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Louis Documentary Shows What Boxing Is Missing

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 11:15 AM

Never was the sorry state of boxing's once glamorous heavyweight division more obvious than this past Saturday night on HBO. The evening began with a stunning new documentary on the late, great Joe Louis that preceded by several hours a so-called title unification fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov, two plodding palookas who clearly would have qualified as "Bum of the Month" foes for Louis early in his storied and ultimately sad career.

"Joe Louis: America's Hero┬┐Betrayed," will be repeated again many times over the next month on a cable network that properly takes great pride in its sports documentary division. Its latest effort on Louis is mandatory must-watch television, the antithesis of the must-switch-channel live heavyweight title fight aired later from Madison Square Garden in New York.

No one ever turned the radio dial when Louis began his rise from the amateur ranks in the early 1930s to become one of the most popular champions in history. He truly transcended his sport in his prime and may have been the most visible, and adored African American on the planet, even as segregation and Jim Crow remained the racist norm of the land.

The grandson of Alabama slaves, Louis won the first 27 fights of his professional career, held the heavyweight title for 11 years and finished with a 68-3 record when he finally hung up the gloves in 1951. His last fight came against a clearly reluctant Rocky Marciano, a boxer with some sense of history himself, who pummeled Louis to the canvas and into retirement at the age of 37.

"This was probably the first time and the only time in the history of America that a black man ends up being a white hope," said one-time comedian and long-time activist Dick Gregory, one of many prominent African Americans appearing in the HBO show to recall Louis's impact on their own lives, including Bill Cosby, Maya Angelou, Congressman Charles Rangel and Louis's son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr.

When Louis fought -- and he often was in action about every month in the prime of his career -- Rangel recalled that the streets of Harlem and other urban black enclaves around the country were virtually empty. Everyone was inside, listening to the blow-by-blow on the radio. And when Louis won, it was New Year's Eve squared as raucous celebrations in the streets lasted long into the night.

On June 22, 1938, all Americans exulted in Louis's first round knockout of Max Schmeling, the darling of Hitler's Germany who had somehow taken the title from Louis two years before in one of the more stunning upsets in sports history. But in the rematch, Louis kayoed him in two minutes, four seconds of the opening round, a defeat so humiliating to the Nazis that Schmeling was soon assigned to a paratroop division and sent into combat.

Louis did his part in the American war effort, joining a still segregated army but raising millions selling war bonds in a series of exhibitions and personal appearances around the country. Though he didn't actually fight for four years, he kept spending like a heavyweight champion making big-time purse money, eventually leading to the ultimate betrayal.

After the war, Louis was unmercifully hounded by the IRS for back taxes he allegedly had failed to pay. Their relentless and seemingly racially motivated pursuit of a truly patriotic athlete who had given so much to his country constituted the betrayal, eventually bankrupting Louis and driving him to drugs, drink and depression before friends like Frank Sinatra helped get him back on his feet.

"I just think they wanted to rein him in and basically say 'you are still under our thumb boy,''' his son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., said in the show.

The documentary also illuminated Louis's role in helping integrate professional golf. When he was invited to play in the 1952 San Diego Open on a sponsor's exemption, the PGA of America at first denied him entry into the tournament under the organization's non-Caucasian rule of the time.

Louis stepped up and very publicly called a PGA official "another Hitler." The outcry over his possible exclusion was so intense, he finally was allowed to play, an early groundbreaking moment in eventually opening the doors for other African American golfers to compete at the highest level of the game.

His son, by the way, is now executive director of The First Tee program under the PGA Tour umbrella, an organized attempt to get more minorities and underprivileged youngsters into the game his father helped integrate.

When he died at the age of 66 in 1981, Joe Louis was accorded full military honors and buried at Arlington Cemetery, befitting a true national hero. Twenty-seven years later, HBO's documentary, filled with previously unseen film footage of those times, helps remind us why it is so important to honor his memory.

"If you don't make a conscious effort to remind people who individuals like my father were, then history will take its toll," his son recently told the Associated Press. "America needed a hero, and this man emerged."

As for the current crop of undistinguished heavyweights, an emerging hero is desperately needed, as well. Klitschko, a 6-foot-6 Ukrainian who now calls Germany his home, has a doctorate in sports science, loves to play chess and would seem a likely candidate for that role, if only he showed a little more flair in and out of the ring.

On Saturday night, in one of the deadliest dull title fights in recent memory, he simply jabbed his way to a unanimous victory, spending most of the night against Ibragimov swatting at his opponent's lead glove, as if he were trying to squash a mosquito. It was heavyweight boxing at its very worst in a division seemingly devoid of a single charismatic figure to ignite much public or media interest.

That's in stark contrast to seventy years ago, when a national radio audience estimated at 60 million tuned in to listen on the night Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling and became an American hero, beloved by one and all, regardless of race.

"There was a difference in the announcer's voice that night," Gregory recalled. "It sounded like they loved him. It sounded like he wasn't a black man to him. Joe Louis had become an American."

E-Mails of the Week

You're right on the money, as usual on the Clemens hearing. I especially enjoyed the much-deserved evisceration of Dan Burton. It seems to be the consensus opinion that Roger Clemens is the "greatest pitcher of his generation." May I cast a ballot for Greg Maddux? He and Clemens have virtually the same number of wins and innings pitched, and Maddux has the lower era (3.11 to 3.12). He seems also to have accomplished all this without chemical enhancements.

George H. Parker III

Williamsburg, Va.

Thank you so much for the information on Dan Burton. So many adjectives could describe how I felt watching Burton at the Feb. 13 hearings. Appalled, saddened, angry. Burton went in with an agenda. Influenced by or a friend of George H. W. Bush? Influenced by lobbying efforts by Clemens? Who knows for sure. I know he is a man I have not one ounce of respect for as a Congressman. I actually felt deflated that a man like that could be in the House. Thank you for shedding some light on this guy.

Bob Lucas

Coppell, Texas

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.

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