“Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, for everyone can see and few can feel. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.” — Niccolo Machiavelli
One of the first things that people are drawn to whenever former heavyweight contender Elmer Ray is mentioned in a conversation is usually his moniker— “Violent”. In a sport that requires violence and bloodshed, it’s no surprise that Ray’s nickname piques its fan’s curiosity. A simple, yet informal name that told you all you needed to know about Elmer Ray when he stepped into the ring. However, the name Violent could not be more deceiving for the man Ray was outside of the ring. When the blood-soaked gloves were pulled from Ray’s hands and his job of beak-busting was done, he was all smiles and jokes. He was anything but violent and definitely not an angry man.
On March 3, 1911, Elmo John Allen Ray was born in Federal Point, Florida to the parents of John Allen Ray and Lillie Ray, formerly Ms. Lillie Hawkins. Elmer’s father was a hardworking farmer who was born in the state of Georgia. Exactly where and when is uncertain. The year of his birth has been reported as 1872 and 1873, but more than likely he wasn’t sure himself. Lillie, Elmo’s mother, was a Florida native and much like her husband, the details on her background are few and far between. Her date of birth is listed as 1882 and 1879 from one record to the next. Elmo was from a large and loving family, being one of eight children. He had two older brothers and an older sister. The oldest of the two brothers was William A. Ray followed by Robert C. Ray, with the third oldest sibling being his sister Louise. He also had three younger sisters named Carrie T. Ray, Julia M. Ray, Margaret Ray, and a younger brother named Lincoln. Like their parents, the years of their births varied depending on which record you look at.
Elmo was raised in Hastings, Florida in your typical country style home. It was a 3-bedroom farmhouse surrounded by potato fields as far as the eye could see. There was no running water in the house, instead, an outside pump supplied the family with the water they needed for the house. The front porch was screened in to act as the first line of defense from the heavy swarm of mosquitos that made the farm their home. It was a small, laid-back farming community of just a few hundred people. Like most small southern communities, everybody knew each other, and everyone loved the Ray family, especially Elmer. The Rays were a large African-American family with a nose to the grindstone mentality. Everyone had to carry their own weight around the house, but Elmer didn’t complain. Even if he had wanted he didn’t have time to complain, there was a lot of work to be done on the family’s potato and cabbage farm. While his mother took care of things around the house his father worked the farm. So it wasn’t a surprise to learn that Elmo only managed to get a 5th-grade education before dropping out. At that age, he was of the size and know-how to help out with whatever was needed on the farm.
When he wasn’t working on the farm he could be found playing football with the local kids; a sport he seemed to be passionate about in his youth and would talk about even after he had retired from the ring. Everyone, where Ray lived, seemed to be drawn to his good-natured and friendly personality. It might have been his pleasant disposition, along with his rollicking sense of humor that made a fellow named Walter E. Harris take a liking to Ray. It was Harris who got Ray started into boxing, he was the principal at Hastings Vocational High School when he became Ray’s first boxing manager.
Unlike many other pugilists, Ray didn’t have the benefit of a genuine amateur career to fine tune his boxing skills before turning professional. That isn’t to say that he didn’t get plenty of experience before turning professional because he certainly did. Like Beau Jack, Artie Levine, and Bob Armstrong, Ray got his start in the battle royals and learned the hard way. He is said to have had his first experience with these battle royals down in Tampa, Florida. Elmer would work during the day and fight at night. In these free-for-all style fights he is said to have won 61 contests without ever losing and he had a strategy on how to do it.
Ray explained how he won these chaotic challenges, saying: “They’d have ten big negroes in the ring. They could have their best hand free, but the other was lashed to their belt behind their back. No blindfold. The reason I got along so well was that I learned to rush for a corner at the bell. I’d brace myself and let my Sunday punch go at the first fellow who came at me. In a corner, I could get better leverage. By the time I got two men stacked up under my feet, it was a cinch that the next one would stumble or lose his balance getting at me. When the field had thinned out I’d go out and take on a survivor or two. When the pack was narrowed down to two we’d get a few minutes rest and then go out and slug it to a finish.”
These types of fights were especially popular in the South and were often added to the cards to boost the fan’s interest. Ray only made $9 for these type of fights—basically a buck for each man that was knocked out. Many of these boxing cards would have these battle royals followed by a handful of undercard bouts and then the main event. Sometimes to add to the card they would have a women’s swimsuit contest and a buck dancing contest to help draw a larger fan base. It was a hard way to earn experience, but the battle royals gave Ray some popularity and helped kickstart his career. He might not have won a Golden Gloves championship fighting in these free-for-alls but there was no doubt he was the undisputed king of them.
The beginning of Elmer’s pro career is still a bit of a mystery and his debut has yet to be found. The earliest fight I came across was against Walter King on October 31, 1933. It was ruled a draw, but most thought Ray deserved the win. I had started to wonder if maybe he had used a different name when he first turned pro or maybe his birthname, Elmo. Then in a Florida paper, the Tallahassee Democrat, I found the name Kid Elmo Ray, or Kid Ray for short. With that, I found several new fights that weren’t listed previously on his official record. Thanks to boxing historian Douglas Cavanaugh they have since been added for me. But even with these fights I still have not solved the mystery of his debut. I found other fights that aren’t recorded, some of which were said to be before his fight with Walter King, which is now his first recorded fight listed but no exact dates or places were mentioned in the earlier bouts.
