By Cian Manning
The Brown Bomber, Joseph Louis Barrow more commonly known as Joe Louis had been the longest single reigning champion of any heavyweight in history. He was the world champion from 1937 to 1949 during which he fought 27 championship fights and was victorious in 25 consecutive defences. It would be fair to say that after the US President and the glamour of Hollywood he was the most famous American in the world. In total he fought 69 times, 52 of which he won by knock-out and had three defeats two of which were KO’s. His last fight was on the 26th October at Madison Square Garden where he was sent to the canvas in the 8th round by Rocky Marciano. His sporting prowess wasn’t demonstrated only in the ring, in 1952 he became the first African-American to play at a PGA Tour event when he was invited to play as an amateur golfer in the San Diego Open.
Certainly well past his athletic peak, he was touring Ireland in 1966 and it was hoped during his four day visit that he would take part in a number of exhibition matches. His visit to Ireland was being funded by the Associated Ballrooms Ltd and the schedule was for Louis to appear at the Arcadia in Cahir, the Arch Ballroom in Tallow, and the Majestic Mallow.
The Irish Press in late September noted that Louis was ‘coming mainly as a cabaret artist, but it is hoped to erect boxing rings in the three ballrooms for exhibition bouts against suitable opponents.’ The former champ arrived in Dublin on the 4th October. At 52 years of age and weighing 16 stone it was remarked by many that the years had weighed lightly on him and he noted to the press that boxing was the only sport which gave African-Americans a chance.
Though if things had been different he may have been a violinist or trumpeter. Wanting to be the next Louis Armstrong, he was given a dollar by his mother who preferred him to take violin lessons. The young Louis spent it on boxing lessons in a gymnasium instead.
The aim of Louis’ visits to Ireland was to find a boxer who could compete to become the heavyweight champion of the world with Kerry strongman ‘Butty Sugrue’. One boxer brought to his attention was a Sean O’Regan from Killarney in County Kerry. The Alabama fighter made his way to the Arch in Tallow on Friday 7th October. A brief note of his appearance there was in the Dungarvan Leader 15th October 1966 which read:
Joe Louis At The Arch: Joe Louis, one of the all-time greats of world heavyweight boxing made an appearance at a dance in the Arch Ballroom, Tallow on Friday night. The 52 years old ex-heavyweight champion was in Ireland looking for a future heavyweight hope with the Killorglin, Co. Kerry barn strong man “Butty Sugrue”.
And that was it to the fanfare greeted to the great champion from years past. More detail on that night comes retrospectively from the Avondhu, which noted that the Q&A session was kept in order by radio disc-jock Larry Gogan. While local legend suggests that Tallow native Paulie Harty approached Louis on the street and remarked ‘I want to shake the hand that shook the world’, possibly mistaking Louis for Cassius Clay. There is film footage of the Fitzgerald family, the proprietors of the Arch, having tea with Louis who was relaxing at their home.
The passing of time has seen the Arch become the Tallow Community Centre and the story of Louis’ visit to west Waterford may have faded but forms parts of the wonderful tapestry of a village that had an evening with one of the very great sporting figures.