There is a mantle of sadness poised above every arena wherein the sport of boxing is practiced. Flashes of glamor, courage, skill, excitement, money and honest-to-goodness guts are merely promised. The sadness remains a sure thing.
It is as much a part of the boxing atmosphere as empty beer cups rolling among the peanut shells and smoke so thick it refuses to rise. It has no snobbish prejudices; it clings to the flaking paint of legion halls and ice rinks in Pennsylvania as well as the fancy cocktail lounges and casinos of Nevada. Wherever men fight each other for sport and money there will be the sadness.
Joe Louis was heavyweight champion from 1937 until 1949. He sampled the very best boxing had to offer. He found glory and international recognition. He was rewarded with money and acclaim. His fights with Max Schmeling here treated as a prelude to world conflict. President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House, pressed the champion's biceps and said America was depending upon the strength in those arms. A parade of attractive women was drawn to the fighter and Louis let few of them pass by without his personal attention.
In "Joe Louis: My Life," the former champion recalls his years of fame and his years of misfortune. He was never able to escape the sadness peculiar to boxing.
A fading Louis was punished by Ezzard Charles and destroyed by Rocky Marciano. The Internal Revenue Service gripped him with steel claws and shook Louis until his pockets bled pennies. His personal problems mounted. Wives left him. In one disastrous fling, a paramour got him started on drugs and made pornographic movies while he dozed in "funny land." Another lover led him toward cocaine addiction.
His business deals soured as fast as they were conceived. A visit with Fidel Castro caused the ire of the United States government, and an increase in tax pressure on Louis. The former idol of millions could be seen sweating for dollars on a television game show called "High Finance," whistle-stopping the country to referee wrestling matches or glad-handing tourists at casinos in England and Nevada.
Reading his book is like having the ex-champ sit down across from you in a living room and chat about his life. It is a comfortable homespun story that quickly convinced you that if Joe Louis is anything, he is a nice guy.
There are few secrets revealed, perhaps the names of a few lovers, and no bitter denunciations of those who used and abused him. The numbers racketeers who were his managers, the promoters who packaged him and his paychecks, the tax men who hounded him, the con men and women who fleeced him are all absolved.
The sadness is in the pages of this book, but Joe Louis ignores its presence. It is treated as is his currently failing health. "You know, you think, or at least I do, that nothing's wrong and never will be," Louis writes. "You know better deep down but who doesn't cheat a little bit about that?"