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The Canadian Middleweight Champion Louis Lawrence

Victoria Mills and Walter Christian’s Boxing Club

From the late 1800s through World War Two, Victoria Mills (or Fraser’s Mills) was the site of an enormous industrial park that milled lumber, shingles, and paper. It was also the home of Woodford and Emma Lawrence, and in 1927, they had identical twins, Lloyd and Louis. One of those twins would grow up to be the Canadian Middleweight boxing champion. It was an outstanding achievement, but to appreciate fully just what odds Louis Lawrence was up against, we’ve drawn from saved newspaper articles, digital records and the recollections of Louis’s daughter.

As soldiers returned home from World War II and tried to settle into civilian life, a Fredericton police officer named Walter Christian perceived the need for something active to keep veterans occupied as they found their way outside. He started a boxing club and, in a newspaper ad, appealed to parents to encourage their sons to try the sport of boxing. Lloyd and Louis were just old enough to start training.

In those very early days, the two sparred against each other as amateur boxers, but it wouldn’t be long before they parted ways and headed West: Lloyd to Toronto, and Louis to Vancouver.

Early days in Vancouver

Soon after he arrived in Vancouver, Louis found work as a sleeping car porter. He continued to box, fighting a total of 19 bouts as an amateur. He enjoyed it, and seemed to have what it took. Louis and his wife Edna would have also have four children: Loretta, Patty, Pearl and Lloyd. Between increasingly numerous children and house payments, extra money was good to have. So after winning a Royal Gloves tournament in New Westminster, BC in 1947, he turned professional.

He found a manager, Leo Riordan, who spoke so fast that one reporter likened his speech to a machine-gun. Under Riordan’s guidance, Lawrence progressed as a technically competent fighter with stamina and endurance. While we don’t have a written record of Louis’s training, his daughter, Pearl still remembers his morning routine and witnessed parts of his training first-hand.

Louis Lawrence, C. Early 1950s; Manager Leo Riordan is on the right

She was around five or six at the peak of her father’s career. He started them with six eggs, which he usually drank raw, before a ten-mile run that ended about the time that Pearl was getting ready for school. “Mom would serve him his breakfast, if you want to call it that,” Pearl recalled. “She would make sure the pan was sizzling hot; she’d put a huge steak on it, count to ten, flip the steak over, count to ten, then put it on his plate. The plate could barely hold it.” The blue rare steak was almost enough to put Pearl off her breakfast.

In addition to running, he would skip rope and work the speedbag for long stretches in the shed behind their house in East Vancouver. “… and what really amazed me was how fast he could do the skip rope. He would jump up and he could have that skipping rope go three or four times before he actually put his feet back down on the ground.”

After he turned professional, his star steadily rose in Western Canadian boxing. By the early 50s, he was almost undefeated. Out of 13 professional matches, he had lost only once (by points) to Oregon boxer, Eddie Kahut while fighting in Kahut’s hometown of Portland at a venue called the Pacific Livestock Pavilion. Later, in a 1952 bout in Vancouver, just before Louis would challenge for the Western Canadian Middleweight title, he knocked Kahut out.

Though professional boxing came with cash prizes, Louis still had a day job. His wife, Edna, was not keen to have her husband boxing. It was commonly accepted that boxing was a dangerous sport, especially dangerous to one’s wits. “She didn’t like me to box … she thought it was the stupidest sport she had ever seen,” said Louis years later, when reflecting upon his career at an event in Fredericton. But Louis was stubborn; his passion for the sport had taken root and he was determined to make something of himself. In 1952, he was in top form and ready to challenge the Western Canadian Champion.

Poor Jimmy Nolan and the Western Canadian Title

As boxers go, Irish Jimmy Nolan was a bruiser: a brutally strong heavy hitter who settled most of his fights by knockout. In Western Canada, he was one of the most successful boxers of the late 1940s, and prior to facing Louis he won 21 matches straight until his winning streak was broken by an Oregon Indigenous boxer named Dick Wolfe. Although Wolfe knocked out Nolan in a rematch, Nolan eventually bested him in a second rematch in December of ‘51.

1952 was looking like another year of winning for Jimmy Nolan. By that time, out of 37 bouts, he had lost only five, but he now had a few fresh wins and was still the title holder. Then, in October, he fought Yvon Durelle. If you haven’t heard of Yvon Durelle, he was the most renowned Canadian boxer of the late 1950s: the famous “fighting fisherman” who would, in ‘59, fight the longest-reigning world middleweight champion, Archie Moore, brutally felling him three times in the first round. By today’s rules, Durelle would have won that world title. He met Nolan early in ’53 and beat him by unanimous decision. The loss was another wound to Nolan’s pride, but where Durelle was a New Brunswicker, Nolan remained the Western Canadian middleweight title holder. Then he fought Louis Lawrence.

Louis met Nolan first as the challenger, then in a rematch as the defender of the Western title. The rematch settled beyond any doubt who was the better fighter. It began with Irish Jimmy on the offensive, and it stayed that way for the entire fight. Nolan powered irrepressibly forward, but Lawrence’s defense was airtight. He was more than happy to let Nolan come to him. In the second round, Lawrence “set him up with a whistling uppercut and then floored him with a perfect right cross.”

