No. 11: Joe Louis
The Shufflin' Shadow
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"Even white folks on the job that would say nigger 50 times a day, that would say boy this and boy that, they would light up when you talked about Joe," says civil rights activist Dick Gregory about Joe Louis on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, Nov. 19, 12:30 a.m. ET).
Louis, whose 11-year, 8-month reign as heavyweight champ is the longest in any division in boxing history, was voted No. 11 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
June 22, 1938 -- Two years after being knocked out by Max Schmeling, Louis sought revenge. But the fight was for more than the heavyweight championship, more than two individuals competing. It was built into a battle of two ideologies.
In one corner was Schmeling, representing Hitler (though Schmeling wasn't a Nazi) and everything fascism stood for. In the other corner was the champion Louis, representing the U.S. and everything democracy meant. Louis was invited to the White House, where President Franklin Roosevelt felt the champ's biceps and told him. "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany."
There were reports of messages to Schmeling from Hitler warning him that he had better win for the glory of the Third Reich. Hitler hailed him as a paragon of Teutonic manhood, and telephoned him personally before he left the dressing room.
Schmeling wasn't gone from the room long. There had been a statement attributed to Schmeling that the Negro would always be afraid of him. Angered by the comment and seeking revenge for his only defeat, the 9-5 favorite Louis pulverized the reluctant Aryan figurehead before some 70,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.
He knocked Schmeling to the canvas three times. Just 124 seconds into the fight, the German laid broken on the canvas, counted out, as Louis won one for himself and for America.
"Now I feel like a champion," Louis said.
Odds and ends As a youngter, Louis' mother made him take violin lessons.
Louis' first professional fight was on July 4, 1934 - 24 years to the day after Jack Johnson knocked out "The Great White Hope," Jim Jeffries. Louis knocked out Jack Kracken in the first round.
In 1935, the New York Sun praised Louis' skills in an editorial and went on to say that the "American Negro is a natural athlete. The generations of toil in the cotton fields have not obliterated the strength and grace of the African native."
The Boxing Register lists Louis' record as 68-3 with 54 knockouts. Other sources give Louis fewer victories, maintaining some were exhibitions.
He was knocked out twice - by Schmeling and Rocky Marciano (in Louis' last fight). After the loss to Schmeling, Louis said in his autobiography, "I was sitting on the dressing table and crying like I don't think I ever did before. It seemed at that moment I would just die."
After James Braddock lost the title to Louis in 1937, he said, "When you're hit by Louis, it's like a light bulb breaking in your face."
Louis kept his title with a controversial decision over 10-1 underdog Jersey Joe Walcott on Dec. 5, 1947 in Madison Square Garden. Walcott thought he had won, as did 22 of the 33 writers who attended the fight. In their rematch six months later at Yankee Stadium, Louis was behind on two cards when he knocked out Walcott in the 11th round.
The second Walcott fight was Louis' 25th - and last - successful defense. He would retire on March 1, 1949.
While known as the Brown Bomber, other nicknames were the Sepia Slugger, the Dark Destroyer, the Shufflin' Shadow and the Tan Tornado.
Jack Sharkey, who knocked out Schmeling in 1932 to win the heavyweight title, was KO'd himself by both Louis (three rounds) and Jack Dempsey (seven rounds). Comparing the two, he said, "Every time Dempsey hit me, he said, 'How come you're not dead yet?' Every time Louis hit me, he said, 'Sorry.' "
Louis was a charter member of the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.
Early in Muhammad Ali's reign as champ, he hired Louis as an "adviser" and they appeared together on TV. Ali: "Joe, you really think you coulda whipped me?" Louis: "When I had the title, I went on what they called a bum-of-the-month tour." Ali's voice rose three octaves: "You mean I'm a bum?" Louis: "You woulda been on the tour."
During Louis' four year-tour in the Army during World War II, he covered more than 70,000 miles, fought almost 100 exhibitions and reportedly spent more than $100,000 buying dinners and gifts for soldiers he entertained.
Eighteen years after he retired, in 1969, Louis collapsed on a Manhattan street because of his cocaine usage.
The next year, he spent five months at the Colorado Psychiatric Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Denver because he was suffering from paranoia. He feared there was a plot to destroy him.
Joe Jr. compared his father's life after boxing to that of Arthur Miller's main character in "Death of a Salesman." "Wasn't Willie Loman a grand guy, just like my father, and then he started growing old and losing his customers? He was never really aware that he had lost his territory. That's the tragedy of it, just like my father."
Louis was married four times, the first two to Marva Trotter. Joe and Marva had two children, Jacqueline and Joe Jr. Their first marriage took place on Sept. 24, 1935, a few hours before he knocked out Max Baer in the fourth round at Yankee Stadium.
About his tax problems with the IRS, Louis later said, "When I was boxing I made $5 million and wound up broke, owing the government a million. If I was boxing today I'd make $10 million and wind up broke, owing the government $2 million."
In 1977, four years before his death, Louis suffered a heart attack and a cerebral hemorrhage, which made it extremely difficult for him to speak and left him confined him to a wheelchair.
The night before he died in 1981, he was wheeled in to the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick fight and received a standing ovation when he was introduced.
In eulogizing Louis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "Usually the champion rides on the shoulder of the nation and its people, but in this case, the nation rode on the shoulders of its hero."