Joe Louis could throw a punch so hard that, as boxers say, he could kill you and your entire family. At midpoint between Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, he was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world for a dozen years, from 1937 to 1949, a time of depression, war and the first stirrings of the modern civil rights movement. In that last regard, Louis became a hero to millions of African-Americans, representing dignity and hope in a time when both were in short supply, commanding respect with his fists. As historian Randy Roberts observes in his biography of Louis, the great chanteuse Lena Horne cried when he was defeated by the German powerhouse Max Schmeling, for which her tough-nut mother scolded her, saying she had no business crying when she didn’t know the man. “I don’t care, I don’t care,” said Horne. “He belongs to all of us.” Louis belongs to American history now, too, and Roberts’ portrayal of the fighter is both vigorous and comprehensive. It comes at a time, however, when Americans have lost interest in boxing—largely because Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, George Foreman and others are figures of the past, and Americans no longer dominate the sport. “Today, most of the heavyweight champions—unfortunately plural and not singular—are Russians, and most Americans are singularly uninterested,” says Roberts. “Boxing has lost its appeal for most Americans. The sport needs many things, but none as much as another Louis.”
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Yale Univ. Press / October / 9780300122220 / $27.50
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010