April 12 is the anniversary of two great losses for the sport of boxing. On April 12, 1981, Joe Louis passed away at the age of 66. Eight years later, to the day, Sugar Ray Robinson died at age 67.
Louis and Robinson are two of the most iconic figures in boxing history. If there was a Mount Rushmore for boxing, I would put them there alongside Muhammad Ali and Roberto Duran.
It is hard to overstate Joe Louis’ importance to American culture and to evolving racial attitudes during the 20th century. He reigned as the Heavyweight Champion of the World at a time when it was by far the biggest, most prestigious title in all of sports; indeed, during Louis’ time, there was no more important title in all of popular culture. He was the champion for an entire, turbulent generation, from the depths of the Great Depression, beyond World War II.
With World War II rapidly approaching in June 1938, Louis defended his belt against Germany’s Max Schmeling. Schmeling had knocked Louis out two years prior and the Nazi propaganda machine had made a field day out of the incident. By the time the two faced off again in Madison Square Garden, most of the nation was rallying around the Brown Bomber. For the first time in history, the majority of Americans saw a black man as “our guy” against a white European.
It is hard for me to see an argument for anybody but Robinson as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter who ever lived. After turning professional in 1940, he won his first 40 fights before losing to the great Jake LaMotta in 1943. He didn’t lose again for eight years and over 90 fights, capturing the welterweight championship and then vacating it to take the middleweight title from LaMotta in February 1951, in their sixth and final clash.
Robinson retired as the reigning middleweight champion in 1952, after collapsing on his stool from heat exhaustion while challenging light heavyweight champion Joey Maxim, in a fight when he was far ahead on the cards. In 1955 he returned and won the middleweight title three more times, fighting classic multi-fight rivalries with legends like Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio.