Many Detroit residents are aware that the sculpture in Detroit’s Hart Plaza – known to many as “The Fist” – is a monument to boxer Joe Louis, created by sculptor Robert Graham. However, you may not know many of the other fascinating facts about the monument.
The monument, dedicated in October of 1986, was commissioned for $350,000 by Sports Illustrated magazine and its parent company, Time Inc. and marked the 100th anniversary of the organization that later became the Detroit Institute of Arts.
A tribute to Joe Louis inscribed on the arm reads: “A gift from Sports Illustrated to the people of the City of Detroit, the Detroit Institute of Arts and its founders society on the occasion of the museum’s centennial.”
Louis had strong connections to Detroit. He was born in Alabama but moved to the Detroit area when he was 12.
Louis is perhaps most well-known for knocking out German heavyweight champ Max Schmeling in the first round during their second fight. However, many don’t realize that the two boxers became friends later in life. There is even evidence that Schmeling gifted Louis with money on a regular basis when “The Brown Bomber” was having financial and tax difficulties in the 1950s and 60s.
The fist is meant to be both a testament to the power of Louis’ punch in the boxing ring and his “punch” to racism through his activism against racial injustice.
Artist Robert Graham first modeled the arm in clay at a much smaller size of 14 inches long. Using computer software, the model was scaled up for a clay model in eight parts that was used to cast the arm in bronze before being assembled into the final sculpture.
The arm is 24 feet long, rises about 24 feet over street level, and weighs around 8,000 pounds.
Graham, who was born in Mexico City, is also known for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., a monument honoring Duke Ellington in New York City and a monument to Charlie “Bird” Parker in Kansas City. He died in 2008.
The sculpture was vandalized by two white men in 2004, covering it in white paint and leaving a sign saying the whitewashing was done on behalf of the “Fighting Whities.” A note indicated that the defacement was meant as a memorial to slain Detroit police officers. The two men were sentenced to 30 days in jail and $1,000 fines.
In 2013, when Detroit officials were discussing selling off some of the city’s assets to cope with its financial difficulties, an art dealer and art historian named Eric Hornak Spoutz said the art piece would be valued between $1 and $2 million.
–Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.