A Boxing Memory: Joe Louis

A Boxing Memory: Joe Louis

If ever a fighter deserved to go out gracefully and with dignity, it was Joe Louis. But in many ways, he was denied that. In the ring and in life itself.

More than chased by the IRS, Louis would accumulate a million-dollar debt to the unforgiving and unsympathetic taxman, Louis returned to the ring in the hope of many things. When all roads closed in boxing, Louis had to resort to the scripted world of professional wrestling. A world in which he didn’t belong. Rose Morgan, his then-wife said:

“It’s like seeing President Eisenhower wash dishes.” Morgan was right.

When the wrestling adventure ended courtesy of broken ribs sustained in a match in his new world and the IRS showed some semblance of compassion, Louis could breathe a little easier. But there were still problems with the usual vices of fame, and Louis would live much of his later years as a meet and greeter at Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas. Shaking hands for a mere pittance. There was no golden handshake for Louis.

Before everything started crumbling around him, Louis was a true superstar and cultural icon of his time. The importance of Louis to his race, his sport and his country can never be overstated. Louis gave everyone hope, especially his country. In return, America would soon betray him. Once a symbol of hope for his country. America soon forgot what Joe Louis had done for it.

Born in poverty in rural Chambers County, Alabama in 1914, the family fled racial prejudice in his early years. The uneducated youngster earned what he could labouring, including dropping off gigantic blocks of ice. But Louis would eventually use his hands to change his life forever. The early violin lessons would soon turn to something a little more brutal.

The first fight was in 1932 when he was just 17 and after a reported 50-4 amateur career, Louis turned pro in 1934. After beating James J Braddock he reigned as the heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 through to his retirement in 1949. Only the German Max Schmeling beat him on his way to the title when Louis was starting to enjoy life a little too much.

Louis would get his revenge in one brutal round two years later in 1938. A night where the fight was only part of the story. Schmeling, once the great symbolism of Nazi Germany after his win over Louis, the one-sided loss in the rematch changed plenty for Schmeling. After Louis bludgeoned him to defeat, Schmeling was sent to the front line in the Second World War.

The retirement in 1949 was short-lived for Louis, he needed money quickly. And plenty of it. Louis returned without the old fire in his belly in 1950 and lost to Ezzard Charles in an unsuccessful attempt to become a world heavyweight champion once again. The first loss in 14 years for Louis. The former American hero needed to fight, this wasn’t the old Louis. At 36, he was just old.

But Louis despite the obvious decline, couldn’t stop. Louis plodded on, literally, and targeted Charles again. But when an old rival Jersey Joe Walcott took the title away from Charles, Louis was made to wait. After eight wins away from the bright lights of his prime, earning on average a pitiful $15,000 a fight, Louis faced an undefeated challenger. Louis didn’t need Rocky Marciano at that stage of his career, but his bank balance did. Fighting Marciano earned the old champion six figures, the supposed last stop for Louis before another shot at the world heavyweight title. In truth, it was just the last stop.

Marciano was unbeaten in 37 fights, 32 of those wins were by stoppage. Sentiment and fighting a fighter who had still yet to fully convince made Louis the betting favourite. Boxing rarely does sentiment. It didn’t change course in 1951 at Madison Square Garden.

Louis showed flashes of his own brilliance, but when the stamina started to fade and his age began to tell, Marciano stopped him in 8 rounds. Louis was knocked through the ropes, his head hanging over the ring apron. A sad sight. A sad night. An avoidable one.

Post-fight Marciano said, “I’m glad I won, but I feel sorry. I feel sorry for Joe.” We all were.

This time retirement was permanent, but he had still had a fight with an opponent far more relentless than Marciano. The IRS kept chasing, Louis sold his name to any willing bidder, the highest bidder. In the end, the only bidder, before a deal was reached that allowed Louis some peace at least. If no real dignity.

A passion for golf and Louis was a more than decent player. But he found racial prejudice in another sport. In 1952 Louis found the San Diego Open wasn’t as open as it should have been.

“This is the last major sport in America in which Negroes are barred,” Louis said at the time. He helped change that prehistoric stance.

Louis had drink, drugs and mental health problems, and spent 6 months in an institution getting the help he needed. Louis was confined to a wheelchair for his final years after heart surgery and several strokes. Life wasn’t kind to Louis in retirement. It was brutal beyond repair.

Just hours after attending the Larry Holmes Trevor Berbick heavyweight title fight in 1981 in Las Vegas, Louis died of cardiac arrest. He was just 66.

Max Schmeling, always the unwilling political pawn, had become good friends with Louis in life after boxing. Schmeling partially paid for his old rival’s funeral. The irony isn’t lost even now. In many ways, Louis fought for his country. It’s a shame, America didn’t fight a little harder for him.

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