Louis, Joseph ("Joe")
LOUIS, Joseph ("Joe")
(b. 13 May 1914 in Chambers County, Alabama; d. 12 April 1981 in Las Vegas, Nevada), boxer who defined the heavyweight boxing division and become a national and international hero.
Louis was born Joseph Louis Barrow, one of eight children of Munroe "Mun" Barrow and Lillie Reese Barrow, sharecroppers. Nothing in Louis's early life indicated future greatness. Louis knew only the customary "hard times" of growing up in the segregated rural South before the boom times of the 1920s. The nation's prosperity did not filter down into the Buckalew Mountains area of Alabama. To complicate matters, Louis's father was committed to a state hospital, suffering from epilepsy or mental illness—it was never determined which. Lillie Barrow took pride in raising her family and doing "a man's work," plowing fields, picking cotton, and chopping wood. Later, when the family received word that Munroe Barrow had died, Lillie Barrow married Pat Brooks, who had five children of his own from a previous marriage.
Louis's schooling in Alabama was informal at best, and he often played hooky to roam the woods and fields. Because he stuttered, Louis was reluctant to attend school regularly and expose himself to the taunts of other students. In 1926 some Brooks family relatives came to visit from Detroit, Michigan, where they had moved to work in the booming automobile industry. They were part of a mass migration of southern African Americans in the 1920s to industrialized northern cities. The Barrow-Brooks family soon moved to Detroit.
Louis and a friend, Freddie Guinyard, did odd jobs at the Eastern Market in the Motor City, moving crates of produce and making deliveries. As the Great Depression swept the land, hard times returned to Louis's family. Despite this Louis's mother scraped together fifty cents a week for Louis's violin lessons. Another friend, Thurston McKinney, persuaded Louis to skip the music lessons and go with him to Brewster's East Side Gym to box. Louis showed an immediate aptitude in the ring, almost knocking out his more experienced friend. Louis was soon using his violin money to pay for a locker and boxing instruction at Brewster's, and dropped the use of his last name, Barrow. In late 1932 Louis entered the local Golden Gloves tournament for amateurs, where he lost to a fighter who had boxed in the 1932 Olympics. Although he lost the bout, Louis received a $7 merchandise certificate, which was welcomed by the family. When his mother learned of Louis's boxing, she said, "If that's what you want, I'll work for you to get it."
Louis's next fight in January 1933 produced results more readily associated with the future heavyweight champion of the world—a two-punch, first-round knockout. During the rest of 1933 and in 1934 Louis continued to fight, eventually winning the Golden Gloves light heavyweight championship of Detroit. As an amateur Louis compiled a 50–4 record. Of his fifty victories, forty-three were by knockouts. After winning the Golden Gloves title, Louis was introduced to John Roxborough, a local numbers kingpin, who took over the management of the young fighter. On 12 June 1934 Louis had his last amateur fight, a first-round knockout (KO) victory over Joe Bauer.
Under Roxborough's care Louis moved to Chicago, where Julian Black also assumed managerial duties and Jack Blackburn, a former fighter, took over Louis's training. Blackburn and Louis immediately connected, calling each other "Chappie." Blackburn became a true father figure to Louis.
Because the former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, an African American, was perceived as arrogant, flamboyant, "uppity," and worse, "Roxy," as Roxborough was called by nearly everyone in the fight business, and Black, both African Americans, gave Louis at the start of his professional career certain rules to live by, both in and out of the ring. Louis was never to be photographed alone with a white woman, never to go in a nightclub alone, never to gloat over a fallen opponent, and always to keep a "deadpan" expression in front of the cameras. Louis adhered to these rules in public.
On 4 July 1934 Louis fought and won his first pro fight, and his managers let him keep the entire purse, $52. He was also a quick KO winner in his next three fights. Louis was making it look so easy, his managers paired him with a tougher, more experienced fighter. The opponent, Stanley Poreda, was just another first-round, knockout victim. Louis continued to fight and win. He also met Marva Trotter, whom he married just hours before knocking out Max Baer, an ex-champion, on 24 September 1935. Louis's managers knew that to get a shot at the title he needed a fight in New York, an important media center and home of the boxing mecca Madison Square Garden. They brought the renowned promoter Mike Jacobs into the picture. After a series of six fights (five KOs), Louis was matched with a former heavyweight champ, the giant 6-foot 6-inch, 260-pound Primo Carnera, in New York, outdoors at Yankee Stadium. In the 25 July 1935 bout Louis was a knockout winner in six rounds. The young fighter had arrived as a contender. He followed the Carnera bout with a pair of first-round and a pair of fourth-round knockout victories. One of the victories, over Paolino Uzcudun, was on 13 December 1935 in Madison Square Garden.
