LONDON (Reuters) – Boxing fans and historians will always argue over the greatest heavyweight of them all but even Muhammad Ali was willing to admit he might have met his match in Joseph Louis Barrow.
“I don’t know if I could have beat him, he really don’t know if he could have beat me,” Ali told wrestling writer Bill Apter in 1976.
“But it’s a great possibility because Joe Louis was my idol and he was for me the greatest fighter of all time.”
Before Ali came along, there was very little debate about the greatest.
The ‘Brown Bomber’ fought 69 professional bouts and won 66, 52 by knockout. He defended his title for 25 successive bouts in a heavyweight record reign that started in 1937 and ended in 1949.
Two of the three defeats came late on, when he was fighting mainly to pay the tax authorities, and the end came in October 1951 at the hands of Rocky Marciano.
“I’m sorry Joe. I’m sorry it had to be me,” Marciano told him. “You don’t have to be sorry,” replied the fallen great. “You licked me fair and square.”
When Louis died of a heart attack in Las Vegas in April 1981 aged 66, president Ronald Reagan paid tribute to a man, with some demons, who fought his way to a special place in the nation’s heart.
“Joe Louis was more than a sports legend — his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white and black people around the world,” he said.
Louis’s demolition of Adolf Hitler’s heavyweight Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium in June 1938, after a loss to the German two years earlier, stands out in the annals of 20th century sport.
With the storm clouds of World War Two looming, the son of an Alabama sharecropper and grandson of former slaves took two minutes and four seconds to shatter the symbol of supposed Aryan racial superiority.
“I had my own personal reasons and the whole damned country was depending on me,” he said.
One of the first African-American athletes to achieve national hero status, Louis transcended his sport and helped break down racial barriers.
“What my father did was enable white America to think of him as an American, not as a black,” his son Joe Louis Jr recalled. “By winning, he became white America’s first black hero.”
Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first African American to play in Major League baseball, acknowledged the debt.
“I’m sure if it wasn’t for Joe Louis, the colour line in baseball would not have been broken for another 10 years,” he said.
A keen amateur golfer, with a course named after him at Riverdale in suburban Chicago, Louis in 1952 became the first black player to appear in an event sanctioned by the PGA, which at the time had a ‘Caucasians only’ clause.
To those who declared him “a credit to his race”, the late sportswriter Jimmy Cannon offered the famous reply: “A credit to his race, the human race.”
At one point Louis fought an opponent a month for seven months — including the excellently named Johnny Paychek — in what came to be known as the ‘Bum of the Month’ tour.
When Billy Conn, who came close to beating the champion in 1941, talked of a ‘hit and run strategy’, Louis replied with a quote for the ages: “He can run, but he can’t hide.”
As he observed in another memorable retort: “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.”