I had not thought about Joe Louis for the longest time. When I was growing up in India, Joe Louis was idolized by my parents. They did not know much about the societal problems that he faced but they admired his personality, the modesty and generosity that was a such a contrast to the ferocity that he exhibited within the ropes. They were also much taken with the manner in which, after having lost to Max Schmeling, he won the re-match by savagely knocking the German to the floor multiple times en route to a first round KO. I had not been born at the time of Louis’ greatest fights but I remember when an over-the-hill Louis was defeated by Ezzard Charles. My parents were devastated by the loss as were millions of Americans, black and white. I shared their gloom. After I emigrated to the U.S in the late sixties, I read up on Joe Louis, his fights against Primo Carnera, Billy Conn, Max Baer, Jersey Joe Walcott and others, and about his problems with the IRS, drugs and drinking in his later years. Then I forgot about him as Muhammad Ali took center stage.
Recently, I brought home a library book” Knockout”, a photo-biography of Joe Louis by George Sullivan, published by National Geographic. As I read it, the old memories came flooding back. The book seemed to have been written for young adults but the photographs were great and it did have one tidbit that I hadn’t heard of before.
After Pearl Harbor, Louis enlisted in the army and was used to help build soldiers’ confidence and boost their spirits by participating in boxing exhibitions. While at Fort Riley, Kansas, he met and befriended Jackie Robinson, Major League baseball’s first African- American player. Robinson told Joe that he wanted to become an officer but was unable to attend Officer Candidate School because the army would not accept applications from African American soldiers. Joe quietly called an influential friend in Washington D.C who intervened in the situation. As a result, Robinson and seventeen other African American soldiers were admitted to officers Candidate School. Jackie Robinson eventually became a lieutenant, something Joe Louis took great pride in.
Muhammad Ali was definitely one of the all-time boxing greats and deserves credit for his stand against the Vietnam War but I never warmed to him. His persona was the polar opposite of that of Joe Louis. He was bombastic, boastful, vain and he had a mean streak even outside the ring. The pundits excuse his running off at the mouth on the grounds that he did it to publicize his fights and build up the gate. Others said that he did it to hide his nervousness; this was particularly true before the first Sonny Liston fight. (BTW, to digress just a little, I have my doubts about the second bout in which Liston was unexpectedly knocked out in the very first round, felled by what some felt was a phantom blow.) I also remember Ali badmouthing Smokin’ Joe Frazier, not in Ali’s class as a boxer but a stout hearted warrior who gave him all he could handle in three titanic bouts including the Thrilla in Manila. And the bout with Ernie Terrell where he propped up a dazed opponent and punished him some more by swiping his face with the laces on his gloves– because Terrell called him by his given name, Cassius Clay, rather than Muhammad Ali. Most of all, I cannot forget how, at a boxing match in Las Vegas when Joe Louis was wheeled to ringside in his wheelchair Ali slighted him by referring to him as a “cripple”.
In 2005, the International Boxing Research Association singled out Joe Louis as the greatest heavyweight of all time. I’ll leave it to the boxing pundits to argue over who was the best … the self-proclaimed ” Greatest”, Joe Louis or Jack Johnson but, in my heart, there can be only one Number One: the” Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis.