THE FIGHTER - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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It is always thesame when night reaches for morning. The few old dealers who have survived theemergence of lawyers and syndicate ownership in boxing find it difficult toforget the quite forgotten. When the room is scented with stale drinks and thepresent has been fully tapped by roaming dialogues, they look back and seeforever and sound like those people at certain parties who talk about oldmovies and ask whatever happened to Leon Errol. Only here they recreate pastsubterfuges and summon the ghosts who kept them in cigars. How about the onewho would "go up against a mountain slide" for his manager? Yeah, andhow about the one who ordered his steaks "well to do" and worried aboutgetting a "conclusion of the brain?" Where have all the soldiersgone?

Lou Nova, son ofa concert pianist, holder of the javelin record at Alameda (Calif.) High andonce a part of boxing that is no more, is 51 now—a boxer: old. He belonged tothe '30s, that pernicious, giddy period in the sport's history when Mike Jacobsmanaged managers, and Evil Eye Finkel could achieve a peculiar celebrity. Novacame into the sport with nothing, and he left with nothing. Nobody bilked him,nor, when it was over, did he run from his dream, frightened and desperate, inthe way that so many fighters before and after him have run. He just walkedquickly away from boxing, still a face card, he thought, and not a deuce. Yetif he is mentioned at all these days he is painted as a circus clown, his faceturned upward toward the rain. How do you tell an old fighter, or anyone whohas been cut down by time, that the roar is not great and the round is not oneanymore?

It is afternoon,and it is empty inside the restaurant at a deserted, decrepit resort inEnsenada, Mexico. Lou Nova, straight as a bayonet from the waist up, rises,does a slow bow to the only guy in the place and then begins his act. First herecites Alfred Noyes's The Highwayman, and then says: "Now I'd like to singa song I once wrote. It is called Slapsie Maxie." People are staringthrough the windows. He sings:

A pugilist, soyou are told, seldom achieves mental stature.
But Maxie Rosenbloom, a tough fighting man, was a student of human nature.

And it's veryinteresting to note his philosophy, and I quote:

People very oftenhurt you, love's a thing that folks destroy.
You will find that dames desert you.
But I have found the real McCoy.
Ohhh, I love my little friends the boidies....

"Sorry,"he says, "but I forgot the rest of it." Everybody outside is insidenow, and they are ordering beer and sandwiches and looking at each other. Hecontinues:

"I want tothank Bill Smith for the very nice introduction. He read it just like I wroteit. And it is very nice to have so many people who remember me. In fact, a fewminutes ago a sweet little old lady stopped me on the street and said, 'Well,if you're not Lou Nova I'll eat my hat. What are you doing in town?' And thenshe said, 'I saw you fight Joe Louis in the Polo Grounds before over 56,000people.' I said, 'Is that so?' And she says, 'Yeah, and what happened? All of asudden all the 56,000 stood up and yelled, and when they sat down only Louiswas there. Where were you?' Well, I felt like belting her, but she was a littleold lady and I'm about 10 pounds overweight.

"So Iexplained that boxing is a game of strategy. The strategy that I used to get tothe top was to keep my left jab in my opponent's face for a few rounds. Then Iwould purposely drop my left jab. My opponent would throw his right, and Iwould pull my chin back and make him miss. Then I would drop the cosmic punchon his chin. So I told her that in the sixth round I figured I'd win the title.So I jabbed Louis once more and dropped my left. Louis threw his right. Ipulled my head back. Perfect! Only he cheated. He didn't consider my strategy.And when I awoke he was gone. In fact, everybody was gone. I guess I didn'twant to fight anymore. And that's why I say" (he sings):

The fightbusiness is a right business,
it's not a bright business, I know.
Everything about it is appealing,
when I'm in there slugging toe to toe.
Where else could I get this feeling that keeps revealing I dodged a blow?
There's no business like this blow-by-blow business. You feel no pain. You'rejust numb.
When I fought Joe Louis I was feeling real swell, my puss looked good, I feltreal well.
But when the fight was over Nova looked like hell, so I got out. I'm notdumb.
I really mean it, I'm not dumb.

The people easeout of the place as if they were leaving an accident. "Harry," says onespectator, feigning frustration and slowly hitting each word, "who in thehell is Lou Nova?" Harry does not know either, but he guesses that "hewas somebody once." All of them are gone now, and Lou Nova leans on a tableand raises his body up. Taking birdlike steps, he shuffles outside. "Ithink the routine needs a little work," he says. He passes a window of acabin and stares into it. His face stares back. "Look at this, willya," he says, running his hand through his hair. "It just turned whitea couple of weeks ago. When I caught this strange bug. Now the bug's gone to mylegs."

