Jab From the Past : With New Fight Facing Him, Lou Nova Focuses On the Many Memories of a Memorable Boxing Career

Times Staff Writer

The old heavyweight pointed to the photographs on the wall, to the framed black-and-white of his 1941 bout against Joe Louis, and to another showing his knockout of Max Baer.

"Max Baer . . . ," Lou Nova said quietly. "Max Baer could hit harder than anyone. Harder than Sonny Liston. . . . Harder than Tyson? Oh, my yes. Listen, Mike Tyson isn't a great fighter yet. He will be, but he isn't yet."

In the late 1930s, the 6-foot 2-inch, 200-pound Nova came out of Alameda, Calif., with a crackling left jab, a knockout right hand and a dream that he would be the man to take Louis' heavyweight championship.

Lou Nova thinks a lot about the old days. Though a fit-looking 75, he is battling cancer.

James J. Corbett, like Nova, was a heavyweight from the Bay Area. In 1892, Corbett dethroned John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship.

"I can't get over the coincidence between Corbett and me," Nova said. "We're both from the same area, we both represented the San Francisco Olympic Club, we were both world amateur boxing champions, we were both prominent pro heavyweights, we both became Broadway actors, we were the only two boxers ever admitted to the Lamb's Club (for actors) in New York, and he died of cancer.

"Now I've got it. How do you like that? Makes you wonder . . . "

The morning sun was warming the sun porch in Nova's Las Vegas mobile home. The memories came tumbling down.

Of the 20 men Louis defeated during his championship years, Nova is one of the more interesting ones.

Born in Hollywood, Nova was the son of a symphony pianist. In the mid-1930s, he was a standout football player and javelin thrower at Alameda High School. He was recruited to play football at UC Davis, where he was, for one season, a single-wing tailback.

"If pro football players made any money in those days, I probably would have wound up playing pro ball," he said.

Of course, no one made much money in those days. Nova recalled a visit to a downtown Oakland boxing gym.

"Amateur boxing was very big in those days," he said. "Every big city in the country had thousands of amateur boxers. So I was a good high school athlete, and I figured I could box, too. So one day I walked into Duffy's Gym, around 1935. I was wearing cardboard soles in my shoes.

"Duffy's Gym was in the seedy part of town. The trainer there, Harold Broom, also owned a bar in the neighborhood, and the boxers who used the gym could always get a free bowl of hot stew at the bar. I lived on that stew.

"Well, I learned pretty quickly. I was the national (and world) amateur heavyweight champion in 1935. Max Baer's first manager, Ham Lorimar, was around the gym a lot, and he became my first manager, until he sold my contract for $10,000 to Ray Carlin."

Nova turned pro in 1936 and won his first 20 bouts, until losing a decision to Maxie Rosenbloom at Hollywood Legion Stadium in 1938. Nova then easily decisioned Britain's Tommy Farr before achieving his breakthrough victory, an 11th-round knockout of Baer in 1939.

"After that, I knew I'd eventually get my shot at Louis," Nova recalled. "So I signed for a fight with Tony Galento, with the winner guaranteed a shot at Louis. The Galento fight ruined me."

Nova fought Galento in Philadelphia. As The Times' Jim Murray described it decades later, "Galento should have been arrested that night for practicing surgery without a license."

The referee finally stopped it, in the 14th, and declared Galento the winner. The Associated Press reporter described the referee's shirt as blood-soaked "from collar to waist."

The reporter also called it "the most brutal bout of modern times."

"I was never the same after that fight," Nova said.

"See, my trainer then was Ray Arcel. Ray's still around. People think he's some kind of boxing genius. Let me tell you something. Ray Arcel didn't know anything about boxing. He'd never been a fighter. I never forgave him for letting that fight go that long.

"I'd never taken a beating before. I always assumed when you're taking a bad beating, your corner stops it. Mine didn't.

"They put me in the hospital for three days. To this day, I have no memory of anything in that fight after the third round, including the three days in the hospital.

"Physically, I bounced back. But mentally, never. I subconsciously promised myself never to let myself take that kind of beating again. I finally got my chance with Louis. But I wasn't the same fighter. I was cautious, very conservative. I really believe I'd have beaten him had I never fought Galento.

"Years later, people who knew Louis told me that Louis was afraid of me. He knew I'd beaten Tommy Farr worse than he did, but that it really bothered him that I'd knocked out Baer twice. And he knew that I had the best left jab in boxing in those days.

"Looking back on it all, I really believe I was the worst-managed fighter in history. I had ability, I'd shown that. All my life, I've wondered how far I'd have gone if my corner had stopped that Galento fight early."

Arcel, who turns 89 next month, seemed surprised when told Nova blamed him for the length of his beating by Galento.

"I'm sorry Lou feels that way," Arcel said. "I was his trainer, but I had no authority to stop the fight. Ray Carlin was his manager, he was in the corner, and he was in complete charge.

"Lou Nova was a courageous and talented heavyweight. He had talent. At his best, he would've given any heavyweight in any era a lot of trouble."

Louis-Nova, on Sept. 29, 1941, was witnessed by 56,549 at New York's Polo Grounds. It isn't on anyone's best-remembered list. Nova, boxing cautiously, largely avoided contact with the stalking Louis, until Louis knocked him out with one right hand in the sixth round.

After expenses, the 27 year old returned to Southern California with a check for $125,000, wondering how best to invest it.

"This banker was recommended to me, a guy named Davis," Nova recalled, starting to laugh. "I'd found this piece of property in the farm country of the San Fernando Valley, near Van Nuys. It was a four-bedroom, three-bath house on 6 acres, with fruit orchards. It also had a guest house and stables. Remember, this is 1941.

"It was on the market for $25,000. So I asked this Davis guy for advice, and he said: 'Nova, you go ahead and buy that place if you really want it, but don't sink a lot of money into it, because that farmland out there (in the San Fernando Valley) will never be worth anything. If you'll take my advice, you'll put that money in long-term, 3% bonds.'

"I bought the place anyway. And when my wife divorced me in 1954, she wound up with the whole thing anyway."

Nova broke up, laughing heartily at the story.

Nova and Louis later became friends. Louis also lived in Las Vegas in his last years, working for Caesars Palace. He died in 1981.

"Joe and I became closer as we got older," he said. "I saw him maybe once a week in his last years."

After he left boxing in 1944, Nova took up acting. He appeared on stage in "Guys & Dolls" and still performs, when he's feeling well, as a stand-up comic. In the 1960s, Nova was selling a padded stool-like exercise device that enabled people to easily stand on their heads.

Nova has always had a thing about standing on his head. For 40 years, he has been convinced that headstanding would cure baldness, face wrinkles, hypertension, double chins, disk trouble, halitosis, sinus trouble, deafness, hemophilia, constipation and tooth decay.

He had a contraption he called the Yogi Nova. He pointed to one in his bedroom. It had aluminum legs, and raised, padded arms where the shoulders rested.

"I sold thousands of those things, for $20 apiece," he said.

Nova said he learned of the wonders of headstanding decades ago from a yoga instructor, Dr. Pierre Bernard, also known as "Oom the Omnipotent."

"Walk with your head up and your heart has to work too hard pumping all that blood to it," he said.

As Nova has always said after fighting Galento, if he's an expert on anything, it's blood.

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