The Champ visits Rochester in the ring
Joe Louis faced Iowa-born boxer Orian Ott in a four-round exhibition bout.
Technically, Joe Louis was still the heavyweight boxing champion of the world — a title he had held since 1937.
But when Louis stepped into the ring on Jan. 19, 1949, at Mayo Civic Auditorium for a four-round exhibition bout, he was only months away from announcing his first retirement from the ring. That didn’t matter to the auditorium record crowd of 4,051 who squeezed into the building to see Louis fight.
Most had never seen Louis in person. They had read about his fights in the newspaper, listened to them on the radio, and maybe had seen highlights in a newsreel at the movie theater.
So this was a special occasion for local fight fans. Louis, perhaps the most well-known Black sportsman in the world at the time, was as much a cultural icon as he was an athlete. He had famously enlisted in the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor, saying he was ready to engage in a different kind of fight for his country.
Now on a tour of exhibition bouts, Louis signed to fight in Rochester despite being scheduled to box the next night in St. Paul. His opponent for the Rochester bout was fellow heavyweight Orian Ott. It was not expected to be much of a challenge for Louis, who had won 25 consecutive bouts in defense of his title.
“Reasonably enough, fight fans of this area want a look at Louis while he still wears the crown, although the way Joe is going, the period could be extended indefinitely,” the Post-Bulletin said in previewing the exhibition bout.
On the other hand, Louis was not exactly in title form these days. He stepped into the Rochester ring, “carrying a slight spare tire at 223 pounds” and “somewhat slower on his feet,” according to the Post-Bulletin.
The champ had arrived in Rochester that afternoon and settled in for a short rest before going to the auditorium. His fight was scheduled to be the event of the night, following preliminary bouts by the likes of up-and-coming contender Vince Donnelly of Minneapolis, Tiny Robinson of Chicago, and Baby Boy Wolcott of St. Paul.
As for Ott, he was “no set-up,” according to the Post-Bulletin. Ott, a former amateur champion, had won 18 of his 19 professional fights, 15 of them by knockouts.
But even with that stellar record, Ott was destined to be outclassed by Louis, despite the champ’s diminished skills.
Indeed, in the second round of their fight, Louis had already caused Ott to have a bloody nose. By the fourth round, Louis was rocketing both lefts and rights to Ott’s face. “Twice he pumped five quick lefts in succession to Ott’s head,” the PB reported. His hands were “as fast as ever.”
According to the newspaper, “Joe shuffled in, bobbing his head and kept Ott missing with lefts.” Ott had little chance to land a punch on Louis.
Then, just like that, after four rounds, the fight was over. It wasn’t much of a challenge for Louis, who through his press agent said he was “very happy” with the bout and with the Rochester crowd that turned out to see him.
Six weeks later, Louis would announce his retirement from the ring. But troubles with the IRS caused Louis to attempt a comeback in 1951. When he was soundly defeated by Rocky Marciano on Oct. 26, 1951, Louis retired for good.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.