The (American) History of a Fighter
I’ve never entirely warmed up to boxing, probably because it guarantees misery for its participants. Name a notable boxer, and it’s likely that he is saddled with insurmountable problems. When I was in grade school, Mike Tyson was revered. Now, he’s a parody of his own ferociousness, making cameos in lame comedies as I struggle to remember why this guy mattered. Evander Holyfield is still fighting in his late forties, the victim of an apparently insatiable libido and bad spending habits. Thirty years after beating Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks’ post-pugilistic resume includes working as a janitor. Ali, the once loquacious, inspirational icon, still carries the shaky burden of Parkinson’s Disease. It’s so bad George Foreman’s ability to make a tasty, grease-free burger barely makes an impact.
It’s understandable then why Randy Roberts does not spend a lot of time on Joe Louis’s difficulties (an epic struggle with the IRS, a Hall of Fame career as a philanderer) in his new biography of the former heavyweight champ. But it’s not an artful dodge by a thinly veiled admirer. That information doesn’t fall under Roberts’s intent: to examine Joe Louis’s prime as a fighter, when he was one of the most admired people on the planet. Such status didn’t occur by accident. Joe Louis: Hard Times Man is a mesmerizing account of the circumstances that created an athletic legend, and it illuminates why boxing will die a slow, painful death: No one with Louis's combination of skills and influence is coming down the pike anytime soon. Like Jackie Robinson, Louis had revolutionary importance.
Roberts, a Distinguished Professor of History at Purdue University, does more than just offer generalizations and the observations of nostalgic grandfathers. He presents Louis’s career in a historical framework. The fighter’s golden years (1935 to 1951) did not represent black America’s golden age. Louis grew up in Alabama and Michigan subjected to the same oppression, scrutiny, and contempt as any other black person. His athletic abilities earned him little merit. White sportswriters frequently described Louis as an animal or a psychopath; only later in his career did he warrant being classified as a human being. Blacks, however, saw opportunity. When Louis made a splash in the boxing world in 1935, becoming a contender for the heavyweight belt, Louis was crowned the champion of an entire race—a source of pride, the symbol of advancement. An editorialist at the New York Amsterdam News expressed it best: “What he is doing as a fighter will do more than to show up the fallacy of an ‘inherent inferiority’ of Negroes than could be done by all the anthropologists in the nation—so far as the eyes and ears of the white masses are concerned.” City streets broke out in jubilation when he won; eleven people died as a result of the invincible Louis being felled by Max Schmeling in 1936. “But for millions of blacks the heartbreak was greater than a few failed hearts,” Roberts explains. “Joe Louis had lost. The impossible had happened.”
That Louis got a chance to fight at all was miraculous, not just because he initially took violin lessons. For years, Roberts writes, blacks got nowhere near the heavyweight championship belt, then “the greatest individual honor” (and the ultimate symbol of masculinity) in sports. Champ John L. Sullivan refused to fight African Americans, which, Roberts writes, essentially Jim Crowed the title. It was until 1908, when interest in the sport had waned and the title had been passed around like a hand-me-down sweater, that Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns to win the title. (This was after Burns, who refused to fight black men, agreed to step into the ring with Johnson for $30,000.) Johnson could have performed the Joe Louis role, but he committed a fatal flaw for a black man: He spoke his mind and did what he wanted, including marrying a white woman. Needless to say, Johnson had no crossover appeal, eventually finding himself the victim of trumped-up charges by the Justice Department. “The federal government, in its own way, had cut off his balls,” Roberts writes. “It had symbolically lynched Jack Johnson.”
Louis became a title contender because boxing lacked “a dominant, charismatic champion,” and with white candidates lacking, the powers that be “relaxed their requirements,” according to Roberts. This did not mean that Louis was free to express himself. His managers coached him to be the anti-Jack Johnson. “No verbal boasts, no flashy smiles, no public sexual exploits—just machinelike fighting and Bible-reading innocence,” Roberts explains. What’s ironic is that by conforming to what others found palatable, Louis gave life and hope to the black community. He was dominating an aspect of the white man’s world. It didn’t matter if he was himself; his talent spoke loud and clear. Louis’s uncontroversial public image and mass appeal also made him an ideal figure for the U.S. government to celebrate its WWII effort. Even working within the confines of a spokesperson, Louis had an impact. According to the Civilian Aide on Negro Affairs for the War Department, Truman K. Gibson, Jr., this included helping a young solider named Jackie Robinson avoid a court martial. “In his trips across the Southwest and the Deep South, where most of the Army posts were located, he brought some of the most outrageous examples of racism to Gibson’s attention, and Gibson proved adept at finding solutions,” Roberts writes. “Louis even quietly helped desegregate Army buses.”
Roberts unveils revelation after revelation, perfectly merging American history with Louis’s personal and professional struggles. Roberts’s vivid, cutting prose provides the bow. There’s not a dry, academic phrase in this book, never a dull moment to skim over. He describes Louis’s fights with gusto, and never bombards us with historical minutiae or overdoes on background information. Roberts knows how to use research to move a story along, to give his subject a face. By the end of the book, we see that Joe Louis was so busy being an icon, so busy maintaining his public facade that there was no right way to let off steam. Though his handlers would have preferred he did so, Louis didn’t lock himself in a room between matches. He was a clotheshorse who would wear two or three outfits a day. Attractive and smooth, Louis liked to have a good time and rarely stayed at home. That wanderlust was not conducive to married life, contributing to a list of Hall of Fame sexual conquests (Lena Horne, Sonja Henie, Lana Turner).
It’s nice to know that the pleasures of the modern-day athlete extended to Louis, but it’s doubtful that any future or modern-day athlete will approach his importance. Priorities have changed; America’s stance on race relations has certainly changed. Thanks to a mixture of skill, timing, and social climate, Joe Louis became an icon, an athlete whose victories influenced the status of being black in America. Joe Louis: Hard Times Man is a staggering, eye-opening reminder of how sports can change lives and, perhaps, the course of history. It turns out there’s at least one happy story in professional boxing.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.