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Louis was 36 and he had been away from competitive boxing for two years. He weighed in at 218. He was still strong, but his reflexes were gone. Charles repeatedly beat him to the punch. At the end of the fight, one of Louis's eyes was shut and blood ran from his nose and spread over his upper lip. He knew he had lost even before Charles was declared the winner. Only 22,357 paying spectators had showed up at Yankee Stadium, and the ex-champ's purse was only $100,458. He had to continue fighting.
In the winter and spring of 1951 Louis won five fights against club fighters. He got his weight down to 210, and he was still too good for all but the best heavyweights. That summer Walcott knocked out Charles. Walcott was now an old man of 37 and was in no hurry to fight a really tough contender.
However, a new white hope had appeared—one Rocco Marchegiano, a.k.a. Rocky Marciano. He was not a polished boxer, but he had a powerful knockout punch. He had won 37 fights in five years—32 by knockout. The International Boxing Club offered Louis a rich $300,000 guarantee to fight Marciano, and he could not afford to turn it down.
On Oct. 26, 1951 they met in Madison Square Garden before a sellout crowd and a nationwide TV audience. Even at 37, Louis readily blocked Marciano's clumsy haymakers, and he won three of the first five rounds. Then Marciano began crowding the old man, and in the seventh round Louis's legs gave out. Marciano floored him in the eighth with a short left hook. Louis got up at the count of eight, then Marciano threw another left and a right to the jaw that knocked Louis through the ropes. He lay on the apron, his legs still in the ring. The referee stopped the fight without even going through the motions of giving a count. It was to be Louis's last. In the dressing room, Sugar Ray Robinson wept. Marciano came in and he was weeping, too. He said, "I'm sorry, Joe."
"What's the use of crying?" Louis said. "The better man won. I guess everything happens for the best."
Louis was a pathetic shadow of his past greatness, yet his public image did not really change. Sportswriters ignored his divorces in their columns and wrote in vague terms about his financial disasters. Louis contributed to the cover-up. Being rich was a vital part of his self-image, and when reporters asked him about money troubles, he said that things were fine.
Still, the positive press coverage of Louis after the war reflected a broad change in American racial consciousness. He was rarely identified now as a "Negro," and when writers used the old saw that he was "a credit to his race," they ponderously added that they meant "the human race." When he retired, many reporters described it as the end of an era—and they were right. But the era that ended was not just Joe Louis's domination of boxing, it was the era of segregation in American sport. By 1951 black athletes were entrenched in boxing, and they had broken through the race barriers in professional baseball, football and basketball. This was Louis's legacy. He had done more than anyone else to make sport the cutting edge of the movement toward American racial integration.
Nevertheless, his financial situation remained absurd and tragic. His $500,000 tax debt accumulated interest every day. He had no assets save for the clothes on his back and he had no home. So he scrambled. He traveled wherever someone would pay his expenses. He lived in hotels or the homes of friends. He shook hands and went to parties and played sociable golf for a living. The IRS tried to keep up with him, but his hand-to-mouth life-style made the collection of even current taxes difficult. However, the government grabbed whatever it could. When Louis's mother died of heart disease in 1953, the IRS took the $667 she had willed to Joe.
In 1956 Louis went on tour as a professional wrestler for a $100,000 guarantee. Belly bulging over his trunks, he fought bad-guy opponents and always ended his matches with a well-choreographed right cross. Interestingly enough, his triumphs were mostly over white villains.
Sympathy for him grew as the public came to believe that the IRS had hounded the former heavyweight champion into a degrading career in wrestling. After considerable frustration, the IRS agreed in the early 1960s to limit its collections to an amount based on Louis's current estimated income. It did not even cover the interest on his debt.