Louis struck his share of blows too

Published 7:54 pm Friday, August 7, 2009

On Friday, Catesby apr Jones, the elder, as he called himself, left a message at The Selma Times-Journal in reference to a previously published column about Jesse Owens and how the Alabama native son took down the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics.

Mr. Jones reminded me of another African-American Alabama native son, who also made headlines during the 1930s for taking down the Nazis a notch or two: Joe Louis Barrow, better known as Joe Louis or the Brown Bomber.

Louis lifted boxing out of its dregs among sports fans by his work ethic and honesty.

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After Jack Dempsey lost his title twice to Gene Tunney, he became a household name and started marrying actresses.

Thus, the end of the Dempsey era and with it came The Great Depression. Boxers received lower purses and that resulted in fewer matches. When the decade began, the heavyweight title was vacant. In fact, six champs were hailed before Louis started his run in 1936, the year Owens took the four gold medals in track and field at the Berlin games.

Ironically, a German, Max Schmeling, defeated Louis on June 19, 1936, with a KO punch in the 12th round. Up until that match, Louis had gone undefeated. He would knock out James J. Braddock in eight rounds and become the first black heavyweight champion since Jack Johnson.

After Louis’ loss, a Nazi weekly said, “Schmeling’s victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race.”

Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda for the Nazi regime, celebrated the victory as a big win for Germany and Hitler’s master race.

Here’s an interesting turn: Schmeling refused to join the Nazi party in 1936 at Hitler’s behest during the Berlin Olympics. According to European historians, Hitler had the boxer drafted into the paratroops and sent him on suicide missions.

But in 1938 in New York, Schmeling returned to the ring with Louis. The world was closer to war. In March, Germans had entered Vienna and 183,000 Jews in Austria fell under Nazi control. Austria was annexed into the Third Reich.

All anti-Semitic laws were applied and in April, Mathausen concentration camp was established near Linz. By the end of April, Hitler required registration of all property held by Jews and that valued Jewish property would be seized within greater Germany.

Just days before the June 22, 1938, match, Hitler ordered registration of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany.

In New York and even the south, Louis’ rematch was billed as the battle between the U.S. and Nazi Germany.

Nearly 70,000 people attended the fight in the old Yankee Stadium. The New York Times estimated another 100 million listened worldwide on radios and shortwaves. Schmeling hit the mat in 2 minutes and 4 seconds of the first round.

John Kieran wrote about the round in The New York Times of the final volley that sent the German down: “Staying on the ropes, Max peered out in a bewildered manner. He pushed himself off and Louis struck like dark lightning again. A ripping left and a smashing right. The right was a crusher. Schmeling went down. He was up again and then, under another fusillade, down again. Once more, and barely able to stand, and then down for the third and final time.”

While holding the title — Louis retired as champion on March 1, 1949 — the Brown Bomber grossed more than $4.6 million. He received about $800,000 of that. He spent the money. The IRS came after him for delinquent taxes and after penalties and interest estimated the champ owned $1.25 million to the government. In the mid-1960s, the IRS told Congress it had gotten all it could without leaving him penniless.

By the 1970s, he was a greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. That’s where he died four hours after attending a championship fight between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.

Louis’ old foe, Schmeling, had become a millionaire and paid for his opponent’s funeral.