Sunday, September 9, 2018

Welshman Tommy Farr: The First Heavyweight Title Defense by Joe Louis and Farr’s Fights in America

Tommy Farr and Joe Louis in a pre-fight publicity photo
Thomas “Tommy” George Paul Farr was born March 12, 1913, in his family home at 3 Railway Terrace, Clydach Vale, Tonypandy, Rhondda, Glamorgan, South Wales. He was the son of George Farr from Cork, Ireland, and Sarah. Tommy was one of eight children, he had three brothers and four sisters. Farr grew up in a poor part of Wales. His thirty-nine-year-old mother, after being bedridden for a time with severe bronchitis and heart problems, died when he was nine. His father, an Irish bare-knuckle fighter, died briefly after. Farr became the main source of income for his family. He began working in the mines where his father had sustained injuries that led to his death. Farr bore blue coal scars on his back, received from crawling around small holes in the mines as a young boy, and a mine explosion causing pieces of coal to hit Farr’s face and body. The marks he received from the explosion would be carried for the rest of his life. Welsh boxing historian and referee Winford Jones said it was his loathing of the mines rather than any love of boxing that first drove twelve-year-old Farr into boxing. The press called him the Tonypandy Terror, and the American press simply referred to him as Tonypandy. He became the British heavyweight champion and never lost the title in the ring; he relinquished it to fight Joe Louis.

In 1937, the twenty-four-year-old boxer from Wales, Tommy Farr, came to America to challenge Joe Louis for the world heavyweight title in his first defense since winning the belt from James Braddock. Before the Louis bout, Farr had gone twenty fights without a loss. Those fights included the defeat of former heavyweight champion Max Baer when he was touring England and former light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran. The circumstances that earned Farr a chance at the title were a strange mix of boxing politics and a German regime that threatened the world. Here is what went down that set up the Louis-Farr bout.

The year before, Max Schmeling, the only man to have defeated Joe Louis at that time, found himself caught up in the politics of boxing. On August 8, 1936, Schmeling arrived in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the Hindenburg airship. He came for the expressed purpose of signing and fighting for the world heavyweight title against James Braddock. Schmeling and Braddock signed contracts for the bout shortly after Schmeling’s arrival. The fight was tentatively scheduled for September 26, 1936. In mid-August, Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould, said that Braddock suffered from a bone enlargement of the little finger on his left hand and postponed the match.

In December, they signed again for a bout on June 3, 1937. A picture of Schmeling and Braddock after the signing appeared in newspapers. Ten hours before the rescheduled fight, Schmeling appeared at the weigh-in. The commission president, General George Phelan, stood and greeted Schmeling with a formal statement. Braddock did not show, the fight was canceled, and Braddock was fined one thousand dollars. Schmeling called the fine ludicrous. Tickets and posters had already been printed, and the Madison Square Garden Long Island Bowl marquee displayed the fight. A newsreel called Ghosts Stalk in Empty Arena for “Phantom Fight” showed the weigh-in and empty arena. Braddock had already signed a contract for a title fight with Joe Louis. That fight took place in Chicago a few weeks later with Louis winning the title. A clause in that contract, not publicized, stated that Braddock would receive 10 percent of Louis’s earnings for the next ten years. Joe Louis defended his title twenty-five times in that decade. By not fighting Schmeling, Braddock became a wealthy man.

Madison Square Garden Long Island Bowl Marquee and event tickets for the Braddock-Schmeling fight that never took place
Schmeling awaited a title opportunity. His perceived close links to the Nazi Party and the fact that there was more money to be made from Braddock versus Louis shunted him aside. As Louis stopped Braddock and claimed his crown in June 1937, a furious Schmeling, with the backing of Hitler and the Nazis, planned a showdown with the Welshman Tommy Farr. They labeled it “the real world championship.”