Louis Lawrence at a fight in 1952. The fighter on the mat is not indicated, but appears to be Jimmy Nolan.

It was the same for the rest of the fight with Louis on the defense but scoring far more than the Irishman, who only managed a few body shots during the fifth round: the same round Louis gave him a bloody nose.

Nolan was used to overwhelming his opponents by brute force, but Louis proved to be more evasive and technically skilled than any of his previous opponents. Although the first match was a majority decision, Louis won the second match by unanimous decision.

It was an enormous disappointment for Calgary, and although many of Nolan’s fans stayed devoted, the Calgary Herald sports commentator Garth Hopkins pulled none of his own punches, titling one of his articles “Nolan’s Decision to Quit Ring Seems Right”.

The article is dripping with derision over the loss, but paints a colourful picture of Nolan’s performance during the fight: “Prior to the fight, Nolan announced that if he failed to beat Lawrence he would quit the ring. And most of the 2000 odd fans in attendance agreed it would be a good idea… Irish Jimmy seemed plenty befuddled from about the fourth round on. He was seen grinning and chatting with Lawrence in the clinches and even dropped the odd wink to Leo Riordan…” Hopkins went on to observe that at the end of the fight Nolan didn’t seem to know where he was, and was still grinning despite the loss. He concluded by saying “Let’s quit now, Jimmy.”

Whether Hopkins influenced the former champ or not, Jimmy Nolan did retire. He would fight one more time, knocking out one Joe Shoemaker in what would be the first of only two professional bouts for the latter. After that, Nolan was finished. Maybe three consecutive losses were too much, even if delivered by two of Canada’s greatest pugilists.

The Training Accident, Hiatus

It continued to go well for Louis Lawrence, and there is good evidence that stamina and endurance were a part of his winning strategy. In 1953 as Lawrence headed into a second match with Harry “The Kid” Poulton, a famous fighter out of PEI, he and Leo Riordan flew into Calgary early to ask the Canadian Boxing Federation to extend the fight to 12 rounds instead of 10. Manager Leo Riordan thought they would likely agree since it was an elimination bout for the Canadian title. It was a rematch fight, the first one having been a draw, and Riordan was reported as saying that Louis would have won it if it had gone twelve rounds.

In that year, Lawrence defeated Poulton and successfully defended the Western title against Bill Brenner. He fought Dick Wolfe in August; the same indigenous fighter who knocked out Jimmy Nolan just prior to Nolan’s losses to Durelle and Lawrence. Lawrence won against the powerful Wolfe, but he was about to face a major setback, this time outside of the ring.

Sometime after his bout with Dick Wolfe, Louis ruined his back in a training accident. Reporter Al Hartin, of The Vancouver Province, reported that “a training accident jostled loose a couple of vertebrae. The efforts of six doctors did little to steer them back into place. In the meantime, Lawrence lost 22 pounds off his fighting weight and was in no mood for further truck with bone mechanics.”

Lawrence would go on hiatus for over a year and had all but given up hope of boxing again until a fateful encounter. “A chance meeting (on a bus, of all things) with a seventh medico put Louis back in the gym. The Doc, a fight fan, offered to try his hand, and the fighter, although somewhat [reluctant], accepted. He’s glad he did now.”

So in late ’54 or early ‘55, with Louis working his way back into fighting shape, Leo set about arranging a comeback tour on the East Coast, complaining that on the West Coast there was no money or combat to be had at all in middleweight boxing. The comeback tour, such as it was, consisted of just two fights: a match against Burke Emery in Fredericton, and a 6-rounder in Moncton against the Eastern Canadian middleweight champion, Cobey McCluskey.

Emery was younger and a relative newcomer, but nonetheless a powerful puncher, and at the match in Fredericton, Lawrence held his own for most of the ten-round fight. Then in the ninth round, Emery slipped through Lawrence’s traditionally airtight defense, knocking the older fighter out cold for the first time in his career. The consensus was that Lawrence had underestimated Emery and became complacent later in the fight, easing up just enough to give Emery the opportunity he needed.

It was a lackluster comeback for Lawrence. His next fight in Moncton, pitting East and West Coast Champions ended in a draw. When he came home after the tour, his wife Edna asked him how he had done. He replied “I got knocked out…” later adding, “I want to fight him again.” Edna replied “Why? So you can get knocked out again?”

As it would turn out, Lawrence would not face Emery again, however later that same month, the Canadian Boxing Federation sanctioned a title fight between Louis Lawrence and Cobey McCluskey for the Canadian Middleweight title, which had been forfeited by Montréal Boxer Charlie Chase, who – mired in criminal distractions – had failed to meet his challenger. The match was set for the end of September, once again in Louis’s hometown, Fredericton.

Who was Cobey McCluskey?