Lou Nova had hadonly 15 amateur and 18 pro fights when he began training in 1938 for his firstbout with Max Baer. Baer was a brutal right-hand puncher and a harlequin whowas seemingly obsessed by what he called "my fatal beauty." Nova hadwon the national AAU and the international amateur heavyweight championshipsand had pulled something of an upset—as far as his manager, Ray Carlen, wasconcerned—while working at a summer job on the San Francisco bridge; he did notfall off it. Louis, of course, was the champion, but just wait. The literarydepartment of Mike Jacobs was already calling Nova "brilliant," andGrantland Rice asked in a column of verse: "Can Nova carry us back again tothe crest of our long-lost fame?"

The club,however, on Jacobs' Beach remained unmoved, but they had to admit the"bird" did have color. So what if he used big words and kept repeatingthat he was the son of a concert pianist and holder of the javelin record atAlameda High. There was another dimension to Lou. He "ate" air andfoods with "weird" names, and he had become almost narcissistic abouthis body. For the Baer fight, Nova decided to train in Nyack, NY. under thesupervision of a gentleman by the name of "Doctor" Pierre Bernard, whowas better known to the Better Business Bureau as Oom the Omnipotent. Oom, itseems, besides being a disciple of yoga, had once been the curator of amysterious love cult which certain wealthy women found irresistible—if notmysterious.

From the start,the atmosphere appealed to Lou. He had always been fond of animals, and Oom'svast Xanadu included seven elephants, eight assorted monkeys, one llama, onedwarf stallion (28 inches), one lion cub and others. There were also oneelephant bath, a dog track (closed by the law after a few days) and one Theatreof Much Discipline, which Lou could not explain but attended religiously. Healso ate raw vegetables (chased by carrot juice), read Hindu philosophy, rodethe elephants like Sabu, did some of his exercises while hanging from a treeand knelt in front of Oom and practiced controlling his stomach muscles. Whencamp closed, Oom was overwhelmed by pride. He gave Nova the title ofParamahamsa, which meant Lou really did have a brain in addition to a body."Baer's in for trouble," said Nova. "He not only has to worry aboutmy muscle, he has to fight my mind."

Nova's mind washardly a factor the night of the Baer fight in Yankee Stadium. Hitting with thebacks of their gloves and after the bell, the two spat blood, dripped blood andslobbered blood. Baer could hardly see, and he was constantly choking from theblood he had been swallowing from a large gash inside his mouth. Nova won by atechnical knockout in the 11th round. Still, Joe Louis, who saw the fight,"walked—did not run—to the nearest exit," as John Kieran wrote. Thefans did not agree. Joe Louis would get his. Sure, said Lou, proclaiminghimself a "man of destiny," but first there was the matter of themouth-flapping, beer-swilling beach ball from New Jersey.

Primordial andcavalier, Tony Galento never did reach the hearts of YMCA instructors or thePierce Egan purists, who thought he should have been on a waterfront with ahook in his hand; Tony's one regret in life was that he never fouled Joe Louis.The art of the sport was for the writers, not Tony. Once asked to explain hisability to punch up, Galento said: "Punch up, punch down? What the hell'sthe difference?" He was not a good fighter, but seldom has there ever beenone who appealed more to the atavism of the crowd. Nova, however, was notworried about Galento. He knew of Tony's leviathan appetite (he was supposed tohave eaten 52 hot dogs one afternoon before a fight) and thirst. Tony couldnever be physically able to handle a fighter who had trained under Oom and hadfound the secret to life and a healthy body. Nova was also amused that Galentowas training for the fight by boxing a kangaroo.

The fight inPhiladelphia in 1939 was simply Saturday night in the wrong section of town.The Nova-Baer bloodletting had repelled the Carry Nations of the sport, butNova-Galento would stand as one of the goriest fights in ring history; insteadof water, there were buckets of blood in each corner. Nova went down fivetimes. When he did not knock Nova down, Galento dragged his "kill"down, his knees banging like jackhammers at the body. Finally the refereestopped the fight in the 14th round. He feared that Nova was going blind. Sodid Nova. Galento's thumbs had been in his eyes all night. It was Galento'sfinest moment. Never before had a referee allowed him such complete expression.Nova was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, and for days he lived in avacuum. When he was released he went back to California and fell off ahorse.

