I could share inspiring tales — the luxurious life Johnson led, the silver spittoons at Café de Champion, the club he owned on West 31st Street. Louis’ humility in the face of global fame. How Ali would stop his Rolls Royce and shadow box kids on the street.
Pause here, and consider how learning about this historic connection makes you feel about Chicago. Proud? Happy? Eager to know more?
I hope so. Because I left out something crucial. Johnson, Louis and Ali were — stop the presses — Black. Their race was in no way incidental to their athletic careers and personal lives. Just the opposite; it was pivotal. Because of his race, Johnson was at first prevented from fighting for the title; he had to go to Australia to do it. Johnson was then vilified for winning, and for dating white women. He was hung in effigy at State and Walton streets.
Louis had to act humble, trying to avoid the trouble Johnson got into. When named Cassius Clay, Ali was initially sneered at by the public as a poetry-spewing clown. After he found his Muslim faith and changed his name, white America refused to use it, as if he wasn’t a man who could call himself whatever he liked. Nobody objected to “Bob Dylan.”
Does the second, racial element of my boxing tale wreck it for you? Make you feel small? Or does it, as I believe, enlarge the story, nudging it from a mere gloss toward the complexity that real history demands?