Year
1937

Louis becomes champ

In Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Joe Louis wins the world heavyweight boxing title when he defeats American Jim Braddock in an eighth-round knockout. Louis was the first African American heavyweight champ since Jack Johnson, who lost the title in 1915. During his subsequent reign, the longest in the history of the heavyweight division, Louis successfully defended his title 25 times, scoring 21 knockouts.

Joe Louis, born in 1914, was the seventh son of a sharecropping family that worked in the cotton fields of Lexington, Alabama. His family moved to Chicago when he was 10, and two years later Louis dropped out of school to work in a Ford factory. He took up boxing at the Brewster East Side Gymnasium and at age 16 entered his first amateur tournament. He proved an outstanding amateur, winning the U.S. Amateur Athletic Union light heavyweight crown in 1934. On July 4, 1934, he defeated Jack Kracken in his professional debut. Louis went on to win his first 27 professional fights, beating the likes of former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer, both by knockouts.

Remembering the experience of Jack Johnson, who fled the United States in 1912 to escape persecution stemming from his marriage to a white woman, Louis’ black managers instructed their protege to keep a tight lip, never be photographed with a white woman, and never smile after knocking down a white man. On June 19, 1936, Louis met Max Schmeling, a former heavyweight champ from Germany, at Yankee Stadium. Schmeling handed Louis his first defeat, knocking him out in the 12th round. Many white Americans celebrated the victory of Schmeling, a dutiful Nazi at the time, over the previously invincible Louis.

Joe Louis, however, did not stay down for long, and on June 22, 1937, he met champ Jim Braddock in Comiskey Park for a title fight. Louis was dropped early in the bout, but he rose from the canvas to knock out Braddock in the eighth round. After easily defeating two challengers, Louis met Schmeling for a dramatic rematch at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938–exactly one year after he won the heavyweight title. By the summer of 1938, Adolf Hitler was menacing Europe, and America found itself changing loyalties to root for Louis over Schmeling, who was condemned as a symbol of Nazi oppression. It took Louis two minutes and four seconds to defeat the German. Louis, already a great hero of African Americans everywhere, was hailed as a hero for all Americans.

Joe Louis went undefeated in his nearly 12-year heavyweight reign, defeating a total of 25 challengers. During World War II, he was inducted into the U.S. Army, and he traveled extensively, staging matches, giving boxing exhibitions, and refereeing bouts. After the war, he defended his title a few more times and in March 1947 announced his retirement. In September 1950, he returned to boxing, but lost to his successor as champ, Ezzard Charles, in a 15-round decision. He won eight more fights during the next year but in October 1951 was knocked out in the eighth round by the up-and-coming Rocky Marciano. He retired permanently after this comeback attempt. In his retirement, Joe Louis suffered from tax problems and financial difficulties. He later worked as a host at a Las Vegas casino. He died in 1981.

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