Nineteen monthspassed before Nova fought again. Max Baer was the opponent once more in April1941 in the Garden. Lou was relatively withdrawn before the fight, and it wasobvious he had changed. He had become quite suspicious of the people in boxing,especially those around him. He suspected that Carlen had started to ridiculehim in private by referring to him as "my bum." He was also fearful ofbecoming punch-drunk, and he began to despise Carlen for not stopping theGalento fight earlier. Consequently, about half an hour before the Baer fighthe angrily cleared his dressing room. Alone, he went through a yoga ritual. Oneof the beach boys, who supposedly had his ear pressed against the door, said heheard Nova "talkin' in strange woids, so I flees da premises." WhateverNova was doing did not matter. Baer was not the man he had been in the firstfight, and Nova won easily. Lou's explanation to the press was that during hislayoff he had discovered a "cosmic" punch and a "dynamic"stance. The former, he said, was dependent upon the movement of the earth."It's a new idea about punching," he said, "and I'm going over toRadio City tomorrow to illustrate it." Remarked a critic from Stillman'swho was there the next day: "I wish his t'ing luck." He would need it.Nova had always had a desire to "live dangerously" because his fatherdied at age 31, and now he was finally going to get a chance to realize thatdesire fully on September 29, 1941 against Joe Louis.

Before the fight,Lou took long swims in the Pacific Ocean and tried to explain his cosmic punch,"straight from the seventh vertebra, center of balance." He honestlybelieved the punch was already scaring and baffling Louis. Publicly Joe said,"This will be my last successful title defense." Privately he told hismanager: "Look, this boy is going to give me the toughest fight of mycareer." Louis was a 13-to-5 favorite, but he would play a very minor rolein the high comedy that evolved. Sure, it was a cold night, but why was Novadoing all that jumping around? Louis, except for cruel explorations with hisleft and a couple of good right hands, just let him jump; Louis seemed a trifleamused. Then in the sixth round Nova stopped jumping and began pumping his armsout stiffly like a dude shooting his cuffs. When he stopped, Louis began, andthen finally caught him with his locomotive right. "I knew I had him,"said Joe, "when he made them funny motions with his hands." Louapologized for his cosmic punch. "The earth," he said, "was notturning properly." Said Columnist Dan Parker: "Lou doesn't know how tospell. The s doesn't belong in the word." Several days later Nova's managerand trainer received suspensions for advising their fighter to wait until thesixth round before stepping in front of the locomotive.

Nova fought for awhile after that, served as a lieutenant in the National Guard during the waryears, but then he finally quit boxing. He still kept getting hit, though. Oneday he was currying a horse, and the horse kicked over a can of butane gas. Itexploded, and Lou received a severe concussion. Later his wife divorced him.Her mother said that Lou had a habit of resting his bare feet up on the dinnertable "right next to my lemon meringue pie!" Lou plunged intointrospection. The action was all gone. He was bored. Once he sent a bunch ofpostcards to writers throughout the country, saying: "I just wanted to getthese in the mail before the postage goes up." What could he do to make itall seem like round one again? He decided to work up a nightclub routine; hewould be the classic pug. During an appearance in Albuquerque he was asked todo a guest column for the paper. Quoting his friends, Lou wrote: "Lou, youwere born 10 years too soon. Fighters you beat could have taken Rocky Marcianoeasily." Lou agreed, and went on to say that, had he fought Marciano,"I would be lighting my cigars with $10 bills instead of hitchhiking fromtown to town on this tour." After that it occurred to him that he mightlike writing a column, so he syndicated one called "I See Stars."Editors, however, did not.

Inspired by thestage success of his old totem, Gentleman Jim Corbett, Nova then directed hisenergies toward acting. He began reading Shakespeare aloud and alone in hisroom, and then he took acting lessons. Summer stock and a few movies followed.In one film called Love and Learn he appeared as a dance-happy mug; MarthaVickers, with whom he danced, was prevailed upon to wear a set of protectivealuminum caps in the toes of her shoes. By now Lou was reasonably pleased withhis progress and confident that once more he was near the action. The futurelooked good—that is, until May 17, 1953 when he began reading an account in theLos Angeles Examiner of the one-round Marciano-Walcott title fight.