Like most boxers, early in Ray’s career he wasn’t making much money. Some of his earlier fights in the paid ranks he was offered purses of $33 or less, and that was before any expenses were taken out. So to put a little change in his pocket Ray would work as a sparring partner when he could for other pros. Although that was not an uncommon way for a boxer to make extra money, his other source of income was a rarity. Ray was a conqueror of man and beast. For $12 a week he worked down at a place called the Indian Village. Ray would wrestle, play, and feed alligators out his hand. Even one of Ray’s brothers was said to have wrestled alligators, although which brother wasn’t mentioned. Even though it didn’t pay a lot and it was another form of dangerous work, he seemed to enjoy his time with these deadly predators and would even come back years later to see them.
As if working on a farm, conquering battling royals, and alligator rasslin’ weren’t hard enough, Ray had to deal with racism during it all. When Ray first started out fighting in Florida, fights between black and white fighters were banned. Other Southern states supported this racial barrier and didn’t want these types of fights taking place. However, even a match between two black fighters had its racial prejudice to deal with.
In January of 1935, Kid Ray and Herman Williams, or Kid Chauffeur as he was called, met in the ring. The fight was billed as the negro heavyweight boxing championship of the south. A title that Ray owned at the time but would win and lose many times during the early part of his career. Before the fight, the managers of both fighters got together and agreed that a draw decision would not be allowed. They had also agreed that it would be a winner-take-all situation to make things more intriguing. It was implied in one paper that the larger purse possibility was an extra motivator for Kid Chauffeur, who badly needed the money. A hungry fighter needing a buck? It’s not hard to understand Chauffeur’s motivation. After the 10 rounds were up it was obvious Chauffeur had beaten Ray, who was lacking in experience. However, one judge didn’t want to render his verdict even though he agreed Chauffeur deserved the win. So, what was the issue? The lone judge thought that $66 (the combined purse of both fighters) was too much money for one black fighter to own at one time. After an uproar and a demand of what was owed to the winner, a solution was provided. Bishop Nettles, who had refereed the fight, had heard enough of the prejudiced views of the judge and disqualified him. He then awarded the decision and the mountainous $66 to Chauffeur.
For the first few years of Ray’s career, he would fight frequently and mostly against local talent. Local talent that was ravenous, rugged, and usually more experienced than himself. Being matched tough so early had its ups and downs. With such matchmaking came a mix of wins, losses, and draws but it also gave Ray much-needed learning. Ray took it all in like a sponge. In his fight with Young Jack Johnson, he sprang up out of a crouch to score his knockout win. In one of his fights with Willie Bush, he had his opponent puzzled with his switch-hitting before stopping him in the 7th round. Ray had shown in these bouts that he was learning his craft as he went.
After years of battling across the state of Florida, Ray decided to travel to Nassau in the Bahamas. After picking up a few fights there and staying for some time, he came back to meet one of the toughest rivals of his career. Ray’s welcome home was a 205 lb., 5’9″ (some sources say 5’8″) tank of a man named Obie Walker. Writer Robert Buckner once wrote of Walker that he was constructed along the general lines of a Santa Fe boxcar. Walker not only had the looks of a powerhouse, but he had the muscle as well. He was freakishly strong. One thing he liked to do was lift professional strong men while they held their heaviest weights. To add to the challenge, Obie was far more experienced than Elmer, who was now being called Bearcat Ray, but he was ready for the challenge. Just a couple years before, some thought Walker would be Joe Louis’ biggest challenge. That was of no concern to Ray because on January 19, 1937, at the N.W. Second Avenue Arena in Miami, Ray and Walker slugged it out for 10 rounds.
Ray stood 6’2″ with a 78″ reach and weighed 191 lbs., 14 lbs. less than Walker. Ray and Walker tore into each other from the opening bell until the last, all while heavy rain showers covered the ring. In the end, an unpopular draw verdict was rendered. Most of the spectators agreed that Ray had deserved the win. Promoter Duke Slater was impressed and planned for a rematch right away. In fact, they were matched again just a week later with Ray losing a decision over 10 rounds. Ray and Walker would fight three more times in 1937 with one bout being a draw, another being a TKO loss for Ray in the 6th round and a no contest after Ray was hit low. From 1938 through 1941, Ray and Walker would fight 7 more times. Out of their 12 fights, Ray would win 5, all of which were by decision, Walker would win 4, with two draw verdicts made and one no contest. At the end of their series of fights, Ray would win 4 of the last 5 and have the satisfaction of dropping his iron-chinned veteran multiple times.
Ray’s biggest win came in 1938 and it wasn’t in the ring. On April 19, 1938, Elmo Ray and Marie Bassa got married in Palatka, Florida. Marie was a Florida native herself and was born on November 4, 1912. Marie had gone through two years of college and worked as a teacher at Hastings Vocational High School. Like her husband, she was a kind soul and very likable. She was like Ray’s shadow and his main source of support. She was always there with him but stayed out of the light of cameras. When Ray went on his boxing tours around the country she decided to quit her job as a teacher and travel with him. They had been married for just 2 1/2 years when Elmer registered for the draft of World War II. Ray registered for the draft on October 16, 1940; he was willing, but he wasn’t wanted.
In September of 1934, he had injured his knee playing football with some of the local kids in Hastings. It should have kept him out of the ring for several months, but he needed the money and he took a fight just two weeks later. He would go on to lose the fight by decision to Battling Chauffeur. There’s no doubt that his poor showing was due to the knee that had not healed. After the loss, he was out of boxing for nearly five months. The injury eventually got better but the damaged limb made him undesirable to Uncle Sam.
