Back in the 1930s, or even as recent as the 1980s, the wielder of the heavyweight title was considered the baddest man on the planet.
Sadly, dilution has taken its toll with the heavyweight division watered down to the point that this Saturday’s fight between IBF heavyweight titleholder Wladimir Klitschko and WBO titleholder Sultan Ibragimov at Madison Square Garden takes a back seat to a fighter of yesteryear.
An HBO documentary premieres Saturday night called “Joe Louis: America’s Hero Betrayed.” The title says it all.
For new boxing fans of the 21st century, Louis had a grip on the heavyweight world championship that spanned from 1937 to 1949 and included 25 title defenses. Some world champions only have 25 fights in their whole career.
Louis was a real heavyweight champ.
“Those were different times,” said Joe Louis Barrow Jr. who sat with this reporter and others in Las Vegas last Saturday. “Almost everybody knew the world champion’s name. It meant something.”
Joe Louis was originally named Joe Barrow and was born in Alabama before his family moved to Detroit. It was in the Motor City that Louis first discovered boxing.
At the time Louis began fighting, Black prizefighters were unable to compete for a world title and seldom allowed to even lace up with white heavyweights.
Jack Johnson, the first Black fighter to capture the world championship, had stirred up social and civil unrest with his various antics then took it one step further by marrying a White woman and taunting opposing fighters. The backlash was tremendous. After his knockout win over Jim Jeffries in 1910, riots by Whites erupted across the country with the worst occurring in St. Louis that saw numerous Blacks killed.
For 22 years no Black heavyweight was allowed a shot at the most coveted championship in the world.
Then, in 1938, Joe Louis survived a first round knockdown against James “Cinderella Man” Braddock and stopped him in the eighth round to wrest the championship from the popular fighter.
As a champion Louis never taunted or humiliated opponents. The powerful boxer was quiet, blunt and honest whenever confronted by the press and slowly established himself among boxing and sports fans the world over.
Though he had won the championship, he felt undeserved of the title because of a loss he suffered against Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1936.
When he first met Schmeling in the ring, Louis was coming off an impressive string of knockout victories against the best American fighters. So he let his guard down and slowed down in his training habits too. On June 19, Schmeling delivered the greatest lesson in Louis’s life by knocking him out in the 12th round. The German fighter returned to his country and was hailed a hero by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.
Brown was humiliated.
Instead of sulking he dove back into training and increased his work ethics. He was determined to prove he was no bum.
“My father told me it was the greatest thing that could have happened to him losing to Schmeling,” said Barrow over lunch at Wolfgang Puck’s last Saturday. “That loss made him realize you can’t take things for granted.”
Louis could have avoided fighting Schmeling and fought a number of other fighters in the heavyweight division. But only Schmeling interested him.
Before more than 80,000 fans at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, Louis and Schmeling met in the rematch.
“I remember listening to the radio when Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling,” said Leonard Castillon, 93, who lives in Los Angeles. “You could hear the radios up and down the street. Everybody was listening to that fight.”
It didn’t take long this time. Louis pounded out Schmeling with a ferocity that forced the German fighter’s corner to throw in the towel at 2:04 of the first round.
After beating Schmeling the now familiar fighting style of blazed through more than two-dozen challengers including Jack Roper at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles back on April 17, 1939.
“I knew the fight wasn’t going to last long so I skipped that fight. I didn’t want to waste my money and time to go see a cinch,” said Castillon. “But I saw Joe Louis train at the Main Street Gym. I paid 10 cents to see him.”
Roper was knocked out in 2:20 of the first round.
Many other people around the world followed Louis’s career with a fervor.
Barrow said that he’s always surprised by people from different parts of the world who were fans of his father that walked up to him to explain the impact of his accomplishments.
Barrow said while in Washington D.C. a college dean from an Eastern university walked up to him to shake his hand.
“He told me he was one of those young Black kids that banged the pots and pans after my father won his fight against Schmeling,” said Barrow, adding that people like former Georgia governor Andrew Young, South African president Nelson Mandela and U.S. President Jimmy Carter were also fans of his father. “I spoke to Earl (Woods father of Tiger Woods) and he made references that his son was aware of my father’s contributions to golf.”
During the 1950s, Louis and several of his Black friends were asked to participate in a PGA event in San Diego and were rebuffed by the PGA president because of their skin color.
The new HBO documentary cites this little known event that led to Louis fighting for the rights of Black golfers to participate and eventually breaking down the color barrier in golf. A special exemption was created so that Louis and other Black golfers could participate.
Golf was a favorite pastime for Louis and later his son. During Barrow’s childhood, it was while golfing that father and son had their few private moments together.
“Usually we would go to dinner at a restaurant and people would walk up for an autograph. We never had any real private time,” said Barrow. “But when we were at the gold greens nobody got between us. That was special. Every time I see parents with young kids on a golf course it reminds me of that.”
Barrow now heads The First Tee, a youth development organization that helps children learn about honesty, integrity and sportsmanship through the sport of golf. It was established in 1997 and has numerous golf professionals contribute not only monetarily, but also with face-to-face contact with youth.
Louis spent the last several decades in Las Vegas. A former World War II buddy set him up as a greeter and host at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas during the 1960s. It was in the gambling city that he found comfort and solace with many friends and was a regular patron at most of the boxing cards.
A statue of Louis can still be seen inside the popular casino.
“My father was very comfortable in Las Vegas. It gave him a new energy,” said Barrow. “Tennis player Pancho Gonzalez was one of his best friends and of course there was boxing.”
When Louis died in 1981 only two versions of the heavyweight world title existed and most people knew at least one of the claimants. Today there are more than half a dozen-heavyweight world champions.
“When my father was heavyweight champion of the world it was the best championship you could have,” said Barrow. “It really meant something.”
Where have you gone Joe Louis?