SI Vault
Mark Kram
December 12, 1966
It is always the same when night reaches for morning. The few old dealers who have survived the emergence of lawyers and syndicate ownership in boxing find it difficult to forget the quite forgotten. When the room is scented with stale drinks and the present has been fully tapped by roaming dialogues, they look back and see forever and sound like those people at certain parties who talk about old movies and ask whatever happened to Leon Errol. Only here they recreate past subterfuges and summon the ghosts who kept them in cigars. How about the one who would "go up against a mountain slide" for his manager? Yeah, and how about the one who ordered his steaks "well to do" and worried about getting a "conclusion of the brain?" Where have all the soldiers gone?
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December 12, 1966

The Fighter

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The people ease out of the place as if they were leaving an accident. "Harry," says one spectator, feigning frustration and slowly hitting each word, "who in the hell is Lou Nova?" Harry does not know either, but he guesses that "he was somebody once." All of them are gone now, and Lou Nova leans on a table and raises his body up. Taking birdlike steps, he shuffles outside. "I think the routine needs a little work," he says. He passes a window of a cabin and stares into it. His face stares back. "Look at this, will ya," he says, running his hand through his hair. "It just turned white a couple of weeks ago. When I caught this strange bug. Now the bug's gone to my legs."

Lou Nova had had only 15 amateur and 18 pro fights when he began training in 1938 for his first bout with Max Baer. Baer was a brutal right-hand puncher and a harlequin who was seemingly obsessed by what he called "my fatal beauty." Nova had won the national AAU and the international amateur heavyweight championships and had pulled something of an upset—as far as his manager, Ray Carlen, was concerned—while working at a summer job on the San Francisco bridge; he did not fall off it. Louis, of course, was the champion, but just wait. The literary department of Mike Jacobs was already calling Nova "brilliant," and Grantland Rice asked in a column of verse: "Can Nova carry us back again to the 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 repeating that he was the son of a concert pianist and holder of the javelin record at Alameda High. There was another dimension to Lou. He "ate" air and foods with "weird" names, and he had become almost narcissistic about his body. For the Baer fight, Nova decided to train in Nyack, NY. under the supervision of a gentleman by the name of "Doctor" Pierre Bernard, who was better known to the Better Business Bureau as Oom the Omnipotent. Oom, it seems, besides being a disciple of yoga, had once been the curator of a mysterious love cult which certain wealthy women found irresistible—if not mysterious.

From the start, the atmosphere appealed to Lou. He had always been fond of animals, and Oom's vast Xanadu included seven elephants, eight assorted monkeys, one llama, one dwarf stallion (28 inches), one lion cub and others. There were also one elephant bath, a dog track (closed by the law after a few days) and one Theatre of Much Discipline, which Lou could not explain but attended religiously. He also ate raw vegetables (chased by carrot juice), read Hindu philosophy, rode the elephants like Sabu, did some of his exercises while hanging from a tree and knelt in front of Oom and practiced controlling his stomach muscles. When camp closed, Oom was overwhelmed by pride. He gave Nova the title of Paramahamsa, 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 about my muscle, he has to fight my mind."

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

Primordial and cavalier, Tony Galento never did reach the hearts of YMCA instructors or the Pierce Egan purists, who thought he should have been on a waterfront with a hook 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 his ability to punch up, Galento said: "Punch up, punch down? What the hell's the difference?" He was not a good fighter, but seldom has there ever been one who appealed more to the atavism of the crowd. Nova, however, was not worried about Galento. He knew of Tony's leviathan appetite (he was supposed to have eaten 52 hot dogs one afternoon before a fight) and thirst. Tony could never be physically able to handle a fighter who had trained under Oom and had found the secret to life and a healthy body. Nova was also amused that Galento was training for the fight by boxing a kangaroo.

The fight in Philadelphia in 1939 was simply Saturday night in the wrong section of town. The Nova-Baer bloodletting had repelled the Carry Nations of the sport, but Nova-Galento would stand as one of the goriest fights in ring history; instead of water, there were buckets of blood in each corner. Nova went down five times. When he did not knock Nova down, Galento dragged his "kill" down, his knees banging like jackhammers at the body. Finally the referee stopped the fight in the 14th round. He feared that Nova was going blind. So did Nova. Galento's thumbs had been in his eyes all night. It was Galento's finest 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 a vacuum. When he was released he went back to California and fell off a horse.

Nineteen months passed before Nova fought again. Max Baer was the opponent once more in April 1941 in the Garden. Lou was relatively withdrawn before the fight, and it was obvious he had changed. He had become quite suspicious of the people in boxing, especially those around him. He suspected that Carlen had started to ridicule him in private by referring to him as "my bum." He was also fearful of becoming punch-drunk, and he began to despise Carlen for not stopping the Galento fight earlier. Consequently, about half an hour before the Baer fight he angrily cleared his dressing room. Alone, he went through a yoga ritual. One of the beach boys, who supposedly had his ear pressed against the door, said he heard Nova "talkin' in strange woids, so I flees da premises." Whatever Nova was doing did not matter. Baer was not the man he had been in the first fight, and Nova won easily. Lou's explanation to the press was that during his layoff 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 to Radio City tomorrow to illustrate it." Remarked a critic from Stillman's who 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 father died at age 31, and now he was finally going to get a chance to realize that desire 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 honestly believed the punch was already scaring and baffling Louis. Publicly Joe said, "This will be my last successful title defense." Privately he told his manager: "Look, this boy is going to give me the toughest fight of my career." Louis was a 13-to-5 favorite, but he would play a very minor role in the high comedy that evolved. Sure, it was a cold night, but why was Nova doing all that jumping around? Louis, except for cruel explorations with his left and a couple of good right hands, just let him jump; Louis seemed a trifle amused. Then in the sixth round Nova stopped jumping and began pumping his arms out stiffly like a dude shooting his cuffs. When he stopped, Louis began, and then finally caught him with his locomotive right. "I knew I had him," said Joe, "when he made them funny motions with his hands." Lou apologized for his cosmic punch. "The earth," he said, "was not turning properly." Said Columnist Dan Parker: "Lou doesn't know how to spell. The s doesn't belong in the word." Several days later Nova's manager and trainer received suspensions for advising their fighter to wait until the sixth round before stepping in front of the locomotive.

Nova fought for a while after that, served as a lieutenant in the National Guard during the war years, but then he finally quit boxing. He still kept getting hit, though. One day he was currying a horse, and the horse kicked over a can of butane gas. It exploded, 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 dinner table "right next to my lemon meringue pie!" Lou plunged into introspection. The action was all gone. He was bored. Once he sent a bunch of postcards to writers throughout the country, saying: "I just wanted to get these in the mail before the postage goes up." What could he do to make it all seem like round one again? He decided to work up a nightclub routine; he would be the classic pug. During an appearance in Albuquerque he was asked to do a guest column for the paper. Quoting his friends, Lou wrote: "Lou, you were born 10 years too soon. Fighters you beat could have taken Rocky Marciano easily." Lou agreed, and went on to say that, had he fought Marciano, "I would be lighting my cigars with $10 bills instead of hitchhiking from town to town on this tour." After that it occurred to him that he might like writing a column, so he syndicated one called "I See Stars." Editors, however, did not.

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