May 23

This Day in History

Sports

May 23, 1941:

Joe Louis beats Buddy Baer to retain heavyweight title

On May 23, 1941, Joe Louis beats Buddy Baer to retain his heavyweight title. The fight was widely considered the most exciting heavyweight match-up since Dempsey vs. Firpo in 1923. Baer proved to be more than Louis bargained for, and he shocked fans by sending the champ to the canvas for four seconds in the first round. Louis clawed his way back, however, and eventually gutted out a victory in front of 35,000 people at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Known as "The Brown Bomber," Joe Louis was arguably the most dominant heavyweight fighter in history; he held the title for more than 10 years, from 1937 to 1948. Prior to climbing into the ring with Buddy Baer, Louis knocked out Baer’s older brother Max, the former heavyweight champ, in 1935, the same year he knocked out another former champ, Primo Carnera. The Bomber won the heavyweight title from James J. Braddock in Chicago’s Comiskey Park two years later to become the first African-American heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson. In 1938, Louis beat German Max Schmelling, held up by Adolf Hitler as a "paragon of teutonic mahood," in a rematch of a prior loss. Coming into the fight against Buddy Baer, Louis was an overwhelming favorite.

To the surprise of fans the world over, and possibly to Baer himself, Louis started his title defense on the floor, after Baer knocked him through the ropes two minutes into the fight. The crowd cheered on Baer, the underdog who suddenly seemed to have a chance. Though Louis was hurt again in the fifth round by Baer’s flailing, powerful punches, he stayed on his feet and then took over in the sixth, punishing Baer with a torrent of punches aimed directly at the underdog’s head. Baer hit the canvas, and when he made the mistake of standing back up, Louis hit him again with a left to the jaw. After another right to the jaw, Baer went down.

Proving to be more courageous than most fans had thought, Baer again climbed to his feet, but his manager, Ancil Hoffman, stood in front of him when the bell rang for the seventh round. As Louis waited for his opponent, Hoffman demanded a point be deducted from Louis for what he deemed a late hit at the end of the sixth. The referee disqualified Baer over his insubordinate manager, and Louis retained the title.

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