From: Norm Johnson
For: August 3, 2015
A MAN NAMED JOE
During a person’s lifetime, you are confronted by choices that can honestly make a difference in your life. There are often roads in front of you, and unknowingly you have to make a decision—hopefully you take the right path. You may get it right the first time, and most often for me at least, you may take the wrong road. I definitely made a few bad choices early in my life! Then one day I got a chance of a lifetime. Finely! I truly believe God saw something in me and decided to reach down and give me one more chance. And, I was smart enough to sense it, and to accept it! Thank God, because I’m here to write about it.
Norm Johnson, Ramona Johnson, Joe Louis, Nick Adams, and Carol Nugent Adams at Louis' Home 1962
I first met a man named Joe who truly changed my life, and turned me down a path that led me to meet some of the greatest people on earth. He set my life in a direction that would carry me to the four corners of the world, where I would meet a Queen of England, a beautiful Princess, three Presidents of the United States, and stars of every dimension fromJohn Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, to Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. I would work with entertainers such as Robert Goulet, Wayne Newton and Johnny Cash, and businessmen like Steve Wynn, Bill Bennett, and Del Webb. I would end up living in the Greatest City in the World, Las Vegas, where I have lived for the past 50 years, and where my three daughters, Robin, Denise and Lisa, were raised, and where my five grandkids, and eight great-grandkids live.
I met Joe in late 1960, in Los Angeles, California. I was at an attorney’s office on some legal (I was employed as an investigator for the Nick Harris Detective Agency) business. Martha (the attorney) who in 1957-58 was one of the attorneys who represented Jimmy Hoffa during the Senate hearings in Washington D.C. Known as the McClellan Hearings, it was headed up by Senator John McClellan and a young John F. Kennedy. As we were talking, a very big man entered the office. I immediately recognized him, and immediately connected his last name to the attorney’s name! I was actually talking to the “Greatest Heavyweight Champion of all time.” Wow! Of course, I had no idea that this informal meeting with Joe Louis, would change my life forever!
After a very strong handshake, Joe introduced Sammy Snitzer to Martha Louis (his wife) and then to me. Sammy wasa former sports reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News newspaper, and Joe had just hired Sammy to be his director of publicity for United World Enterprise (UWE), which had been formed by Louis and businessman, John Horn, to promote major fights in the Los Angeles area. Before I left Mrs. Louis’ office that afternoon I had a new job: Assistant to Snitzer.
United World Enterprise started out small, holding a couple of local fights in Santa Monica to let the world know that Joe Louis was back and in the fight game. Aileen Eaton, wife of promoter Cal Eaton (they owned the Olympic Auditorium at 1801 South Grand in downtown Los Angeles), pretty much controlled boxing in Southern California, and supposedly was happy to see Joe Louis in the business of promoting boxing. We all knew, she much preferred that she have no competition. But, that’s a story for another day.
One of the first major fights promoted by the new group was a middleweight bout between the dancing man himself,“Sugar” Ray Robinson, and the “Fighting Mormon” from Utah, Gene Fullmer. The fight was staged on Dec. 3, 1960, in the new Los Angeles Sports Arena, next door to the world famous Coliseum. It was heavily promoted as a showdown fight, being it was their third encounter, with each having a win. The bout went the distance ending in a draw.
Muhammad Ali (photo when he was Cassius Clay), His brother Rahaman Ali, and Norm Johnson
Another important fight promoted by the group came in April, 1962: The first west coast fight for a young heavyweight, who had turned professional after winning a Gold Medal in the 1960 Olympics--Cassius Clay. This fight was the second major promotion by Louis. Clay (later to become known as Muhammad Ali), had fought a number of minor fights leading up to this fight at the Los Angeles Sports Arena against heavyweight, George Logan.. The fight was scheduled for 10 rounds, but Clay won with a TKO in the fourth round. Louis promoted two other major fights involving Clay: Alejandro Lavorante, who lost in five rounds in July, 1962, and against his former trainer, and the light-heavyweight champion,Archie Moore. Moore was knocked down three times in the fourth round and the fight was stopped.
Other fights of prominence produced by our group were the Mexican Independence Day fightat the Los Angeles Sports Arena IN 1962, with a fight card comprised of Latin American fighters against American fighters. I had, by this time, replaced Snitzer, who had become ill and needed to retire. He recommended that I take over. Joe, Martha, and I, flew toMexico City to promote the fight, with the assistance of the beloved Mexican actor, Cantinflas, who starred in the 1956 movie, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” Louis’ photo was on the front page of every major newspaper in Mexico, showing his arrival at the airport. The State of the Union address by the President of Mexico was relegated to page two.
