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Wednesday, August 8, 2001
And Still Champion!
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 24, 1975.

The thing about Joe Louis as champion was, he never had to go around shouting "I am the greatest."

Everybody already knew it.

He never had to shout threats in verse at his opponent, "The bum shall fall in one."

Even the bum agreed.

Joe never cried in defeat or crowed in victory.

If Joe ever took any delight in knocking people senseless, it never showed. It was a living, was Joe's attitude.

He defended his title a record 27 times. He would have put the gloves on with a live Grizzly if the price was right. He fought from 1934 to 1951 and lost only three times -- once when he was too young, twice when he was too old. In between he was such a devastating puncher that an old opponent noted the other day, "He hit me so hard they counted me out while I was still in the air."

He never hit on the break, stood over a fallen opponent, stuck a thumb in an eye or talked in the ring. He didn't talk very much out of it, either.

They say Joe never made to change for a bill in his life. If all he had was a $100, the cabby -- or the shoeshine boy -- got it. There's $10 million of Joe Louis money lying around the country, some place where we can all get a shot at it, because Joe never stuck it in a numbered account in Switzerland. He stuck it in the palms of hat-check girls, bellhops, panhandlers, golf hustlers, widows and waiters. He did everything but throw it off balconies. What his pals didn't take, the government did. All Joe Louis has left is friends. The only guy he ever hurt outside the ring was himself.

The fashion of the times is to compare Joe to Muhammad Ali. Not as to which would win in the ring, but which made the biggest contribution to society, especially black society. Louis's biggest victory was over Max Schmeling, goes the refrain, but Ali's was over the U.S. Army.

Actually, Louis was the lonelier fight. When Joe came up out of the ghetto in 1934, it was soup kitchen, bread line America. A black fighter was considered to have a chance only if he agreed to "do business," i.e., to lose for money to a white hopeful. The pressures on a black heavyweight were enormous. There was no color line in boxing -- until you got to the heavyweight title. Jack Johnson had so mocked white society, thumbing his nose at its conventions, humbling its champions, running off with its women, the whole while laughing a great, gold-tooth laugh even at the federal laws passed in his honor, that white promoters gave good black contenders like Harry Wills and George Godfrey two decades of runarounds.

To the fight mob's credit, no one ever tried to coax Louis into a tank. Joe recollects the only time anything close to this came up was when he was fighting Natie Mann in Detroit, and promoter Mike Jacobs was running out a trainload of New York newspapermen to inspect this new phenom. "Somebody came to my manager, John Roxborough, and offered "to make me look good" for money. Roxborough said, "Why don't you just go ahead and try to make him look bad?"

For 20 years the most visible athlete in the world, Louis never made a police blotter, gossip column, never punched anyone without a glove on and a referee present. Even the people he knocked out loved him. When war came, and persons tried to get him to boycott it, Louis answered simply, "There's a lot wrong with this country but nothing Hitler could fix."

Muhammad Ali walked into the reservoir of good will and bonhomie when he came to the championship, a legacy of Joe Louis.

This is why Joe was voted boxing's man of the Half-Century the other day and why they are staging the Joe Louis Celebrity golf tournament at Via Verde CC Sunday, a tourney and dinner hosted by Joe at which hackers may pay to play with celebrities ranging from Evel Knievel to Johnny Weissmuller to Bob Hope to Joe Namath. At the kickoff dinner the other day, Brad Pye Jr. acknowledged, "Joe Louis, to our generation was more than a legend, he was a religion. When Joe Louis fought, black American paused to pray."

Of course, Joe Louis didn't need prayer then. The other guy did. It was always, "Winner and still champion" in those days. It's just that he's not a winner anymore. Unless of course, you count millions of friends for whom it could even be, "Loser -- and still champion."

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998. Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at
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