The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Boxing News / Fade Away: The last years of Joe Louis

Fade Away: The last years of Joe Louis

Formerly the holder of the richest prize in sports
Joe Louis at the casino.

Working as a Greeter in Cesar’s Palace wasn’t hard work. Signing a few autographs for starry-eyed out-of-towners, fooling around with house money on the tables, and hanging with high rollers. They say the boys at the casino paid him a decent wage and provided him with a house. His old army pal Ash Resnick, in his role as manager of Cesars’ Casino, really came through for him.

Life was steady there. A place where the patrons were still entranced by the last flickering glimpses of his faded stardust. The aging, creaking visage of a former champion that transcended “great” or “legend” or any other epithet. He took every label and shredded it into a giant snow globe, like so many torn-up betting slips. The only label he needed in order to be recognized by the world were the two forenames his parents gave him, Joe Louis. His surname was “Barrow” but its requirement had long since become obsolete. The adoring faithful preferred to know him simply as the eponymous, peerless “Brown Bomber.”

But the awe and admiration from the public were for what he was rather than what he had become. Aging men carrying cherished mental images of golden days back at The Garden or Yankee Stadium. Chilly in the rafters craning to see at distance the honed majesty of the imperious athlete. Crackling wireless sets and grainy newsreels captured by old-time fight announcers. A distant time of youth and promise shoehorned between the angry rat-a-tat of machine-gun fire and war.

The youngsters wondering how the man in his 60s would have fared against their modern hero, Muhammad Ali—incredulous at how the shuffling man with the dulled eyes and slurred speech could still lay claim to being the greatest heavyweight of all time. Not knowing that the weariness of time and punishment would eventually mete out its own cruel injustices to their hero too.

We can only live in our own time. The perfect vitality of youth cannot be harnessed for long. It often falls from our grasp in such a way that we only realize this inevitably once it has passed. Vibrant modernity must always give way to creaking nostalgia and ultimately even that fades away into dust.  A metaphor perfectly explored in the endless change cycle carried out by dynamite and wrecking ball on the Las Vegas strip. The Sands, Sahara, or Riviera. Once bold exemplars of the majesty of the “here and now”, falling into neglect amid a gradual descent into nicotine-stained anachronism. Everything gets old and everything is replaceable; except perhaps our memories. The flickers of significance that our brain salvages from the mundane minutiae of everyday existence.

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If you had been passing through Las Vegas in the 70s or very early 80s this is where you would have found Joe Louis. Surrounded by the noisy crowd, yet all alone with his tangled memories. Among the high rollers but no longer one of them, despite career earnings in excess of $5 million. An icon surrounded by other people’s money and reduced to working for “the man.” Derided by his people, including Muhammad Ali, as an outmoded, compliant “Uncle Tom.”

He deserved better, but nevertheless, everyone said that he was content and happy. A life happier and more opulent than it would have been back in his childhood homes of LaFayette or Detroit, had he not uncovered his inherent, sublime boxing skills. A gift that transformed him from a barely literate boy, learning to become a cabinetmaker, to the heavyweight championship of the world.

Not just any champion, but for many, the greatest heavyweight to lace-on gloves. A man barely mortal who wore the championship belt for nearly 12 years and through 25 uninterrupted defenses. One that surrendered it only under his own terms, when his powers finally began to wane and the field had been cleared of all available opposition.

That immortal night at Yankee Stadium on June 22nd, 1938 were in front of 70,000 fans and a global radio audience numbering in the millions, he dismantled Germany’s Max Schmeling in just 124 seconds. An act that destroyed the poisoned notions of racial superiority and mocked the disreputable fantasy that lurked in the bitter heart of Nazi doctrine. It is worth remembering that Schmeling, who employed the Jewish Joe Jacobs as a trainer, was never more than an unwilling poster boy for Nazi Germany. The pair retained mutual respect for one another that later culminated in Schmeling covering a significant part of Louis’ funeral costs and acting as a pall-bearer.

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Or almost three years to the day later when in the 13th round he broke Billy Conn’s heart with unbroken, brutal combinations. The “Pittsburgh Kid” out of site on the judges’ cards and the championship belt his to lose.  All fired up and reckless; desperate to down the “Brown Bomber” for a ten count, but instead walking into a big right hand that preceded a technical dismantling of his dreams. The champion rescuing it from the depths and resetting his crown in the fading light of the championship rounds.

Even now watching the old fights and perusing the timeworn photographs Louis still radiates an unquenchable presence.  His youthful face the picture of benevolence and modesty. The opposite to the predictable, snarling aggression that is the customary bedfellow of the prize-fighter. But a man with the ring skills and inner steel to unleash ferocious punishment from either hand and with perfect symmetry, as or when the situation dictated.

An individual that proved capable of challenging ingrained racial prejudice from the media and general public by the sheer sum of his boundless talent. A triumph of skill, heart, and modest character. The quiet decency in which he held himself removing any potential for available ammunition from ignorant detractors. He beat them all down, slowly and deliberately with a shy smile. That he did so on their terms and by their rules, made him a submissive sell-out to some that followed. But they hadn’t lived in his time and walked his path. Even they came to realize his triumph in the end.

A man that frequently appeared in exhibitions for free or donated entire purses to charity, but was mercilessly pursued by the IRS for tax violations. That they refused to take into account his extensive donations, that he had insisted on paying back the city of Detroit for the welfare earlier provided to himself and his family, or that he had little to no oversight into his tax affairs, only adds to the tragedy.

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Eventually, Louis, with all his former sharpness diminished, was forced back into the ring and ultimately knocked through the ropes and into permanent retirement via a brutal knockout at the hands of Rocky Marciano. In the aftermath of his victory, the “Brockton Blockbuster” remarked simply but tellingly “I didn’t enjoy what I did tonight.” Neither did anyone else.

The majority of the $5 million that Louis’ collected in his career was skimmed by his handlers. The remainder was lavished on gifts for his extended family, settlements for his multiple divorces, or frittered away on failed business ventures. By the late 60s, he had become addicted to cocaine and was haunted by perhaps understandable delusions that there were unknown forces out to get him. Broke, paranoid, and suffering from pneumonia, the old champion found himself committed to a psychiatric hospital for his own wellbeing. A fate that had befallen his own father several decades earlier.

It was then that he got the offer of the Vegas gig. One that he was happy to accept, especially as the tax authorities had cut him a deal of repayment as a percentage of future income. Rather than being shackled to an employer or his greatness demeaned, it brought him his first taste of security and stability for years. Better still than the years spent hanging ghost-like around the wrestling circuit or appearing on television quiz shows.

An aortic aneurism laid him low in 1977 and caused him to require a mobility scooter for the remainder of his life. At around the same time, in a cruel similarity, his old foe “Two Ton” Tony Galento was having his right leg removed due to complications from diabetes (he would later lose the other).

The end came in April 1981, where aged 66, Louis succumbed to a heart attack. How the world chooses to remember him is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Either as an old man who succumbed to mental and physical problems, a lonely shadow cast in the glow of the casinos bright lights, or the ageless and shy-faced young warrior that dominated the sports pages and beat everything in front of him. Perhaps, what we think and see doesn’t matter. The record books have it captured forever: writ large and immovable.

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