They sat next to one another, champions in a row -- Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks and Joe Frazier. Jersey Joe Walcott sat in front of Leonard. Ali looked fat-cheeked, and much of the time he stared. Leonard and Spinks shared a look of vibrance. Frazier appeared able to step back into the ring, into time. Walcott, too. They had come to an Arlington National Cemetery graveside tribute to Joe Louis, to whom they all were indebted.
On a gentle hill, they and others took turns recalling Louis and his deeds on the first International Day of the Boxer, so declared by the World Boxing Council, fittingly, to coincide with Louis' birthday (actually, May 13, 1914). He died five years and one month ago. When it came to eulogizing Louis, each champion said his piece, including Ali, a man these days of few words.
Diagnosed as having Parkinson's syndrome (a milder form of Parkinson's disease) in 1984 when his speech began to slur, Ali moved up the incline to the grave slowly. He looked more somber than the occasion called for, for indeed, it was a "celebration" of Louis' life. Then for a moment, like the old Ali whose eyes and voice twinkled, he reached back for one more line that could make others laugh. He said of Louis, "He was humble. This was something I couldn't be."
Maybe no one could have been like Louis. He "opened doors," many said. Walcott said he walked through a door Louis had opened for him. Twice beaten by Louis, Walcott became champion after Louis. He showed the way for a race and a whole nation, several said. "Joe Louis was a man I idolized," said Leonard.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), from Louis' native Detroit, recalled June 22, 1938, when Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round of their momentous rematch as a time when "Nazi Germany was forcing us into World War II" and a night that the "entire United States citizenry was behind this great symbol of Americanism."
"I think he left something behind for all of us -- a character to portray," said Spinks, the current heavyweight champion.
Unexpectedly, a woman from the assembled gathering, shrugging off a gently restraining hand, got up to speak. She said there was no woman of her generation there to speak, and she wanted younger people to know "that Joe Louis was a hero to us all at a time when blacks had few public heroes." She remembered people assembling to hear of his feats. "He came to us on the radio," she said.
The last to stand up was Louis' son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr. The owner of a marketing and sports events management company in Denver, Barrow gets to Washington four or five times a year, and most times he visits his father's grave at Arlington. He said he knows what his father meant to people because sometimes he'll stand off to the side, there by the grave, and hear older people tell their children about Joe Louis.
There, too, he "finds the encouragement . . . to live my life stronger and harder."
After that, taps were sounded and the fighters walked down the slope toward their limousines. A few of them stopped for TV interviews. Leonard said he still was waitng for an answer to his challenge of Marvelous Marvin Hagler. They all signed autographs. Ali posed with two women next to his car. He didn't say anything to either of them, and after the flash went off, he turned stiffly and got into the back seat. The heavy door slammed shut, sealed almost. You could not see inside.
Even before everyone had drifted away, a new crowd that would remember Louis had already formed. At Louis' tombstone, a wreath was left, and others -- tourists -- walked up the bent grass to look at it closely.