Mythical Matchup: Joe Louis vs. Mike Tyson
The following article was originally published in the November-December 2022 issue of The Ring, the final print edition of the magazine which is still on sale at the Ring Shop.
A FANTASY FIGHT FOR THE UNDISPUTED HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP
Veteran referee and historian Ron Lipton, a former amateur boxer who was inducted into the New York and New Jersey boxing halls of fame, is proud to present the sixth installment of his mythical matchup series for The Ring.
(born Joseph Louis Barrow)
Fighting moniker: “The Brown Bomber” • Title Held: Undisputed heavyweight champion (1937-1949) • Born: May 13, 1914, LaFayette, Ala. • Height: 6-foot-1½ • Reach: 76 inches • Weight: Lowest during title reign was 197 pounds vs. Tommy Farr; heaviest was 213½ vs. Jersey Joe Walcott • Record: 66-3 (52 KOs) with 25 winning title defenses
Notes: Louis was devastating in rematches and is still heralded as one of the hardest-punching heavyweight champions in boxing history, with a jarring, accurate shotgun jab and a brutal arsenal of combination punches. If he fought you one time, he had your number in a rematch.
He shares one major thing in common with Mike Tyson: Both instilled fear into their opponents before they entered the ring. Louis’ deadly focus in the ring was chilling, as was his punching power. He was a stalking destruction machine, a rhythm puncher who methodically hunted his prey, broke them down and knocked them out. He was a consistent winner who meted out drastic punishment with a deadpan face never showing emotion.
Louis knocked out much bigger men – such as Primo Carnera, Abe Simon and Buddy Baer – with ease, but he had trouble with the smaller Billy Conn’s speed and lateral movement until Conn decided to trade punches with Louis in the 13th round. Louis beat heavyweight luminaries Jack Sharkey, Max Baer, Jimmy Braddock, Max Schmeling, Jersey Joe Walcott, Conn (twice), Buddy Baer (twice), Lou Nova, Simon (twice), Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello and Jimmy Bivins.
Louis usually caused great facial damage to his opponents with ripping combinations or knocked them out cold with great finishing power in his right hand, left hooks and uppercuts. He only lost one bout in his prime, to Schmeling, whom he brutally stopped in one round in their rematch.
Louis’ only other losses were against Charles (L 15) and his final fight against Rocky Marciano (KO by 8), when Louis was a shell of his former self – portly, balding, ring-worn and forced to fight to pay off IRS debt.
Weaknesses: Louis was slow of foot and sometimes overly methodical. He was susceptible to knockdowns during the early rounds when his guard wasn’t up and he was still warming up.
Some considered Louis’ hand speed a weakness, but it was actually quite good, especially in combinations, such as the one he executed to take Schmeling out – punctuated by a blazingly short, chopping right – and the three fast, hard and precise left hooks he threw in succession when he finished Max Baer. Also, the combinations that finished Walcott in their rematch and the KO of Conn were as quick as they were pulverizing.
(born Michael Gerard Tyson)
Fighting moniker: “Iron Mike” • Titles held during reign as heavyweight champion (1986-1990): Ring, IBF, WBA, WBC • Born: June 30, 1966, Brooklyn, N.Y. • Height: 5-foot-10 • Reach: 71 inches • Weight: Lowest during title reign was 215¾ pounds vs. Larry Holmes; heaviest was 221¼ vs. Trevor Berbick • Record: 50-6 (44 KOs)
Notes: One of the greatest heavyweight champions in boxing history. Exciting, aggressive, intimidating fighter who beat Trevor Berbick, Michael Spinks, Frank Bruno, Carl “The Truth” Williams, Pinklon Thomas, Tony Tucker, James “Bonecrusher” Smith, Donovan “Razor” Ruddock (twice), Jose Ribalta, Larry Holmes, Andrew Golota, Lou Savarese, Tony Tubbs and Alex Stewart, among others.
