Briefly home from boarding school back in 1951, I went to a bar with a phony draft card, ordered a beer, and watched Rocky Marciano knock out my idol Joe Louis. Joe was 37 and trying for a comeback, as he was broke – and as he sat in his stool after having been counted out, he looked a lot older. Rocky crossed over from his corner, bent down to speak to Joe, and began to cry. Joe was his idol, too. Rocky went on to become world champ and retired undefeated after 49 fights, only to die in an airplane accident.
Pugilists respected each other back then, and no one was more respected than Joe Louis, the first “Negro” that white boxing aficionados idolized. While he was champion of the world for 12 years, Joe never spoke ill of an opponent. The press tried hard to get him to trash-talk, but Joe never bit. The furthest he went was to say that Billy Conn, a very good-looking light-heavyweight challenger, could “run but couldn’t hide.” In their first match Conn had Joe licked, running and jabbing for 12 rounds. Before the 13th his corner told him, “All you gotta do Billy is run for three more, and you’ve got the title.” Conn turned and said, “I’m gonna knock this bum out – just watch me.”
As they watched, Louis knocked out the reckless Conn, who was leading on all three cards. Conn got knocked out again in their return match seven years later, after both had served in a thing called World War II. I sat next to Billy Conn once in the back of a car and asked him about Joe. “Best fighter and best gentleman ever,” was his laconic answer.
The noblesse oblige in the noble art vanished when one who refused to serve – Cassius Clay, AKA Muhammad Ali – became champion. He stood over a fallen Sonny Liston (who allegedly had taken a dive due to fear of retaliation from the Black Muslims) and baited him to stand up. Ali humiliated opponents. He tormented and badgered them for publicity purposes, establishing a terrible precedent which has only gotten worse with time.