Joe Louis (1914-1981), nicknamed the “Brown Bomber,” was heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 to 1949, an almost twelve-year streak that set a new world record. Louis, an African American, is perhaps best known for his legendary matchups against German boxer Max Schmeling. While Schmeling defeated Louis in a 1936 match, their 1938 was portrayed by the press as a battle between Nazi ideology and American democratic ideals Louis defeated Schmeling by knockout in the first round, becoming an American hero.

Joe Louis Early Life

Joe Louis was born Joseph Louis Barrow on May 13, 1914 in Lafayette, Alabama. He was the seventh of eight children and a grandson of slaves. His parents made a modest living: His father, Mun Barrow, was a sharecropper, while his mother, Lillie Barrow, was a laundress. When he was 2 years old, his father was committed to an asylum. His mother soon remarried, and moved the family to Detroit with her new spouse, Patrick Brooks.

It was in Detroit that Joe Louis discovered boxing, using money his mother had given him for violin lessons on boxing classes at Brewster Recreation Center instead.

Joe Louis Amateur Career

At 6”2, Joe Louis cut an intimidating figure in the ring. He began boxing in the amateur circuit in 1932. His hard-hitting punches soon earned him a reputation as a fighter, and he won Detroit’s Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title in the open class in 1934. At the end of his amateur career, he had won 50 of 54 matches—43 by knockout. He was ready for the pros.

Joe Louis Professional Boxing Career

In 1937, Joe Louis beat James J. Braddock to become the first black heavyweight champion in twenty-two years and an inspiration to African Americans during the Great Depression, when black men and women were often “the last hired, the first fired.” (The fight became the subject of the 2005 film Cinderella Man). From 1939-1941, he defended his title 13 times, leading critics to call his opponents members of the “bum of the month club.”

By the end of 1935, Louis had defeated former heavyweight champions Primo Carnera, a symbolic victory over Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and Max Baer. But on June 19, 1936, he faced off with German boxer Max Schmeling, who knocked Louis out in the 12th round. Louis had experienced his first professional defeat, but he was determined to get a rematch.

Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling

On June 22, 1938, Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, whom Adolf Hitler saw as an exemplary representative of the Aryan race, faced off in front of 70,043 fans in a dramatic rematch at Yankee Stadium. Louis defeated Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds, knocking him out in the first round. The press seized on the victory as symbolic of the victory of democracy over fascism.

Joe Louis and The Military

As World War II raged on, Joe Louis donated almost $100,000 worth of his earnings to Army and Navy relief societies. In 1942, he joined the Army. During his service he was part of over 96 boxing exhibitions and performed for over two million members of the military.

After an eleven-year and eight-month streak as heavyweight champion—the longest run in history at the time—Joe Louis retired form boxing on March 1, 1949. His retirement would be short-lived.

Joe Louis Comes Out of Retirement

With the IRS coming after him for not paying taxes, 37-year-old Joe Louis came out of retirement in 1951. He was successful in his fight against Freddie Beshore on January 3, 1951, prompting excitement about a major comeback.

Louis met his match when he faced off against 27-year-old Rocky Marciano, “the Brockton Blockbuster.” On October 26, 1951, the two entered the ring in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Rocky, who stood at 5’10” and weighed just 185 pounds, was one of the smallest champions in heavyweight division history, but he had youth on his side. Sports columnist Red Smith wrote of the match:

“Rocky hit Joe a left hook and knocked him down. Then Rocky hit him another hook and knocked him out. A right to the neck followed that knocked him out of the ring. And out of the fight business. The last wasn’t necessary, but it was neat. It wrapped the package neat and tidy.”

Joe Louis retired from boxing for good after the match. The passage of a special bill by congress forgave the remainder of his tax bills. When Louis retired, he had a record of 68 wins to 3 losses (including bouts with Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles, the only man to go 15 rounds with Louis and win) with 54 Knockouts.

Joe Louis Death

Joe Louis struggled financially in his later years. His health declined steadily as well. For a while, he worked as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He struggled with cocaine addiction and in 1970, was committed to psychiatric care. A 1977 heart surgery left him in a wheelchair.

Joe Louis died on April 12, 1981, from cardiac arrest. He was 66 years old. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors thanks to an exception granted by President Ronald Reagan. Today, he is remembered as a larger-than-life figure in not just black history, but American history as one of the best athletes of his era.

Sources

Joe Louis. Biography.com.
The 10 Longest-Reigning Champions in Heavyweight Boxing History. Sportsbreak.
The End of an Era: Joe Louis vs. Rocky Marciano. Boxing.com.
Louis-Schmeling: More than a fight. ESPN.
Soldier-Champ: Joe Louis sacrificed much for his country. Army.mil.
Joe Louis (Barrow), “The Brown Bomber.” Arlington National Cemetery.

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