Sunday, March 2, 2008
Earlier this week contestants on American Idol were asked to share something about themselves that the audience didn't know. If that question was put to me, I would probably say most people don't know that I am a heavy weight boxing fan. Not a typical past time for a white suburban mom from Southern California, but there you have it. I also love boxing movies (Raging Bull, Rocky, The Great White Hope and even Million Dollar Baby) and old footage of important historical boxing bouts.
So given all of that, it is probably no surprise that I found HBO's current documentary on boxing champ Joe Lewis (Joe Louis-America's Hero Betrayed) especially compelling.
Joe Lewis is probably not a sports hero well known among today's celebrity obsessed youth, but in the 30's and 40's he was one of the best known public figures in the nation. He became the first African American heavy weight boxing champion and as such went on to defeat Max Schmeling, the darling of Hitler's Germany and "supposed" example of Aryan supremacy. He was not only the hero of black America, but quite possibly the first sports figure of color to become a bona fide hero for all Americans, transcending race altogether during a time when African Americans were routinely denied equal rights.
This special features moving testimony from poet Maya Angelou, actor and comedian Bill Cosby and recording industry mogul Berry Gordy. Even NY politician Charles Rangel chimes in. Best of all, it is chock full of details that one may not have heard about Joe Lewis before. Did anyone know that he became a professional golfer after he retired from boxing and helped desegregate the PGA?
The tragic side of Joe Lewis's life was also explored. He left a highly lucrative boxing career during WWII to join the Army (getting paid 21 dollars a week) and traveled around the world entertaining the troops. Nevertheless, he was hounded relentlessly by the IRS for back taxes his entire life. In his later years, he took a job at Ceasar's Palace greeting customers. Quite a step down for the former champion of the world, but he never complained. He also endured the verbal poison arrows of up and coming champ Muhammad Ali in the 1960's, who called him an "Uncle Tom". Through it all, life long friend Frank Sinatra proved steadfast, even helping with medical costs towards the end when Lewis had a stroke.
Joe Lewis died in 1981 and was buried in Arlington National cemetery, per special order signed by President Reagan. For more stories about the "Brown Bomber", check out this excellent HBO sports documentary, or go visit Joe Lewis: The Official Website.