A new HBO Sports documentary about one of boxing's all-time greatest legends gives away its intentions with its title: "Joe Louis: America's Hero . . . Betrayed."
The documentary, to be aired Saturday about 9 p.m., following the network's live coverage of the Wladmir Klitschko-Sultan Ibragimov fight, argues that Louis was a pivotal figure in the history of American race relations, laying the essential groundwork for Jackie Robinson's baseball breakthrough, yet was abandoned by the U.S. government after his public-relations value peaked.
That peak occurred 70 years ago, when Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round of their June 22, 1938, heavyweight championship match. The victory was a unification bout of a different kind -- bringing together a segregated America to root for a young black fighter born in LaFayette, Ala., against the very symbol of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.
"This was probably the first time and the only time in the history of America that a black man ends up being a white hope," civil rights activist Dick Gregory says during the program. "He'd become the great white hope."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, February 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Boxing: In Friday's Sound and Vision in the Sports section, a caption with a photo of Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling said Louis won the heavyweight title in that 1938 fight. Louis retained his title in that bout; he had become champion in 1937.
But Louis' triumph was only symbolic. Less than four years later, America was engaged in war against Hitler, and Louis quickly enlisted, serving four years in the Army, visiting the troops and fighting exhibitions to raise money for the government.
After the war, Louis was thrown against an opponent that would hound him for the rest of his life: the IRS. Executive producers Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein chronicle Louis' quicksand struggle against his debt, following Louis as he lent his name to seemingly every item that could be hawked, appeared on game shows, delved into professional wrestling and worked as a greeter at Caesars Palace.
The champion's depressing decline ended with his death on April 18, 1981. The documentary concludes with narration that describes Louis as a man who "loved his country, and stood up for her in a time of need. He forgave her even when she betrayed him."
The Klitschko-Ibragimov fight, which starts at 6:30 p.m., underscores another decline -- fan interest in boxing's heavyweight division.
"The last great fighters who were loved were charismatic, and they engaged the fan base," Louis' son, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., recently told Times reporter Lance Pugmire. "It's that outward engagement with the fan base that these boxers may lack.
"These other guys, my father, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, are entertainers, showmen in their own right."
Also available for viewing this weekend:
NASCAR Sprint Cup Auto Club 500 (Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Channel 11): If Daytona is the Super Bowl of NASCAR, the Auto Club 500 is . . . the Pro Bowl? Not quite. People tend to remember the annual winner of this race, the second leg of the 2008 NASCAR season, held at what is now Auto Club Speedway. Matt Kenseth won this event in 2006 and 2007 and goes for three in a row Sunday.
WGC Accenture Match Play Championship (today, 11 a.m., Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m., Golf Channel; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m., Channel 4): Phil Mickelson's winning at Riviera was a nice development, but the Match Play Championship has served as an instant return to reality. Tiger Woods is a big story when he doesn't play, a big story when he does play, a big story when he rallies from three down with five holes left, as he did in Wednesday's first round against J.B. Holmes. Big story Thursday: Woods defeated Arron Oberholser, 3 and 2, and is on to the Sweet 16.
Tennessee at Memphis (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN): Warming up for bracketology of another kind, the top-ranked team in men's college basketball, Memphis, plays host to No. 2 Tennessee. Memphis is 26-0, Tennessee is 24-2, and on ESPN.com, Volunteers Coach Bruce Pearl is calling this weekend "a celebration for Tennessee basketball."
Lakers at Clippers (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Channels 9 and 5): Meanwhile, Staples Center counters with its celebration for Los Angeles basketball. Ahem. The Lakers haven't flown this high since Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal terrorized the West as teammates, which was long before O'Neal played once a month and called himself the "Big Cactus" and made headlines by scoring 15 points in just under 29 minutes.
The Lakers won their sixth in a row by defeating O'Neal's Suns on Wednesday to tie Phoenix atop the Pacific Division standings. The Clippers, meanwhile . . . well, they say they are standing pat with their roster because they don't want to mortgage their future. Which suggests, somewhat surprisingly, that the Clippers believe they have a future worth not mortgaging.
NFL Scouting Combine Workouts (Saturday through Tuesday, 8 a.m., NFL Network): Big stuff on Saturday: Kickers, punters, offensive linemen and tight ends work out! NFL Network will be there to cover it live, and is quite excited about it. So too, apparently, are some satellite subscribers struggling with Week 2 of post-Pro Bowl pro football withdrawal.