By: Aaron Sutcliffe
“Some of the fans are already calling him the greatest champion of all-time” – two minutes and 20 seconds later, Joe Louis has successfully retained his World Heavyweight title for the sixth time.
On the 17th of April 1939, 80 years ago to the day, the “Brown Bomber” was embarking on what remains the longest individual heavyweight championship reign in the history of the sport – 11 years, eight months and eight days.
His victim that Monday evening in April 1939 was Jack Roper, one of 25 opponents Louis would beat as champion.
Alabama born Louis racked up 24 professional wins before suffering his first defeat to German Max Schmeling, who had Louis down in the fourth round before knocking him out in the 12th with the fight named as Ring Magazine’s “Fight of the Year” for 1936.
Louis responded by winning his next seven fights before claiming the Heavyweight title from James J. Braddock, despite being knocked down in the first, which would start his 140-month reign as champion.
He was the clear favourite heading into the Roper bout, having won his previous two fights with first-round knock-outs, which included avenging his sole career loss to Schmeling.
Louis became an American hero with that victory over Schmeling, with the fight being dubbed as Nazism against democracy by American press (despite Schmeling not being a Nazi), becoming one of the first widely admired African American’s.
His opponent, Roper, was on one of the best runs of his well-travelled career, which included impressive back-to-back wins against Patsy Perroni and Jorge Brescia, but lacked consistency as a fighter, having endured 39 professional losses before his bout with Louis.
Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, California, was selected as the venue for the fight, with 25,000 spectators blissfully unaware they were about to witness arguably the greatest boxer of all-time claim yet another first-round knock-out victory.
The “Brown Bomber” weighed in three pounds lighter than the challenger (201lbs to 204lbs) with Roper’s game plan clear from the offset – trying to get on the inside of Louis.
But as Louis once famously quipped: “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit”.
A short, sharp left hook from Louis would be Roper’s downfall after some fiery exchanges of punches between the pair, the champion followed up with several vicious crosses and hooks to the head.
Roper tried to get back to his feet, only to fall back down to the canvas, failing to beat the count as so many of Louis’ foes did, with the first heavyweight title fight in California for 30 years over in just two minutes and 20 seconds.
The pugilist that Louis was meant he showed nothing but respect to his veteran opponent after the bout with the Ludington Daily News reporting that when speaking of Roper, Louis said: “He threw a left that I sure felt and was more than Max Schmeling or John Henry Lewis did”.
Roper painted a blunter picture, saying: “That Louis hits like a load of dynamite”.
Whilst this particularly victory may be forgotten about, considering the legacy Louis’ left not only for boxing but also African American’s, his own words best describe his attitude to life.
“I done the best I could with what I had”.