To say that Elmer Ray had an eventful life up to this point would be an understatement. However, in 1943 his professional boxing career would flip to another interesting chapter. In January of 1943, Ray had traveled to New Orleans trying to pick up fights where he could. He picked up a fight and an easy win that month but afterward he was having trouble getting contests in the Big Easy. While he looked for fights he ballooned up to a hefty 235 lbs. During this time an Irishman named Tommy O’Loughlin, who had the gift of gab, strolled into town with one of his fighters, Charley Burley. Burley was a middleweight fighter who carried enough power to hurt heavyweights, yet also the speed of a lightweight. He was as slick as an eel, too.
Legendary light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore once said, “Burley could feint you crazy with his eyes, head, shoulders, hands, knees, even his pectoral muscles. His balance was uncanny and his timing was unbelievable. When you threw a punch at Charley, you’d better hit him because if you didn’t, he’d counter your brains out. He was better at moving his head than anybody I ever saw. He could move it like a cobra. Hitting him with a solid punch was almost impossible.”
Burley was a member of the exclusive Black Murderers’ Row, a group of black middleweight contenders in the 1940’s who were serious threats to many of the champions of the era but never got their title shots.
In January of 1943, Burley was in New Orleans getting ready for a fight with another one of the Row members, Cocoa Kid. That’s when he first met Elmer Ray. During this time in Burley’s career, he had already been in the ring with some other Murderers’ Row members such as Holman Williams, Cocoa Kid (their first fight), Aaron Wade, Jack Chase and Lloyd Marshall. He had also bloodied and battered a mountain of a man from Texas named Jay D. Turner. Turner was a 6’3 219 lb. heavyweight from Texas that Burley left a shattered mess before the 7th round. According to Eddie Futch, he once asked Turner how a man so much smaller than him could stop him, to which Turner’s replied: “That little SOB was tough. He hit me with a left hook. Nobody ever hit me that hard.”
So it was no wonder why Burley was having the trouble he was before his fight with Cocoa Kid. He was having a hard time keeping sparring partners in his camp. It was because of that vicious wallop that sparring partners were hard to come by and his manager was running out of options. O’Loughlin was in serious need of sparring partners that could give his fighter a good workout—or at least not fall asleep on the job. O’Loughlin decided to ask promoter Lou Messina if there were any good sparring partners around. Lou responded by pointing out of a window to a man with shoulders wide enough to block traffic. O’Loughlin looked out to see Ray on an old Ford. He was out of shape and O’Loughlin wasn’t sure at first, but Messina assured him that he could give Burley a good workout.
O’Loughlin never would forget the first time he saw the Florida Flamethrower: “The first time I saw him was out in the street. He was sitting astraddle the hood of a car with his big feet up on the fenders. He wore one of those funny flat hats, a greasy, patched overall jumper and was hog-fat. He didn’t look like much of a fighter to me, but he agreed to go on.”
Ray, however, was oblivious to who Burley was and what kinda threat he could be despite his size. Being the kind man and gentle soul that Ray was he had concerns about sparring Burley. Ray quietly mentioned, “He’s too small, Mr. Tommy. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.” Finally, O’Loughlin coaxed Ray into the sparring with his fighter. Tommy then gathered a group of photographers to the ringside while Elmer and Charley were getting ready.
Burley’s manager said Ray was in no shape to fight but he figured it would make for good publicity when Burley knocked the big man out. When the first round started, the more agile Burley was doing well. Then, Burley landed one of his bone-crushing blows to Ray’s chin. Ray’s knees sank down but he straightened back up unharmed and they finished out the round. The cameramen weren’t in a position to get any good pictures of the action, so they got in a better position for the next round. Then, in the 2nd round after a fast start from Burley, Elmer did something he usually didn’t, he got mad. Ray let loose with a thudding blow to Burley’s body that knocked the wind from his sails and dropped him to the canvas, leaving him entangled in the 2nd and 3rd ropes of the ring. With his fighter hurt and trapped in the ropes like a fly in a web, O’Loughlin jumped in front of the cameramen so they could not get any pictures. There was no shame in Burley being dropped by Ray, but it wasn’t the publicity that Tommy wanted.
O’Loughlin recalled the rest of the session, saying: “They finally finish the three rounds after I urge Ray diplomatically to ‘take it easy and don’t get hurt.’ He explained he wasn’t in shape or he might have done better and before leaving the gym, I hand him a ten-spot for his work. ‘What time do you want me tomorrow?’ he asked. ‘Well, I’ll tell you, I replied, ‘here’s another tenner – and we rather you WOULDN’T come back tomorrow.” Ray proceeded to remind O’Loughlin that he was on the same card as Burley and needed to get in shape, but O’Loughlin wasn’t interested in him sparring his fighter anymore. Tommy told Elmer to come back to the gym at 6 o’clock and he might be able to find himself some more sparring partners. What Elmer didn’t know was that O’Loughlin and Burley finished their sessions at 4.
Ray was able to drop some of the hog-fat, but he still wasn’t in shape the night of the fight. Sparring partners were hard to come by for him, as well, and he didn’t get the sparring he needed. Ray looked bad at the start of his fight with George Fitch, one of Joe Louis’ main sparring partners for years, but he heated up as the bout progressed and won a unanimous decision. After the fight, O’Loughlin asked Ray, “How’d you like to go to California?” Ray explained to O’Loughlin that it was too far and he was going to pick up some more fights to pay off some debt he had on the farm back home. Ray made the comment he was averaging about $100 a fight and O’Loughlin explained he could make $2,000 a fight in Los Angeles. After hearing that, Ray thought Mr. O’Loughlin had as much of a sense a humor as he did. To show he was serious, O’Loughlin left his address and info for Ray.
