There was a new heavyweight champion crowned Saturday night.
Bermane Stiverne knocked out Chris Arreola in the sixth round to win the vacant World Boxing Council heavyweight title.
But it was a lightweight event, with only about 4,000 on hand to watch at USC’s Galen Center in Los Angeles.
That’s because when Joe Louis was the heavyweight champion, they held title fights in ballparks, with 70,000 people on hand, and the heavyweight championship was the most important title in the world.
Louis was more than heavyweight champion. He was an American icon, a black man who won the hearts and minds of white America as heavyweight champion from 1938 to 1949. In between, he served in the U.S. Army in World War II in special services, boxing exhibitions and speaking out about conditions for African-American soldiers in a segregated military.
Tuesday, May 13, would have been Joe Louis‘ 100th birthday. It is a milestone we should take note of, far more important and significant than a diluted heavyweight championship.
There is a generation of Americans who may believe that Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. He was great, among the best ever. But for those who have studied the sport, it is Louis who is the greatest heavyweight champion.
“No heavyweight champion — and probably no sports figure — ever captured the imagination of the public, fan and non-fan alike, as the smooth, deadly puncher with the purposeful advance who, at his peak, represented the epitome of pugilistic efficiency,” wrote the late boxing historian Bert Sugar, who ranked Louis as the best heavyweight of all time. “And no man was so admired and revered as this son of an Alabama sharecropper who carried his crown and himself with dignity, carrying the hopes of millions on his sturdy twin shoulders.”
It’s Joe Louis‘ 100th birthday — let’s admire and revere him one more time.
He grew up in Detroit — the arena there is named Joe Louis Arena — and won the heavyweight championship by stopping “Cinderella Man” James Braddock in 1937 in eight rounds, becoming the first black man to hold the title since the controversial reign of Jack Johnson.
It was a significant moment in 20th century America.
“Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of black Americans on relief or W.P.A., and poor, would throng out in the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe’s one-man triumphs,” author and poet Langston Hughes said. “No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions — or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.”
He built on that milestone to the moment that was truly the “Fight of the Century” — his rematch with German heavyweight Max Schmeling.
Louis and Schmeling — German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s heavyweight — had first fought in 1936, and Schmeling stopped Louis in 12 rounds. By the time the rematch came around in 1938, the world was on the verge of war, and Schmeling — though reluctant to accept the role — had come to symbolize Nazi superiority.
When they met on June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium, Joe Louis was fighting for everything the free world represented. It was the biggest fight in boxing history. More than 70,000 fans at the ballpark watched Louis knock out Schmeling in one round, and all of America — black and white — cried and cheered in the streets.
Because he held the heavyweight championship for 12 years, Louis became a national icon, and was awarded the Legion of Merit honor in 1945 for his service in the military.
Like so many fighters, life would not be good to Louis after boxing. He suffered financial problems from the same government that embraced him — a target of the Internal Revenue Service — and from corrupt boxing managers. He was still revered, though, up until his death in 1981 — so much so that President Ronald Reagan waived the requirements and allowed Louis to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
“The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Joe Louis fought his way to the top of professional boxing and into the hearts of millions of Americans,” President Reagan said when Louis died. “Out of the ring, he was a considerate and soft-spoken man; inside the ring, his courage, strength, and consummate skill wrote a unique and unforgettable chapter in sports history.
“But Joe Louis was more than a sports legend — his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world.”
One hundred years ago, this source of pride and inspiration was born, and his legacy remains strong — far stronger than the heavyweight championship of boxing today.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com