Columnist VincentX. Flaherty was lacing Walcott for a nauseating performance, and to show acontrast he dredged up some gallant efforts of the past. "Lesscreditable," continued Flaherty, "were the cowardly appearances againstLouis of Max Baer and Lou Nova. Nova was like a frightened, screaming child atvaccination time. He didn't throw a punch, but got hit by only one and seemedhappy about the whole defeat. They lugged his carcass and towed it in abjectdisgrace back toward his corner. He smiled bravely in the safety of hisdressing room, wiping out the manliness of every victory he had ever won."Nova sued Flaherty and the Hearst Publishing Company for $200,000. "Sincethe article," he complained, "doors have been closed in my face."People from the motion picture industry urged Nova to drop the suit for his ownsake. Nova pressed for a retraction. Flaherty refused, and the trial by jurybegan in May 1955. Nova was now living in New York and appearing as Big Juliein a revival of Guys and Dolls.

Placed in theposition of having to prove that Nova had been, indeed, a coward, the defenserolled out its guns, heavy pieces in the form of depositions by Joe Louis andGene Tunney and post-fight columns. Nova hung his head as the "vicious andvitriolic comments" from the columns were read into the record. The mostdamaging testimony, however, came in Louis' deposition. "It seemed Nova wasscared," said Joe. How could he tell? "Well," he answered, "youlook another fighter in the face and you know whether he's afraid from whetherhe looks you in the eye or not." Well, would he say that Nova was cowardlyduring the fight? "The only thing I can say," said Joe, "is that heseemed to me like he was a little whether that makes him a coward,I don't know. He didn't have the spirit to win...I don't think so."Tunney's deposition was equally searing.

The prosecutionhad its moments, too. There was, of course, Nova's firm denial of cowardice andthe testimony of Los Angeles Times Sports Editor Paul Zimmerman. Zimmerman, whohad been at the fight, testified that he did not think Nova exhibited cowardiceor behaved like a frightened, screaming child. "He was not in a position todefend himself," he testified. "He was slow. Louis was knocking himfrom post to post." Flaherty was also called to the stand and confrontedwith pictures of the fight. Did Lou Nova, he was asked, look to be a coward inthe photographs? Flaherty had said that on the night of the fight Nova looked"white as a sheet" to him; it was also pointed out that Flaherty wasnot present in the dressing room following the fight, and he had relied on acolleague for a description.

The jury soughtits verdict for three hours. Was a man who climbed into the ring with Joe Louisfor six rounds a coward? In the end the jury could not digest the word"cowardly." Nova was awarded $35,000. Later the California AppellateCourt reversed the verdict. "That's all right," said Lou. "I don'tcare about the money. I just wanted to be vindicated and I was—by thepeople."

Back in New York,Nova was now appearing as Spike, a pugilistic friend of Anthony J. DrexelBiddle in a Broadway play called The Happiest Millionaire. The star was WalterPidgeon, whom Lou eventually came to dislike. "Before we hit New York,we're on the road," said Lou, "and every town we hit I'm getting allthe ink. The Pidgeon doesn't like it at all. All of a sudden, every time Istart to read my lines, he's whispering, 'Play it down, play it down!'"Nova later left the play. His reason was that he wanted to go intotraining "in order that I can resume my poetry recitals, which were such abig hit at that church last year." He sharpened up his iambs with privatelessons, and by spring of 1956 he was ready for Carnegie Hall and a recitalsponsored and promoted by Lou Nova.

Lou had"Sonnetside"—a play on ringside—printed on the tickets, and on thenight of the performance he poked fun at himself by bringing two"heavies" along with him. One was a tag-team wrestler, and the otherwas an old sparring partner named Mike O'Dowd, who wore a tuxedo. O'Dowd kepthis eyes on the house and fought off the urge to smoke a cigar. "I'd liketo," he said, "but it wouldn't look right." At the entrance Lou,wearing a dinner jacket and holding programs under his arm, tried to harnesshis galloping nerves by conducting informal poetry symposiums with anyone whostood still. He was quite serious, and he desperately wanted people tounderstand that this was a very big thing for him, but he knew he was all aloneand he knew the audience would be there just to scoff at him, to vandalize hisspirit as if it were the hide of some magnificent old elephant gathering dustin a museum. Once on stage, though, he hid his intensity by playing it forlaughs. He belted a couple of dreadful poems by Robert Service and Edgar Guest.He then did The Kid's Last Fight, Gunga Din and Polonius' advice to Laertes."Here's where I tackle the champ," Lou said, seating himself on achair. Shakespeare did not fall easily.

He chose TheHighwayman for his finale, and he threw combinations while handling the lineabout the moon being a ghostly galleon, and he ran his hand through his hairwhen he became Bess, the landlord's daughter. Taking his leave, he said to theaudience: "I want you to know that I am grateful that you appreciate me asan actor and not just as a fighter." Frank Fay, a fine actor, said that wasjust absolutely brilliant. "His best line of the night!" said Fay."A throw-away, but it was legitimate." Lou told reporters that heplanned to make his recital an "annual spring affair." The publicbelieved him. Only 52 people showed up the next year. Exit Lou Nova.