Close to two months went by and the fight manager never heard from Elmer. At this time Burley was again having trouble getting sparring partners for his next fight with Bobby Birch in San Diego. Burley asked his manager to call Ray because Burley was sore over their last meeting and wanted revenge. As Burley put it, “he owed that big bum a beating.” After many failed attempts, O’Loughlin finally managed to get Ray on the phone. Ray agreed to come out, but he wanted two round-trip tickets for himself and his wife Marie. Because of course, where Elmer goes, Marie goes. O’Loughlin can’t help but to haggle with Ray, after all, it’s in his nature as a manager to do so and he only offers him a single one-way ticket. Ray wasn’t interested in the offer.
Finally, the stubborn Irishman gives in to Ray’s original demands and sends the two round-trip tickets. When Elmer and Marie arrive, O’Loughlin signs Elmer to a contract and agrees to give him a salary to keep some money in his pockets between fights. Not only was O’Loughlin waiting for Ray’s arrival, but so was Charley Burley. Ray needed to get in shape and Burley wanted another crack at his new stablemate. Their second session was another dogfight with the quicker Burley hanging tough with Ray, at first. Then, Ray shot a sledgehammer left hook to Burley’s chin and Burley crashed to the floor, out cold. The end of the sparring sessions was a start of something new for Ray and his boxing career.
Ray would need all the training he could get because his new manager had thrown him into deep water for his West Coast debut. Ray, who was still unknown to many in the boxing world at the time, was matched with the murderous punching Turkey Thompson. Thompson was well-known in California, having fought most of his fights there and was a nationally ranked and recognized heavyweight. Thompson in March of 1943 was being ranked as high as number 3 in the world at heavyweight. Turkey had won nine of his last ten fights, stopping seven out of the nine he beat. His one loss was an upset win from Pat Valentino, whom Thompson had stopped in their previous fight. When the fighting Floridian met Thompson in the ring there were not many giving Ray a real chance to win. So few, in fact, that there was no major betting on the bout.
Ray came out at the opening bell with an aggressive attack of jabs and right crosses that smothered his heavier opponent. Thompson was caught by surprise. He became overwhelmed and frustrated by his lack of success. He fouled Ray at the end of the first round after the bell sounded. He did so after the second round as well, both rounds he clearly lost. Ray won the third round, as well, and had even rocked Thompson on more than one occasion throughout the fight. Some reports had Thompson winning the fourth and fifth rounds, while others said Ray had won the first five rounds. Going into the 6th round, with Thompson having fouled in the previous rounds, hurt multiple times, and missing with wild punches, he was showing signs of desperation. Early in the 6th round, Thompson landed his best punch, a left hook that landed below the belt of Ray. Ray dropped in agony from the blow claiming a foul.
After a 10-minute rest, he was unable to continue and the fight was ruled a no contest. When Elmer retired he called this fight one of the two hardest fights he had in his career. Unfortunately, at the time the rules in California stated that a fight could not be won or lost on a low blow foul, so referee Ramage had no choice in his decision. The San Diego newspapermen that sat ringside claimed the blow was a fair punch and no foul had been made, but at the same time admitted that the lighting was so poor it made it hard to see certain things. They argued that referee Lee Ramage was on the opposite side of where the alleged foul occurred and they had a better view.
However, Ramage defended his claim, saying he had a full view of the punch when he saw the foul blow struck and the lighting didn’t affect his view like it had others ringside. Both fighter’s purses were held up and the fight was investigated due to the circumstances of the fight. After the investigation, the California commission and a doctor agreed with referee Lee Ramage on his call of the punch being low and awarded both fighters their earnings, declaring that although there was a foul made it was unintentional. One writer in the Oakland Tribune wasn’t happy about the rule of making the fight a No Decision and thought Ray was ripped off on a deserved win. O’Loughlin wanted an immediate rematch and thought his fighter got a raw deal. He thought Thompson had fouled out in order to avoid losing the decision or to avoid a possible knockout. After their slam-bang brawl, there was no doubt that a rematch was needed.
With the complaints from fans and newspapermen about the poor lighting and the problems of not being able to see where the punches were landing in the first fight, there needed to be a solution. The idea that came up and was used was that both men would wear white gloves in the rematch. The reason given was that if two black fighters faced each other, especially in poor lighting, that it would be easier to see where the punches landed if they wore white gloves. This would be the first time in Los Angeles ring history that such a ruling would be made. The rematch took place just 15 days later at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angles. This time, there was no dispute of the winner when it was over.
Ray started fast and looked like he was on his way to another impressive showing. A series of lefts and rights crashed into Thompson like waves hitting a beach. Thompson, who had been forced to the ropes, shuffled towards the center of the ring with Ray in pursuit trying to land his Sunday punch. As Ray moved in he got careless for only half of a second. It was all that Thompson needed. Thompson shot out a crippling left hook that landed on Ray’s chin and sent him smashing to the canvas. It must have felt like the building had collapsed on Ray, but he was game until the end. Ray was hurt bad but managed to get to his feet at the count of nine, only to be met with a left and right-hand smash that ended the fight with just 5 seconds remaining in round 1.
Despite the loss, Ray had gained some popularity with the West Coast crowds. Ray’s manager was based out of Minnesota where he had been a promoter and worked with his other fighters, so that was where Ray would eventually move. However, both Ray and his new manager knew the West Coast was where Ray needed to pick up fights and California kept him busy.
