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The Brown Bomber: Joe Louis Kicks the Axis on Their Asses

Can it be true? Joe Louis helped kick Hitler in the balls and score a victory for Democracy? Well, yes, he did in two ways in fact. He was in the armed forces in during WWII fighting in the Pacific for democracy and equality while having to serve in a segregated unit himself. So much for putting into practice the notion that all men are created equal, even on the battlefield. Indeed, in the boxing ring it was another story altogether. Joe Louis was lord and ruler of the boxing world from 1937 to 1949 and thanks to a fight and the attendant hoopla of a match with German born fighter Max Schmelling, Louis became the poster child of Anti-Nazi sentiment that raged like a forest fire in America at the outbreak of war. This battle was between the common man of America versus the so called master race superman of Germany. This resulted in two matches.

The first one saw Louis loose but lose, and by the second match, he was ready. Hitler had already proclaimed a “black man cannot beat a superior Aryan, however almost a year prior to Hitler’s panzer divisions crossing the Polish border igniting a conflagration that would engulf the entire planet, the Brown Bomber knocked down Max three times in under two minutes causing the Aryan nation to toss in the Aryan towel. Louis was victorious, as were the allies victorious over the Germany by 1945. Joseph Louis Barrow was born in 1914 in Alabama. His parents were the children of former southern slaves and as most in the south were engaged in the backbreaking labor of share cropping. Louis spent his formative years in the American South, where Klan activity was taking its brutal, bellicose and barbaric toll on the black communities with cross burnings, beatings and lynchings, so in 1926, he family headed north, to my hometown of Detroit, Michigan – the industrial hub of the automotive industry and employment in the early part of the industrial age explosion of the automotive industry. The family settled into the Black Bottom community of the city and Joe eventually found work at the behemoth Rouge Plant for Henry Fords Ford Motor Company that was “putting America on wheels” at a furious assembly line pace. In his spare time he studied cabinet making and violin, but neither really held his interest. Imagine what a symphony would sound like with Joe Louis in the orchestra. It would not only have some stringed soul, but also some might as well! When the great Depression, greatly depressing the national family incomes and economics, hit the canvas hard, the only other options generally open to a young man of the ghetto was a life as a gangster, gambler or pimp. Joe however had a compass needle that pointed away from those lives and instead he started hanging out a youth rec centre on Brewster Street where he started boxing with the other kids with similar interests.

As his mother would have abhorred this foray into pugilism Joe bought some cheap boxing gloves and hid them in his violin case and went to the gym. If boxing were a religion, then Joe attended daily mass! His first bout was in 1932 when Joe was not yet an adult at the age of 17. He won the fight and in the process with a string of follow up victories he won the club championship of the rec centre where Golden Gloves fever was permeating the air. One year later, Joe was ready to move up the boxing ladder and won the Detroit area Golden Gloves contest in the light heavy weight category. The same year he lost in Chicago for the division title but won it the next year. Then it happened. The regional seas parted and Joe was about to step across to boundary to national attention. In April of ’34 Joe fought, won and was proclaimed the United States Amateur Champion of the National AAU Tournament in St. Louis, Missouri. Before he went pro, he had an impressive record of 50 wins, 4 loses and 43 devasting knockouts. His mother was now aware of his pugilistic proficiency and the violin was put in the back of the closet for good.

Replaced permanently by golden hands inside golden gloves that showed no mercy in the ring when the bell of combat rang! (What was replaced?) It didn’t take long for he pro’s to come knocking on Joe’s locker room door and he signed with a manager in Detroit. Joe’s first pro fight was appropriately on the Fourth of July in 1934 against a fighter named Jack Kracken in a venue on the southside of Chicago. It was all over for Kracken in round one as he kissed the canvas while Joe took home $50 bucks or so for the win. That same year, Joe won all 12 fights he fought, tendering full knock outs to ten of his opponents. Fights were plentiful and colourful but the path Joe was on was the Yellow Brick Road to the coveted title of Heavy Weight Champ. At this juncture of the road, Jack Johnson had been and still was the champ, and although boxing was not officially segregated, many in the camp of white America were getting tired of having a Black champ.

