The End Of An Era In Boxing

By Tom Donelson
Updated: February 15, 2009

IOWA CITY — Recently, ESPN Classic featured the replay of the Joe Louis-Rocky Marciano bout. This bout was held at the end of Louis’ career and featured an older Brown Bomber with receding a hair line.

Every fighter goes through what Louis went through, fight beyond their years. Hisjab looked slow and often missed Rocky and throughout the fight. The smaller Marciano not only out punched Louis, but he pushed him around the ring.

To see Louis heavier and slower must have saddened many of boxing fans in 1951 as it did Rocky Marciano. Rocky had to beat Louis, who was the slight favorite to get his shot at a title. The winner of this bout was in line to fight the then champion Jersey Joe Walcott.

Throughout the bout, Rocky showed the relentless style that would mark his own championship regime and his retirement as the only undefeated heavyweight champion.

Louis’ career ended that night and for many boxing fans, this fight ended a era that changed America. What is often failed to be noticed that Louis final retirement was greeted with sadness reserved for other stars.

The Brown Bomber became the first African-American sport star that crossed racial line. Just 13 years earlier, Louis united many Americans as he represented democracy and the American way of life when he fought Max Schmeling.

In one of sport history transitional moments, America was color blind in a society where race matter even more then. In a time in which legal segregation existed throughout much of America, Louis represented the ideal and promise of America as oppose to its reality.

In those two minutes, America saw a true American hero and suddenly race did not matter for 120 seconds.In the time that Louis knocked Schmeling from one end of the ring to the other, America changed forever. As sports writer Jimmy Cannon noted, “Louis is credit to his race, the human race.”

Joe was the quiet voice for equality. He lacked the public persona of a Jack Johnson or Muhammad Ali, he fought for civil rights in his own way. He was influential to ensure that Jackie Robinson not be court martial for refusing to accept a segregated seat on a military bus.

Without Louis, Robinson may have not become a Dodger.

Throughout World War II, Louis fought exhibition for soldiers and insisted that any fight he fought would be integrated. After the war, his status was further enhanced by his service to his country as a soldier and this gave him the ability to determine his successor.

When he retired for the first time, he dictated his successor and for the first time, an African-American would follow another African-American as a heavyweight champion.

The tragedy for Louis is that due to management mistakes in handling his finances, he owed money to the IRS and the IRS ruthlessly pursued Louis; forcing a comeback that would end in two major losses.

The first loss would be to Ezzard Charles, who would out box and even out slugged Louis. At the end of the fight, Louis was barely standing. Before fighting Marciano, Louis won six straight fights and put himself in line for one more shot at a title.

When he fought Marciano, he was the favorite for many fans remembered the sleeker and faster Louis who pounded Schmeling but on this night, they saw a slower and heavier Louis. Joe’s jab was ineffectual and his punches moved in slow motion.

As Louis noted after the fight, his body did not respond to his demand as his punches seemed to move one step behind his though processes. He became vulnerable to Marciano’s own sledgehammer punches.

When Louis went through the rope as a result of a sledgehammer right hand, one era ended and another began. Marciano would go on to defeat Jersey Joe Walcott and dominate the heavyweight division in the first half of the 1950’s before retiring undefeated.

Louis would go on to fight exhibition and even a few professional wrestling. He ended his life as a charity case and poor. The heartbreak of his career can be seen how the IRS chased Joe down for back taxes that could be laid at his managerial mistakes.

Louis found himself giving his income to the United States government after his career was over and the great American hero who united a nation for two minutes in 1938, found himself treated as a tax cheat and his reward was to hounded by the government he defended.