Only an honest man would admit it: his boxing career was over long before he actually stopped fighting for a living. He clearly recalls the date and the place, even the time. It was Dec. 5, 1947 at New York's Madison Square Garden and, to be even more precise, it was less than one minute into the fourth round. Jersey Joe Walcott had just knocked him down with a right hand. It was the second time in the fight that he had been floored; Walcott also had decked him in the first round. "As I'm on my hands and knees taking a seven-count," Joe Louis recalls, "I say to myself, 'Goddamn, am I really a twenty-to-one favorite?' "
The record shows that the fight dragged on for 11 more rounds. Louis was declared the winner and still heavyweight champion, but he left the ring as disgusted with himself as the crowd was with the split decision. It was the first time the fans had turned on him, and the incident marks the one low point in this otherwise upbeat autobiography, Joe Louis: My Life (written with Edna and Art Rust Jr., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $10.95). In fact, it is cheering to find that Louis, now a fragile 64-year-old slowly recovering from open-heart surgery, can look back in the pages of his memoirs and report that life was mostly pretty dandy.
The fight part, of course, was legendary: Louis won 68 of 71 fights, 54 by knockout in a busy and successful career that kept him in the public eye and earned him great acclaim. But the rest of it was equally good—Louis had as much zest for loving as he did for fighting and he worked at it just as hard. He admits, if a bit coyly at times, that he was the heavyweight champ with the women, too, from Cotton Club chorines to famous movie stars, punctuating his escapades with four marriages.
Louis clearly enjoys recounting his story, and he vividly recalls telling detail. June 25, 1935: he clinches with Primo Camera and lifts the surprised giant off his feet. "I should be doing this to you." Camera gasps. Aug. 7, 1935, Round 1: King Levinsky sits on the bottom strand of the ring ropes yelling, "Don't let him hit me again." In recapping his fights, Louis shows uncommon flair for suspense and he candidly discusses his financial difficulties, which seemed nearly insurmountable toward the end of his career. He was broke and heavily in arrears on income taxes; he had no idea where all the money had gone and he was fighting without spirit merely to pay off the government.
Louis was 37 years old on Oct. 26, 1951, when Rocky Marciano thrashed him so soundly that Louis wasn't fully conscious when Referee Ruby Goldstein stopped, the fight in the eighth. It was all over. Marciano came into Louis' dressing room crying and said, "Joe, I'm sorry." And when a doctor from the athletic commission said, "Joe, you can't fight for at least three months," Louis replied, "Do you mind if I don't fight no more at all?"
Well, he did fight a bit more after that, but never seriously. Mostly, he just got by, ending up as a greeter at a Las Vegas hotel, where he is today. But, as he puts it at the end of this splendid autobiography, "If you dance, you got to pay the piper. Believe me, I danced, I paid the piper, and left him a big fat tip."