Before the Schmeling-Farr bout took place, promoter Mike Jacobs outmaneuvered Schmeling to protect his fighter—Joe Louis. Mike Jacobs, who exerted so much dominance in the fight game that he was called Mr. Boxing, did not want an alternate heavyweight champion recognized in Europe. He made a big-money offer to Farr. He guaranteed him a fight with Louis on August 30, 1937. It would be Louis’s first title defense. Farr accepted the fight and Mike Jacobs’ terms.

Farr trained for the Joe Louis fight in the New Jersey shore resort town of Long Branch at the city-owned speedway. Joe Louis trained at his usual Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, camp. When the Welshman was to step into the ring against Louis, he would be demonstrating his Welsh pride by wearing on his trunks a small, red silk Welsh dragon, which had adorned the trunks of the late Freddie Welsh when the latter won the British lightweight crown and the Lonsdale belt from Johnny Summers and the world lightweight championship from Willie Ritchie. It was sent to Farr by Gwilyn Seaton of Pontypridd [Welsh’s hometown], a friend of Welsh who had it since 1914.

Left Photo: Joe Louis, Tommy Farr weigh-in. Right Photo: Boxers introduced prior to the August 30, 1937, Joe Louis-Tommy Farr bout. Left to right: Referee Arthur Donovan, Jack Johnson, James Braddock, Announcer, [obscured boxer], Barney Ross, Pedro Montanez, Jack Sharkey (partially obscured), Mickey Walker [facing right], Gene Tunney, Jack Dempsey, Marcel Thil, Max Baer, Max Schmeling, and Johnny Dundee
At the weigh-in for his fight against Joe Louis, Louis asked Tommy how he got the blue coal scars on his back. Rather than telling him they were from crawling in tiny holes down the mines, Tommy said they were from fighting tigers in his days at the circus. If he meant to intimidate Louis, it seemed to have worked based on how the fight would unfold.

About 37,000 fans came to see the five-to-one favorite Joe Louis defend his title for the first time against Tommy Farr at Yankee Stadium on August 30, 1937. About ten million Britons stayed up at 3:00 am, which was already August 31 in Great Britain, to tune into the radio broadcast of the fight. At the Cambrian Colliery, Rhondda, where Farr once worked, they changed the shift times especially for the occasion, and loudspeakers were set up in public halls for fans to hear the fight. Few in America gave Farr a chance to even be on his feet after fifteen rounds. What ensued did not demonstrate the superiority that Louis would show throughout his career.

Though Louis had no problem piling up points against the Welshman, his punching power was absent, and he jabbed out a victory with his left. Only at the end of the fifth round did he throw a telling punch that had Farr in trouble, but that was quickly remedied by the sound of the bell. Farr thrilled the crowd with his game, determined fashion in which he took the fight to Louis. In the last three rounds, long, jagged cuts under Farr’s eyes spewed blood and had him blinded. “I couldn’t see him,” Farr said after the fight. Louis kept it up with his left jab that Farr could no longer locate. The fight ended with no knockdowns.

Photos from the Tommy Farr-Joe Louis heavyweight title fight
The unanimous decision in favor of Louis was greeted with boos that cascaded throughout Yankee Stadium. Farr became the second man to take Louis the fifteen-round distance, losing the decision. The crowd thought the Welshman had done enough to garner a decision. Some ringside observers thought Farr had won. The fight verdict outraged Farr’s fans in Wales.

“I gave them a good go, didn’t I,” Farr said from his dressing room.

Farr admitted the better man won that night.

“My face looked like a dug-up road after he’d finished with it,” Farr said.

“I’ve only got to think about Joe Louis, and my nose starts bleeding.”

Years later, Farr was quoted as having said, “At the end, I thought I might have got it. If they had made it a draw, I would have been happy.”

The boxing world ridiculed Louis’s effort, they should have waited for him to finish his career.

Jack Dempsey: Fifteen years ago, against that sort of fighters, I would have sent Jack Kearns [Dempsey’s manager] out to do the fighting, and I would have stayed in the comer.

Jack Johnson: Give me three pork chops and a breath of fresh air, and I’ll challenge ’em both.

Jack Sharkey: And to think they used to boo me! That’s not the same Louis who knocked my head off with a left.

Gene Tunney: Very interesting engagement. Very!

James Braddock: I’d like another whack at that championship. If he had fought the same fight against me that he did against Farr, Louis never would have taken the title. I may be bad, but not that bad.

Barney Ross: Louis won going away, but he didn’t look very good doing it. I never saw a man with his punching power so consistently refuse to use it. He wouldn’t hook, he wouldn’t throw that right. All he did was jab.

Max Schmeling: I will beat Louis every day in the week, and twice on Sundays. He didn’t try for a knockout because he was scared he might get hurt. That hurt hand? An alibi, maybe, huh? [Louis would knock out Schmeling in the first round of their next fight.]

Pedro Montanez: Is it true the big fellows get fifty and sixty thousands dollars for that?

Mickey Walker: And to think I gave up a dinner of steamed clams and beer to watch this thing.

Benny Leonard: I was born too soon and too light.

Johnny Dundee: So was I.

Max Baer: I could beat ’em both. I am the greatest fighter in the world. I’ll be champion again before the end of next year. Whatta you think of the suit I got on? Paid two hundred smackers for it in London. Class, kid, That’s Maxie.

Lou Ambers: Farr’s a game guy. Ain’t it a shame he can’t punch. I can’t figure out how any man that big can’t knock your head off.

Marcel Thil: Mon Dieu!

Sixto Escobar: The big ones they very slow. Come watch me. Sixto, he fly.

Ted Broadribb, Farr’s manager, parted ways with him after the Louis fight. Farr’s next bout was to be against James Braddock on January 21, 1938, at Madison Square Garden. It would be Braddock’s first fight since losing the title to Joe Louis. To train for the Braddock fight, Farr went to Madame Bey’s camp located in Chatham Township, New Jersey. At the time, it was the most famous boxing camp that through its existence attracted no fewer than fourteen heavyweight champions and eighty International Hall of Fame inductees.

Snow piled up from a recent storm at Madame Bey’s Camp on January 17, 1938. Promoter Mike Jacobs arrived to check on Tommy Farr. It was Jacobs’s Twentieth Century Sporting Club that was promoting Farr’s bout with James Braddock. Mike Jacobs arrived in a limousine that the driver drove into a snow bank. Jacobs barked orders and assisted with words of suggestion to those engaged in extracting the limousine out of the snow bank. He also directed traffic while the vehicle remained stuck.

After the limousine issue was resolved, Jacobs went inside Madame Bey’s farmhouse. She had made a chicken that he consented to carve. Joe Jacobs [no relation to Mike Jacobs], the manager of Max Schmeling and Tony Galento, was at Bey’s, too. Afterward, they went to watch Farr work out.

Tommy Farr had started his day with a six-mile jog over the snow-covered hills. He skipped rope for ten minutes before punching both the light and heavy bags. He shadowboxed a round and sparred a round with Jack Tebo, a Canadian heavyweight. Tebo was the only sparring partner to remain on his feet for two rounds. With his other sparring partners, Farr knocked down Paul Pross with a left hook to the jaw and knocked Steve Colucci down twice.

“He looks good, doesn’t he?” Mike Jacobs asked when Farr knocked down Steve Colucci for the second time with a short right to the jaw.

“Damn good,” Joe Jacobs agreed.

“I like the way Tommy uses his left hand,” Gunnar Barlund commented, a heavyweight whose next fight was against Buddy Baer.

“Schmeling or Galento would kick the hell out of him,” added Bud Gorman, a good heavyweight from ten years earlier.

“Say, Joe, how about a go at Galento?” Farr inquired, his workout finished.

“Anytime,” manager Joe Jacobs replied, “Mike here’s a promoter.”

“Well, I’ve nothing to do after Friday night,” Farr declared.