Louis's next fight, set for 19 June 1936, was with still another boxer who had held the heavyweight championship, Max Schmeling of Germany. About this time the oppressive Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler was in full power in Germany and already was effecting a considerable portion of Europe. Louis, who had been named Ring magazine's Number One Boxer of the Year in 1935, had been to Hollywood to make a quick, low-budget film about a poor boy who started out as a dishwasher and ended up a world champion. Louis set up training camp in Lakewood, New Jersey, but never really trained hard. He was complacent, and it did not help when oddsmakers installed him as a ten-to-one favorite to defeat Schmeling. While watching Louis beat Uzcudun, Schmeling said, "I noticed something—a flaw in Louis's defense." In the twelfth round, much later than most thought the fight would last, Schmeling, exploiting the flaw, used powerful right-hand punches to knockout Louis. While Louis was humiliated, Nazi Germany touted the victory as proof of their "master race." African Americans took the defeat feeling as much a sense of personal loss as they felt of personal elation when Louis won. To them Joe Louis was a symbol of hope, someone who could not be held down.
Rehabilitation for Louis began by fighting still another ex-champ, Jack Sharkey, and knocking him out in three rounds on 17 August 1936. Louis closed out 1936 with three more early KOs, one in twenty-six seconds, and four exhibition victories, all by knockout. Louis had three more victories in early 1937, two knockout victories and a ten-round decision over a retreating Bob Pastor. Despite the loss to Schmeling, the well-connected Jacobs, by now called "Uncle Mike" by Louis, was able to get a title fight versus the current champ Jim Braddock. Still stinging from the Schmeling defeat, Louis willingly let Chappie Blackburn put him through a tough training grind. When fight time arrived on 22 June 1937, Blackburn sent Louis into the ring, saying: "This is it, Chappie. You come home a champ tonight." Although Braddock knocked Louis down, one of the few fighters who could ever make the claim, the younger fighter was too much for the game-but-aging champion. In the eighth round Louis became the new world heavyweight champion when Braddock was counted out at 1:10 in the round. At twenty-three Louis became the youngest man to hold the most important title in all of boxing. He kept the championship belt for twelve years, longer than any other heavyweight champion before him.
On 30 August 1937 Louis staged the first of his twenty-five title defenses, more defenses than any previous fighter, when he won a fifteen-round decision from England's Tommy Farr in New York. Louis knocked out two others in title defenses before a rematch with Schmeling set for 22 June 1938. The political implications that had surrounded the first Louis-Schmeling bout were even thicker for the rematch. Nazi Germany had become more aggressive in the intervening two years, and Hitler was looking for an even bigger propaganda coup. President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House before the fight, and while he did not ask Louis for a victory in so many words, he did say, as he felt Louis's bulging right biceps, "Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany." At the time the United States was four years away from war with the Axis Powers.
Usually truly concerned about hurting an opponent, Louis was bent on revenge in the rematch with Schmeling. He trained diligently and was ready when he climbed into the ring. Schmeling threw the first punch, missing with a right. Louis countered with a left jab that made the German drop his guard. Louis followed with a hard right to the jaw. Schmeling's knees buckled. Louis kept up a steady pounding. As Louis continued hammering him, Schmeling turned while Louis launched a right hand that the referee Arthur Donovan said "could have dented concrete." It caught Schmeling in the area of his kidneys. Schmeling let out an agonizing gasp, and the long-awaited fight was over in two minutes. In Germany, where the Schmeling victory had been hailed as proof of Aryan supremacy, the national broadcast of Schmeling's defeat was cut off the air, and the Third Reich propaganda machine called it "a disappointment, but not a national disaster."
After the fight Louis took off the rest of 1938. The huge purse, $135,000, allowed him to continue to help others, including those close, such as his family, and those not so close, such as charitable organizations. Louis and his wife bought a horse farm in Utica, Michigan. His popularity, however, especially with women, was a strain on his marriage.
Louis defended his title against all comers in the next three years before an 18 June 1941 fight with Billy Conn, a popular light heavyweight. Conn, a quick boxer as opposed to a plodding slugger, had Louis in trouble. Though ahead on points, Conn carelessly went for the knockout. Louis caught up to him and KOed him in the thirteenth round. Louis had one more title defense before the United States was drawn into World War II. On 9 January 1942 Louis took a tremendous risk. He fought Buddy Baer with his title on the line. Louis received no purse upon his victory; the proceeds of the fight were donated to the Naval Relief Fund. "The Brown Bomber," as he was now widely known, enlisted in the U.S. Army the next day.
