Detroit – Joe Louis was far more than a boxer.
As a name for a new arena in Louis’s city struck the ears of sports fans for the first time Thursday, the great man for whom the old barn is named was but a footnote.
Louis’ magnificent accomplishments in sport and society are now 70 and 80 years old.
Many of the people who recognized the profound appropriateness of naming Joe Louis Arena for the great Detroiter have passed away. The words about Louis from presidents and poets are increasingly forgotten, a matter of fading United States history.
When it closes after the next Red Wings season, the words “Joe Louis Arena” will fall from the lexicon of mass media and sport, no longer a tiny reminder of the great social forces, international turmoil and salvation of sport that interweaved with Louis’ life during The Great Depression and World War II.
Little Caesars Arena is a perfectly appropriate name.
Hockey people think it’s less about pizza than a family founding a grassroots hockey organization in Michigan that across decades helped raise the impact of hockey in the United States to the point that it rivals Canada.
Say “Little Caesars” to someone in North America who knows hockey and the thoughts are about pucks, not pepperoni.
Besides, since all those pies built the Ilitches’ business empire and helped pay for the new venue, why not?
It is unfortunate, though, that a grand civic tribute to the remarkable Louis is getting lost in the shuffle.
In the 1930s, the great fear overseas was the looming fascism and murderous racial bigotry personified by Adolf Hitler.
Media worldwide described Louis’ two fights with the German heavyweight Max Schmeling as epic battles between the forces of freedom and evil that would eventually require World War II to settle.
That Louis was black created a phenomenon historians agree was brand new: A black man as monolithic hero of popular culture recognized, appreciated and honored by millions.
In her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou recalled listening to one of Louis’ fights, and the pride of race swelling and deflating in her with Louis’ momentary successes and failures in the ring.
A shy, soft-spoken former auto worker at the River Rouge plant and boxer became a champion of much more than just the heavyweights of the world.
Later in life Angelou would recall, “Every day Joe Louis fought, it was ‘our day.’”
Louis’ feats cast in patriotic fervor transcended race 30 years before the Civil Rights Movement. As president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the circumstances plain.
“Joe,” Roosevelt said, “we need muscle like yours to defeat Germany.”
Langston Hughes, the poet of the Harlem Renaissance, recalled Louis winning the heavyweight championship after long years of effort by many to keep any black man from repeating Jack Johnson’s reign of 30 years earlier.
“Each time Joe Louis won a fight in those depression years, even before he became champion, thousands of black Americans on relief or WPA and poor would throng out into the streets all across the land to march and cheer and yell and cry because of Joe's one-man triumphs,” Hughes wrote in his autobiography.
“No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions.”
Louis also was heroic for other reasons, too.
As the popularity of boxing declined in the wake of the career of Jack Dempsey, organized crime infiltrated the sport, making it a racket. Louis held firm.
That he reigned for longer than any heavyweight champion in history -- 11 years, eight months and eight days, through an astounding 25 consecutive defenses – only thwarted the thugs for longer.
As life went on, Louis was instrumental in desegregating the sport of golf.
Louis’s family fled the Ku Klux Klan in rural Alabama, and he was raised in segregated Detroit, in Black Bottom. As he golfed frequently in retirement, he would insist that if a country club or tournament was good enough for a former heavyweight champion, it was good enough for other blacks, too.
The “Monument to Joe Louis,” more commonly known as “the fist,” at the intersection of Woodward and Jefferson, is a fine memorial. But his name on the arena is more prominent.
It will be sad, and arguably disheartening given matters of civic pride and national history, to see it go.