The Great and Humble Joe Louis
by Leigh Bottrell
Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, is regarded by many good judges as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Greater than Ali, Marciano, Johnson, Sullivan.
But I will tell you something that shows the Brown Bomber was a decent, humble, lonely man of immense dignity. It stems from a night I had in his company in Newcastle-on-Tyne, in the north-east of England, in the early 1970s. First, though, a snapshot of his boxing career.
A lightly coloured man, from an impoverished Alabama cotton-picking family, Louis was born Joe Louis Barrow in 1914 and died in Las Vegas in 1981. His boxing career began in 1934, after the family moved to Detroit, when he won the Golden Gloves light heavyweight title. Within a year of this victory he'd turned pro and won 12 fights.
Louis was good looking, taciturn and of exemplary good character. He did what he was told by managers and promoters, signed where he was told, and went into the ring and knocked out good fighters with a fearsome short-distance left hook and/or a lightning right cross. Louis was regarded as unbeatable, and destroyed every white opponent wheeled up to him at a time when The Mob controlled US boxing and black heavyweights of any standard - let alone of Louis' class - were feared and reviled.
In an era when Primo Carnera, Max Baer and other white stooges were foisted on the American public as world champions or leading contenders and black men were barred from the top baseball teams, the young Louis was seen as a comfortable enough bridge between races. Non-threatening, even grudgingly admired, he might have been to the American public listening in their millions to broadcasts of his fights or flocking in tens of thousands to Madison Square Garden, the Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium. In the ring, though, he was all cold menace.
Yet Louis' unbeaten - and seemingly unbeatable - record was surprisingly ended in 1936, when the German champion Max Schmeling stopped him in 12 rounds. This was Louis' first-ever defeat, and Hitler used it to rant about the alleged superiority of the white German race and the Nazi political and military system which, he said, would take over the world.
Less than a year after his painful and embarrassing loss to Schmeling, the Brown Bomber took the world heavyweight title from James J. Braddock in Chicago. But revenge and the public and personal desire to avenge the 1936 loss to Schmeling consumed Louis. Almost exactly two years later, after disposing of a string of opponents of all shapes, sizes, colours and ability in what was dubbed the "Bum of the Month" campaign, Louis faced Schmeling again.
You Tube or video will show you what happened. Louis coldly and methodically smashed Schmeling with terrible left hooks and crushing rights to end the slaughter in two minutes and four seconds of the first round. The result made Joe Louis the idol of all Americans, restoring their national pride and making a laughing stock of Hitler and his pretentious racial and political posturing.
Louis went into the US Army in 1942, saw out the war as a PT instructor, and returned to the ring in 1946. He successfully defended his title four times, including two fights against the excellent Jersey Joe Walcott, until retiring undefeated world champion in 1949. But dubious managers and poor advice had left him virtually penniless, despite earning over $5 million with his fists, and the IRS was after him for $4 million in tax.
Forced back into the ring in 1950, Louis was outpointed by Ezzard Charles in an attempt to win back his title, and a year later his great career was finally ended by Rocky Marciano knocking him through the ropes in the eighth round. Louis had knocked out five world champions and successfully defended his world title more times than any boxer in heavyweight history.
Louis was still broke, though. He was given a job as a celebrity meeter and greeter at Caesar's Palace, in Las Vegas, and continued to live quietly and unostentatiously. In the early 1970s he did a few paid-for appearances in Britain, including a one-night stand at the long-closed seedy La Dolce Vita nightclub in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which had a reputed connection with some of Britain's really heavy criminal element, including the late unlamented Kray Twins.
I went up from my Fleet Street, London, office that night to interview the Brown Bomber and take in his pathetic stage act. This once great sporting hero was reduced to going through a tired routine whereby he presented bottles of cheap fizz to women in the sparse audience who could answer a few simple boxing-related questions. Sort of Trivial Pursuit for molls and mugs.
Later, he and I were asked to sit at a table that included one of the murderous Kray Twins and a young Cockney welterweight named John H. Stracey, who was going places in the professional ring after representing England at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The Brown Bomber wished Stracey well in his career, courteously declined the offer of a limo, and invited me to accompany him on a stroll through a drizzily night back to the hotel where we were both staying.
We walked through deserted streets and over the then grimy old city's Tyne Bridge - a sort of half-size precursor to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which itself was built from Tyneside steel, sweat and grit. Louis told me the stomach ulcer which had plagued him for years was causing him grief; as a long-time duodenal ulcer-sufferer myself (having had one perforate when I was only 21 and very sporting fit) I commiserated with him.
In those days, before the real bacterial cause and simple cure for gastric ulcers was recognised, the prescribed "relief" was to keep drinking milk to neutralise the acid and ease the pain. So there we were, the broke and ailing boxing champion of champions and the broke and ailing newspaperman, both a long way from home and sipping warm milk in the vast guests' lounge of the Great North Eastern Hotel at 2 am, while a deferential waiter asked for our autographs on a beer coaster.
Louis and I talked for a long time. Most of our discourse I never have revealed or discussed. Enough to say that Joe Louis was a great and humble man, with no hint of bitterness or regret about this life or the next.
And John H. Stracey? I followed his career closely after that night and (with my mate Rocky Gattellari) was at Roland Garros tennis stadium in Paris on a damp night in 1974 when he knocked out Roger Menetrey in the eighth round to win the European welterweight title. A sadly over-the-hill Tony Mundine was made look silly by a palooka in a four round meaningless prelim on this night.
Over the next 12 months, Stracey won five more fights against top opponents until meeting world champion Jose Napoles in Mexico City. He got up from a first round knock-down to use his great left jab to chop Napoles up and win by tko in the sixth. A year later, Stracey knocked out Hedgemon Lewis to retain his title, but then three months later at Wembley Stadium, was himself knocked out in the twelfth round by Carlos Palomino.
These days, John H. Stracey is big on the British sporting celebrity speaking circuit, does a lot of charity and community youth work in tough parts of London, and has even made a couple of CDs as a pop singer.
A journalist for almost 50 years, in Australia and internationally,
Leigh is still a contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Leigh is also Director of GreenAbility Pty. Ltd. - a cutting-edge
environmental research and development group.
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