Located on the intersection of Woodward and Jefferson in downtown Detroit is the Monument to Joe Louis, also known as “The Fist”. The artwork was donated by Sports Illustrated and installed in 1986. It is, as the nickname suggests, a giant fist suspended by cables from a pyramid framework.
The sculpture officially commemorates the Brown Bomber’s triumph over Max Schmeling to win boxing’s World Heavyweight Championship in 1938. Schmeling’s original victory over the Detroit resident in 1936 had been used as propaganda by Hitler to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race.
So the rematch in 1938 had far more at stake than simply the World Heavyweight Championship. It was about the value of an entire people who were facing prejudice at home. Maya Angelou on the importance of the fight and the massive burden on Louis’ shoulders:
If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings.
The Fist is, indeed, a very strange statue and raised many questions. If it’s Joe Louis, why isn’t it a boxing glove? Why is it positioned facing the Detroit River, specifically facing Canada? (There is an official reason: that it represents the US’s commitment to the international community during WWII. So you’re representing the world, Canada.)
The Fist has taken on a meaning that the artist, Mexican-born sculptor Robert Graham, probably never intended. Such interpretations stem from Detroit being an majority African-American city. Also because the controversial Coleman Young was mayor of Detroit at the time of its installation. Some see the sculpture as a symbol of the Detroit divide between the city and the suburbs. Others see it as a Black Power salute. Not that long ago, a bunch of vandals painted it white. You can guess why.
The Fist is probably not the most well-known Detroit landmark, so I do get a weird thrill when I see it show up in things. One of my favorite moments playing the video game Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition was running into The Fist in the Detroit level. You could cause it to swing by ramming into it!