By: Frank Lotierzo
Many Boxing historians, writers, and fans often refer to him as being the greatest Heavyweight Champ in Boxing history. Which is something that can easily be supported by his brilliant career and overall ability as a fighter. What amazes me is how underrated he is as a Boxer and Technician. When the name Joe Louis is mentioned, most limit and think of him as being strictly a puncher. Which is a grave misconception.
Joe Louis was the quintessential Boxer-Puncher. However, because he had dynamite in both hands and scored some picturesque knockouts, most categorize him as being a catch and kill style puncher. Fundamentally, Louis was absolutely faultless. He carried his hands high with his elbows in and his chin down. He threw short and concise bombs, and never wasted a punch. When ever he let his hands go, it was for keeps. He also put together five and six punch combinations with speed, power, and accuracy better than any other Heavyweight in history.
Joe Louis was a stalker who pressured his opponents, but it wasn't overwhelming pressure like Rocky Marciano and Joe Frazier applied. Unlike Marciano and Frazier who forced their opponents back and into mistakes, Louis led his opponents into making them. His style was predicated on putting pressure on his opponent, but doing so in a way that allowed them to think it was safe to go to him, which was actually strategic suicide. Most punchers try to track their opponents down, forcing them back while they are looking to land their power shots. Louis did it differently. His pressure was subtle. While stalking his foe he would get closer and closer, but he did it in a way that would mislead his opponents into thinking it was safe for them to go on the offensive, just so they could move to one side or the other in order to get away.
When his opponent went on the offensive, they were played right into Louis' hands. This was a result of his trainer, Jack Blackburn, teaching him and embedding it into his head that he could hit an opponent harder and cleaner if they were moving towards him, than if they were moving away from him. Louis would deceptively move towards and opponent and then ever so slightly step back drawing them into him. When his opponent came to him, that's when he stepped in with his short quick shots to the head landing with full impact. Due to Louis setting the pace and dictating the ring geography, this is how he often set up many opponents to be in range for his explosive combinations. This was a technique that Blackburn forced Louis to learn, and by the time he was Champ, he had it down pat.
Most of the time when an opponent came to Louis, it was really a defensive move so they could get away safely. This is when he would strike. As his opponent came to him and tried to lead, Louis would strike with the speed of a Cobra with short straight punches that landed solid and clean. Couple his explosive power with his great hand speed, especially in short burst, and you have some of Boxing's swiftest and most destructive knockout highlights.
What set Louis apart from other big punchers was that he could box and fight from the outside, or he could go inside and tear up an opponents body bringing their hands down, thus providing an opening for his short chopping rights to the chin. What other big puncher can that be said about? What other big puncher was that versatile? Past greats like Jeffries, Liston, Foreman, and Lewis were effective outside and could fight inside, but they didn't have anywhere near the hand speed of Louis. They also were not in his league as far as putting combinations together. Louis' precision and accuracy was superior to any big puncher who has yet lived.
Swarming punchers like Dempsey, Marciano, Frazier, and Tyson were only effective on the attack while trying to get inside. Keep any one of the of them at the end of a jab, and they are not so overwhelming. Unlike Louis, they had to constantly push the fight. Make any one of them back up, and they were a fish out of water. Opposed to Louis, who if a fighter tried to push him back, they were playing into his hands and setting themselves up to become a victim of his vicious two fisted assault.
Dempsey and Marciano were terrific punchers, but they didn't have outstanding hand speed. Frazier could really punch, and his hands were deceivingly fast, especially inside. Tyson was a terrific two handed puncher and had exceptional hand speed. But they couldn't put punches together in combination as precise and hard as Louis.
When it came to finishing an opponent, they weren't nearly as complete or refined as Louis. Dempsey tended to get wild with his punches when going for the kill. Marciano would sometimes be predictable throwing left-right, left-right, without doubling or changing up. Frazier had an outstanding right to the body, but relied on his left hook too much to finish. And Tyson looped his punches, although he could put a two handed assault together, he was vulnerable to being tied up and held. Louis often packaged five and six together brilliantly. And the fact that he didn't loop them, enabled him to get inside without being tied up.
Another thing overlooked when breaking down Louis as a puncher, was the fact that he carried his punch throughout the fight. Louis was dangerous from round one to fifteen. He was lethal and capable of ending it at anytime. Jeffries, Marciano, and Frazier also carried their power throughout the fight, but Jeffries and Marciano couldn't execute like Louis, and Frazier was to dependant on his left-hook. And Liston, Foreman, Tyson, and Lewis, all tended to fade sometimes down the stretch and lost a little power as the fight progressed.
Over the years it has often been said that Louis was vulnerable to quick footed fighters with lateral movement. Although there is some truth to this, it's not nearly to the degree in which it has been over-stated. This analogy is based mostly because of three fights during Louis' title tenure. His two fights with Jersey Joe Walcott and his first bout against Billy Conn.
Jersey Joe gave a fading Louis a fit in both of their title fights. Walcott had good feet, and moved in and out and side to side doing what was termed the Walcott shuffle. However, his feet weren't what troubled Louis. It was more his head and shoulder feints along with his dips and twist that bothered him. Walcott was an awkward fighter, and troubled many fighters with those same tactics, not just Louis.
In his first fight with Light Heavyweight Champ Billy Conn, Conn extended Louis to the 13th round. Conn was slightly ahead in the scoring on two cards and even on the other after 12 rounds. It was the lateral movement of Conn that befuddled Louis for a while. This was mainly because Louis wouldn't chase a runner or a mover. He would bide his time and draw them to him. Which is what happened to Conn.