Although Ray had lost the rematch with Thompson, he showed he was a serious threat to any top-ranking heavyweight in the country. In 1944, O’Loughlin tried to talk some of the leading heavyweights like Joe Baksi and Tami Mauriello into fighting Ray, but they wouldn’t take the bait. Then, towards the end of the year, O’Loughlin got a huge publicity opportunity to boost Ray’s chances at the world heavyweight title. Joe Louis, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, scheduled a string of eight exhibitions in November of 1944. When Ray was mentioned as an opponent for one of Louis’ exhibitions it was reported that Louis turned down Ray as a possible opponent.
When asked why, the champ allegedly said, “I can’t box no exhibition with that Ray. That man can’t do anything but fight. Maybe I can fight him later, but a boxing exhibition with him is impossible ’cause he wouldn’t know how to box back. He’d start swinging for keeps and one of us would get hurt.”
When Ray heard what Louis said, he jokingly asked: “What else is there to fighting but to punch the daylights out of the other fellow?” Of course, O’Loughlin ran with the statements from Louis claiming the champ feared his fighter. He made sure to tell anyone who was willing to listen that his fighter was being ducked. Louis and his team explained they had no fear of Ray, but that Ray simply wasn’t able to fight a light exhibition because he only knew how to punch and there was a concern of accidental headbutts with Ray’s bobbing and weaving style.
They denied the claims one Chicago writer made that Louis said Ray hit too hard. They said Louis never said that and had no fear of anyone. O’Loughlin knew Louis wasn’t afraid of Ray, but it made for great press. O’Loughlin could drop words like rain and they were all hitting the ears of the press. Louis didn’t fear Ray but he did respect him and his punching power. He complimented Elmer when he acted as the referee in Ray’s fight with Jimmy Gardner on October 11, 1945. Louis said, “that big boy is plenty dangerous for anybody.”
Most of the top-ranking heavyweights respected Ray’s ability, as well; so much so they didn’t want to experience it first-hand. Throughout 1944 and 1945, O’Loughlin offered fights to Lee Oma, Joe Baksi, Tami Mauriello, Arturo Godoy, Lou Nova and Jimmy Bivins, with them all turning down a chance to fight Ray. Ray wasn’t as big of a drawing card at the time and his punching power made him a high-risk threat for most of the top heavyweights in the country. Most of the top-ranking heavyweights would rather read about the Florida Hurricane in the papers than meet him in person. He did manage to get fights, just not the ones he wanted, but he stayed busy as his manager had promised. Ray went on a 50-fight winning streak after his loss to Turkey Thompson, but it was mostly against lower level guys.
O’Loughlin even tried to raise some eyebrows by changing the name ‘Violent’ Ray to ‘Atomic’ Ray in 1946. The attempted name change happened after and most likely because the U.S. had dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August of 1945 at the end of World War 2. Ray had many monikers in his career, but the press stuck with Violent—Atomic just didn’t seem to fit. New name or not, Ray did get into the ring with a worthy adversary in May of 1946. For a short time, Ray picked up work as a sparring partner for Joe Louis. Joe was starting his training for his rematch with Billy Conn when he sparred three rounds with Ray. During their brief time together the two titans got along well. Ray even tried to wish Louis good luck before his fight with Conn, but the crowd prevented him from seeing the Brown Bomber before the fight. However, Ray found a little luck himself when he was able to secure a fight with Lee Savold on August 28, 1946, at Ebbets Field.
Savold was one of the other big named fighters that Elmer had been wanting to get in the ring with. Savold had mixed with some of the other top names in the country, with wins over many of them. As an added attraction for the fans and for some extra advice for this fight, Ray brought a new man to his staff. During the fight, Ray would have the help of former middleweight and welterweight champion Mickey Walker, who agreed to work in his corner.
Ray was ready for Savold but Savold wasn’t ready for him. Savold had read about Ray’s punching power in the papers but in the 2nd round, he was hit by something more substantial than press clippings.The fighting Floridian knocked Savold to the canvas in the 2nd round with a ripping right hand. Savold rose at the count of 6, only to be met with a fusillade of lefts and rights that crumpled him. A right uppercut that nearly brought Savold out of his shoes was the final blow. Savold laid on the canvas a beaten man as the 10 count rang over him. Longtime boxing fan Burt Bienstock sat ringside for the slaughter and described Ray’s assault as a Ron Lyle type of battering. This win helped escalate Ray’s claims for a shot at some other highly-ranked fighters and a future heavyweight title shot against Joe Louis. Former heavyweight champion Gene Tunney was also ringside watching the brutality and thought Ray could be a dangerous rival for Louis or anyone else in the heavyweight rankings.
Less than two weeks before Ray introduced Savold to the canvas, another Florida native named Tommy Gomez was knocked from title contention by Jersey Joe Walcott in 3 rounds. Walcott had also beaten Lee Oma and Jimmy Bivins that year, which raised his claim for a title shot. With highly lauded fighters Savold and Gomez knocked out of the way, Jersey Joe Walcott vs Elmer Ray was a necessity to determine who should get a shot at the heavyweight title. However, a big upset occurred on the same day that Ray stopped Savold and it caused a delay in the fight. Walcott took on the iron-chinned Joey Maxim and lost. It was a disputed 10-round decision that shocked most boxing fans. Walcott had hurt both of his hands in the fight and wasn’t able to fight at his best but many still thought he deserved the win. After x-rays were taken it was revealed he had broken a bone in his left hand and several of his knuckles in his right hand were said to have been dislocated. He was going to need time to heal and he did just that. After letting his hands heal for 2 1/2 months he was ready for Elmer Ray.