“Galento’s ready,” Joe Jacobs insisted. “Mike can make the match now.”

“How about it, Mike?” Farr asked.

“Say, you and Braddock are going to draw a lot of people from New Jersey,” Mike Jacobs answered, ignoring both Tommy and Joe’s interest in a Galento match.

Mike Jacobs was asked what he thought of Farr’s chances against James Braddock.

“He likes to fight and just because he’s swapping punches in there with his sparring partners doesn’t mean he’s going to lead with his chin,” Mike Jacobs explained.

“I’m the promoter and can’t pick a winner, but this fellow’s ready for a hard fight. He’s in better shape than he was when he finished at Long Branch for the Joe Louis fight."

Joe Jacobs said he wanted to see James Braddock work before committing himself but joined in the general approval voiced for Tommy Farr. After his workout completed, Farr went for a rubdown. After the rubdown, Farr began conversing with Joe Jacobs again.

“Say, Joe, Schmeling has nothing to fear from Ben Foord,” Farr predicted of the man he had defeated for the British heavyweight title. “Foord could be a great fighter but won’t train. He’s got a big head.”

“I’ll be ready in September if Max beats Joe Louis,” Farr declared.

“Okay,” Joe Jacobs said.

Farr decided to forego sparring the next day, the final day before the bout. He skipped rope for half an hour and did calisthenics, bag punching, and shadowboxing. That same day, James Braddock, training at Dr. Biers in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, was visited by world heavyweight champion Joe Louis and New York Yankee outfield star Joe DiMaggio. Louis had beaten Farr and Braddock.

“Braddock appears faster than he was in Chicago,” Louis commented, referring to their title fight. “I don’t want to forecast a result. Braddock punches harder than Farr, but Farr has youth and speed with him.”

A capacity crowd of more than 18,000 attended the fight at Madison Square Garden on January 21, 1938. Farr was about ten years younger than Braddock. Farr started strong for the first eight rounds of a ten-round fight. As in the Louis bout, he took the fight to Braddock. It was in the last two rounds that Braddock turned the tide. He showed his superior power.

When the men came out for the last round, the Braddock-biased crowd roared. Braddock was desperate, as he must have known he was behind. Both men, exhausted, showed their resolve. Braddock hammered away at Farr. It was a savage fight. The Garden emitted a tremendous roar. Braddock had come back. Braddock had beaten off the years that weighed upon him. Now he was beating Farr. The ending bell rang. The two kept fighting; neither heard it as the crowd drowned it out. Journalist Wilbur Wood wrote, “Napoleon cynically remarked that God is on the side which has the heavier artillery. James J. Braddock demonstrated that when he opened up with his big guns in the last two rounds.”

“It is too bad Jim didn’t start sooner,” somebody said after the bout. 

“He couldn’t,” the man sitting beside him countered. “He wouldn’t have had enough left to carry him through the tenth round.”

Now the fight was over, and the ring was swarming with seconds. Joe Gould, Braddock’s manager, shook hands with Farr as the fighters went back to their corners. The seconds sponged off the men, and the crowd stood waiting for the decision. Then the announcement came. 

“The winner—Braddock!”

Braddock won a split verdict over Tommy Farr. The scoring was as close as a fight could get. Judge Charley Lynch scored it four to six; Judge George LeCron six to four; referee Johnny McAvoy had it four to four with two even. The scorecard was a draw, but the referee gave it to Braddock on points.

A roar came from the pro-Braddock crowd. Braddock clenched his hands over his head in greeting his fans. Farr was dumbfounded by the decision, thinking he had earned it by his dominant performance before the ninth round. In anger, Farr threw his robe draped about him. Braddock went to shake Farr’s hand, but Farr turned away and left down the steps from his corner. In the ring, Braddock’s handlers jumped about as the crowd still roared. The crowd had seen a game old fighter come from behind to win.

