The tops, together: Louis (L) and Ali (R) in 1965
I am party to several abiding conversations about the categories “most important” and “greatest” as applied, for example, to writing, music, and sports, and have unveiled my findings at intervals in this sphere. Faithful readers might recall my reverence for the “breath-turning” poet Paul Celan, or my declaration of the top 25 (+5) (+1) most essential American musicians, crowned by Louis Armstrong. In this post, I will crane part of the debate —as it is portable—toward the top two heavyweight boxers of all time, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. Nobody, in my estimation, can declare a “greatest ever” among the two, thus I will stick to the scaffolding of “most important,” and in the process, perhaps create a definition-by-example of the category, “most important,” itself. There were many heavyweights, indeed, to choose from, and three others—Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Larry Holmes—rate a mention, but scholars and experts operating in a variety of media roundly establish Louis and Ali, in that order, or vice versa, as the most significant pugilists. The popularity of heavyweight boxing has evaporated, following the less notable careers of Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, and Evander Holyfield, and with the rise in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts; therefore, we can perhaps conclude that Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali will always be tops.
NICKNAME: “THE GREATEST.” A former Olympic gold medalist, Muhammad Ali dominated the so-called Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing, decking several champions, including Liston and Foreman. He avenged losses in title bouts to Frazier, Norton, and Spinks, and triumphed over a set of lesser-known tough customers, such as Earnie Shavers and Ron Lyle, who might’ve been champions in other eras. Shavers fought Ali and Larry Holmes for the title, losing both matches; Lyle, who died recently, was ahead on two of three scorecards versus Ali, when Ali stopped him in the 11th round of their championship fight. Despite losing many early years in prison, Lyle competed with a number of greats, including a wild win versus Shavers, and a brawling loss to George Foreman, who needed to rise off the canvas in order to prevail in five rounds. This is all to say that the second tier characters in the Golden Age were dangerous, and that, in many other eras, there was no second tier, to speak of, at all. Ali’s most important victory may have come versus then-champion Foreman, when the two clashed at the high-voltage Rumble in the Jungle of Zaire, an improbable win that cemented Ali’s return to the pinnacle of his sport, having lost three years, 1967-1970, in legal limbo. He didn’t fight during that stretch, and was stripped of his belts, of course, after he refused induction into the U.S. military, having articulated the sentiment of other blacks, at the time: “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” His defiance of Selective Service, and his brash, groundbreaking personality contributed to his international celebrity. To be sure, Ali was not the first black heavyweight champion to roil the white establishment—Jack Johnson married three white women and was prosecuted under the Mann Act, a law that prohibited the transport of a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes”—but Ali climbed to prominence in another era, and could project power with fewer (or alternative) consequences. His name change, from what he termed a “slave name”, Cassius Clay, to one of Muslim origins, would enable a new mythology, the script of slavery discontinued, demolished. Still, Ali found it necessary to taunt his black opponents, including Joe Frazier, with racially-tinged insults, and even slandered Joe Louis, himself, as an “Uncle Tom.” In 1980, Ali’s decisive loss to former sparring partner, Larry Holmes, would carry notoriety, for the protégé, Holmes, would assume control over the heavyweight division, arguably, for the third most dominant reign in the history of the class. Many of Ali’s exploits—matches, interviews—were broadcast via such television shows as ABC’s Wide World of Sports; nothing, for instance, was more worldly than Don King’s name for Ali-Frazier III: The Thrilla in Manilla. Ali’s gift for a photogenic code of oratory, rap, improv, and braggadocio would complement if not propel the turbulent age of jazz-rock, protest, and rocket travel.
NICKNAME: “THE BROWN BOMBER.” A former Gold Gloves champ, Joe Louis began boxing professionally in the 1930s, and as his winning streak bulged, it became clear to Louis and his handlers that he would have to project anything but the likes of Jack Johnson (or other figures controversial to the establishment) in his public demeanor, should he ever hope for a bout with a white title holder. He would never gloat; never participate in a thrown fight; and never be photographed alone with a white woman. Thus began one of the most triumphant campaigns in U.S. history. Despite losing a disheartening non-title bout to the German boxer, Max Schmeling, the honest, soft-spoken Louis was maneuvered into a shot at the “Cinderella Man,” champion Jim Braddock. Whereas Ali would wrest the heavyweight title from another African American, Joe Louis had to carry himself just so, just to climb into the ring with Braddock. After he stopped the Cinderella Man, Louis engaged in the longest uninterrupted reign in the heavyweight class, nearly 12 years, with the most title defenses ever recorded in the division, 25 victories. Far from being an “Uncle Tom,” Louis humbled white adversaries in the ring, rather than taunt anybody, especially fellow blacks. He clobbered five former or future champions, including the huge, hulking Primo Carnera, Max Baer, and Jersey Joe Walcott, as well as a number of seasoned contenders such as Billy Conn. In all likelihood, he participated in the most important championship fight in the history of the sport, when Max Schmeling returned to New York in 1938, for a rematch, and for a chance to win the crown. Even though Schmeling, a symbol of Nazi Germany, was not, officially, a Nazi, the specter of the murderous, totalitarian regime accompanied him, amply, across the Atlantic. When Louis hurt Schmeling with a thundering blow to the ribcage, then finished the German in the first round, he became the first national African American hero celebrated by all Americans, as the United States had begun to mobilize, politically, against the Axis powers. Louis would enlist in the army during the war, bolstering morale for black and white soldiers alike. As with Ali, he would see nearly three years vanish from his fighting career, from 1942-1944, but return to the ring a winner. While in Europe, he joined the famous Liverpool Football Club as a stunt, but years later, after his boxing career had ended, he played golf at a PGA event in San Diego, the first black man to do so. He may have lacked Ali’s rhythmic verbiage, but Louis did mint the phrase, “He can run, but he can’t hide,” when Billy Conn, the light heavyweight champion, suggested that he could dodge and outbox Louis. Indeed, Conn was ahead on points, late, in the first of two fights between the men, when Louis, a fairly light heavyweight, toppled Conn with two rocketing blows to the jaw. He also said, on a separate occasion, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.”
Both men suffered after their careers ended, Ali falling victim to Parkinson’s syndrome, and Louis tragically enduring a smothering and unforgivable crusade by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. Louis’ post-boxing life would carry him through demeaning stretches as a professional wrestler, a “greeter” role at a casino in Las Vegas, drug addiction, bouts of paranoia, and hospitalization; he passed away in 1981. His final record, 66-3-0, included 52 knockouts, with 23 coming, stunningly, in title fights alone. Ali, for his part, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, and is currently 70 years old and prosperous. Oftentimes, when I think of Ali, I think of a split-decision loss, actually, in his first matchup with Ken Norton, who cracked Ali’s jaw at some point during the bout. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, claimed that Norton fractured it in the second round, suggesting that Ali fought at least 10 rounds with a broken jaw, nearly winning. That kind of storied grit circulates but in rare instances. Ali would finish his career at 56-5-0, with 37 wins by K.O. Still, for my money, the most important of the two fighters is Joe Louis. Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Joe Louis dropped Schmeling, the ‘infallible specimen’ of the Aryan race, a result that would break the color barrier in national pride.