Watching old boxing matches on DVDs tells us something about some of the ways in which American society has changed.
The first thing I noticed about the boxers back in the era of Joe Louis, from the 1930s into the 1950s, is that they all wore regulation boxing trunks and they didn't have tattoos. There was no trying to outdo each other with garish boxing trunks or wild tattoos. They didn't try to stare each other down when the referee was giving them instructions before the fight.
Seldom did any of these boxers go in for showboating during the fight. There was no denigrating the other fighter, either before or after the fight.
After Joe Louis knocked out an opponent, any comment he made was usually along the lines of "He's a good fighter and very game." Sometimes Louis would add, "He had me worried for a while," though there was seldom any real reason to worry.
One of the few fighters who did give Joe Louis a real battle, and who was ahead on points when Louis knocked him out, was Billy Conn. But, when Conn lost his balance in their much anticipated rematch, Louis simply let him regain his balance before continuing the fight. How many boxers today would do that, especially against someone who was a real threat?
Although Joe Louis was widely respected as a model of sportsmanship, he was by no means the only one who behaved like a gentleman in the ring. That became a norm that heavyweight champions after him tried to live up to, until the 1960s.
Early in his career, Louis was upset by Max Schmeling, who knocked him out. Although Schmeling was from Germany and some tried to depict him as a Nazi, Schmeling went over to help Louis to his feet after the knockout.
In their rematch, the first thing Max Schmeling did upon entering the ring was go over to Louis' corner to shake hands with him, even before going to his own corner. It was a gesture that distanced him from the Aryan supremacy interpretation of his victory over Louis that the Nazi regime in Germany had made after their first fight.
The loutish, loudmouth and childish displays that have become all too common today in boxing, as well as in other sports, began in the 1960s, like so many other signs of social degeneration.
What about the quality of the fighters themselves? There have been great fighters in both earlier and later times. Mike Tyson's one-round knockouts electrified many boxing fans but Joe Louis still holds the record for one-round knockouts in heavyweight championship fights.
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