Newspapers printed that Farr said referee Johnny McAvoy was coaching Braddock during the last round. Farr denied the accusation. Farr said after the fight that he had an injured left hand, but nothing had been stated before the fight. Farr would apologize a few days later to Braddock, but the damage was already done. He met with Mike Jacobs to make amends. Unable to hide his disgust, the meeting did not go well. Summing the sentiment of the journalists toward Farr, Al Buck wrote, “Within the next few days, Tommy Farr would go to Miami with the best wishes of the sportswriters who hope, quite sincerely, that he never returns.”

Eleven days after the fight on February 1st, Braddock announced his retirement. He knew his thirty-two-year-old body had enough. The time arrived to leave the game. He did not need to subject himself to more punishment. He had a $500,000 payday from the Joe Louis fight and a percentage of the champion’s future earnings. He was financially secure.

Tommy Farr returned to Madame Bey’s camp and was welcomed. It never mattered to Madame Bey what the newspapers printed; she judged her boys on a different set of criteria—her own. She had come to know the rigors of preparing for a fight and the psychological toll it took. She understood the disappointment after hard preparations and the difficulty in acceptance of losing a close decision. Farr was back for his third consecutive fight against a world champion. It would be against ex-heavyweight champion Max Baer, the man he beat in England. It would be Farr the boxer against Baer the puncher. Despite the antics after the James Braddock fight, Tommy Farr used Braddock’s former manager, Joe Gould, for the Max Baer bout.

Left Photo: Tommy Farr, his new manager, Joe Gould, and his new trainer, Doc Robb, at Madame Bey’s camp in Chatham Township, New Jersey, preparing for Max Baer bout. Right Photo: Tommy Farr with camp proprietor, Madame Bey
Journalist Edward Van Every went to Madame Bey’s to report on Farr’s preparation. He reported that to his surprise, Farr seemed to be working at a tireless pace and punching harder than ever before. Paul Pross, Charley Massera, and most sparring partners engaged were on the verge of a knockout daily.

When fight day arrived, March 11, 1938, at Madison Square Garden, a crowd of 18,222 saw the fight. Gone were Baer’s clowning antics. He knocked down the rugged Farr in the second and third rounds. Farr lasted the full fifteen rounds. The decision was unanimous and not close. Scoring was thirteen to two, eleven to three with one even, and nine to five with one even in favor of a more serious Max Baer.

Left Photo: James Braddock, Tommy Farr. Right Photo: Max Baer, Tommy Farr
Farr would fight two more times in America against Lou Nova and Red Burman, both of whom had future title fights with Joe Louis, losing both by a decision. Though all his fights went the distance, he would be winless in America. His last loss in America would be against Red Burman. Three months later, after returning to England, he would defeat Burman in London. Farr never fought in America again. For the year and a half he was in America, the rugged Welshman fought the best the heavyweight division had to offer and took every fight the distance.

Tommy Farr first retired in 1940. He lost his money from boxing and attempted a comeback in 1950 at the age of thirty-six to make a living. He retired again in 1953. Farr later ran a pub in Brighton, Sussex, and died on St. David’s Day [the patron saint of Wales] of liver cancer at his home in 1986. Farr was inducted into the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame in 1997. Farr’s final record: won 84 (24 KOs) + lost 34 (6 KOs) + drawn 17 + no contest 2 = 137 fights.

Tommy Farr Memorial
Gene Pantalone

Author of From Boxing Ring to Battlefield: The Life of War Hero Lew Jenkins - Available for pre-order on Amazon.

“Too often the history of boxing boils down to tales about heavyweights, as if the exploits of Sullivan, Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Ali, and Tyson are all that matter. Well, Lew Jenkins—lightweight champion, war hero, and a danger to himself as much as any opponent—mattered. His is the story of survival in the ring, in two wars, and in life. Gene Pantalone’s biography of Jenkins richly recounts a fascinating life. ‘Only in America,’ as the great Don King always said.”

-Randy Roberts, professor of history, Purdue University, author, Joe Louis: Hard Times Man, and co-author, A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle

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