On 27 March 1942 Louis again risked his title with little to gain. The purse this time was donated to the Army Relief Fund, and if he lost, Louis was no longer heavyweight champion of the world. Louis retained his title.
Most unwittingly, Louis was getting himself into a financial bind. While serving Uncle Sam, he was without income other than his meager army pay. Uncle Mike Jacobs was advancing him money against future earnings, and the tax code at the time did not allow Louis to claim his donated purses as charitable deductions. The fighting he did in 1944 and 1945 consisted mostly of exhibitions to entertain the troops—no income. In the end Louis owed the government nearly $1 million in back taxes and penalties. Eventually the account was squared, but Louis never again experienced financial stability.
While in the service Louis did much in a subtle way to advance civil rights and racial equality. He found it incredible that the army wanted to give him, an eighth-grade dropout, a commission while denying other blacks, who were college graduates, a chance to go to Officer Candidate School (OCS). A group of nineteen blacks at Fort Riley, including the baseball color-line breaker Jackie Robinson, eventually became commissioned officers as a result of Louis's insistence. He also refused to box exhibitions in segregated theaters in England, resulting in integrated audiences.
Louis and his wife had a baby daughter, named Jacqueline in honor of Jack "Chappie" Blackburn, while Louis was stationed at Fort Riley. The couple, driven apart by Louis's military service and absentee lifestyle, divorced in 1945 but remarried in 1946. They had a son in 1947.
Louis won a rematch with Conn in 1946, and he also defended his title successfully versus Tami Mauriello. In late 1946 and in 1947 he fought exhibitions, mostly in South and Central America. On 5 December 1947 he defended his title against Jersey Joe Walcott, who had once been a Louis sparring partner. Louis was given a controversial fifteen-round decision. In a 1948 rematch Louis knocked out Walcott in the eleventh round, Louis's last fight. He retired as the first undefeated heavyweight champion (the Schmeling loss was before he was champ) in boxing history.
Louis fought meaningless exhibitions in 1950, when, because of tax troubles and failed business ventures, he came out of retirement and fought Ezzard Charles, who had won the tournament for Louis's vacated crown. Charles won a fifteen-round decision. Louis fought other "real" fights but against inferior opponents, winning eight straight until the young Rocky Marciano ingloriously ended his until then glorious career on 26 October 1951 with an eight-round KO. Louis was a sad figure at the end of his pugilistic career. Even the victorious Marciano felt a certain sadness in ending the career of the legendary champion and idol to millions.
Louis tried pro wrestling, refereeing boxing, and more dubious business deals after boxing, but nothing worked. His remarriage to Marva ended and was followed by several other unsuccessful marriages. By the 1960s drugs and paranoia ravaged the once invincible champion. He spent his final years as a greeter at a Las Vegas casino. Some felt "the Champ" was exploited. Louis, however, did not think so and wanted no sympathy. In 1977 he suffered a heart attack complicated by a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair. He enjoyed one last hurrah on 11 April 1981, when he received a long, standing ovation at a Larry Holmes–Trevor Berbick heavyweight title fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The next morning he died at his home from a massive heart attack. Louis was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, with full military honors.
Louis was arguably the world's greatest heavyweight champion. Unlike champions before and after him, he was a fighting champion, not content to capitalize on the title without risking it or seldom risking it. He was a beloved figure to millions, regardless of their race. Louis at the peak of his career always was introduced by ring announcers as "the heavyweight champion of the world and a credit to his race." The condescension of that statement eventually got to the New York columnist Jimmy Cannon, who wrote, "Yeah, Joe Louis is a credit to his race—the human race." Millions worldwide agreed with Cannon.
Louis was memorialized when Detroit named its sports facility the Joe Louis Arena in 1979. In 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp featuring a likeness of Louis at the pinnacle of his illustrious career.
Louis wrote an autobiography, with Edna Rust and Art Rust, Jr., Joe Louis: My Life (1978). The several biographies of Louis include Barney Nagler, Brown Bomber: The Pilgrimage of Joe Louis (1972); Chris Mead, Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America (1985); Robert Lipsyte, Joe Louis, a Champion for All America (1987); Jim Campbell, The Importance of Joe Louis (1997); and Richard Bak, Joe Louis, the Great Black Hope (1998). A front-page obituary is in the New York Times (13 Apr. 1981).