Joe Louis Barrow Jr. mingles in front of a promotional poster featuring his father, Joe Louis, during a screening for an HBO documentary about the late boxer, held at the Carter Center, Tuesday, in Atlanta.AP PHOTO
LAS VEGAS — Although Joe Louis Barrow Jr. bears a reasonable resemblance to his famous father, he isn’t often recognized these days as the son of a legendary heavyweight champion.
It’s been about six decades since Joe Louis reigned as arguably the most famous athlete in the world, and nearly 27 years have passed since he died. Though Barrow’s father was an incredible athlete who also had a profound social impact on the 20th century, he knows Louis’ memory won’t stay strong in the 21st unless it’s preserved.
“History does what it does: it passes,” Barrow said. “If you don’t have a chance to talk about it, it passes. If you don’t make a conscious effort to remind people who individuals like my father were, then history will take its toll.”
Barrow, whose father dropped his last name as a fighter, is determined to keep Louis’ memory alive, and he’s hardly alone. A documentary from HBO Sports, “Joe Louis: America’s Hero ... Betrayed,” will premiere tonight as the culmination of a longtime dream for Ross Greenburg, the executive producer and HBO executive who waited 10 years to do his respected organization’s take on an oft-told story.
And on Thursday, HBO and boxing equipment maker Everlast opened the Joe Louis Boxing Gym on Manhattan Avenue, in Harlem, as yet another monument to a hero unlikely to be forgotten. Barrow also is a living testament to his father, parlaying a successful career as a business executive into a job as the chief executive officer of The First Tee, an organization created to expose millions of children to golf.
“I’m doing what I’m doing today because I really feel a sense of responsibility to do more for other people, and that comes directly from him,” said Barrow, who also has worked for the Democratic National Committee and written a book on his father. “I’m passionate about him not because it’s my father, but because he’s a man who made a significant difference. America needed a hero, and this man emerged.”
Though the documentary’s title suggests a somber, cautionary tale, the film also focuses both on Louis’ memorable rise to the heavyweight title and decades of conflict with the Internal Revenue Service over millions in back taxes and interest. Cultural icons from Bill Cosby to Jerry Lewis voice their displeasure with the IRS’ zealous pursuit of Louis, which forced the former champ into dismal post-boxing endeavors ranging from pro wrestling to merchandising.
But Barrow believes the film never loses sight of Louis’ importance as both a transcendent fighter and a black icon who opened doors for all athletes.
Louis’ history is highlighted by his two fights with Max Schmeling, the German champion whose victory in their first bout was hailed by Adolf Hitler. Louis demolished Schmeling in their rematch on June 22, 1938 – a day cited by several interviewees as the first time a black man became a champion of all Americans.
“This was probably the first time and the only time in the history of America that a black man ends up being a white hope,” activist Dick Gregory told HBO. “He’d become the great white hope.”
After Louis claimed the heavyweight title, he held it for more than 11 years, making 25 defenses to set a record unlikely to be broken.
As detailed in the documentary, Louis was a trailblazer in golf as well, earning a spot in a PGA Tour event to make inroads in a segregated sport. Louis eventually resolved his tax debts and spent his final years as a greeter at Caesars Palace – some thought an ignominious end to a heroic life.
“Some people say a greeter at Caesars, that’s not where the champ should end up,” Barrow said. “My father was happy there. It was his home at the end. He didn’t die a pauper. He lived fine. He had a house, and a wife who loved him.”