The Greatest?

The story you know:

If someone asked you to name the greatest boxer of all time, it'd probably take you all of three seconds to come up with Muhammad Ali. It was his nickname, after all. ESPN ranked him the third-greatest athlete of the century, and his list of brilliant shit-talking quotes could fill a Lil Wayne mix tape. He was an icon to black and white Americans at a time when the country was still struggling with the civil rights movement, and he spoke for a nation at war when he told the U.S. draft board, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck itself.

You don't argue with a man who can literally punch you until you die.

But actually ...

Hidden away in the grainy footage of old boxing reels is the inventor and perfector of rag doll physics. Call Ali the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and prepare to dig in for a long lecture on Joe Louis, the most fundamentally pure boxer to ever step into the ring at any level. Listed 11th on ESPN's tally of the greatest athletes of the century, Louis won 95.6 percent of his fights, compared with Ali's 91.8 percent, and KO'd an insane 74.3 percent of his opponents, compared with Ali's much more reasonable 60.7 percent. But Ali came along at a time when everyone was willing to declare a black man The Greatest. Louis had to settle for "The Brown Bomber."

Get it? It's because of his skin, see!

Of course, Ali was more than a great boxer. It's tough to argue that anyone could have embodied the 60s and 70s better than Ali when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Though Louis did stand up to a government in his day. The Nazi government. When not busy with world domination and his Mousketeer meetings, Hitler was fond of idle speculation on which races he thought were superior (his money was on the Aryans). When it was announced that Joe Louis, the most prominent African-American in sports, would fight Germany's great Max Schmeling, Hitler used the event to laud German superiority. Hitler even extended the 1 a.m. curfew to 3 a.m. so that bars could broadcast Schmeling's rout for all to see.

Joe Louis poses over the corpses of his freshly slain Nazi enemies.

The political significance of the fight was not lost on anyone. President Franklin Roosevelt himself told Louis, "We need muscles like yours to beat Germany. Because seriously, fuck those guys"*

*Only able to find sources for the first half of that statement.

And Louis didn't disappoint, knocking out Schmeling in just two minutes and four seconds, which probably made for some awkward moments the next day around the water coolers in Nazi Germany. More importantly, at a time when African-Americans were still being segregated, discriminated against and fucking lynched, the biggest hero in America was a black man.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Seriously, the fight was over before that flash bulb stopped emitting light.

Joe Louis was Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Ali rolled into one. Like Ali, he was a boxer who perfectly embodied America's communal feeling at a time of war. Ali refused to fight the Vietcong and eventually stopped fighting in the ring at a time when Americans were protesting. Louis kicked the shit out of a Nazi while America was starting to get an itch to do the same. As admirable as Ali's pacifism was, it's tough to argue he'd be as well-remembered as a boxer who spoke with his God-given gift for violence if you reversed the eras.