Tyson had an uncanny ability to pivot with great speed, delivering punches from all angles, and had superb, elusive head movement. He also possessed an amazing ability to get inside against taller opponents and deliver knockout shots. He could end a fight at any moment with his one-hit quitter punches. Included in this deadly arsenal: an explosive right cross, compact left hooks and a unique and powerful double right uppercut – to the body and head – in almost one fluid motion.
Weaknesses: Over-the-top temper, partying lifestyle and personal problems, which robbed him of speed, conditioning and focus. Lost the will to win when things did not go his way in the ring.
After a meteoric rise in boxing while adhering to strict training, Tyson left trainer Kevin Rooney and then mixed partying with training. He was also grief-stricken upon losing his mentors Cus D’Amato and Jimmy Jacobs, whom he loved and flourished with.
If taken into the deep waters of the late rounds, Tyson’s power seemed to wane, as displayed against Mitch “Blood” Green, James “Quick” Tillis, Tucker, Smith and Buster Douglas.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
This matchup is a fantasy. As such, pop-culture references and boxing figures from all eras will be mixed freely in scenes we would like to see. This contest will be fought at Madison Square Garden, 12 rounds for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world at a mythical moment in time. Both fighters will be fighting at the zenith of their career rather than after a specific fight.
I met Joe Louis on July 3, 1964, at the Wayne Thornton vs. Eddie Cotton fight, which took place in the Garden. He was in the company of shady Las Vegas gaming figure Ash Resnick.
I tried to reach out to Joe and Resnick would not let me. I called out to Joe and said, “Please, Joe, I won’t see you again.” He turned around and came over to me despite the other man’s objections. He shook my hand and let me give him a hard hug, which made him smile. While he signed an autograph for me, I told him I was a lightweight fighter. He said, “Chappie was a lightweight, too, and he could lick anybody. Good weight. Take care, champ.” He left and I was on cloud nine.
I had a wonderful time with Tyson, thanks to him being so kind to me and my son when I was chosen to do an exclusive interview with him on stage at a 2015 VIP dinner with proceeds being donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. He’s got the greatest sense of humor ever and is super intelligent.
He knew I had refereed many of his opponents – Holyfield twice, Green, Stewart, Savarese and Ruddock.
He ended the night with a big hug for me and my son Brett.
What garners my respect for Mike the most is his reverence for and knowledge of all the great fighters in all weight classes before him. He studied them all on film with D’Amato and Jacobs.
This is the way I see this rematch going.
That’s right, I said rematch.
Jack “Chappie” Blackburn’s world had been shattered six months earlier as he watched his pride and joy, Joe Louis, get destroyed in two rounds by Mike Tyson in Las Vegas. The worst of it was that the trainer blamed himself for being unprepared for Tyson and being set in his ways, believing that Joe could beat any style of fighter.
Chappie could see his methods needed a drastic change; old school was good school to him, but after the fight he knew that he had to take a real hard look at making some changes.
Rose-tinted glasses were shattered all over the globe and the boxing world was still reeling, not only from the upset but the blitz of the attack that the Brown Bomber had almost no defense for.
Louis was floored in the first 30 seconds of the opening round. He made it up by the count of seven and was later floored again before the bell. Joe barely made it up by eight.
In the second round, Louis had not fully recovered and Tyson floored him again. When Joe arose at nine, the fight was stopped.
In his heart, Joe knew he had the power and skill to do the same to Tyson, but he never got the chance.
Joe and his whole team took it hard, and he felt humiliated and embarrassed. Tyson was gracious and no bad blood existed before or after that fight, but Joe was determined to get him back in the ring and redeem himself.
They had an iron-clad contract for a rematch, and Tyson wanted it in Madison Square Garden. The Louis team agreed.
In all his days, Chappie had never seen anyone hit as hard and as fast as Tyson on the night he took his beloved Joe down. Tyson’s speed of foot while pivoting reminded him of Harry Greb, and the way he bullied Joe off-balance was something they had not believed possible.
