Joe Louis Barrow is considered one of the greatest boxers of all time. He retired in 1951, a year before my birth, so I didn’t grow up watching him and don’t know much of his story except what little I’ve read. Something I vaguely remember, however, is my father telling me about a fight between Louis and a German boxer. It happened in a time when tensions between Germany and America were high.
Details of the fight had long escaped my memory, so I did some online research. The fight Daddy referenced took place in 1938 between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. They had met in the ring once before in 1936. Schmeling won that first match, giving Louis one of only three losses in his storied career. Louis won their second match with a technical knockout in round one.
Their 1938 rematch attracted worldwide attention. Schmeling was viewed as representing the politics of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Party. Louis was seen as fighting for the United States and the free world. It was an era of strict segregation, well before issues of civil rights were common headlines. But when The Brown Bomber punched his way to victory, people of every color and a wide-range of political persuasions rejoiced. He landed a blow for freedom that was felt around the globe.
Although Schmeling served as an elite paratrooper in the German Air Force in World War II, it was revealed long after the war that he risked his life in 1938 to save two young Jewish children. There were probably other young German soldiers with guns in their hands but no malice in their hearts. Doing the right thing often comes at a heavy cost. Choices, even when clear, are not always simple.
The two boxers became friends and remained so until Louis’ death in 1981 at age 66. Schmeling served as a pallbearer for his earlier competitor. He died at age 99 in 2005.
These first paragraphs are just a short introduction to the legacy of Joe Louis, and a reminder of an event that helped unite our country. Disagreements are mostly what make the news and understandably so. Joe Louis, however, delivered something Americans could cheer for together. Those moments don’t come often, or maybe we don’t look closely enough for them.
A quote widely attributed to Joe Louis is what I want to focus on today: “He can run but he can’t hide.” It’s generally accepted that Louis made this statement prior to a title fight with Billy Conn in 1941. Conn was the world light-heavyweight champion and Louis the heavyweight title holder. Someone suggested that the lighter and more nimble Conn might adopt a hit-and-run strategy to avoid Louis’ powerful fists. That’s when the now famous response was reportedly uttered.
As predicted, the fight evolved with Conn hitting Louis then retreating beyond his reach. At the end of 12 rounds, Conn’s technique appeared to be working. He was ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards. True to what he’d said, though, Louis caught up with Conn in round 13 and knocked him out.
It may seem out of place to switch gears here and talk about a world-class roach infestation, but Louis’ oft-repeated quote is what reminded me of the great fighter. I shared earlier about an old house our family owns. The tenants had moved but apparently forgot to take their food, clothes, and trash with them. A legion of roaches with defiant attitudes had greeted us at the back door.
When sparring with those detestable critters, I’ve been paraphrasing the great Joe Louis. I recently learned these are German roaches, so they may not understand my southern brand of the King’s English. But it makes me feel better to look into their beady eyes and warn them, “You can run but you can’t hide.”
The battle isn’t over, but their troops are looking haggard. Maybe I can’t eliminate the entire roach population, but their lives won’t be easy with food stored securely and fresh caulk in every crack. And if the spray doesn’t eventually overwhelm them, perhaps they’ll leave when they read the sign I’m posting above the mantle: Sie konnen ausfuhren, aber nicht sich verstekien.
That’s a rough approximation, according to my multi-lingual friend Eddie Hightower. I don’t know how long these German roaches have been here, so I’ll also provide the English version to make sure they get the message. Joe Louis wasn’t kidding, and I’m not either. You can run but you can’t hide.
Very interesting! I’ve heard that idiom all my life and didn’t know from where it came!
Another good one in the books! I learn something new every week from reading your column.