Lewis Patrick “Cobey” McCluskey came from PEI, the youngest of the legendary McCluskey brothers: all four of them boxers. According to the PEI Hall of Fame, the McCluskeys grew up in “Charlottetown’s lower Dorchester, the last grim block, more poetically known as ‘Hell Street’ for the grinding workaday poverty of the place.” Most men there worked as longshoremen doing hard labour on coal boats or schooners. Hell street was rough and dangerous, and for entertainment, it had but one local sport: bareknuckle boxing.

By the time Cobey would fight Louis, he was a veteran with 40 professional bouts on a seven-bout winning streak, and he had gone twelve rounds with the national light heavyweight champion, Doug Harper, just two years prior, losing by decision. He was, that very year, crowned the Eastern Canadian Middleweight Champion.

He could box with the best and had fought a total of seven fights against Yvon Durelle. Mostly he lost, but against Durelle that was to be expected. One of his losses was by technical knockout when he broke his hand against Durelle. On another occasion, McCluskey and Durelle were both disqualified during a heated match in Charlottetown, but most notably he had won twice against Durelle, a feat unheard of in the Eastern Canadian League.

In his whole career of 75 matches, McCluskey had never been knocked out, and if he could win against Durelle, he could probably win against anyone. If Louis were to win at all, he would need to be in top form, and by no means could he count on knocking McCluskey out.

The Title Match

It was a packed house on September 31st, 1955 at York Arena, the unassuming rink tucked away next to the railroad that followed along the Nashwaak River from Fredericton’s North Side. Louis had the benefit of a friendly audience. Some 500 people packed York Arena including his father, Woodford, and his childhood friend Louie George – the son of G.E. George of the eponymous clothing store – who watched ringside.

By time the first two rounds were over, Louis wasn’t faring well. Cobey was nimble, evasive and landing more shots. He was also a little underhanded. As Louis would recall years later, McCluskey was thumbing him in the eye the first two rounds. “Thumbing” is one of boxing’s age-old dirty tricks. Doing it on purpose is against the rules, but it happened accidentally all the time. Referees could not be expected to catch it or prove ill intent, and so at some level it had to be tolerated. It was also easier in the 50s, when boxing gloves were designed like a mitten with a free thumb, than it is now with the thumbs of modern gloves sewn fast. If an opponent’s eye swelled partially or fully shut, he was blind on that side and at a considerable disadvantage.

Lawrence told Cobey to cut it out, but Cobey was content to push his luck as far as he could. In the fourth round, Louis smashed him in the jaw with an elbow: also an illegal move. The referee then threatened to stop the fight. According to Lawrence, “He said ‘are you fellas gonna fight clean?’ I said, ‘how about it Cobey? And he said ‘yeah’.

From then on, with the threat of Cobey’s thumbs out of the way, he could focus on pure pugilism. In that same round, Louis landed several heavy lefts to McCluskey’s head. Multiple times during the fight, he had McCluskey on the ropes but failed, like everyone to face McCluskey, to knock him out.

Every round was a close fought battle up until the seventh when Lawrence drew decisively ahead on points only to fall behind later in the ninth when McCluskey rallied on a second wind. The tenth and eleventh were McCluskey’s according to only one of the three judges; but the twelfth round belonged, decisively, to Lawrence, whose strict conditioning undoubtedly helped him preserve his advantage until the very end.

The Daily Gleaner’s Dow Clowater wrote the account of the match, which – by the end – was not definitively settled in the minds of the audience.

“Following the fight, fans waited patiently for the decision. When the announcement came, the fans broke out in a frenzy of shouts, and Lawrence was carried to his dressing room on the shoulders of his supporters.

“Everything was not quiet in the loser’s dressing room following the fight as McCluskey’s manager [and older brother] Tom McCluskey screamed ‘that was highway robbery!’ and said that his brother was robbed by a hometown decision.”

Cobey McCluskey took the decision in stride and, while his brother smouldered angrily, seemed “quite happy,” according to Clowater. In Louis’s dressing room, the new champion received the congratulations of his father, Woodford, and a Gleaner photographer was there to mark the occasion. It would be Louis’s last professional fight: a fitting career end for a fighter who was, at his heart, a devoted and compassionate family man.

Louis continued to work as a sleeping car porter under the auspices of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP), the first Black labour union in North America. He became the OSCP’s secretary at a time when the organization made many strides against systemic racism in the Canadian Railroad industry. They fought for and won the right for sleeping quarters, which were essential since porters usually spent 72 hours on the train at a time. The union also won the right for their members to be hired as sleeping car conductors, which was a higher-paying job normally reserved exclusively for white people. George V. Carraway, in the same year Louis won the title, became the first black sleeping car conductor to be hired. When Louis retired from the railroad, years later, it was as a sleeping car conductor.

Louis Lawrence would fight one more time in 1977 at the age of 50 for a charity boxing match in Moncton. He would return to Fredericton 30 years later to be inducted into the Fredericton Wall of Fame. During that visit, he spent over an hour at G. E. George’s clothing and footwear on Queen street regaling locals with stories while his old friend Louie, now the store owner, quietly eavesdropped.

We are proud to finally be inducting Louis Lawrence into the NB Sports Hall of Fame: an event long past due. Welcome Louis, we are honoured to have you.

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