Joe Louis (November 29, 2014)|
|Why Joe Louis? Not only was he the greatest heavyweight of all time [don't take my word, Bert Sugar picked him; "Ringside: The Ten Greatest Heavyweights," ESPN Classic, 1991], he was the most important boxer of the 20th Century. |
The century was bookended by two very influential fighters, Jack Johnson [the first black heavyweight champ] and Muhammad Ali. However, Louis is the boxer who changed the white public's perception of a black heavyweight champion. Johnson was a polarizing figure and at the end of his reign he was hated and blacks were hated just the same as before. Ali was...Ali, but he built himself on the shoulders of Joe Louis. If there is no Louis, there is no Ali. Also consider this: Joe Louis became the first black man to be allowed to contend for the heavyweight title in a generation and he did so 10 years before Jackie Robinson set foot in Ebbetts Field.
Joe Louis was born in Alabama, moved to Detroit as a child, and grew up boxing there. He won the Golden Gloves tournament and went pro in 1935. He took the title from Jim Braddock in 1937 and defended it a record 25 times.
It was as a man where Joe Louis stood out. He was acutely aware, as were his advisors, that he was a representative of his race and that if he did anything inside or outside the ring that offended the white public he would never get a shot at the title. His trainers and advisors made him the model of rectitude in public. Where Johnson was outspoken and flaunted his money and his white wives, Louis was made to be quiet and non-controversial, marrying a black woman, never taunting downed opponents, and never, ever speaking out against the nonsense he had to endure.
His second fight with Max Schmeling in 1938 was the turning point in white America's view of the black man as athlete. In 1936 as an up and coming heavyweight he was matched with ex-champion Schmeling who was seen as more of a gatekeeper than a real threat. Schmeing studied Louis's fights and realized that Louis had a technical flaw in his style: he dropped his lead hand and exposed his jaw when he threw a certain combination. Schmeling cryptically remarked that he saw something in Louis's style and KO'd Louis in their 1936 bout by exploiting it.
Schmeling had his own demons to contend with. After beating Louis he returned to Nazi Germany a national hero, meeting with Hitler and being used by the regime for its racist propaganda. Schmeling was not a Nazi party member and was not a supporter of their positions [it came out many decades after the fact that he had hidden Jewish children in his Berlin apartment during an officially sanctioned antisemitic riot, at considerable personal peril]. His willingness to be used by the Nazis led to a string of events where the Americans who controlled boxing decided that they would not allow Braddock to risk sending the title to Germany. Rather than getting a shot at title holder Braddock, Schmeling was denied and the chance was given to Louis, though Louis's management had to cede 10% of their fighter's future earnings to Braddock to get the shot.
Louis beat Braddock but stated that he did not consider himself the champ until he beat Schmeling. That bout took place in 1938. It almost never occurred. The Nazi regime wanted Schmeling to fire his [Jewish] American manager, but he refused, convincing the Germans that without Joe Jacobs as his manager he stood no shot at getting a title bout. World War II was less than a year away and to many Americans Schmeling was a symbol of the Nazis.
The American public reaction to the Schmeling-Louis bout was amazing given the context of the times. In 1910 Jim Jeffries had been drafted out of retirement to win back the title from Johnson for the white race and after he lost there were race riots across the country. Many 'white hopes' then were sent to do the job. The Federal government went after Johnson for allegedly violating the Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. He ended up roaming around the world fighting, ultimately agreeing to a bout in Havana where he lost the title to Jess Willard, came home, and was thrown in Leavenworth. In 1938 while preparing for the Schmeling bout, Louis was invited to the White House as a guest. President Roosevelt heralded him as having the strength America would need to beat the Nazis. Much of the American public agreed and openly rooted for a black man in a previously unimaginable manner.
The fight itself stands a a testament to Louis's skills and power. He had trained out the flaw in his style and perfected his techniques in the two years since the first fight. Louis simply tore Schmeling to pieces. Check out the bout on Youtube if you have a chance; it only runs 2 minutes. The beatdown was so devastating that it put Schmeling in the hospital for ten days with several cracked vertebrae.
When World War II broke out he donated the purses of his title fights to war relief charities and while in the Army was transported all over the world with a team of boxers [including Sugar Ray Robinson] and referee Ruby Goldstein, entertaining the troops in all the theaters of operations.
After the war he fought a few more times then retired as champion. Louis was forced back into the ring by financial woes, which is when time finally caught up with him. He went into various ventures like pro wrestling, and lent his name to a variety of products. Eventually he found his way to Las Vegas, where he worked as a casino host/greeter for a number of casinos and bars until finding a permanent home at Caesar's Palace. where he worked until his death. A statue of Louis stands in the entry to the casino at Caesar's in tribute to him to this day.