He has beentalking for a long time now of the '30s and Mike Jacobs. His mother, who isthere to nurse him, is in the kitchen. She calls: "Lou, are you warmenough? Would you like an egg sandwich?" Lou, who is lying in bed, says,no, he would not like an egg sandwich but he could do with a nice cup of hottea. A close friend named Les enters the room.

"Les, we gotto get out of here," says Lou. There is a quiet desperation in his voice."I got to get my leg in a mineral bath. It's the only thing'll help it. Youtouted me on this place, and we can't even get up there."

"I know,"says Les, "but I didn't know the road to the one around here would bewashed out." Lou broods for a moment. "I know," says Lou, draggingthe words out.

The next dayLes's Cadillac leaves Ensenada for Desert Hot Springs, Calif. Les is driving,Lou's mother is next to him and Lou is in the back seat pinned in by luggage.Except for the crackling of a lunch bag, out of which Lou is eating hard-boiledeggs, it is a quiet, strange trip. "Les," says Lou's mother, "I'mthirsty. Let's stop." Lou does not want to stop. He must get to the mineralbaths! He relents after a 40-mile debate.

"Lou has beenvery sick," his mother says while at the rest stop.

"He catchsome sort of bug?"

"Oh, no!"she says. "It's arthritis. It runs in the family. He's been in the hospitalfor a month."

"Is that whenhis hair turned white?"

"No, his hairhas been white for three years. He's been dyeing it, but I talked him out ofit."

The trip resumes,and Lou remains silent except for one moment of sudden reflection. "Youknow," he says, "I have always just gone along with the tide. I neverwanted a whole lot." At Desert Hot Springs, Lou struggles out from underthe luggage and stares at a steaming mineral bath. "I'll lick this damn bughere," he says. He then shakes hands with his visitor and says, "Well,you have it all. Lou Nova the fighter, the actor and the inventor."

Several weekslater a large envelope arrived containing a page out of a newspaper, a mailingpiece and a letter. The newspaper page was entitled "Women Today." Theword "Society" in the article was underlined by blue pencil. Themailing piece, a flyer Nova had gotten up, showed a woman turned upside down ona padded metal frame, and the text urged the reader to strengthen his weakback, massage his internal organs, correct his dropped abdomen, refresh his dryskin and tone and firm his "measendature" by using the Yogi Nova—a"Lou Nova Invention, which has already been recognized as a contribution tothe 6,000 year old Indian science." The letter explained: "Am back inHollywood about 99% back to normal. Am flipping up on the Isometric Yogi Novalike I was 25 again. I guess I will have to give up playing football. That waskind of a bad accident, falling on my back when catching that pass. You know itput me in the hospital for two weeks, and took me about three more to get well.Les is coming over soon. We are going to take a steam bath at the hotel. Theysell my Yogis there at the Health Club. Had a nice recovery at Desert HotSprings. Also came away with a nice tan." Eventually, too, Nova came awaywith three good movie parts, including his old role in The HappiestMillionaire.

Hidden, butleaping from the letter, was another message, one that the reader must feel andunderstand. Nova was saying that he was not in Ensenada anymore, that he wasnot a loser or just one more pitiable example of the classic aftermath of thefighter and that, man, he is not ready for Saturday nights with Lawrence Welkand a hot cup of tea. He was saying that he had always been sort of The HappyScuffler, and that now he was sure to be a successful inventor who would be (asthe enclosed article related) a big hit once again, stretching his legs, doingbody bends, standing on his head and doing a ringlike dance to show hisnimbleness—right in the fanciest department store in L.A. Just read theletterhead, Jack, and then forget about the trumpets crying low. It reads: NOVASTANDS THE WORLD ON ITS HEAD! It also tells what he was, is and always willbe—the javelin record holder from Alameda High just trying to keep his namescrawled on the subway wall forever.



In controversial bout for the heavyweight championship that ended in a celebrated lawsuit, Nova winces under a hard right to the chin thrown by Joe Louis.


Training for his fight with Max Baer, Nova knelt before Oom the Omnipotent, a disciple of yoga who taught him how to gain control of his stomach muscles.


Lou and friend go upside down for a healthful chat. The frame supporting them is the Yogi Nova, Lou's invention, which he calls a "contribution" to yoga.


Nova lights cigar with stage money to publicize his role in "The Happiest Millionaire."