and took questions. John Henry said he was in full possession of his faculties and could have continued the fight. Referee Donovan saw it differently, and the press said he did well in stopping the fight. Another hard right could have injured him severely.
“I felt funny all of a sudden,” Lewis explained.
“I don’t think referee Arthur Donovan should have stopped the fight,” John Henry said.
When asked why he did not stay down for a nine-count the three times Louis floored him, he claimed he never felt hurt at any time.
The huge Garden crowd did not question if referee Donovan had done the right thing, and there were cries of “stop it!” even before he intervened.
“I wasn’t hurt at all,” John Henry said.
“Did you know you were on the floor?” someone asked.
“No. I didn’t.”
John Henry Lewis thought he deserved another chance. The public and boxing thought otherwise. It would be John Henry Lewis’ last official fight, not because of the drubbing by Joe Louis but the blindness in his left eye. John Henry Lewis had been scheduled for a light heavyweight title defense against Dave Clark on March 31, 1939, in Detroit. On March 17, two physicians examined his vision and determined him essentially blind in his left eye. Doctors discovered Lewis’ secret. The postponement of his bout with Dave Clark ensued. Michigan banned him from boxing in their state. For his safety, other boxing jurisdictions followed. Then, Lewis unsuccessfully pursued a London light heavyweight title defense against Len Harvey. His eye trouble led to its cancellation, too. Lewis eventually retired and never fought again.
(Poster that hung at the site of the fight)
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