Muhammad Ali’s recent death brought to mind another famous 20th century black American boxer. In his own way and in his own time, Joe Louis was just as famous as Ali. And by some estimations, he was an even better fighter.
Born Joseph Louis Barrow in 1914 rural Alabama, Louis moved with his family to Michigan as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the southern states. But while his stepfather and brother went to work for the Ford Motor Co., Louis, nicknamed the Brown Bomber, took the pugilistic path.
By 1936, a mere two years after turning professional, he was considered the most lethal heavyweight in the business. Unbeaten, he stood on the brink of a championship fight.
Louis did, of course, go on to win the title and subsequently held it for 12 years. But he’s perhaps best remembered for two fights with Max Schmeling. The first of these took place 80 years ago this month, at New York’s Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936.
Being nine years older than Louis, Schmeling was considered past his prime and thus a severe underdog. For Louis, the fight was just supposed to be a final tune-up before challenging the reigning champion, Jimmy Braddock, for the title.
But Schmeling had done his homework, noting that Louis had a tendency to drop his left hand after a jab, leaving himself open to a quick right. In the 12th round, Schmeling knocked Louis out.
Stunning as this outcome was to the sporting fraternity, the reverberations went far beyond that. And it was all down to the fact that Schmeling was German.
Unsurprisingly, the propaganda opportunity was too good for Adolf Hitler to pass up. The Nazi publicity machine duly went into action, feting Schmeling as a national hero and as an exponent of Aryan superiority. Mere boxing was transformed into politics.
So when the fighters met again in June 1938 – just three months after Germany annexed Austria – the atmosphere was combustible. And stirring the pot further, Schmeling’s entourage included a Nazi Party publicist.
It was now much bigger than an eagerly-anticipated fistic rematch. It was the U.S.A. versus Nazi Germany, democracy versus dictatorship, and an ostensible test case for the doctrine of racial superiority.
It was also a radically different fight than the first one. When it ended after just 124 seconds, Schmeling had been on the canvas three times and had cracked several vertebrae in his back. Stretchered home to Germany after 10 days in hospital, he was suddenly no longer a Nazi hero.
In fairness, that was never a role Schmeling sought or particularly relished. Yes, he was a proud German but he wasn’t a party member or an anti-Semite. During Kristallnacht, he even risked himself to hide two Jewish brothers, Henri and Werner Lewin. In Henri’s telling, Schmeling’s action saved their lives.
Meanwhile, Louis was ensconced as the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion, a position he maintained until his retirement in 1949. Along the way, he earned a lot of money but ended up with very little of it. Then, faced with an unpaid tax assessment of $500,000, he returned to the ring in 1950 only to exit again following a severe beating from the much younger Rocky Marciano in 1951.
(There was nothing unique about a celebrity having tax troubles. Bing Crosby, for instance, had great difficulty coming to terms with the concept of tax liability and was repeatedly dunned for non-payment.)
As for Ali and Louis, different eras and fighting styles weren’t the only things that separated them. Perhaps the sharpest contrast came down to personality, demeanour and attitude.
Where Ali was flamboyantly boastful, Louis was studiously modest. Where Ali was verbose, Louis was taciturn. And where Ali was outspokenly defiant, Louis was respectfully deferential.
This last makes it easy to regard Ali as the more admirable of the two. But then again, Louis never articulated the separatist racial positions that Ali adopted during his Nation of Islam period, positions that were discreetly airbrushed from most of the effusive encomiums that accompanied his passing.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.