Saturday night's fight between Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov is being ballyhooed as a heavyweight championship unification bout. That doesn't mean all that much in these days of balkanized belts, faceless titleholders and the general eclipse of boxing. Ah, but once there were giants. For a sense of just what the heavyweight title meant in an earlier time -- both in the world of sport and beyond -- tune in a couple of hours before Klitschko and Ibragimov get ready to rumble (or stumble, or whatever it is today's big men do) for HBO's lovingly produced and provocative Joe Louis: America's Hero ... Betrayed, a documentary on perhaps the greatest and most important heavyweight champion of all time.
Louis, who held the title from 1937 to '49, defending it successfully a record 25 times, was a fearsome force in the ring, and the film captures his power and precision with crisply restored footage of many of his most memorable bouts. (His one-round destruction of Max Schmeling in '38 remains harrowing to behold.) More important, however, the film reminds us that a decade before Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball, Louis, a grandson of slaves and the first African-American heavyweight champ since Jack Johnson, punched his way through the sport's color barrier. Through interviews with a wide variety of observers (from poet Maya Angelou to Jimmy Carter to Louis's son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr.) and meticulously researched film clips, the documentary conveys joy and fulfillment that Louis's victories brought to black America. "It was vindication," says Angelou of Louis's championship. "Some black mother's son, some black father's son, was the strongest man in the world."
And unlike Johnson, Louis in his prime was embraced by white America. He was lauded as a champion of democracy against Germany's Schmeling and when he volunteered for the Army in World War II. But as his career waned, it seemed that America abandoned Louis. The second half of the film recounts the fighter's sad decline into debt (he was hounded for years by the IRS for taxes on purses he had donated to the war effort), disillusionment and eventually drugs before his death in 1981.
In the end, though, this is a moving portrait of an athlete who truly transcended his sport. As historian Gerald Early puts it, "You have to say that if [Louis] hadn't lived, this century would have been different." No one is likely to say that about Wladimir Klitschko.