"The greatest heavyweight I've ever covered was Joe Louis," maintained Jimmy Cannon. "The hands were quick, and a left hook or a right hand would stun the other guy and then he would put the combinations together with rapid accuracy. The big feet were slow but he herded the guy he was fighting. Once he got his hands on a guy it was all over. He could be knocked down, but he came up quickly and his head was clear once he was on his feet."
Harry Salsinger once appraised his impact on the sport. "Louis did for boxing what Babe Ruth did for baseball, only more so. Joe came into the fight game when it was controlled by the survivors of the bootleg wars. Fixed bouts were the order of the day. Boxing had reached its lowest level, and Louis pulled the game out of the gutter. Louis set a standard for ring conduct and boxing decency. He came closer to being the perfect champion than any man before him. He always did the right thing, instinctively and not by design."
How would Joe have done if placed in the ring with jack Johnson or Jack Dempsey or Muhammad Ali, other contenders for the title of the all-time best heavyweight? Barroom arguments and computerized matchups are fun, but unfortunately these fantasies can resolve nothing. Joe, of course, was always confident of the outcome of the dream encounter most fight fans during the sixties and seventies liked to speculate about, the one involving him and Ali. What if these two had met in their prime?
In the early sixties, when their relationship was soured by Ali's conversion to the National of Islam and his refusal to enter the military, Joe told a reporter, "Clay had a million dollars worth of confidence and a dime's worth of courage. He can't punch; he can't hurt you; and I don't think he takes a good punch." He cited the lack of talent in the division and rated him with the likes of Johnny Paychek, Abe Simon, and Buddy Baer.
"A lot of guys would have beaten him if he was around when I was around," he continued. "I would have whipped him. He doesn't know a thing about fighting on the ropes, which is where he would be with me. I would go in to outpunch him rather than try to out box him. He'd be hit into those ropes as near a corner as I could get him. I'd press him, bang him around, claw him, clobber him with all I got, cut down his speed, belt him around the ribs. I'd punish the body, where the pain comes real bad. He would ache. His mouth would shut tight against the pain, and there would be tears burning his eyes."
Ali got his say in. "What's this about Joe Louis beating me? Slow moving, shuffling Joe Louis beat me? He may hit hard, but that don't mean nothing if you can't find nothing to hit. I'm no flat-footed fighter. Joe Louis, you're really funny. . . The men that Joe Louis fought, if I fought them today in Madison Square Garden, they'd boo the out of the ring. Fat bellies, out of shape, awkward, had no stance, no stamina, no footwork. . . Would Joe Louis have beat me? How would Joe Louis have knocked me out? What's he gonna do when I'm jumping and sticking and moving? And don't say I can only do it for a minute because I can keep it up for fifteen rounds, three minutes a round. Now, how is joe Louis gonna get to me? I just can't see how Joe Louis, who is shorter than I am, fought at a lighter weight than I did, and wasn't half as fast, could knock me out. Would I just quit dancing that night and stand there and let him hit me?"
The two later patched up their differences, though Ali continued to poor-mouth the caliber of Joe's competition. During a network sports program featuring the pair, Joe was talking about his career. "When I was champion, I went on what they called the Bum-of-the-Month tour," he began.
Ali interrupted. "You mean I'm a bum?"
"You would've been on the tour," said Joe.
Less problematic is Joe's standing as a cultural figure. He is unquestionably the greatest metaphor the American prize ring has ever produced.
"What made Louis a unique figure was not simply his great talent as an athlete," Thomas Sowell wrote in a column following his death. "He appeared at a time in American history when blacks were not only at a low economic ebb -- but were also the butt of ridicule. . .
"In this kind of world Joe Louis became the most famous black man in America. What he did as a man could reinforce or counteract stereotypes that hurt and held back millions of people of his race. How he fared in the ring mattered more to black Americans than the fate of any other athlete in any other sport, before or since. he was all we had. . ."
In keeping with his iconic place in our culture, Joe's name and image pop up all over the map. Las Vegas has an impressive tribute: a 4,500-pound statue cut from solid marble taken from the same quarries that supplied the stone for many of Michelangelo's works. Hewn in Italy, the seven-and-a-half-foot work stands at the entrance to the Olympiad Sports Book at Caesars Palace.
Detroit has its share of tributes to its favorite native son, including an oil portrait that hangs over the entrance to the Brewster-Wheeler Center, where he first learned his craft in the early 19430's. Nearby is the $56-million riverfront arena, home to the Detroit Red Wings since 1979, that Mayor Coleman Young wryly said he named after "that great hockey player from Black Bottom, Joe Louis." Seven years later, Robert Graham's controversial "Monument to Joe Louis" was unveiled at the intersection of Jefferson and Woodward avenues. The two-ton, twenty-four-foot-long are and fist, which seems poised to punch the neighboring Canadian city of Windsor directly in the snout, was deemed a bit too menacing by those involved in trying to soften the city's hardcore image. But the city and the Detroit Institute of Arts gladly accepted the $350,000 bronze sculpture as a gift from Sports Illustrated on the occasion of the museum's centennial. Moreover, the magazine and the museum have joined forces to recognize a member of the local sports community who best "Exemplifes the humanitarian spirit" of the sculpture's namesake. Each year the fighter's son flies in to hand the honoree a handcast bronze miniature of what has become known simply as "The Fist."
On June 22, 1993, in ceremonies marking the fifty-fifth anniversary of his greatest moment in the ring, the U.S. Postal Service made the Brown Bomber the first prizefighter to appear on a first-class postage stamp. Significantly, the Postal Service had previously considered John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey for the honor, but neither boxer could garner the necessary support. In anticipation of a record demand from stamp collectors and fight fans from around the world, some 140 million copies of the stamp were printed.
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