Exactly 82 years ago today, Chilean boxer Arturo Godoy got the chance of a lifetime to fight Joe Louis for the world heavyweight title. Godoy surprised everyone by making it all the way through the last round. He lost by a split decision, but going the distance made him a hero.
On Feb. 9, 1940, in New York City, Chilean boxer Arturo Godoy faced off against the heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis. The challenger shocked the audience by being the first boxer to make it to the end of a match against the champ. With no clear winner, the judges had to decide, and, through a split decision, Louis kept his title.
The decision was met with enough criticism that both parties agreed to a rematch, which took place in June that same year. By that point, Godoy was a celebrity in Chile and had probably let it get the best of him. He never did manage to earn the world title, but he kept fighting and finished out his boxing career with an accomplished record.
A Fisherman from Iquique
Godoy was born Oct. 10, 1912 in a small fishing town north of Iquique, where his mother was a washerwoman and his father was a fisherman. For most of his early life, Godoy worked with his father to provide food for his family, which included 12 siblings.
Godoy’s life changed in 1930, when he turned 18 and had to do mandatory military service in Iquique. While in the army, Godoy stood out due to his height, 1.88 meters (about 6’1″), which was above average at the time, and his athletic physique, which helped him excel at numerous sports, especially boxing.
Within the year, Godoy went from boxing against his army colleagues to fighting in the amateur circuit that existed in the gyms around Iquique. During this time, he met boxing promoter Louis Bouey. Seeing the potential for a champion in Godoy, Buoy took the amateur under his wing.
Godoy’s first recorded professional fight took place in Santiago on Dec. 21 1930, against Peter Johnson, a Peruvian national. After several more matches, Godoy was able to debut abroad with a fight in Havana, Cuba, in June 1932. What followed was a flurry of matches in the cities of Miami, Tampa, Barcelona, and Buenos Aires.
During his time in Argentina, Godoy had a life-changing event when he knocked out the former South American heavyweight champion Luis Ángel Firpo. This victory catapulted Godoy to a new level and to his first matches in New York City, where he steadily climbed through the ranks until inevitably he was given a shot at the title of heavyweight champion of the world by fighting Louis.
A Shot at the Title
In the days before the match between Godoy and Louis, the question was not if Godoy was going to win or not, but if he was even going to make it to the end. This never got to Godoy, though. He instead trained just as he did before any other fight and trusted the technique he and his team had prepared for the Louis bout.
On the night of the fight, over 15,000 spectators gathered in Madison Square Garden to witness Luis defend his title against the newcomer. Among the crowd were 60 sailors from Godoy’s hometown of Iquique, who had coincidentally had a layover in the city. They made sure Godoy got the raucous support he needed in the foreign city.
In Chile, the newspaper El Mercurio had bought the rights to transmit the fight in Spanish via radio, which they did by placing massive speakers in the main plazas of several cities in the country. As Godoy prepared for the fight, his countrymen gathered around these speakers and cheered on their champion.
As soon as the fight started, Godoy’s plan went into effect. He fought from a crouched position which gave him the advantage over his larger opponent. Unsure of how to fight him, Louis spent the rest of the fight attempting to get a clean hit on the challenger.
To everyone’s surprise Godoy made it to the 15th and final round after which he jumped around in celebration of his survival. His happiness did not even stop when Louis was announced the winner by split decision. The Chilean might have lost the fight, but he still stood victorious. He went the distance.
Not everyone accepted Godoy’s defeat as easily. When Louis was declared the winner, the audience erupted in boos, not out of support for Godoy but because they felt that Louis had not earned the win, a feeling that Louis himself agreed with.
Four days later, on Feb. 13, Godoy and Luis met up at the CBS studios and commented on the fight and announced a rematch for June 20 of that same year.
This was also a chance for Godoy to showcase his natural charm, which earned him a small spot on a feature film.
The rematch left little doubt as to who the heavyweight champion was. Godoy had spent a lot of his time in between fights enjoying fame and fortune. So when the second fight came along, he was not up to the challenge, and even his new strategy had little result. The referee put an end to the fight in round eight, destroying Godoy and Chile’s hopes for a Chilean heavyweight champion.
Thereafter, Godoy wanted to remain in the United States and continue fighting in the professional boxing circuit, but the start of World War II paralyzed the boxing industry in the United States and Europe. With not much more to do in the country, Godoy returned to Chile in 1941 where he was received with a generous fanfare and an invitation to dine with the president.
This fame quickly died down when his first fight back in Chile was met with a booing public, due to his lack of preparedness.
Several lackluster fights in South America followed until after the war, when Godoy was invited back to the United States where he enjoyed a small comeback which allowed him to extend his career for several years. He even fought Louis again in an exhibition bout in 1947.
In 1949, Godoy officially moved back to Chile; and, in 1953, he retired with the title of South American heavyweight champion. Despite the occasional TV appearance, Godoy lived a quiet life in his hometown of Iquique until the day he died in 1987 as a result of a pulmonary disease.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.