Joe Louis, maybe the greatest heavyweight champion of all, died 40 years ago today. By some strange synchronicity, Sugar Ray Robinson, credited with being the best pound for pound boxer ever, shares the same anniversary. He died in 1989.
It’s a grim coincidence, but not the only one between two great champions and friends who helped define boxing during its superb if somewhat squalid pomp.
The two men didn’t know each other at the time but both briefly lived in the same block of a Detroit ghetto.
Joseph Louis Barrow, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, dropped his surname to try to hide the fact that he was boxing from his mother, eventually becoming The Brown Bomber and exerting the longest ever grip on the heavyweight crown, from 1937 to 1949.
Robinson, the man described by Muhammad Ali as “the king, the master, my idol” wasn’t even Robinson.
The teenage Walker Smith “borrowed” a Ray Robinson’s union card to beat an age restriction and get into the ring one night. His trainer, when told he had a sweet fighter on his hands, said he was sweet as sugar, and so the coolest moniker in sport was created.
“Sugar Walker Smith doesn’t have the same ring!” Robinson once explained, always attuned to the salesmanship underpinning the sweet science.
Both he and Louis were all too attuned too to the political realities of race in the United States. Louis might have been famously a credit to the human race for destroying Max Schmelling in 1938's allegorical epic but still had to fight on the home front just a few years later.
Racism was institutionalised, as much in the fight game as anywhere else. The impact of a lifetime of bigotry on two such proud individuals is unquantifiable
After enlisting in the US army, part of his duties was putting on morale boosting boxing exhibitions for the troops. At a military camp in Alabama, he and Robinson, who was also in uniform, were waiting in a bus station when a military policeman told them to move to the “coloured” station.
“What’s my colour got to do with it,” Louis replied. “I’m wearing a uniform like you.” The MP responded with “down here, you do as you’re told” and poked the world heavyweight champion in the ribs with a stick. At which point Robinson jumped on his back and “all hell broke loose.”
Such ignorance was hardly new to either man. Racism was institutionalised, as much in the fight game as anywhere else. The impact of a lifetime of bigotry on two such proud individuals is unquantifiable.
That particular incident created headlines and Louis’s fame helped the process of desegregation on army buses to begin, something that underlined the contradictions in Louis.
The image, carefully moulded by his backers, of a respectful, down to earth patriot wasn’t wrong. But it was hardly the full story either of a man who in later years had his battles with substance abuse as well as accusations from a new generation of being a sell-out.
Explaining his unambiguous patriotism during the war he said: “There’s plenty wrong with this country – but nothing Hitler can fix.”
Robinson wasn’t under the same spotlight, yet he too became a global figure and not just through boxing skills vividly illustrated through various spells as welterweight and middleweight champion between 1946 and 1960.
The phrase "pound for pound" was invented by awestruck writers attempting to estimate a boxer without flaw. A smooth enough dancer to go toe-to-toe on stage with Gene Kelly, he was also so powerful he could deliver a knockout punch going backwards. His style made him an idol in Europe.
There was no variety whatsoever though in Robinson’s determination to live life his way.
“Money is for spending,” he once said. “Money is for having a good time.”
While boxing still has its grubby underbelly it has almost none of the broader cultural significance it had when these two giant figures were in their pomp
He had that good time too. Famously extravagant, he loved to ride around Harlem in a pink Cadillac. It was said he “rioted in luxury.” However indulgence never interfered with business. He worked as hard as he played.
"He would walk into the ring and it was like he was a ballet dancer," Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee recalled. "Robinson was class. There was a mystique with the guy. There was a silkiness about him. He was magnificent."
A savvier operator than his heavyweight pal, Robinson always expressed no regrets at his profligacy. But the reality is that they died broke. After being robbed blind, Louis’s finances were such a disaster he ended up a greeter at Caesars Palace.
Both kept fighting too long and both did stuff beneath them. Louis’s tax debts even forced him into wrestling, thankfully now a freak-show footnote. Robinson was all but bankrupt when he stopped, ultimately also a victim of an industry rooted not just in bigotry but crime and exploitation.
What has always been indisputable though is broader impact on the world. At a time when boxing mattered so much to so many, its greatest stars were among the best known figures in sport anywhere.
Louis was a symbol of democracy against Schmelling but also perhaps the first black hero in the United States. Robinson has been described as the first celebrity athlete, accepted for being simply himself, and who knowingly tried to steer the system for his own good as much as he could.
The legacy of that is stamped over so much of the business of sport today, but while boxing still has its grubby underbelly it has almost none of the broader cultural significance it had when these two giant figures were in their pomp.
For much of the world it has slipped to the most damning status of all – irrelevance.
Rather than figures instantly recognisable even to the most casual observer it appears like an incoherent fog of different champions of various denominations droning the same insipid hard-sell to a public that mostly doesn’t care and will quickly forget.
Louis and Robinson may have died broke but on an anniversary like this their timeless legacy makes it hard not to think it is boxing that’s on the skids.