Sportspeople hold a unique place among the pantheon of contemporary household names. It is difficult to imagine with today's overpaid and overexposed nouveau riche starlets but there was a time when a sportsperson could embody the very spirit of the nation. In 1936, a 22 year old Joe Louis was knocked out in round twelve against the German Max Schmeling, hero to the emerging National Socialist regime and Aryan poster boy. At that point Louis was still an undefeated challenger (in fact he would only be knocked down two further times in a career lasting another fifteen years).
Louis symbolised the liberated negro to the US at the time. His sober, embattling style of boxing was an antithesis between the flamboyance of Jack Johnson (who became the first African American heavyweight champion in 1908) and Muhammed Ali of the 1970s. His family were hit hard by the Great Depression and Louis grew up in near poverty. The son of emancipated slaves, he suffered from a speech impediment, his father was committed to a mental institution and the family were routinely ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan.
Louis's hard-working, clean-living and generous style led to a softening in the mass media of his ethnic background and, at the time of the Schmeling fight, was the personification of a nation modestly picking itself up after the nationwide recession.
The USA has always been a strong boxing country, the embattled fighter representing the American Dream. The Schmeling fight was seen as an anomaly and a great upset. In 1938, one year to the day that Louis became heavyweight champion and with war looming, he fought in a rematch with Schmeling. The fight was said to have the largest single audience for a radio broadcast with an estimated audience of seventy million. There would be no stopping Louis, and Schmeling was knocked out three times - the last for good - in the first round. With Hitler's armies marching into Austria only months previously, Louis was the American omen.
He died in 1981 a pauper. I don't have the space to tell you about his career or his multiple affairs with stars including Lana Turner and Lena Horne, his war days or how and why his funeral was paid for, anonymously at the time, by Frank Sinatra. Truly, both a direct symbol and enigma. Historian Randy Roberts has fashioned from this rags to riches to rags story something truly memorable, and a fitting piece for a great man.