Coley Wallace

Share this article

Heavyweight boxer and actor

Born: 1928 in Harlem, New York.

Died: 30 January, 2005, in New York

COLEY Wallace, heavyweight boxer and actor, was famous for impersonating on screen the legendary world heavyweight champion Joe Louis in a low budget 1953 biopic of the fabulous Brown Bomber.

Yet Wallace’s greatest service was one he probably knew little about - inspiring an eight-year-old Scottish lad called Ken Buchanan to take up boxing after he saw the film.

As Buchanan, the former British, European and World lightweight champion, has made clear in many interviews about his boxing career, a visit to Edinburgh’s now defunct La Scala cinema in the capital’s Nicholson Street to see Coley Wallace in that 1953 Joe Luis biopic was the starting point of his passion for boxing.

It was a passion that brought Scottish ring legend Buchanan the coveted Edward J Neil award from top American boxing scribes in 1971, a prize no other British boxer has received.

It was also an award that the man who helped make it possible, Wallace, never won in a comparatively modest professional boxing career.

However, Wallace did achieve something that not even the ring legend he played on celluloid, Joe Louis managed - he beat Rocky Marciano. In March 1948, Wallace, who had won 17 consecutive knockouts as an amateur, was drawn in the American Golden Gloves Tournament to clash with a then unknown opponent from Brockton, Massachusetts.

While Marciano effectively ended Louis’s illustrious ring career in October 1951 by knocking the fabled Brown Bomber out in New York,Coley Wallace outboxed and outpointed Marciano, so handing future world heavyweight champion Marciano his first loss as an amateur boxer.

On joining the professional ranks shortly after that victory - which always rankled with the champion who would post a perfect 49-bout record as a paid boxer - Wallace won 20 out of 27 pro bouts. This included stopping 15 opponents inside the distance and being rated among the top ten heavyweights in the world in 1953 by the prestigious New York-based Ring magazine.

But Wallace always fell at the last hurdle when he attempted to break into boxing’s big time.

He was outpointed by former world heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles over ten rounds in 1953 - 12 months before Charles would lose two tilts at the world crown of Wallace’s former Golden Gloves victim, Marciano, in 1954.

Similarly, the expert view at the time that Wallace would suffer dire consequences if he tried to reprise his amateur win over Marciano, who was firmly ensconced as world champion, was emphasised when Wallace lost to another top contender, Cleveland’s Jimmy Bivins, who stopped Coley in nine rounds.

So eventually accepting that he would only ever be, at best, a pale imitation of the man whom he had played on the silver screen, Wallace retired from boxing.

But fate and fame had not yet finished with the man from Harlem, who retained his striking good looks and physical presence in relative old age.

Proof of this came in 1980 when Wallace was summoned by the film producer Martin Scorsese to make his final screen appearance as Joe Louis - in Scorsese’s boxing biopic Raging Bull.