Unlike the fight with Savold, Ray was going to be the underdog against Jersey Joe Walcott. Walcott was a ring cutie who was as slick as grease and had power in both hands—a very crafty veteran. Another reason some were taking the Jersey boy over the Hulk from Hastings was that Ray had been stopped in the 3rd round when they had first met in 1937. Both men were still early in their careers then but Ray at that point had no actual boxing training. Ray wasn’t always in the best fighting shape either back then. His manager at the time knew little about boxing and usually taught from behind a desk in a classroom, not from behind a heavy bag in a boxing gym. Ray being a comedian said: “All I knew about boxing when I fought Walcott before and was stopped I got from my first manager. He was a school teacher, but all he taught me about boxing was nothing minus.”
This time around Ray was a seasoned veteran who had got the proper schooling he needed. He was also hungry for a title shot. The winner of this fight would give a good indicator of who was going to get a shot to dethrone the heavyweight champion, Joe Louis. The two met for the second time on November 15, 1946, at Madison Square Garden. It was a grueling and close fight. Ray knew Walcott wasn’t a man he should try to out-think, so he pressed in and tried to smother him. Ray wanted to make it a fight. The constant pressure and heavy leather throwing was taking its toll on Walcott. At one point Ray rocked Walcott with a hard shot, but the veteran recovered well. Walcott was starting to gas and Ray had picked up four of five rounds through the 3rd and 8th round. Ray looked like a southbound train full of steam.
Then things suddenly started to change. Right when it seemed like Ray was starting to take complete control of the fight and could walk away with an easy win, Walcott came on strong to make it a close 10-round fight. The fire that had fueled Elmer seemed to have fizzled out. Ray may have slowed after the 8th round but he had still given Walcott one of his toughest fights. A crowd of 17,413 on the edge of their seats listened on as the decision was announced.
One judge had it 5 rounds for Ray to 4 for Walcott with 1 even. Another judge had it 5 rounds for Walcott to 4 for Ray with 1 even. The third judge had it even at 5 rounds a piece but gave Ray a one-point lead in scoring at 9 points to Ray and 8 for Walcott. Ray had gotten a close decision and one he deserved. The Unofficial AP scorecard had it 5 rounds for Ray, 3 for Walcott and 2 even. A close fight on everyone’s scorecard. Ray won a split decision in a fight that one writer said was as close as your next breath. So what happened to Ray from the 8th round on? Well, it was later revealed he had injured his left shoulder in the 8th round and it had plagued him for the rest of the fight. This was an especially bad injury for Ray because one of his best weapons was his left hook.
Of course, Elmer being the man he was, didn’t complain and kept focused on his next fight. He was ready to strike while the iron was hot. He didn’t let his shoulder heal for long and just a little over 2 months later he took a warmup fight to prepare him for another fight with Walcott. While this was going on, Walcott got revenge over Joey Maxim. With Maxim out of the picture, there was nothing to stop Ray and Walcott for meeting a 3rd time. This time they would meet at one of Elmer’s old stomping grounds.
On March 4, 1947, in Miami, Florida, the two top challengers for the heavyweight title clashed in the Orange Bowl. Willie Slater was the promoter for the event which hosted the first all-black boxing event in the Orange Bowl. It would also be the first time that black fighters were allowed to have the help of their white seconds in a Miami bout. This meant that Ray could get advice from O’Loughlin during the bout and Walcott would have his managers, Felix Bocchicchio and Vic Marsillo in his ear. Having O’Loughlin in his corner was great but the main voice Ray would be listening to was Larry Amadee. Amadee was a fistic philosopher with a wealth of knowledge that made him a great addition to any fighter’s team. He had trained and helped with other ring legends like Beau Jack, John Henry Lewis, and even helped Jack Blackburn get Joe Louis into condition. Although Elmer Ray was a pleasant man outside the ring, Amadee described him as a killer when the gloves came on.
Amadee mentioned how hard it was to get Ray into shape because his sparring partners always seemed to forget their way to the gym. Elmer’s knockout power seemed to jar their memory. Amadee also thought highly of heavyweight champ Joe Louis and thought there was only one man that had a chance to dethrone him. Just three days before Ray’s fight with Walcott, Amadee remarked: “Elmer Ray is about the only fighter in the heavyweight division that would have a chance against Joe Louis. For one thing, Louis is getting on in years while Elmer is just hitting his prime. Louis is 32 now and that makes a whale of a difference to a fighter. I don’t know whether Ray could whip Louis but it would certainly be a thriller.” Ray believed he had a good chance to beat Louis, too, if given the chance, but he had to get past Walcott again to get that opportunity.
Not only was this fight very important for Walcott and Ray, it was equally important for the entire Florida boxing scene. Florida was never going to be on par with Pennsylvania or New York as far as boxing goes, but it still needed a boost. This fight would be the biggest bout in Miami since Primo Carnera fought Tommy Loughran for the heavyweight title on March 1, 1934. It would also be the biggest fight to date in the Orange Bowl. Promoter Willie Slater, along with other promoters in Florida, had been having a hard time getting the type of large crowds they wanted for boxing events for years. If things were going to take off for boxing in Florida this was the fight to do it.
However, the event didn’t start off well and other than the ticket sales it was disastrous. It was an unwelcoming and dreary night for the 8,189 fight fans in attendance who paid anywhere from $3 to $12 for a seat depending on how close they were to the action. The ring was placed in the center of the Bowl with white fans seated in the South stands and black fans seated in the North stands. Although hardly any of the fans were guided to their proper seats. Many fans had a hard time finding their seats while others that did manage to find their seats also found someone else in them. One writer said that press row was just as chaotic. Slater had makeshift tables that were nothing more than some chairs spread out with a board running across them.
To make matters worse, when Walcott and Ray stepped into the ring the canvas was saturated from the weather. In the opening round, it was apparent that the wet ring canvas was going to be a major issue. In the first round, Walcott showed the slickness he was usually known for and Ray had a hard time breaking through Walcott’s defense. During the opening round, Ray caught one of Walcott’s left jabs and then slipped to the floor. The ring floor was to blame for him hitting the canvas and it was a problem the entire fight. Between Walcott’s left jabs and the slick floor underneath his feet, Ray couldn’t get going on his normal assault. In the second round, it was three minutes of slipping and sliding with Walcott and Ray fighting to stay on their feet more than they were fighting each other.
Both Ray and Walcott slipped towards the floor in the 2nd round, with referee Eddie Coachman following their lead. One of these trips to the canvas changed the entire fight for Ray. In the 2nd round, he complained of pain in his shoulder. One of the slips from the slick flooring had re-injured his shoulder. Walcott was constantly shifting, baiting, slipping, and switch-hitting to keep Ray busy. In the 3rd round, Walcott landed a heavy right hand and his best punch of the fight that dropped Ray for a two-count. Ray let loose quick flurries throughout the bout but wasn’t his normal self.
Ray had his best round in the 6th when he was able to deliver a burst of short, left and right-hand smashes. Walcott took heavy blows but managed to stay upright. Even with the issues of the ring’s slick surface and Ray’s injured shoulder, it still ended up being an interesting bout—as well as a close one, at least according to the judges and referee Coachman. Judge Lou Bandell had it a draw, while judge Robert Floyd scored it 52 to 48 points for Walcott and referee Coachman scored it 51 to 49, making Walcott the winner on a majority decision. According to O’Loughlin, Walcott’s team had agreed before the fight that if Walcott won they would give Ray a return fight. However, Walcott went on to fight Maxim instead and Ray and Walcott never would be matched again. Walcott would go on to face Joe Louis for the heavyweight title after fighting Maxim and lose a controversial decision.
Ray decided to take a few months off and let his shoulder heal. Dr. James J. McCormic recommended the time off after he examined Ray. Dr. McCormick declared Ray had suffered a separation in the acromioclavicular joint on the left shoulder along with some bursitis. After the shoulder healed, he picked up three more fights when he started back. This was just before he was matched with Ezzard Charles. Charles was the top-ranking light-heavyweight in the world and had not lost in over 4 years. In that 4-year stretch, he had beaten some top names like Fitzie Fitzpatrick, Murderers’ Row member Lloyd Marshall, Archie Moore and Jimmy Bivins. Ray wanted his shot at the heavyweight crown and a win over Charles could give him his chance.
Sol Strauss, director of the Twentieth Century Sporting Club, made the announcement that the winner of the Charles-Ray fight would get a shot at Joe Louis and the heavyweight title. However, Strauss made the stipulation that there had to be a clear winner in their fight in order to be matched with Louis. Charles and Ray met on July 25, 1947, in Madison Square Garden. Throughout the fight, Charles was moving, boxing at long range and clinching when the action got too close or when he was hurt. Charles landed more often and seemed to land the cleaner blows. Ray remained the aggressor throughout the fight and landed the harder blows but not as often. Whenever Ray managed to hurt Charles with one of his destructive shots, he couldn’t follow up.
When the decision was made it was announced as a split decision for Ray. Again, Ray had landed the harder blows, but the Cincinnati Cobra’s strikes were more often and more accurate. The decision was controversial, with many in the crowd booing when the announcement was made. Some seemed to think Ray’s heavier blows and aggression won him the bout but it wasn’t the popular opinion. Ray won the decision, but the pain and frustration echoed from his voice afterward—he knew the fight would not grant him a title shot. “If Louis still refuses to meet me I’m gonna hang up my gloves. Why spend the rest of my life chasing him? Maybe I am a bum – so should a champ be afraid to keep his word and fight the winner of this bout?”
The last time Ray missed his chance to face Louis it was a disappointing loss to Walcott who he wasn’t able to fight again as planned. Then he missed a title shot because of a controversial win over Charles. Ray just couldn’t seem to catch a break. But it was still a win and it kept him in line for the heavyweight title. A shot at the title would have brought in plenty of much-needed money, especially with Marie and Elmer expecting their first child.
Once again, Ray had something to be proud of. Just a few months after Ray’s win over Charles, on November 4, 1947, Elmer Ray Jr. was born. Ray didn’t get his shot at the heavyweight title, he got something even better, a son.
With the new addition to the family, Ray decided he would try for another shot at Charles and hopefully get a title shot if he won. However, it would be 10 months before he got a rematch with Charles. He had thought about retiring but decided to give it another shot. On May 7, 1948, they would meet in a rematch in Chicago Stadium. But it just wasn’t in the cards for Elmer Ray. This time he was stopped in the 9th round. O’Loughlin complained afterward that a low blow was landed at the start of the 9th round. He said Ray never recovered from it and that was what set him up for the finishing blow, a right hand to the chin. To add to the frustration, after training expenses Ray was left with less than $2,500 and the heavyweight title once again slipped from his grip. Even a man who usually kept control of his emotions couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with frustration. After the loss, Ray stopped to contemplate if he was going to continue his boxing career or if it was time to move on to something new.
Then, he got word that he could be matched with heavyweight champion Joe Louis in a 6-round exhibition. He first had to beat a fighter by the name of Tex Boddie, and a beating was just what Tex got. Just 6 months after losing to Ezzard Charles, Ray gave Boddie a one-sided thrashing while looking like his old self again. Ray looked like a rhino on a rampage. He rushed at Boddie with both fists pumping out like jackhammers and stopped him in the 4th round. Ray had finally captured a chance to show what he could do with Louis and it wouldn’t be a sparring session this time.