Cantinflas and Norm Johnson in Mexico City for Sept. 1962 Fight in Los Angeles
United World Enterprise was a winner, and continued to promote major boxing events throughout Southern California. Meetings to discuss promotions were often scheduled at Joe’s home, in an exclusive section of Los Angeles, and were always interesting. I would arrive at the house around noon or so, and a lot of the times, the champ was still in bed watching television. The meetings were usually scheduled for about an hour, but most often I wouldn’t get home until after dark.
I remained with Louis, continuing to promote fights at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and the Moulin Rouge Nightclub on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, until the last event outside at Dodger Stadium.
One of the biggest promotions held at the Moulin Rouge was the 1962 “Toys for Tots” fight for the United States Marines. Just about every major star in Hollywood, including Frank Sinatra, Jayne Mansfield, Raymond Burr, Sammy Davis, Jr., and John Wayne turned out for the December 17, bout. A funny thing happened when Joe and I were driving to the Marine base at Camp Pendleton, just north of San Diego, to promote the fight. During the drive in my Ford Thunderbird convertible, we had a flat tire about five miles from the base. Well, as we stood alongside the car on the highway looking at the flat, a California Highway Patrol car came to a stop across the highway from us.
On the set of "The Hook," 1962 with Nick Adams, Director George Seagal, Joe Louis, producer Robert Wise, Kirk Douglas and Norm Johnson
The officer looked at the two of us, took a second look, turned on his red lights and made a U-turn, and pulled up behind my car. The officer couldn’t believe his eyes. “You’re Joe Louis aren’t you?” were the first words he said. He asked if he could be of help. We told him where we were headed and why. The officer, still flabbergasted, pulled the spare from the trunk of the Thunderbird, and did the tire change as we stood and watched. After the tire was replaced, he turned on his red lights and gave us an escort to the main gate of the base. That’s just one of many incidents that would happen whenever I was with this man, who the world loved.
The last major promotion by Louis was a co-promotion with Aileen Eaton at Dodger Stadium on March 21, 1963, involving three title fights, which were to be nationally televised. The heavily promoted event was the first outdoor night fight ever held at the new Los Angeles Dodger Stadium. Every major celebrity in the world was there, as well as many of the famous boxers of the time. I remember escorting Rocky Marciano to his ringside seats. The first bout that evening was between welterweight champion, Emile Griffith and Louis Rodriquez, with Griffith losing a 15-round split decision. The second featured bout was between featherweight champion, Davey Moore, and Ultimino “Sugar” Ramos. The fight ended with Moore being knocked out in the 10th round. Moore fell against the lower rope of the ring, snapping his neck. He was rushed to White Memorial Hospital where he passed away two days later. That was the last fight promoted by Joe Louis.
Joe loved to visit Las Vegas. Once when we had come up from Los Angeles to watch a title fight, he predicted Las Vegas would one-day be considered the, “Title Fight Town,” and of course it did just that. Caesars Palace would build its own arena, and the rest is boxing history. I liked coming to Las Vegas too. I was married to my first wife, Ramona, at theStardust Hotel. Joe had made arrangement for the wedding through one of his pals, who was a pit boss at the casino. Another time we came to Las Vegas was in 1964, when Joe was the opening act for Pearl Bailey at the Flamingo Hotel.
Joe Louis at Hall of Fame Night
After the demise of UWE, I went to work as a sports writer for Copley News Service, working out of the Alhambra Post Advocate office. I remained close to Joe Louis throughout the remainder of his life. In September 1965, Hank Greenspunowner and editor of the Las Vegas Sun, offered me a job as a featured sports columnist. Jim Deskin, who was head of the Nevada Boxing Commission at the time, had suggested that Greenspun hire me. After discussing it with Ramona, I accepted the position and we (the family) moved to Las Vegas. By the way, Louis was Denise’ (our middle daughter)Godfather. We were reunited in the ‘70s, when Louis moved to Las Vegas to become a casino host for Caesars Palace,through the assistance of Joe’s long-time good friend, Ash Resnick. Ash was, at that time in 1970, the head casino host at Caesars. Joe would sometime travel with Ash to help in collecting casino IOUs.
During the years Louis and I would see each other at various fight promotions staged by Caesars. Near the end of Joe’s life, I remember visiting with him at the casino. Joe was in an electric wheelchair, had his favorite cowboy hat on, and grinned as I approached him, but, I got the distinct feeling that he didn’t totally recall me. At this time he had already had a couple of strokes, and had a pacemaker implanted. We chatted, and I reached for his hand and shook it. The once powerful hand was still there!
Joe Louis with Norm Johnson's daughter, Robin Johnson, at Bowling Alley in 1961
Most recently, I made contact with Joe’s two daughters, Candice (she lives in Las Vegas with her husband), and Amber.Joe was a gentle, beloved giant of a man with the greatest smile and laugh I ever heard. He passed away on April 12, 1981. The funeral was held in the huge fight arena behind Caesars Palace, which was filled with more than 10,000 fans, friends and the world famous. Joe Louis changed many lives during his lifetime, including my life that afternoon in 1959.