- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

For the latest entry in its acclaimed “Sports of the 20th Century” series, HBO will acknowledge Black History Month by retelling the tale of the first black athlete to become a national hero.

Joe Louis and baseball groundbreaker Jackie Robinson were the most influential black athletes in American history, but Louis came first. He won the heavyweight championship in 1937, a decade before Robinson emerged with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and defended it a record 25 times over 12 years.

There were almost no similarities between the two. Whereas Robinson was a college graduate (UCLA) fully able to fend for himself off the ballfield, Louis was a relatively uneducated man who received little advice on how to conduct his life away from boxing and was an easy mark for those who wished to take financial advantage of him.

As its title implies, “Joe Louis: America’s Hero … Betrayed” relates in detail how the IRS hounded the fighter mercilessly for payment of back taxes for nearly the rest of his life — and this after Louis abandoned boxing during the prime of his career to serve four years in the Army during World War II. The 75-minute documentary premieres on the pay cable network Saturday night.

Many details of Louis’ career will be familiar to older viewers. Younger ones should be entranced even though it has been more than 70 years since he won the title and more than 50 since his last fight.

Because of white hatred toward flamboyant champion Jack Johnson, no black man was allowed to hold or fight for the heavyweight crown for more than two decades after Johnson lost it in 1915. When Louis turned pro and began scoring a series of quick knockouts in the mid-1930s, his managers were quick to portray him as the anti-Johnson. He was never to boast, never to raise his arms in triumph after dispatching a white opponent and — most importantly — never to have his picture taken with a white woman.

After knocking out former champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer, Louis was primed for a shot at the title before another ex-champ, Germany’s Max Schmeling, astonishingly knocked him out in 1936, causing much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments throughout black America.

Schmeling was supposed to challenge champion Jim Braddock next, but Louis got the fight instead because, the HBO program says, his promoters promised Braddock 10 percent of Louis’ future earnings.

Of course, Louis won the title by knocking out journeyman Braddock but said he wouldn’t consider himself champion until he defeated Schmeling. Their rematch, on June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium, remains one of the most electrifying events in sports history.

After the first fight, Nazi Germany had claimed no black man could beat an Aryan in the ring. Bad guess. Louis needed just two minutes and four seconds to batter Schmeling into submission, beating him so savagely the German was hospitalized afterward.

Although comedian/activist Dick Gregory insists Louis was “the great white hope” against Schmeling, that feeling was hardly universal in the strictly segregated America of that era. Recalls former President Jimmy Carter: “I hate to say it now, but many white Americans didn’t want to see Louis beat Schmeling.”

As it turned out, the Schmeling fight was the highlight of Louis’ career and life. Most of his other frequent title defenses were against opponents so mediocre they were dubbed the “Bum of the Month Club.” When Louis was mustered out of the Army in 1946, he wasn’t the same fighter. Jersey Joe Walcott nearly defeated him, Ezzard Charles did so decisively and Rocky Marciano ended Joe’s career by knocking him out in 1951.

Between then and his death at age 67 in 1981, Louis became a pathetic figure reduced to refereeing wrestling matches, tap dancing on TV and working as a greeter at a Las Vegas casino to make a buck. Yet he never got square with the IRS until his third wife, attorney Ruth Morgan, persuaded the government to drop its claim to the $1.3 million it said Louis still owed. When Joe died, he was virtually penniless. Frank Sinatra, a friend and admirer, paid for his funeral.

Clearly Louis was a prisoner and victim of the society in which he lived. One of the talking heads on the HBO program describes Louis’ ultimate tragedy well: “He outlived his time.”

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