Seconds Out

Hello, Joe: A Letter to Joe Louis

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By Thomas Hauser
Hello, Joe. October 26th is coming up. That's the 50th anniversary of the last fight of your career; the one against Rocky Marciano. I remember what you said after you fought Jersey Joe Walcott in 1947: "I saw openings I couldn't use. A man gets old, he don't take advantage of those things as fast as he used to." This from a man whose fists were once weapons that seemed to fire automatically.
When you fought Marciano, you were older. There's a photograph of you, knocked through the ropes, lying on the ring apron with your bald spot showing. KO by 8. From then on, things weren't good for you. Americans have a gift for creating heroes, but we tend to discard them once they're used up. Anyway, I thought I'd drop you a line and bring you up to date on what's happening here.

I was too young to see you fight. I've only watched films and read about you. I know that you were born in 1914 in a sharecropper's shack in Alabama. Your family moved north to Detroit, and you had your first pro fight in Chicago against Jack Kracken on July 4, 1934. KO 1. Three years later, you were the first black man since Jack Johnson to challenge for the heavyweight championship. KO 8 over James Braddock.

Afterward, Braddock said your jab felt like someone jammed an electric light bulb in his face and busted it. He was courageous. After the umpteenth knockdown, when one of his cornermen said he was going to stop it, Braddock told him, "If you do, I'll never speak to you again." So they let you finish the job, and Braddock said of those final punches, "I couldn't have got up if they'd offered me a million dollars."

That night launched your 12-year reign as heavyweight champion of the world. I'm told that fighting you when you were in your prime was like staying in the casino too long. Eventually, anyone foolish enough to try was going to lose. Johnny Paycheck said it best: "God, how the man can punch!"

And along the way, you became the first black man to be viewed as a hero by Americans of all colors. Your fight against Max Schmeling in 1938 was deemed the clearest confrontation between good and evil in the history of sports. It was the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as "the American." On that night, you were the greatest fighter who ever lived. KO 1.

When World War II broke out, Franklin Roosevelt felt your biceps and proclaimed, "We need muscles like yours to beat Germany." You had your own say at a 1942 armed forces benefit at Madison Square Garden. "We'll win," you told the overflow crowd, "because we're on God's side." Later, Jimmy Cannon wrote, "Joe Louis is a credit to his race; the human race."

Anyway, here we are in 2001 and a lot of things about boxing have changed. The top fighters today are virtually all black and Hispanic. And you can't duck them. I mention that only because, in your first 54 bouts, the only black men you fought were Willie Davies and John Henry Lewis. Then, at the end, there were Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Jimmy Bivins.

When you fought, there was one heavyweight champion of the world. Now, at any given time, there can be up to four claimants. In fact, five years ago, boxing suffered the indignity of dividing its greatest prize among Frank Bruno, Bruce Seldon, and Frans Botha. The world sanctioning bodies that control the sport today are as bad as the mob ever was.

Overall, the heavyweights aren't as good as they used to be. That's because a lot of guys who would have been heavyweights in your day are going to college now on football and basketball scholarships. And heavyweight champions today seldom get off the canvas to win. When guys like Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis go down, they lose.

Championship fights are 12 rounds now instead of 15, which could have meant trouble for you the first time around against Billy Conn.

The fighters are bigger now than they used to be. These days, 210 pounds is a "small" heavyweight. Fighters in the other weight classes are larger, too. For example, welterweights in championship bouts usually enter the ring somewhere between 154 and 160 pounds because they're allowed to weigh in 30 hours before they fight.

You defended your title seven times at Yankee Stadium and twice at the Polo Grounds. The Polo Grounds was torn down in the 1960s, and the last fight at Yankee Stadium was a quarter-century ago. Live ticket sales are now a secondary consideration for promoters. Their big money comes from site fees and cable television.

The print media is of secondary importance as far as publicizing fights is concerned. TV exposure is considered far more valuable, and a new communications outlet called the internet is gaining ground.

Superstar fighters make more money today than you would have dreamed possible. A featherweight named Naseem Hamed was paid more for one fight earlier this year than you earned in your entire career.

Incidentally, speaking of Hamed, his ring entrances are bizarre. "Ring entrance" is a term you might not be familiar with. In your day, fighters simply walked to the ring before a fight. Suffice it to say, I was watching television not long ago and one of the fighters delayed his entrance because the CD player that was supposed to play his ring-walk music malfunctioned. Some other time, I'll explain CD players to you.

These days, ring canvases are blue, and fighters generally wear red gloves. But sometimes the gloves are green, black, white, or yellow. This past July, a pugilist named Hector Camacho, Jr opted for pink.

At the big fights, you see almost as many women as men in the expensive seats. And this will throw you for a loop, Joe. Nowadays, they've got women fighters. Most of them aren't very good, but a few are for real.

Some things, though, haven't changed. There's still the thrill of a great fight. And the glory. We have a fighter in 2001 named "Sugar" Shane, who looks a lot like the original Sugar Ray. Fights like him, too.

You had a bum of the month club. There's another extraordinarily talented fighter named Roy Jones, Jr, who fights a bum every six months.

There's a fighter named Mike Tyson, who never fulfilled his promise as a boxer but he's still awfully good. All fighters, in a manner of speaking, come to hurt their opponents. But some are more fervent about it than others, and Mike seems to derive more pleasure from that aspect of the game than his brethren.

Fighters still lose their money. A lot of them end up in debt to the government for back taxes.

And the great ones still never quit when they're on top. Virtually all of them fight too long. A fellow named George Foreman came back at an advanced age and made it work to his advantage. But not many champions get out in time on their own terms.

Quite a few fighters have drug problems. Like you, some have been hospitalized for psychiatric difficulties.

And then there's Muhammad Ali.

Ali has slowed down some. I remember how you spent your last four years wheelchair-bound after a heart attack and stroke. You had trouble speaking at the end. Ali now has difficulty with words, too. The young Ali threw punches faster than most people could think them. But the hands that once flicked out jabs in four-hundredths of a second tremble a lot these days. I know there were harsh words between you and Ali way back when. But Muhammad now has more appreciation for what you went through than he did when he was young. We all get wiser as we get older.

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