Bad decisions. Robberies. Ridiculous scorecards. Maybe nothing sickens a fight fan more than judges rendering a final verdict which makes a mockery of a hard-fought contest. Sadly, such incidents are legion in the history of our beloved sport and, in recent years, have only become more common.
The worst decisions of all time? Take your pick: Pernell Whitaker shamelessly robbed in his fights with Julio Cesar Chavez and Jose Luis Ramirez; Timothy Bradley getting a win against Manny Pacquiao which absolutely no one could take seriously; Tyrone Everett robbed so bad against Alfredo Escalera the scores weren’t released until the next day; George Foreman, outboxed in almost every round, being gifted a win over unheralded Axel Schulz; or how about James Toney getting a decision over little-known contender Dave Tiberi that was so rancid it prompted politicians to call for a federal investigation. The list goes on and on.
Needless to say, when an odious robbery takes place it creates an extremely frustrating situation for the loser, but what about the winner? The recipient of a bad decision is placed in a most awkward position; after all, it’s not their fault the judges got it wrong. Those who come out on the better end of a bad call often point to the opponent’s shortcomings, voicing such sentiments as, “He never hurt me,” or “All he did was run.” Or they may go as far, but no further, as citing difficulties impeding their own performance, such as an injury or a poor training camp. Never will you hear, “I don’t know what the judges were watching because I got beat. He deserves the win and it’s a shame they didn’t get it right.”
However, there is at least one instance of a boxer managing to exude class under this difficult circumstance. The boxer’s name is Joe Louis, the legendary “Brown Bomber.”
By 1947, Louis had established himself as a living legend, not only the longest-reigning champion in heavyweight history, but the longest reigning world champion at any weight in the history of the sport. He had held the title for over a decade, successfully defending it 23 times, twenty by knockout. Even as he entered the twilight of his career, he appeared unbeatable, perhaps the best heavyweight in boxing history.
Jersey Joe Walcott had emerged as the next worthy opponent, challenger number 24, after scoring wins over Joey Maxim, Lee Oma, and Elmer Ray, but despite his merit as a top contender, few thought Walcott had any chance to win. After all, he was a former middleweight, a journeyman, with eleven losses on his record. Hell, he had even been Louis’ sparring partner at one point. Oddsmakers pegged Jersey Joe as a ten-to-one underdog.
The crowd at Madison Square Garden almost witnessed one of greatest upsets in sports history. From the opening bell all could see that Louis was flat and uninspired, while Walcott appeared sharp and primed for a tough fight. Focused on an early knockout, the champion walked into a counter right hand in the first round and, to everyone’s shock, he hit the deck. It happened again in the fourth.
Walcott, now well ahead on points, went about cleanly out-boxing Louis with clever footwork, a stinging jab and a powerful right hand, winning round after round. Louis kept stalking, gunning for the knockout, but couldn’t find the target. In the last three rounds, Jersey Joe, assured by his corner that the victory was in the bag, stayed away from the champion, but even with Louis taking the final three rounds, to the eyes of most observers the contest clearly belonged to the challenger.
Even before the decision was announced, the champion made a gesture indicating his own opinion of the outcome. As they tabulated the scores, Louis actually attempted to exit the ring, one of the only times this has happened in championship history. Disgusted with himself, and certain the decision would go to the challenger, Joe wanted to head to his dressing room and avoid the official verdict, but his corner and various ring officials convinced Louis to return.
Once the scorecards were read, with referee Ruby Goldstein voting for Walcott but the two ringside judges, inexplicably, giving the fight to Louis, the crowd erupted in an astonished outcry. And the winner and still champion did not smile or raise his arms in triumph, but instead made his way to Walcott, shook his hand, and said, “I’m sorry, Joe.”
Later, when asked about Goldstein’s score for Walcott, Louis could have done the expected, mouthed the usual platitudes about it being a close fight, or that Walcott ran too much. Instead, he uttered just about the classiest comment possible: “I know Ruby,” said the immortal “Brown Bomber.” “He calls ’em like he sees ’em.”
Classy too was Joe’s decision to give Walcott an immediate rematch. Six months later Louis vs Walcott II took place, again in Yankee Stadium, and the bout moved so slowly the referee was forced to scold the combatants into actually fighting. In round eleven the champion connected with a powerful right and his follow-up combinations put Jersey Joe down for the count. — Michael Carbert