History of Boxing in the 1940s
Boxing is usually seen as a sport filled with storybook characters. The feisty cornerman, the shady manager, the swindling promoter, the behind the scenes mob influence, the young champions, the working class heroes and the faded legends, and on down the line from there. The 1940s was a great encapsulation of all of those stereotypical elements in the sport. A decade most remembered as belonging to Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson was filled with other memorable fights and fighters, and many developments within and around the sport.
Where Boxing Stood in the 1940s
A.J. Liebling said of boxing at the start of the decade: “The Second World War, which began to affect American boxing when the draft came along in 1940, stopped the development of new talent. This permitted aging prewar boxers like Joe Louis and Joe Walcott to maintain their dominance longer than was to be expected under normal conditions.”
He continues, commenting on the state of the sport by the end of the decade, that, “By the late forties, when the first few postwar fighters were beginning to shine, television [became involved], and now there are no clubs to fight in.”
Indeed, World War II and the beginning of television’s involvement in the sport of boxing were two radical influences. The war not only affected the careers of certain fighters, as Liebling mentions, but also helped to make or break the fame of many others. Fighters who served in the armed forces had instant fan bases to fight in front of, while anyone perceived to have ducked their service was routinely shunned.
Television began airing fights on multiple nights of the week to fans around the country. This helped certain fighters gain more exposure, but also hurt the fighters in the lower echelons of the sport who were trying to establish themselves. The switch from the club fight to the television landscape is one of the major factors in fighter records declining from hundreds of fights over the course of a career to dozens.
The championship reigns of Joe Louis at heavyweight and Sugar Ray Robinson at welterweight helped improve the racial standing of African Americans throughout the United States, while also giving that growing community strong sources of hope, pride and accomplishment. Sporting fans of any race had to appreciate Louis and Robinson as the best of the best, and the two ruled the sport for much of the decade.
The mob’s involvement with the sport of boxing was in full force during the 1940s, controlling entire promotional outfits, sanctioning bodies, titles, arenas, television fights and more. Middleweight slugger Rocky Graziano had his license suspended in 1947 for bribery charges, while Jake LaMotta was famously shown as occasionally being under the thumb of the mob in the movie Raging Bull, where he’s depicted by Robert DeNiro. That trend would continue into and through the 1950s, as boxing continued to adapt to its new TV landscape, changing racial and cultural tones and compositions throughout the country and world, and more.
Best Fighters & Champions of the 1940s
- Sugar Ray Robinson: Typically ranked as the best pound for pound fighter of all-time, the 1940s was the first decade of Sweetness. Robinson began his career in 1940 and won the welterweight title in 1946, but not before beginning on his multi-fight odyssey with Jake LaMotta, and dispatching of an old Henry Armstrong. He defeated Kid Gavilan twice in the decade, notched two wins over Fritzie Zivic and had a score of other notable fights and wins while losing only once in that ten year span. He started competing at middleweight as the 1950s began.
- Joe Louis: Joe Louis made an astounding 16 defenses of his heavyweight title in the 1940s, even as he fought only once over a four year period from 1942 to 1946 due to his involvement with the war efforts, where he put on exhibitions and toured the world, along with Robinson for a time. In the 40s, Louis turned back Jersey Joe Walcott twice, Billy Conn twice and a number of others. He lost his title to Ezzard Charles in his first fight of the 1950s, a neat end of his decade of heavyweight dominance.
- Willie Pep: Now synonymous with defensive mastery and sound, technical boxing, Willie Pep famously won a round without throwing a punch. Amassing a career record of 229 (65) – 11 – 1, Pep lost just twice in the decade. He won the featherweight world title against Chalky Wright in 1942 and defended it a number of times before eventually losing it at the hands of his power-punching nemesis, Sandy Saddler, in 1948. He won the title back from Saddler in 1949 and defended it twice more before losing it back to Saddler again in 1950. Before his first fight with Saddler, Pep’s record stood at 134-1-1.
- Ezzard Charles: Charles, “The Cincinnati Cobra”, began boxing professionally in March of 1940, and by the second half of the decade was establishing himself as one of the best light heavyweights of all-time. Charles had a thing for three peats, beating Jimmy Bivins, Archie Moore and Joey Maxim three times in the decade, throwing in wins over Joe Walcott and many other top challengers for good measure. Of course, in the 1950s was when he would break out at heavyweight, defeating Joe Louis.
- Sandy Saddler: Saddler’s title shot didn’t come until 1948, but by then he was a well established, power-punching dynamo, with a lengthy 5’8.5″ frame for the featherweight division. If Pep was slickness defined, than Saddler was punching leverage, as he scored 103 knockouts in 144 wins, against 16 losses and 2 draws.
- Ike Williams: A fantastic lightweight champion, Williams was a rangy lightweight with great power, especially in his right hand. He fought 157 times in his career, winning 127, 61 of which came by knockout. Fought everyone from his era, usually more than once, and made 8 successful defenses of the title he took from Juan Zurita in 1945.
- Billy Conn: Conn’s work as a light heavyweight standout began in the late 1930s, but in the 1940s he reached the highest levels of the sport. Weighing just 174 lbs, Conn challenged a 49-1 Joe Louis in 1941 and was handling the champion through 13 rounds until he was KO’d by the much larger champion. Before rematching Louis, he defeated Tony Zale, and then, well past his prime, was KO’d by Louis in the eighth round of their second meeting in 1946.
