To be sure, this judiciously contrived image of Louis contained elements of truth. He really didn't drink or smoke, and he really was modest and generous. On the other hand, he played around considerably, and he didn't restrict himself to black women; he was just "discreet," to use "his word. Also, money ran through his hands like water.
The concern felt by Louis's mentors about the public's perception of this naive and unschooled black boxer grew in part from the assumption that he would stand as a symbol of his race to white Americans. The white Americans, reasoning went, would judge blacks as they judged him. Louis's managers pushed him forward as an ambassador of goodwill from the black race to the white.
Louis himself accepted the role. In a ghosted 1935 mini-autobiography, Joe Louis' Own Story, he said, "I realize the Negro people have placed a big trust in me. It is my duty to win the championship and prove to the world that, black or white, a man can become the best fighter and still be a gentleman."
There were also symbolic implications in the fact that a black man was about to fight an Italian. In the summer of 1935, Italy, led by Mussolini, was threatening to invade Ethiopia, one of the few independent black nations. Many American blacks felt a deep sympathy toward Ethiopia. Two respected newspaper columnists, Westbrook Pegler of Scripps-Howard and Arthur Brisbane of Hearst, warned that the Louis-Carnera fight might spark riots. These warnings had a familiar ring: For years whites had used exaggerated fears of racial violence as an excuse for excluding blacks from full participation in American life. Jacobs paid no attention, and he found a patronizing ally in former New York City Police Commissioner Edward Mulrooney, who reassured reporters, "The American Negro is by nature law-abiding, kindly, well-behaved. He is also happy and fun-loving. If Louis wins, there will likely be singing and shouting and dancing in the streets of Harlem."
Interest in the fight ran higher than for any in years. As champion, Camera had never been a big drawing card, so it was mostly curiosity about Joe Louis that generated the attention. His spectacular record—now 22 straight wins, 18 by knockout—certainly interested boxing fans. Just as certainly, his color fascinated the general public.
Some 60,000 paying customers and more than 400 sports-writers filled Yankee Stadium on June 25, 1935. Ring announcer Harry Balogh said, "Ladies and gentlemen, before proceeding with this most important heavyweight contest, I ask that the thought in your mind and the feeling in your heart be that, regardless of race, creed or color.... May the better man emerge victorious."
There was no doubt who the better man was. Louis hit the clumsy Camera almost at will. In the sixth round, the dazed and bleeding Italian went down three times, and referee Arthur Donovan stopped the fight. Balogh raised Louis's right hand in victory. Louis moved stiffly, taking small steps. He had a pained look, as if he were anxious or embarrassed. In fact, he was happier than he had ever been. He recalled years later: "This was my first night in New York and this was the night I remember best in all my fighting. If you was ever a raggedy kid and you come to something like that night, you'd know."
Louis's performance had been convincing, and most sportswriters who covered the fight filed glowing reports of his boxing skills. What they wrote about Louis the man was not so flattering. They described him as savage and animalistic. Davis Walsh's lead for his International News Service story was particularly outrageous: "Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish the huge hulk that had been Primo Camera, the giant."
Grantland Rice, who was the best-known sportswriter of the day, called Louis a "bushmaster" and a "brown cobra"; referred to his "blinding speed...the speed of the jungle, the instinctive speed of the wild"; and said that Louis "was stalking Camera, the mammoth, as the black panther of the jungle stalks its prey." In a poem he wrote after the Carnera fight, Rice made the young boxer sound as if he had just come out of the primeval ooze:
For he is part of years long lost, back on an age-old beat,
Where strength and speed meant life
And love—and death ran with defeat
For those who slugged the dinosaur,
Or lived on mammoth's meat.