Is boxing really a sport? Not everyone would agree that it is, although the “sweet science” lives on, precariously, in the cable TV listings. Boxing as a recreation has all but disappeared save on college campuses, where it survives as a team sport. Professional boxing remains a livelihood of sorts for poor young men, often desperately poor. Although many sports are dangerous, only in boxing is the injuring of one’s opponent a deliberate objective.
And therein lies some of its appeal. No other sport can trace its origins to cavemen in the primeval ooze, fighting over scraps of meat. For some people, mostly male, boxing remains the incarnation of masculinity and the heavyweight champion the greatest man in the world.
In the late 19th century, American men followed the exploits of John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strong Boy,” who was world champion in both the bare-knuckle and the Marquis of Queensberry eras. After World War I, the country followed Jack Dempsey’s fights in real time via radio. Then came the decline. Boxing had long had ties to crime, and reports of fixed fights, alcohol and gang violence were common. The “carriage trade” sought entertainment elsewhere.
Then, at the height of the Depression, came a promising new heavyweight. Joe Louis was the stepson of an Alabama sharecropper who had moved to Detroit in search of work. Louis won a string of amateur titles and came to the attention of a scruffy bunch of manager-trainers who would be with him for most of his career. To their credit, they recognized that Louis must deal with the social challenges faced by any black heavyweight. The first black champion, Jack Johnson, had behaved in such a way as to make him anathema to most whites. His conduct had led to an unofficial color line in the heavyweight division that Louis had to break.
Mr. Roberts writes, “To escape the shadow of Jack Johnson, Louis‘ managers set down some hard-and-fast rules. Johnson had consorted with and married white women; Louis was forbidden from ever having his photograph taken alone with a white female. Johnson had talked loud, boasted constantly, and luxuriated in the nightlife; Louis was instructed never to humiliate an opponent, gloat over a victory, or visit a nightclub alone.”
Under his new managers, Louis fought 13 times in 1935. In June he gained national attention by knocking out a former heavyweight champion, the 265-pound Primo Carnera. Louis moved closer to a title shot in September with a four-round victory over a talented contender, Max Baer, which gave Louis a record of 27 professional fights without a loss.
In what was viewed as a tuneup for a title fight, Louis agreed to fight a German, Max Schmeling, in June 1936. Although Schmeling had briefly held the heavyweight crown, the 30-year-old German was not seen as a threat to the up-and-coming “Brown Bomber.” But Schmeling was a ring-wise veteran who had studied movies of Louis‘ fights. He thought he had found a weakness - a tendency on the part of Louis to drop his left hand after delivering a jab. He had an additional advantage: Louis had become addicted to golf and spent on the links much of the time he should have spent training. On June 19 at Yankee Stadium, Schmeling hammered Louis with right hands and knocked him out in the 12th round.
The defeat by Schmeling should have been a setback for Louis‘ title hopes, but it was not. Money changed hands, lawsuits were threatened, and interested parties argued that Americans did not want a German fighting for the championship. Louis got his title fight in June 1937, stalking Jim Braddock for eight rounds before knocking him out. In Harlem there was dancing in the streets. In Mr. Roberts‘ account, “American … flags streamed out of passing taxis, street parades formed out of thin air, and the layers of noise were too many to count.”
But Schmeling remained unfinished business. His defeat of Louis had made Schmeling a hero in Germany, where his victory over a black American was seen as proof of Aryan superiority. Nazis everywhere looked forward to the rematch, which was scheduled for June 22, 1938.
Popular sentiment in Louis‘ challenge to Braddock had been divided; many fans had favored the plucky white Braddock. The Schmeling match was different. Fight aficionados were offended by the German’s Nazi connections, while Louis, who normally fought without rage or anger, thirsted for revenge. In contrast to his lackluster training for the first fight, Louis trained with a vengeance. The oddsmakers made him a 2-to-1 “to knock Schmeling on his Nazi ass.”
And so he did. Fighting before 70,000 fans, with radio coverage across the world, Louis sprang to the attack, forcing his opponent against the ropes and battering him with both hands. He knocked Schmeling down three times in the first round before the referee stopped the fight.
Louis did not know it, but he had reached the zenith of his career. He was an active champion, making 13 defenses of his title between 1939 and 1941, but his finances were in tatters. Joe’s manager, Mike Jacobs, had a contract that entitled him to half of Louis‘ earnings. Other hangers-on found the champ an easy touch in money matters.
Louis enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor, and in so doing became a role model for many black Americans. After the war, he made a successful return to the ring, but by then he had a new opponent, the Internal Revenue Service, which in 1950 billed him for $500,000 in back taxes. At 36, Louis was in his last year as a fighter and had no other source of income. The IRS eventually threw in the sponge, but Louis lived out his life in genteel poverty, serving as a greeter in a Las Vegas casino.
Mr. Roberts is a professor of history at Purdue, and he deals with Louis primarily as a social phenomenon: a hero for black Americans. Louis was not a leader in the civil rights struggle - he led no marches - but he proved to America’s minorities that a black man was any man’s equal in the ring. Mr. Roberts tells the Joe Louis story with skill and understanding.
Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.
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