Joe Louis wasn't much on history. It is safe to say he never read the speeches of Abe Lincoln. His cultural interests led him in the direction of the comic strips, and he was very big on Superman. Gangster movies, too. In 1942, when he said, on entering the Army, that we'd win this war "because God is on our side," how would he ever have known that Lincoln had said it first? Joe was saying it on his own.
These are only some of the remembrances of Joe Louis, great heavyweight champion and simple philosopher.
His perceptions were always basic, as when he said of the elusive Billy Conn: "He can run, but he can't hide." Joe Louis gave that one to the language. His poverty of his later years, the millions he earned in the ring flat wasted, was reduced by Joe to the observation that: "I paid the piper and left him a flat tip."
He died on Sunday at a Las Vegas hospital at the age of 66, done in by an opponent he couldn't see or stalk, or measure, or it could have been different. They said it was a heart attack, a thing you couldn't cross with a right.
At the finish, Joe Louis was more than broke; he was a broken man. He'd been in that wheelchair for more than four years, and was getting life-support from the generosity of the gamblers who run the Vegas casinos, a breed in which sentiment sometimes runs deep. His role was as a greeter.
Every so often there had been Joe Louis "benefits," like the $75,000 raised by Frank Sinatra and friends and the $80,000 generated in his home city of Detroit. Joe thanked everybody very much, but he had expensive habits.
This wasn't the image of Joe Louis that Americans of two generations have embraced. The Joe Louis they knew was a genuine American hero, the big kid who came out of an Alabama cotton field, and later off a Detroit assembly line -- pushing Ford cars in line to be spray painted -- and began knocking out everybody he fought as an amateur and pro.
The championship was going to be his as soon as they'd let him fight for it, and it was. He got his shot at Jim Braddock in 1937 and knocked him out in eight. He was 23 and, my, how he could hit. And he was saying all the right things to please everybody in his artless way. This black man was no Jack Johnson who had outraged America's Nordics by winning the title for Tommy Burns; who had married a white woman, and caused one benighted American congressman to introduce a bill calling for a federal ban on all mixed marriages.
Joe Louis was knocking out white men at the rate of three a year, early in his years, and America was applauding him. After Johnson's victory over Jim Jeffries, 19 men had been killed in the race riots. Joe Louis' every victory over opponents of any color was cheered.Never was heard a disparaging word or anybody's demand for a White Hope.
America now had its first heavyweight boxing hero since Jack Dempsey, the legend. Gene Tunney wasn't popularly accepted. Too standoffish, lacked the common touch, read Shakespeare and hung out with scholars. Max Schmeling, Jack Sharkey, Primo Carnera, Max Baer, Braddock -- comparatively they were heavyweight graffiti. Joe Louis was the one, the fascination, the brown bomber, who defended his title 25 times and held it longer than any other man, more than 11 years.
Joe Louis never proclaimed himself The Greatest. He wasn't as fast on his feet as Muhammad Ali. But he could punch harder than any heavyweight who ever lived, I think. And he was the strongest.
When Primo Carnera, standing 6 feet 5 and weighing 260, tried to bully Louis, 53 pounds lighter, in their 1935 bout, Louis simply picked Carnera up bodily, carried him to the nearest ropes, set him down and set him up for the violent attack that put Carnera on the floor for keeps in the sixth round.
Joe Louis had his flaws. He had a certain weakness of chin, difficult as it is to accept; or it might have been simply a slowness of head movement. In any event, too many guys had Louis on the floor to suggest that he had a rock chin. Braddock decked him before losing. Schmeling knocked him out in the 12th round of their first fight. Jersey Joe Walcott put him down twice. Even Tony Galento sent him sprawling. And Tami Mauriello shuddered him.
But these episodes are not what Joe Louis' admirers remember. Good Joe is the image they preferred, the one who could bring over a right hand that was a crusher; the Joe Louis who stood in there, looking taller than almost everybody he fought, stalking, waiting, probing with that left hand, with the big, sudden right lying in wait.
That was the right hand that brought Conn's dreams of a title crashing down, along with himself, in Round 13 in 1941 at Yankee Stadium, after Conn was outpointing Louis on everybody's scorecard. Louis later explained his hard time with Conn until the knockout, saying, "I always do have trouble with boxers."
The second time he had no trouble with Schmeling, a boxer-fighter. This was in 1938, two years after the first bout, and Louis meanwhile had won the title from Braddock. But Nazi Germany was on the rise and boasting of its "super race" product, Schmeling, who had stopped the reigning champion. After he demolished Schmeling in one round at Yankee Stadium, Louis said, "Sometimes I get mad inside."
When referee Art Donovan was asked why he stopped the fight so early, he said: "To save Schmeling from getting killed." In Germany, they showed a different version of it, with the Nazis editing the films to suggest Louis had fouled their man.
The sad face for Joe Louis began after the war when he came out of the Army four years older, his reflexes dulled, and the ring lights above exposing the round bald spot making headway on his scalp. He knocked out Conn easily in the rematch, and Mauriello and Walcott, too, but in 1949 he announced his retirement.
Actually, it was a sellout to Jim Norris, who gave Louis $300,000 to step down so Norris' International Boxing Club could take over title promotions. Louis was also put on the IBC payroll for $20,000 a year for 15 years, and announced he would recognize as the new champ the winner of an Ezzard Charles-Walcott fight. Charles won.
But son Louis was missing the big paydays, the government was dunning him hard for all those back taxes he neglected to pay along the way, now estimated at $1.25 million, plus yearly interest, and 18 months after quitting he took to the gloves again to fight Charles.
He took an awful beating in 15 rounds, but a year later with the tax man on his back, he was matched with a young and upcoming and undefeated rouser named Rocky Marciano. This was worse than the Charles fight. Louis was floored once, knocked through the ropes a second time in an undignified and pathetic eighth round knockout.
After that, it was mostly all bad for Joe. He took refereeing wrestling for $1,500 paydays, nothing like the single check for $615,000 he got in the second Conn fight. Worse than that he took to wrestling until the Illinois commission denied him a license.
This was a sad comedown for the man who at one point owned a 447-acre farm in Utica, Mich., with prize cattle and hogs, two apartments, two homes for himself and his family, a big black Buick and 30 suits of clothes costing $100 each.
But in his later years when he was reduced to taking the handouts that his good name attracted, Joe Louis was still saying the right things. There was a World Boxing Association convention at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington attended by boxing fan Henry Kissinger. When Kissinger was asked for an opinion as to whether Joe Louis could have beaten Jack Dempsey, Louis quickly told him off the spot, saying, "Dempsey would have beat me."
The good thing for Louis was that the government, on the advice of the internal revenue commissioner, stopped hunting Louis. It was decided that he would never be able to pay back taxes and would be liable now only for what he was earning. Joe had that monkey off his back, but later there was very dark talk about drugs, and a persistent paranoia that led Joe to believe the mafia was after him. In 1970 his own son signed the papers committing him to a psychiatric hospital in Denver, where he stayed five months.
None of which is the Joe Louis we choose to remember.