In the 13th round, Conn caught Louis and shook him with a beautiful combination as he was lunging in, this ultimately cost him the fight. When Conn saw Louis shook, he went in for the kill. This put Conn in a suicidal position because Louis could now nail him without reaching for him. By virtue of Conn going to Louis, this enabled Louis to hit him with one of the prettiest and most deadly accurate six punch combinations in Heavyweight history, knocking him out.
Granted, Conn's movement bothered Louis. However, it was to Conn's advantage that he was only 170 pounds. This made it easier for him to get away and escape tight spots versus Louis. Louis was more vulnerable to fighters smaller in stature because they provided less of a target. It was fighters his size or bigger that he devastated. When matched against a fighter who was smaller in stature, who also had speed and mobility, than maybe Louis was a little susceptible to movement.
That being said, it doesn't automatically mean that if Louis fought Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes, they would've been able to run circles around him and stay away. Mover/Boxers the size of Ali and Holmes are too big to completely escape Louis the way Conn did. Conn didn't require the same space and room in order to get away from him or go under and around him like an Ali or Holmes would've. Even the fleet footed Gene Tunney was probably too big to move and hide from Louis. Tunney was 20 pounds heavier than Conn. Eventually, somewhere in the fight, Tunney, like Ali and Holmes, would have to fight Louis. Depending on how effective and long they could actually fight with him when he did catch or trap them would determine the outcome of the fight.
This is not saying that Louis would've definitely defeated Ali and Holmes. I'm just saying that just because they moved and used the ring, it doesn't translate into an automatic win for them either. The point is, Louis would not have been at the stylistic disadvantage against them to the degree that it has been falsely portrayed over the years.
Lastly, Louis is sometimes derided by some for not having a great chin. This is a complete false perception. Louis was down 10 times in his career, and only stopped twice. The first time he was stopped was early in his career by former Champ Max Schmeling. Schmeling was known for his straight right, which he hit Louis with over sixty times flush on the chin before he finally stopped him in the 12th round. The only other time Louis was stopped was by Rocky Marciano in his last fight at age 37. Louis was a very old 37 when he fought Marciano. On the other hand Marciano was just about at his peak and was one of the best two handed punchers in Heavyweight history. No way should Louis be admonished for being stopped by Marciano at that stage of his career. The other times Louis hit the canvas was a result of what is commonly referred to as a flash knockdown. He was up immediately after everyone of those knockdowns barely taking a count, and was never close to being stopped in any one of those fights.
Joe Louis is the most faultless Heavyweight fighter in history. He had a tight defense and exhibited great Boxing basics. He held his hands up and kept his chin down, making him hard to hit. Louis also never wasted a punch, and when he did cut loose with them, they just about always found their intended target.
He was a devastating puncher to the head and body, and he was a great finisher. Once he had an opponent in trouble, they rarely escaped and made it through the round. Louis was also brilliant at picking apart a fighters style and exposing it's weakness. And he was strategically brilliant when seeing the same opponent for the second time. In every single rematch he ever fought, he had less trouble and beat his opponent more soundly than he did the first time.
Throughout Heavyweight history there have been some great Boxers, such as James J. Corbett, Jack Johnson, Gene Tunney, Ezzard Charles, Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, and Larry Holmes. There have also been great Punchers like Jim Jeffries, Jess Willard, Jack Dempsey, Max Baer, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, Mike Tyson, and Lennox Lewis. However, no Heavyweight ever combined masterful Boxing and devastating punching power like Joe Louis.
Throughout Heavyweight history, there may have been a few harder punchers and better boxers than Louis, but he combined them perfectly. That is something that cannot be said about any other Heavyweight Champ in history. He could adjust and adapt to any type of style he was confronted with. It was suicide to move towards him, and no way any fighter could beat him by running from him. He was dangerous inside and outside, he could win by slugging and trading, and had the ring savvy to out think and Box his opponent. Louis was the consummate Boxer-Puncher.
Forget for a moment that he held the Heavyweight title longer than any other Champion in history, and also made a record 25 successful title defenses, a record for any weight division. Just rate him on his overall ability as a fighter. As a fighter, Joe Louis was and is the most complete Heavyweight Champion in fistic history.
When ranking the all-time great Heavyweight Champs, a great case can be made supporting Louis as the greatest of them all. At the worst he's among the top three regardless of the criteria being used as the measuring stick. But purely as a fighter, he was without a doubt the best and most fundamentally sound and complete.
THUMBNAIL GALLERY PROVIDED BY COX'S CORNER
Click on the Photo's to see Full Size Pics.
Joe gets the punching angles on an aggressive, ducking Galento.
Louis tucks his chin and shoulder blocks a right.
The Brown Bomber slips and parries a left jab as he prepares to counter.
Louis ducks as he jabs to the body.
Louis slips and shoulder rolls while sparring with Willie Davis.
Joe jabs with his rear hand in perfect parrying position.
Throwing every punch perfectly Louis demonstrates proper form with an inside right uppercut against Jimmy Bivins.
Note the tremendous leverage Joe Louis gets on his punches as his opponents move in on him.
Louis sends the much larger Buddy Baer crashing to the canvas.
Louis strong torso and powerful leg muscles generate much of his vaunted punching power from the hip.
With murder in his eyes Joe Louis annihilates Max Schmeling in their rematch paralyzing him against the ropes.