Remembering a classy champion

Joe Louis, one of the finest boxers in history, had a tough time meeting life’s challenges.

Although one of the greatest prizefighters in history, Joe Louis was later in life almost as well known for his struggles with the Internal Revenue Service and for the damage he sustained in the ring — before the long-term dangers of brain injuries in boxing and other sports were better understood. Louis, nicknamed the Brown Bomber, was merely a vestige of the 24-year-old world heavyweight champion who, at Yankee Stadium in June 1938, knocked out his German opponent, Max Schmeling, in 2 minutes, 4 seconds.

Louis, who had held his title for a year heading into the bout, had told reporters he would not feel like a world champion until he disposed of Schmeling, who had knocked him out in the 12th round in 1936.

With more than 70,000 spectators, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and J Edgar Hoover, in the stands, and an estimated 70 million people following by radio — which some called the largest listening audience of the time — it was a signal night for geopolitics. Although Schmeling had not joined the Nazi Party, Hitler had promoted him as an avatar of Aryan greatness. At the White House, Franklin D Roosevelt had grasped Louis’ biceps and emboldened him in his duty.

“Yeah, I’m scared,” Louis told a friend. “I’m scared I might kill Schmeling.”In Archery, Georgia, 13-year-old Jimmy Carter witnessed African-Americans standing outside his family’s house, listening to Louis’ victory from a radio perched on the windowsill. As Carter later wrote, the visitors “walked silently out of the yard, crossed the road and the railroad tracks, entered the tenant house, and closed the door.”

“Then all hell broke loose,” Carter continued, “and their celebration lasted all night.”The quiet, genial Louis modestly said later that when told of what he meant to his people, he thought, “Jesus Christ, am I all that?”

In January 1942, after World War II had begun, he gave the US Navy Relief Society a cheque for $89,092, which was said to represent the profits, including his own, from his bout that month with Buddy Baer. Enlisting in the segregated US Army as a private, he made morale-building visits to US bases but would brook no discrimination.

Louis played himself in the 1943 World War II film “This Is the Army,” in which Ronald Reagan appeared; Louis said on-screen, “All I know is that I’m in Uncle Sam’s Army and we are on God’s side.”

Although he earned a fortune during his almost 12-year reign as world champion, Louis fell into a deepening chasm of personal debts and IRS demands for back taxes, which included disallowance of deductions he had taken for buying GIs tickets to his exhibitions, as well as penalties and compound interest. “I made 5 million,” he later said, “and wound up broke, owing the government a million.”

The aging Louis declared his retirement in 1949, then concluded that he could not afford to stop boxing. But he failed in comeback attempts against Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano.

In 1951, Dr JM Houston, the Illinois State Athletic Commission’s medical adviser, who had examined Louis twice during the previous 18 months, told the Associated Press that Louis’ reaction time, reflexes and coordination had deteriorated.

“No one knows at just what point one slips over the line into a mentally impaired condition,” Houston warned, adding that Louis had “now absorbed enough blows on the head so that he could be considered on the threshold of danger.” But Louis, looking to pay his bills, took up wrestling.

The connection between the decades of being pummeled and Louis’ later physical and mental challenges will never be precisely established. But in 1970, Louis, who reportedly had pneumonia, cocaine dependency and emotional problems, including delusions and paranoia, was removed from his home by a Denver sheriff for five months - at the behest of his third wife, Martha, and son Joe Jr - and taken to the local veterans hospital and a Colorado psychiatric hospital, where he spent five months.

As if out of a Frank Capra screenplay, Louis’ saving grace turned out to be the friends who would not let him depend on the kindness of strangers.

Thanks to Ash Resnick, the Army chum who managed the Caesars Palace casino, Caesars lent Louis a house in Las Vegas and hired him as a $50,000-a-year “host in residence.”Louis explained, “My main job is shaking hands,” noting, only half in jest, that one of his assignments was assuaging high rollers who lost big money to the house.

When Louis had cardiovascular problems, some of which ultimately damaged his speech and his ability to walk, Frank Sinatra, his friend since the 1940s, called Martha and told her “not to worry about the cost” of his medical care; he insisted that the Champ “have the best.”

Sinatra had Louis flown in his personal jet to Houston, where he was operated on by the renowned cardiac surgeon Michael DeBakey.

In April 1981, Louis was wheeled to the edge of the ring in Las Vegas to watch Larry Holmes fight Trevor Berbick. The next morning, at age 66, Louis collapsed and died of cardiac arrest. Reagan waived rules so that the man he called “my friend” could be buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Helping to pay for Louis’ funeral costs was Max Schmeling.

“Joe’s not broke,” his wife, Martha, had insisted during her husband’s financial traumas. “He’s rich - rich with friends. If he said he needed a dollar, a million people would send him a dollar, and he’d be a millionaire.” 

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