Louis stated, “If Ray shows enough against me in Miami, and if the public thinks he’s a good contender, I’ll be satisfied to have him as a contender for the title.” Ray and Louis were scheduled for their exhibition on January 25, 1949, at Miami’s Orange Bowl. The bout was scheduled for 6 rounds with each round being 2 minutes long with both men wearing 14 oz. gloves. A crowd of 12,211 paid a handsome gate of $35,658.80 to see Ray and Louis in action. From the opening bell, Ray took the fight to Louis and remained the aggressor throughout the bout. Ray bobbed and weaved, slipped and ducked scoring at times but Louis piled up points with his telephone pole of a left jab.
In the last round, they stood and exchanged blows to finish out the fight. Of course, no official decision was made because it was an exhibition but sportswriters did give their scoring of the fight. A poll of sportswriters all agreed Louis had won but Ray had put up an interesting fight. In the end, Louis had some swelling under his left eye while Ray’s right eye was swollen from Louis’ left jabs. Louis laid on a rubbing table, calm, relaxed and ready to answer questions. Someone asked if Ray ever hurt him, Louis replied: “No, he didn’t hurt me. Only landed one good one – a right hand just before the bell. Came up out of that crouch and caught me. But I did what I wanted to. I saw that right of his coming a couple of times and stopped it with a left jab. That Ray shouldn’t have any fat around the middle with all those exercises he does out there.”
Next door to Louis, Ray was disappointed he couldn’t drop Louis but was happy with his performance. “I think I shook him up a little. I thought the whole fight was about even. It might have been different with lighter gloves…. I tagged him a couple of times,” said Ray. Some of the local papers were impressed with Ray’s showing and they weren’t alone. The Brown Bomber seemed to think Ray put up a good enough performance for another fight too. Ray and Louis met again in February of 1949 in another exhibition, for 4 rounds this time. However, the golden rule of never facing Louis twice was still in effect.
Ray didn’t do as well as he had in their previous bout and a right cross in the 3rd round put him on queer street. Ray never hit the canvas and there was no count due to the rules in place, but the referee stood between the two for about 8 seconds to make sure he could continue. Ray finished out the fight, but he was disappointed. A week after the exhibition he got a solid win over Sid Peaks, stopping him in the 9th round. Unfortunately, the celebration was short lived.
Two weeks later Ray would lose in a shocking upset to Kid Riviera, followed by a stoppage loss to hard-hitting John Holman. Truth be told, after his loss to Ezzard Charles, he had lost a lot of his desire and motivation to fight. Ray was covered with a blanket of frustration; the end of his fighting career was near and he knew it. Then, just eight days later, the final blow was struck, ending Ray’s boxing career. Ray fought another exhibition with Joe Louis and suffered a concussion when Louis knocked him out in the 4th round. “I ain’t gonna fight no more as long as I got that concussion. I’m through. I’ve just fought too many fights too often recently. I fought a 10-rounder in Miami a week before my last bout. I got my good health and I’m going to keep it,” Ray said afterward.
After Elmer hung up his boxing gloves he focused on finding a new way to support his family. He was never the type of man who could remain idle long. The nose to the grindstone mentality that he was raised with never left him. He picked up some work as soon as he could in Minneapolis before moving his family to California. Elmer wanted out of Minneapolis as quick as he could. The cold climate just didn’t appeal to a southern man who had been raised under the warm Florida sun. After retiring from the ring Ray was asked if he could do it all over again would he be a boxer? Ray said with a laugh, “Nope. Rather play football. Not as rough.”
Elmer’s focus remained on his family and their well-being. When Elmer got to California he and his family moved around several times, whenever he thought it was a bad place for his kids he relocated. He had five children: Elmer Jr., who is known as Baby Ray, Gregory Allen Ray, Norman Ray, Brenda Ray, and Dorothy.
Marie and Elmer remained together for the rest of their lives, happily married. No matter what happened in life, Marie was always Elmer’s backbone and support and he loved her dearly for it. The two practically never argued and anytime that they did it was not brought up again when it was over. There was never any cursing or hollering from one another, neither one ever lost their temper. In fact, the only time Elmer ever got angry was if someone ever said anything bad about his Marie.
From time to time after he retired, Elmer would meet up with his old rival, Turkey Thompson. The two heavy-hitters would get together at a local bar and have a few laughs whenever they could. The two ex-prizefighters would sit with a cold beer in their hands reminiscing about the fascinating lives they had lived and the brain rattling shots they exchanged in their two fights. But boxing at this point was an afterthought for Elmer, he was too lively of a man to dwell on memories. He focused all of his time and effort on his wife and kids, hoping to give them a better life. He made sure to instill his work ethic and moral values into his children by projecting his even-handed approach to life on them.
Elmer had worked several jobs while living in California, including a trucking business he started up with some friends. Later, he got a job at Hughes Airport in Los Angeles, but he went on to work at Honeywell airport, where he would ultimately work until he retired. After calling it a day there, Elmer lived out the rest of his life peacefully in Inglewood, California. Most boxing fans will remember Elmer Ray by the destruction he displayed in the ring but for those who really knew him, he will be remembered as the humble and loving man that he was outside of the ring.
I want to thank Elmer’s niece, Mrs. Carolyn Christian and his sons, Norman Ray and Elmer Ray Jr. for taking the time to chat with me over the phone. I have never conversed with nicer people and I look forward to our conversations in the future.