- Jake LaMotta: Best remembered from DeNiro’s depiction in Raging Bull¸ and his epic six encounters with all-time best Sugar Ray Robinson, LaMotta had one of the best chins in boxing history, and as much grit and toughness as anyone else. He lost his saga to Robinson, but went 3-1 against Fritzie Zivic and 3-0 against George Kochan. He closed out the decade by winning the middleweight title against Marcel Cerdan in 1949, earning a TKO 10 victory when Cerdan’s corner threw in the towel.
- Marcel Cerdan: Cerdan was killed by a plane crash at the age of 33, abruptly ending the career of the best French boxing champion of all-time. A career record of 113 (66) – 4 ended with a 10th round stoppage loss to Jake LaMotta in 1949, for which a rematch was signed but never came to fruition. Prior to that, Cerdan defeated Tony Zale in the 1948 Ring Magazine Fight of the Year. Cerdan didn’t lose a fight from 1942 until 1948, and when he did, he avenged it some six weeks later with a win.
- Archie Moore: Archie Moore’s career, spanning pieces of four different decades, is an epic saga of boxing. Moore defeated Jimmy Bivins three times in the 40s, but lost his three attempts against Charles, sandwiched in between scores of other bouts in which he was typically successfully. Moore, the Old Mongoose, had a career record of 185 (131) – 23 – 11, and was completely adaptable in the ring, displaying amazing boxing IQ.
- Tony Zale: The middleweight champion and veteran of the United States Navy didn’t fight for four years after losing to Billy Conn in 1942 due to the war. Previously he had made several successful title defenses, and after coming back he KO’d Rocky Graziano to take the title, before losing it back to him and taking it back once more to complete their epic, brutal trilogy. He retired in 1948 after losing to Marcel Cerdan. Zale was involved in three straight Ring Magazine Fights of the Year, from ’46-’48, for two of his bouts against Graziano, and the Cerdan bout.
- Rocky Graziano: Depicted by Paul Newman in the 1956 movie Somebody Up There Likes Me, Graziano only held the title in the midst of his three fight trilogy with Zale, but he was a fight fan’s and working class favorite, all grit and toughness, with 52 KOs in his 67 wins. Graziano was in the 1945 Fight of the Year, also making it three straight for him, and making the Graziano-Zale tandem involved in four straight Fight of the Year battles.
- Jersey Joe Walcott: Joe Walcott came up on the wrong side more often than not against the very best fighters of his era. After giving Joe Louis hell in 1947 and losing a Split Decision, he gave him hell once more before losing by KO in a rematch in 1948. He was 2-2 against Ezzard Charles, but the two wins came in the 1950s and at heavyweight. In the 40s, he was 2-1 against Joey Maxim and defeated Jimmy Bivins.
Biggest Fights of the 1940s
The 1940s was a period of rematches, epic sages and ongoing struggles between some of the eras key fighters. Here’s a look at the biggest multiple fight pairings in the 1940s.
- Zale vs. Graziano Trilogy: The Zale vs. Graziano trilogy was the middleweight, 1940s Vazquez-Marquez, top notch fighters engaging in brutal fights in a short window of time. In 21 months, the two men fought three times, earning both the 1946 and 1947 Fights of the Year from the Ring. Zale won the first by KO6, loss the second by TKO6 and won the third by a 3 round KO. Graziano had been in the 1945 Fight of the Year, and Zale was in the 1948 match against Marcel Cerdan, so each man had a three fight streak, and one or the other was in four straight.
- Robinson vs. LaMotta Sextuplet: Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta battled six times in their careers, five times in the 1940s with the final meeting coming in 1951. Robinson took the first, LaMotta won the second just months later, and then, starting just three weeks later, Robinson won the final four encounters. LaMotta, bigger and stronger, did his best to bull the slick Robinson, but was only successful on the second occasion.
- Louis vs. Conn I, II: The boxing axiom that a good big man beats a good little man could have been coined for this pairing. Conn, light heavyweight, giving up some 30 lbs to the champion, was outboxing Louis for much of their bout and looked to be able to cruise home to a 15 round decision. Louis had other thoughts, finally catching up with Conn in the 13th for a KO. The rematch, very anticipated but coming five years later, was a disappointment, as Louis handled Conn with ease to win via 8th round KO.
- Pep vs. Sandler Fourpeat: Only the first two Willie Pep vs. Sanny Saddler matches were in the 1940s, but the rivalry was done by 1951. Saddler, the younger, rangier fighter with wicked power, stormed the defensive wizard and knocked him out in the fourth round to win the featherweight title. He lost a decision in the second, the 1949 Fight of the Year, before winning the final two encounters down the road.
- Louis vs. Walcott I, II: When Joe Louis met Jersey Joe Walcott in 1947 at Madison Square Garden, he hadn’t lost for 11 years, since the first Schmeling contest. Walcott knocked him down twice in their first meeting, but Louis managed to escape with a Split Decision win. They fought six months later, this time in Yankee Stadium, and Louis went down to the canvas in the third round, but ultimately stopped Walcott in the 11th, as Walcott was unable to build from the quick moment of success early on.
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