Although Joe Louis was never a learned man, not much of importance ever escaped him. He was street-smart in a way that made up for his lack of formal education.
The things I remember best about the former heavyweight champion who passed on last week had to do with two impromptu statements he made at press conferences.
Once when a reporter asked him how he was going to catch an opponent known for his great footwork in the ring, Joe replied: "He can run, but he can't hide!"
Another time when someone suggested that maybe World War II had little to do with black America, Louis said: "There's plenty wrong with this country but nothing Hitler can fix!"
He taught a whole generation, in the words of Jim Murray, the meaning of equality and the idiocy of supremacy.
Louis inside the ring was always a suberbly conditioned and devastating force. Yet he never hit on the break; refused to go to a neutral corner after a knockdown; said "I am the greatest" in victory; made up petty excuses in defeat; or took unfair advantage of an opponent. Whenever he won, it was always: "Well, I guess I had another lucky night."
Joe held the heavyweight championship of the world longer than any man in history (only four months short of 12 years), and defended his title 25 times. He was beaten only three times in his career; once by Max Schmeling, who took advantage of a young fighter's inexperience; and twice when he was past his prime (by Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano).
Louis reportedly earned nearly $5 million in the ring and maybe another $4 million outside it. He also raised more than $100,000 fighting for the benefit of the Army and Navy Relief Fund during World War II.
However, Joe never understood the value of holding on to what he earned. What he didn't spend he gave away, and perhaps no celebrity was ever such an easy mark for a hard luck story. Yet there remained an innocence and honesty about him that earned him a spot in the hearts of millions -- many of whom were born years after he retired.
Because of bad financial advice, Louis at one point in his career owed the United States Internal Revenue Service more than $1 million in back taxes. Finally, when it became evident that the interest added to the debt would never allow joe to get free and pursue a normal life, the government forgave him.
Even back in 1937, when Louis fought heavyweight champion James J. Braddock in Chicago for the title and won, it cost him money. It was still customary in those days for any challenger to sign an agreement giving the champion a percentage of his earnings for an extended period if he should happen to win.
Braddock, because Joe beat him and then held the title for the next 10 years, reportedly made a small fortune off the continued success of the Detroit Brown Bomber.
I saw Joe fight in person just once, when he came out of retirement briefly for an exhibition at Boston Garden. It was against a huge man named Johnny Shkor. If I remember correctly, Shkor was New England heavyweight champion at the time, and both wore oversized gloves.
The fight turned out to be exactly what had been advertised -- an exhibition made to stir up enough memories to give Louis a much-needed payday and Shkor the exposure that came from being in the ring against a former heavyweight champion.
One of the attractions of boxing for aficionados of the sport is watching a great fighter throw his punches in machine-gun-like combinations. It is like putting together the small pieces of a cyclone and then letting those combinations unravel to the tempo of the William Tell Overture. And no fighter, before or since, ever did this better at the heavyweight level.
If Louis wasn't the best heavyweight who ever lived, he was in the picture. Joe always stripped away all the frills and simply came straight at the man he was trying to beat.
Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano also had a way of getting to the point quickly. But where Dempsey and Marciano fought like guys throwing rocks, Lewis was fluid sculpture.
Joe, and maybe this was his greatest legacy, always had a flair for doing and saying the right things at precisely the right time.