He along with Joe had no fear of big punchers, nor tall and heavy fighters. They always had something for them and came out with a win. But this Mike Tyson guy had speed and power that were just overwhelming.
Max Baer was a wild-swinging, right-hand killer puncher who Joe got inside of and dismantled in a hot shootout with no problem. They had dealt with other one-shot right-hand punchers, like Tami Mauriello, Jersey Joe Walcott, Max Schmeling and Buddy Baer, who hit like a ton of bricks. The big left hooker Tony Galento was torn to shreds. Some staggered Joe, others knocked him down, but Joe got up and found a way to finish them all.
The elusive way Tyson moved his head was not a complete enigma for them either, as Paulino Uzcudun and Arturo Godoy had posed some difficulty in their unorthodox styles and were straightened out with uppercuts, paving the way for Joe’s left hook and right hand.
The problem, Blackburn felt, was wholly with Joe himself, and as a man who loved Joe dearly he vowed on everything holy to correct it immediately. They had 16 full weeks to prepare for the rematch.
Number one, he had to make Joe stronger and punch harder and faster than he ever had before.
Tyson was a muscular, ripped powerhouse with super speed in his hands and body movements. He must be doing something different in his weight training to come in so ripped and powerful without being muscle-bound.
Blackburn had the perfect fighting machine in Louis, but the Brown Bomber needed time to get his engine warmed up to throwing the dynamite he inherently possessed. This put Louis at a decided disadvantage against Tyson, an entirely new kind of fistic cyclone. Facing Tyson was like being attacked by a heavyweight version of Henry Armstrong with T.N.T. in both fists.
There was nothing about fighting, let alone boxing, that Blackburn did not know and hadn’t experienced himself. He fought all the legends under the worst conditions imaginable, and they all respected him.
He needed to put more functional muscle on Joe without impeding his fluid punch delivery. He had to find new methods to strengthen his core, as Tyson had hurt him to the body.
Blackburn was firmly against training with weights.
Instead, he had Joe swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer against a giant tire, chopping wood, and pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks up a steep hill.
Others convinced him, though, that the use of higher reps with low to moderate weight would give Joe some of that much-needed muscle.
Once Chappie’s plans were in print, there were immediate objections from every would-be armchair trainer in the world, along with Joe’s management team. Joe could use weighted pulleys like Dempsey did, they insisted, but no other weight training. Chappie ignored them.
When Blackburn started watching training films of Tyson, he knew he had to add something to Joe’s repertoire. Louis’ ring success came from smooth, long, fluid muscle, and many felt it should not be tampered with.
Evander Holyfield was hired in secret to share some of his training methods with the Louis team. Blackburn and Mannie Seamon would handle all the boxing and strategy with no interference, but methods involving pad work and diet were added to Joe’s camp by the Holyfield staff.
Within four weeks, Joe Louis was transformed into a ripped, functional, muscular fighter who had intensified his road work, sparring and all aspects of his training.
Both fighters agreed to VADA testing for the bout.
The entire world was waiting for this rematch.
The fight was selling itself and the Garden was sold out the first day. The pay-per-view sales went through the roof, and no one was concerned about the fighters’ refusal to break training for any press tours. They were both locked away in preparation.
The press conferences went smoothly. Tyson respected and revered Joe Louis, and Joe was a gracious loser as well as a humble winner.
They sat near each other and everyone enjoyed the publicity devoid of name-calling, cursing, shoving and the like. It was not needed.
When pressed for a comment, Tyson said, “If any of you out there have anything to say about this fight, no one better bad-mouth Joe Louis to me. I am showing up to fight with all I have, but win or lose, it is an honor to be in the ring with Joe.”
When it was Louis’ turn on the dais, he turned to look at Blackburn, who took the microphone and said, “All I am going to say is that on fight night you are going to see a new Joe Louis. We all respect Mike and I promise you it is going to be a great fight.”
Then Joe Louis said, “I’m glad for this chance to get my title back and I am going to be in the best shape to give everyone a great fight show.”
Both fighters refused a face-off but shook hands instead.
Joe’s training camp was set up for him in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, where a brand new facility was put up specially for this fight.
Blackburn, who was totally in charge, closed off the camp to everyone, just like Marciano used to do, which upset the press.
Tyson went back to the Catskills in New York, where Kevin Rooney, Cus D’Amato, Jimmy Jacobs and Ray Arcel were his constant companions and support team.
Muhammad Ali visited Tyson and was publicly grateful to Mike for getting Larry Holmes back for him. Ali respected Louis and loved to hang out on the boulder dedicated to Joe in his Deer Lake training camp, but publicly he said he believed Tyson would score a knockout once again.
Ali believed Louis was too flat-footed and slow to deal with Tyson.
After dinner one night about two weeks before the fight, Mike was alone in his room. Jimmy Jacobs came into the room with Cus. Cus said, “We are both very proud of you and have all the faith in the world in you. We just want to go over one thing with you if we can.” Mike smiled and said, “Anything, sure.”
“We want you to remember one thing about Joe Louis. He is deadly in rematches,” D’Amato said. “Remember what he did to Walcott in the rematch?”
Mike replied, “That still is my favorite fight of all time. We all watched it together many times.”
“Good, Mike. No matter what you did to Louis last time, remember that is still THE Joe Louis in there.”
Mike looked at them very seriously and nodded his head in agreement.
Back in Pompton Lakes, there was a similar meeting of the minds.
Louis looked to be in the greatest shape he was ever in. He sported a dynamic six-pack for the first time in all his fights. His arms were rippling with muscle, as was his entire back. His legs were cut and like two pillars of steel from not only 10 miles a day of roadwork, sprints and running up hills but high-repetition squats, leg extensions, leg curls and leg presses.
He had been visited by Sonny Liston many times in camp and remained good pals with him. Liston brought his protégé George Foreman up there too. Both wanted to fight the winner of this match.
Blackburn came into the room to talk with Joe alone. “He’s going to come at you the same way. All you have to do is what we worked on and be ready to bring something different for him this time, what we worked on.”
Sam Langford came into the room. Joe lit up seeing him again. “Chappie tells me he’s got a new Joe Louis he’s going to turn loose on the world in two weeks,” said Langford. “That’s fine, Joe, but to me you had it in you all the time. Just get mean and get off with speed and power this time, and you’ll be fine. You have what it takes, son. God bless you.”
Both men had the best sparring, the best training, and now both camps were closed.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
In an unheard-of partnership, HBO, Showtime, ESPN and DAZN agree to co-produce a pay-per-view event that will livestream on a neutral “Tyson vs. Louis 2” app and be distributed through traditional cable and satellite systems. The sporting world is holding its breath and the Garden is pulsating with excitement.
The fighters are getting a 50/50 split of the purse even though Tyson won the first fight.
The arena’s big screen shows Tyson’s dressing room. Mike has his headphones on as Rooney tapes his hands. Jacobs and D’Amato are watching closely, as is the NYSAC’s chief inspector, George Ward. Seamon watches the taping and then goes back to Louis.
When Rooney finishes up, Tyson starts to shadowbox furiously, the sweat popping off of him with every combination.
Jacobs gives Mike a kiss and a hug. D’Amato gives him an affectionate hug and says, “Remember, you are the greatest, up there with all the best. Whatever you do tonight, I will always love you and be proud of you.”
In Louis’ room, Arcel watches Blackburn doing the taping. Louis looks up at Ray and smiles and says, “You back again, Ray?” Arcel had been in the corner of many of Louis’ victims in the ring. Arcel politely leaves when the taping is completed.
While Joe shadowboxes with no music, Blackburn lays down the law. “Listen, in the first round watch him like a cat, react like a cat and let him have a little. If he brings it harder, I showed you the openings he leaves, but you have to bend those legs, eyeball to eyeball level with him and thread a needle with your shots. Make everything hurt like a mule kicking downhill.
