View From Lodi, CA: Joe Louis Remembered
February 22, 2008, 04:00 AM
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On Saturday, February 23, HBO will televise the documentary "Joe Louis: America`s Hero Betrayed".

Whether or not you`re a boxing fan or even a sports enthusiast, you should consider the Louis saga essential viewing.

The documentary`s subject is more than Joe Louis; it`s America in 1938, a time when the nation was united behind the boxer and against Nazi Germany.

Louis, an idol to all Americans, was affectionately called the "Brown Bomber" —an impossible nickname in today`s politically correct world.

His historic heavyweight championship rematch (listen here and watch it on YouTube here) against German Max Schmeling is the center of the HBO drama. Schmeling had improbably upset Louis in their first 1936 encounter.

But when the black American and Nazi Germany`s favorite son fought again, at stake was much more than the heavyweight title. The world was on the brink of war—the two represented American democracy versus Aryan supremacy.

For his part, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House, felt his arm and declared: "Joe, we need those muscles for democracy."

Hitler sent a cable to Schmeling and followed it up with a phone call to the boxer`s dressing room minutes before the fight urging him to defeat Louis in the name of German "politics."

More than 70 million Americans—half the country—listened to the broadcast from Yankee Stadium. Millions more tuned in from across the globe.

For all the fight`s build up, it lasted only 2:04 minutes. Schmeling hit the deck for the first time before a minute elapsed. And when he went down for the third time in the first round, referee Artie Donovan declared Louis the winner.

All America celebrated while in Germany stunned listeners turned off their short wave radios even before the official end.

The Louis-Schmeling saga has bitter footnotes. Louis, who served in the army during World War II, experienced only failure after he returned home.

Despite earning over $5 million, Louis was deeply in debt and hounded by the IRS. As journalist John Lardner noted: "The rules of arithmetic do not apply to the fight game. The longer you stay in it, the less you have."

Although Louis retired briefly in 1949, he resumed fighting after a year in an unsuccessful attempt to pay off his debts. When he could no longer box, Louis tried wrestling before hitting the bottom as a "greeter" at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Louis, once America`s hero, suffered the greatest indignity during a tribute to him at Caesars. Muhammad Ali called him an "Uncle Tom." Ali added that he`d been warned not to end up like "poor Joe Louis."

In 1981, at age 66, Louis died penniless.

Over the years, Schmeling and Louis became close friends. Schmeling, who once said: "I didn`t only like Joe. I loved him," financially assisted Louis and contributed to his funeral expenses.

Unlike Louis, Schmeling`s post-war life was grand. Through his boxing connections, Schmeling received a Coca-Cola distributorship in northern Germany. He became a multimillionaire who lived vigorously until his death at age 99.

Coincidentally, Louis` tale touches on a memorable chapter in Guzzardi family history involving my Sicilian grandmother and Rocky Marciano, one of the fighters Joe took on after he came out of retirement.

My grandmother, who lived through the first and second World Wars, idolized Louis. During that 1938 night, she was one of the millions of Americans glued to her radio and praying for Louis to prevail.

In 1951, Louis battled the undefeated but not yet champion Marciano, a hero to every Italian immigrant.

As my family gathered around our set to watch the nationally televised event, we wondered who my grandmother would root for.  Louis was old, tired and out of shape while Marciano was a young, fit bruiser.

The fight ended in the eighth round when Marciano nearly knocked Louis out of the ring. Then, my grandmother burst into tears.

When asked why, she replied: "I love Joe Louis and feel so sorry for him. But I love Rocky, too, and I`m so happy for him."

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.