Saturday, April 12, 2014

Remembering Joe Louis...the Quiet Patriot

By Peter Silkov

Joe Louis is considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.  His record as champion still stands unequalled, with 25 defences made from 1937 to 1949, when he retired as undefeated champion. From the start of his career in 1934 to his first retirement in 1949, Louis lost just one fight, his 12th round knockout defeat to Max Schmeling in 1936, which he later avenged after he had won the World title in 1938. 

In his prime, Joe Louis was the perfect fighting machine, living up to his name of ‘The Brown Bomber’. He was a finely balanced boxer, with a knockout punch in both hands. While not fast on his feet, he was an expert at cutting off the ring, and paved the way for his dynamite combinations with a piston-like left jab.  Louis’s punches were short, accurate, and he was one of the best finishers ever seen.

Louis was entering the peak of his career, when America was dragged into WW2 by Pearl Harbor, and in the first three months of 1942, he defended his world title against Buddy Baer and Abe Simon, and donated the proceeds of each fight to the war effort.  Following the Simon bout, Louis enlisted in the United States Army, despite the segregation that was prevalent in the army at that time. When asked about his views of segregation, Louis answered ‘Lot’s of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t gonna fix em’.

Louis’s presence in the army proved to be a huge boost for the morale for his fellow soldiers, especially his fellow coloured comrades, many of whom he used his connections to help, when they fell victim to various examples of racism.
Already a hero to many, due to his accomplishments in the ring up to that time, Louis became even more of a hero, due to his behaviour throughout WW2. During one relief fund dinner he stated, “We’ll win, because we’re on God’s side” helped elevate his status to that of a national icon.

Rather than be sent into active combat, Louis was recruited for publicity and to boost war funds. From 1942 to 1945, he travelled all round America and even to England, boxing as many as 96 exhibition fights, with the money going directly to war relief funds.  However, unknown to Louis at the time, the proceeds of these exhibitions and his title defences against Baer and Simon, were still being regarded by the IRS as taxable income for Louis.

When Louis was released from military service in October 1945, his finances were in a shambles and he was on the edge of being broke. In addition, the IRS had begun to investigate his earnings, including earnings that he had donated to war funds. With these financial worries looming over him, Louis returned to defending his World Heavyweight championship, but his performances against Billy Conn and Jersey Joe Walcott showed that age and the years of inactivity had permanently blunted the ‘Brown Bombers’ reflexes and speed.  After barely escaping with his title intact in his defence against Walcott, with a split decision win on December 5, 1947,
Louis gave Walcott a rematch six months later, and won with an 11th round knockout victory.  Then on March 1, 1949, Louis announced his retirement from the ring, but it was to be short lived.  The IRS had finished their long investigations into his earnings and hit Louis with a 500,000-dollar tax bill. Louis came to a deal with the IRS that he would return to boxing and that the net amount of his earnings would go to the IRS to pay his bill.  Unfortunately, although Louis had some good paydays after his return to the ring, the incremental tax rate of 90% meant that they barely paid the interest on his ever-growing tax bill.

Louis made his comeback on September 27, 1950, challenging Ezzard Charles for the World Heavyweight title that Charles had claimed following Louis's retirement in 1949.  After over two years out of the ring and at the age of 36 years old, Louis was out-boxed and battered for 15 rounds, before losing by a wide decision.  Although he had little left except his heart and power, Louis carried on fighting, winning a number of contests against mediocre opposition, before taking on a young unbeaten Rocky Marciano on October 26, 1951.  The fight between Louis and Marciano was one of boxing’s saddest nights, as the aging ’Brown Bomber’ was worn down, and finally battered to the canvas, and then through the ropes and out of the ring in the 8th round.  Even Marciano himself took no pleasure in knocking out Joe Louis.

After his defeat to Marciano, Louis retired from boxing for good, but his tax bill had only grown.  Over the next few years, Louis tried various ways of generating money, including fighting as a wrestler for a while, before a heart problem reduced him to just working as a referee.

In the mid-1960’s, the IRS struck a deal with Louis that they would only pursue his current income, therefore striking off much of the huge debt that he had never had any hope of repaying, yet, this partial reprieve was perhaps too late for Louis state of mind. By the 1960’s Louis was suffering from depression, anxiety, and paranoid feelings that people were trying to destroy him. Louis health declined throughout the 1970’s, but he remained hugely popular with the public, many of whom had been outraged by Louis’s treatment by the IRS and various American governments.

Joe Louis was the second coloured man to win, what in his day was sport’s most popular prize, the World Heavyweight title.  Jack Johnson had the courage and confidence to break through the barriers and stare down, face-to-face, the racial prejudices of his times, yet remained a divisive and in many cases reviled figure, while Louis, was able to break through the racial barriers of his own time and become a beloved figure with boxing fans of all colours and races. Joe Louis’ greatest accomplishment outside of his ability inside the ring, was that he eased the way for the coloured fighters who came after him, and made the idea of the World Heavyweight champion being coloured something that was mostly acceptable, rather than feared as it had been previously.   

Copyright © 2014 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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