“We worked on those defensive pivots. He does that shit, you see him and raise him, but faster. Pivot with him and nail him hard. Keep both hands up high and damn it, don’t drop them, and your jab will set up everything. Shotgun jabs all night long.”
It’s almost ring announcer David Diamante’s time now.
The Garden is alive, packed with celebrities, champions and fans over the edge.
The lights dim and then burst forth in a dazzling light show that highlights Joe Louis coming down the aisle to the ring. There is no ring walk music, all business.
He is sandwiched between Liston and Foreman with Blackburn leading the way, Seamon and Charley Goldman in tow.
Blackburn holds the ropes and Joe climbs into the ring and gives a big smile to the crowd with an upraised glove. The deadpan look is gone.
To say the crowd is going insane is an understatement. All the old-school fans who worshipped Louis are there screaming his name with tearful joy and support for what he has meant to so many people.
Now a gravelly, growling voice followed by blaring beats fill the Garden. It is DMX’s “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.” Here comes Mike.
He is wedged between Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Mike’s gloves rest on the shoulders of Rooney, who is behind D’Amato and Jacobs. Arcel brings up the back.
It goes to Diamante.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMAN AND FIGHT FANS AROUND THE WORLD, ARE YOU READY? I SAID: ARE. YOU. READY!? THE FIGHT STARTS NOW!!!
“Twelve rounds of boxing scheduled for the undisputed IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO and Ring Magazine heavyweight championship of the world.
“The three judges scoring this bout are Harold Lederman, Tony Castellano and Frank Forbes. Your referee is Wayne Kelly.
“Introducing first, fighting out of the red corner wearing the purple Ben Lee trunks, he scaled 210¾ pounds; hailing from Detroit, Michigan, the beloved “Brown Bomber,” JOE LOUIS! … LOUIS!”
A full two minutes pass before deafening applause and shouting finally die down.
“And his opponent, fighting out of the blue corner, wearing the all black trunks, he scaled 216 pounds, bang on. Fighting out of Brooklyn, New York, by way of Catskill, known as one of the hardest and most exciting punchers in boxing history, the reigning IBF, WBA, WBC, WBO and Ring Magazine heavyweight champion of the world, IRON MIKE TYSON! … TYSON!”
The applause and support are equally resounding as the fans seem split down the middle.
Mike raises a glove in appreciation and now has his fight face on – it is serious and chilling.
They are called to the center of the ring. Mike stands with Rooney and Louis with Blackburn.
Mike is staring right at Joe, his eyes anxious and intense. Joe looks back and now his face is deadpan again; it’s impossible to read what is behind his eyes. This happens quickly. It’s clear the way they both looked away was out of respect for one another, but there was a distinct impression in the moment they locked eyes that this fight could go either way.
In the middle of the ring, Kelly speaks: “You’ve been given the rules of the New York State Athletic Commission. No intentional fouls will be tolerated. Protect yourself at all times and obey my commands at all times. Let’s go to work.”
Both fighters touch gloves and return to their corners.
Blackburn removes Louis’ purple robe and for the first time the crowd sees his physique, which elicits a collective gasp. His arms, shoulders, legs and back are rippling with muscle.
Tyson storms out, legs bent in a semi-crouch, moving his head side to side, working his way inside. Louis, taller at 6-foot-1, bends his legs to be eye-level with his squat adversary and lands a shotgun jab, which jars Tyson for a moment.
Louis pivots out. Tyson, equally fast of foot, stays with him. The crowd screams as Tyson opens up with vicious body shots.
He is met with a pair of one-twos thrown straight to the face. The fast four-punch combination stuns and rocks Tyson back on his heels. However, Tyson regains his balance and comes right back inside in an attempt to land his pet combination – the double right uppercut to the body and head – he finds the body but misses badly with the head shot.
Louis wins the round, 10-9.
Tyson comes out the same way, with bad intentions, trying to bull Louis onto his back foot. But Louis’ footwork is keeping him a good half step away from Tyson, and he is using his longer reach to keep a hard jab in Mike’s face. The left stick disrupts Tyson’s rhythm and is starting to bruise his face.
