Joe Louis became the second black boxer to win the world heavyweight title when he defeated James Braddock in eight rounds in Chicago on June 22, 1937. That was 80 years ago. Louis held the title for 11 years – the longest of any heavyweight – through an era of crisis and war, and in the face of ingrained racial prejudice.
Like many sporting heroes, Louis not only displayed extraordinary physical prowess, but came to embody the behaviour and ethical characteristics seen as desirable by mainstream society. He was also a powerful figure for African-Americans to identify with. Studying sports heroes in their context can offer insights into a nation, culture or society at the time – but the comparison with today’s sports stars also reveals surprising continuities between the past and present.
In the 1920s and 1930s, sport became a significant part of popular culture in America and Europe. While in the US, sports such as baseball and basketball were segregated by a “colour line”, boxing was sometimes championed as modern, fair and even democratic. But although mixed-race bouts were common, it was difficult for a black boxer to achieve his true potential – particularly in the heavyweight division.
The world heavyweight title had for decades been viewed as an “ultimate” test of human achievement, which meant that the racial identity of the holder came to matter. Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to hold the title (1908-15), became notorious for his refusal to conform to the sport’s prescribed behavioural norms. For example, he mocked defeated opponents, who were mostly white, and was open about his relationships with white women. Famously, Johnson had triggered a public search for a “Great White Hope” to defeat him. His “scandalous” behaviour ensured that for the next two decades no black fighter was given the chance to challenge for the coveted title.
When Joe Louis emerged in Detroit as a hugely promising young boxer, his management team ensured that his public image contrasted clearly with Johnson’s. The press was even issued with written guarantees of his sobriety, decency and humility. Although the media still resorted to crude stereotypes in their reporting of Joe “Brown Bomber” Louis, the strategy worked. In 1936, Louis suffered a shock defeat to the German Max Schmeling in a title eliminator bout. Despite this, it was Louis rather than the German who got the chance to challenge Braddock for the title.
After defeating Braddock, African-American newspaper The California Eagle was in no doubt about the significance of the moment. Reporting that “35,000 colored citizens […] let out a mighty roar”, the paper remarked:
[I]n the twinkling of an eye they realized that the victory, as accomplished by an intelligent, clean living, home loving, young Afro-American … would increase a hundred fold the respect for the race in general.
A powerful figure for the powerless
This was not just a moment of sporting triumph but one with racial and social significance. Later, during the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, Louis, like his friend Jesse Owens, was sometimes criticised as an “Uncle Tom” who had bowed to the prejudices of white America by adopting an emasculated, docile image. Yet such criticism ignores the empowering effect of Louis’ status as a black champion who was recognised and adored by millions – and not only by African-Americans.
In June 1938, Louis had the chance of a rematch against Schmeling, and his knock-out victory in the first round was often remembered as the “fight of the century”. Schmeling was widely viewed as a representative of Nazi Germany, and their fight a duel between Nazi and American ideals, so Louis’ victory was greeted with jubilation and relief across America. Legendary boxing commentator Jimmy Cannon wrote that Louis was “a credit to his race … the human race”.
In fact, his great rival Schmeling was no Nazi – he did what he could to assist victims of persecution, even, according to one account, hiding two Jewish brothers from the violence of Kristallnacht, and was widely respected for his discipline and sporting attitude.
After the war, Schmeling and Louis were regularly reunited in public displays of reconciliation that seemed to reflect post-war international relations in the Cold War era. Schmeling, like Louis, had proven himself willing to conform to expectations, clinging to an unrealistic belief that sport could be separated from politics – something as unlikely then as it is now, as can be seen from the scandals surrounding the politics and finance of organisations like FIFA and the IOC.
Where lies the power today?
The world today seems very different to that of Joe Louis’ heyday. Yet the appeal of boxing as a spectator sport remains strong and there are some noticeable parallels in the way in which we think about and portray our sports heroes.
In April 2017, a huge global television audience watched British heavyweight Anthony Joshua defeat Wladimir Klitschko at a sold-out Wembley Stadium to unify three world titles, prompting comparisons between Joshua and previous champions, notably Muhammad Ali. The shots of Joshua towering over Klitschko recalled the iconic image of Ali standing victorious over Sonny Liston in 1965.
Yet rather than Ali the showman, praise for the “gentlemanly”, focused and modest Joshua, who overcame adversity to rise to celebrity and success and who is presented as morally exemplary, is far more reminiscent of Joe Louis and indeed Max Schmeling.
Such praise reinforces a form of unthreatening racial and gender identity to counterbalance the inherent violence of boxing as a sport. Joshua, a gold medallist for Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympics, has become closely associated with modern, multicultural Britishness – in stark contrast to his predecessor, Tyson Fury, a British boxer from a family of Irish Travellers. Fury has seemed determined – just as Jack Johnson had been – to reject any attempt to present him as a role model.
Joshua has thus far embraced this image, and it is proving hugely lucrative for him. Yet such idealisation can also prove impossible to live up to. Such a sports hero, embodying physical prowess and moral qualities, is in many ways as artificial a construct as the mythological heroes with whom they are often compared. As has happened to many of today’s sporting heroes, the victims of tabloid “stings”, Joe Louis came to suffer from the gulf between the realities of his private life and the public perception of him.