The fact that he was married to a white woman ramped up the intensity of racism, in this, the dark ages of America’s 20th Century so-called enlightenment. Joe’s manager and handlers knew they had a PR campaign lying ahead of them to counter act the “Jack” factor and so they touted Joe’s clean living. He also was told to never pose in any photo with a white woman, which would bring back the race card spectre of Jack Johnson all over again. It worked! The white press corps lauded Joe as a modest man with goals and he was now not far from rock star status in the world of contenders in the sport of boxing. In 1935 Joe had 13 bouts and he was on the road to stardom in June of that year when he laid out former champ, Primo Carera in round six.Somehow politics got mixed into the sport and turned a garden of masculine pugilistic combat into a compost pile of patriotism! Meanwhile, Benito Mussilini was strutting his stuff in Italy and warming up to his new partner in genocide and crime, Adolph Hitler.

War fever was spreading in America; it would come in time when the attack on Pearl Harbour woke the sleeping giant of democracy, but for now, knocking out Primo was an American victory over fascism in Europe! Because of Primo’s Italian heritage, the Black community was especially interested and hailed the victory, real and symbolic as it was at the time, over the Italian for the simple fact that Italy had invaded the country of Ethiopia on the African continent! The stage was set and the the press ran with the ball and started, as the press will do, to give Joe different nicknames to blaze a trail in the headlines…the Mahogany Mauler and the Chocolate Chopper were two examples, that fortunately didn’t stick, but one, The Brown Bomber was the one that did, and name alone sounded like a B-17 ready to deliver a barrage of bombs to the enemy where ever they were…in Europe, Asia..or one lone opponent in the ring in the centre of Madison Square Garden. As the year continued, Joe managed to knock out former champ Max Baer and the stage was set for the boxing worlds version of the Normandy Invasion. Joe would take on the former World Heavyweight Champ, Max Schmeling. Hitler hung his hopes on this Aryan superman and predicted a victory for the Fatherland. When the about occurred…he was right.

Max knocked the contender out in the 12th round in Yankee Stadium in June of that year. This was Joe’s first pro loss for the Numero Uno contender for the title in the heavyweight division. The forces were now in motion like a bubbling lava lamp, and anti-Nazi sentiment was building at a feverish pace. It was more potent than a panzer tank. The battlefield was ready for a re-match between the pride of Hitlers Germany, and of America’s champ for all seasons. Louis-Schemling II was one of the major boxing events of all time internationally. Hitlers has Max’s back in the Fatherland, and because he defeated a Black man, Hitlers PR goons were all the outcome and of course it adding a “racial purity” spin to extoll Aryan superiority! The second fight was now scheduled and while Max was on the Wilhelmstrasse goose-stepping with his Gestapo cronies, FDR invited Joe to the White House, no, not for a boxing match I assure you, but to tell Joe America was in his corner. Still, it was a segregated corner and even a knock out blow to Germany’s symbol of superiority would not integrate America for African Americans…yet!

Max returned to the US with a cadre of Nazi party officials in June of 1938 and the German press was saying that when Max knocked out the “black man” the prize money would be used to build more tanks in Germany. Max and his gang were holed up in a Midtown hotel and the anti-nazi forces picketed all day and night long. Then the big night…June 22, 1938 and both of these political pawns with brawn stepped into the ring in Yankee Stadium before a crowd of over 50,000 fight happy patrons. The match was carried on radio around the world and in as every conceivable language on the planet. Joe weighed in at 198 and Max at 193, a fairly comparable match-up. The bell rang, the fighters jockeyed for position in the centre of the ring and in just over 2 minutes..Hitler lost his tank money as Joe tanked Max battering him and knocking him down three times. The Max Camp threw in the towel…and it was all over for Nazi aggression, at least in the confines of the ring. The real Nazi aggression would come in September of 1939 when the bell would ring and war broke out, although the war lasted more than 2 minutes..the end result was the same. Hitler had to bite the bullet..literally! Sore losers do not champions make! During the war, Joe did serve and after the hostilities, his boxing career continued.

In later years, due to poor management, he was now in tax debt as his managers had managed to chew off the lion’s share of Joe’s profits. Joe was also soon using cocaine and lamentably, by 1969 his health was failing. Joe died in 1981 and is buried, appropriately in Arlington National Cemetery, not far the grave of another American war hero…Lee Marvin. I managed to see both graves and when I saw Joe’s, all I could think of was all of the sports events I had witnessed in my hometown of Detroit. Where? At the Joe Louis Arena.

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