But Tyson walks through it all and lands a crunching right hand to the side of Louis’ jaw – the same punch he dropped Golota with. Joe takes a knee, raising the entire Garden to its feet at once.
Kelly sends Tyson to a neutral corner and picks up the count at four. Louis is up. He follows the command to take a step forward and to the side, and his gloves are wiped. Tyson is waved in. He starts raining bombs on Louis, who unbelievably is not moving away but returning fire like he did with Max Baer.
Louis and Tyson keep the crowd on its feet and Joe is now hurting Mike with sizzling combinations. Tyson is trying to pivot out to get an angle on Joe but Louis stays with him and drives Mike back with a right uppercut, left hook, right hand, which causes Tyson to sag. Three more left hooks in a row drop Mike hard onto the seat of his pants. His right eye is bleeding. Louis runs to the neutral corner.
Mike is up at seven and says he is OK after stepping forward and to the side, as per Kelly’s instructions. The bell rings and the ref follows Mike to the corner, takes a peek at him and backs off.
Score: Knockdown trade-off with Louis dominating.
In the corner, Rooney implores Mike, “Watch out for his right hand! He’s working his way up to dropping that right hand in on you; he’s setting you up for that right hand that did Schmeling in!
“Don’t let him get that off. Smother his right hand, damn it!! Your eye is OK. You’re going to stop him, Mike. Get off first, keep hurting him and keep moving your head when you trade with him.”
The crowd is still roaring. This is more intense than Ali-Frazier 1 now.
ROUNDS 3-10 become a battle of attrition with Mike trying to land flush on Louis, but Louis’ jab is taking its toll on Mike’s face. Each round has vicious exchanges that have turned the Garden into bedlam. No knockdowns have been scored since the second round.
Three of the judges have scored rounds 3-8 for Louis, 10-9, but scored round 10 for Tyson, 10-9, as he came on stronger and landed better than before.
Between rounds in Tyson’s corner, Cus is pleading with Mike to use his jab more to set up his power shots. Rooney keeps telling him he will wear down Louis with body shots and drop Joe’s guard. Tyson’s face is very swollen and the cut has become a serious factor.
Rooney tells Mike, “Get him now!” Arcel, who has been quiet while working on Mike’s cut, warns Rooney and Mike: “Be very, very careful now. I’m the guy who ought to know.”
Louis’ corner is just as intense. Blackburn looks into Joe’s eyes with deadly finality. “Let him have it all now, Joe. Let’s get back what he took from us.”
Louis looks down at ringside, sees Jersey Joe Walcott looking up at him and allows himself a small smile as Chappie’s words echo in his ear. Joe thinks of how bad he felt when Tyson stopped him before; he was more embarrassed than he was with Schmeling.
Louis is off his stool first. Instead of waiting for Tyson’s rush, he goes right at him. Tyson is startled but fights back bravely with all he has. The crowd, the corners, the commentators are in a frenzy as Louis rains punches around Tyson’s high guard. Eight punches – lefts and rights – land like explosions of leather on both sides of Tyson’s face, around the jawline and temples.
Tyson starts to sink and is met with a blazing short right uppercut, left hook, right hand thudding combo. Tyson collapses to the canvas.
Kelly waves it off without a count and the Garden goes berserk.
When the smoke clears and Louis is declared the undisputed heavyweight champion again, Tyson – like the immortal champion he is – walks over to Joe, puts his arm around him, kisses him on the cheek and says, “We’re even now, Joe. You’re still my hero, but I want a rematch like I gave you.”
Joe says, “That’s a promise, Mike. I will always be your friend.”
MORE MYTHICAL MATCHUPS:
Sonny Liston vs. George Foreman by Ron Lipton
Harry Greb vs. Stanley Ketchel by Ron Lipton
Jack Dempsey vs. Rocky Marciano by Ron Lipton
Canelo Alvarez vs. Dick Tiger by Ron Lipton