Louis, Joe 1914–1981
Joe Louis 1914–981
Joe Louis is widely regarded as the greatest fighter in the history of boxing, and he was the most popular black athlete of his time. Known as the “Brown Bomber,” Louis was heavyweight champion of the world for nearly 12 years and was never defeated during his reign. He defended his title 25 times, a total greater than the eight heavyweight champions before him combined. Of those defenses, 21 were won by knockout.
Louis possessed neither great speed of foot nor craftiness in the ring. What he did wield, however, were two fists that moved with jackhammer quickness and landed with incredible power. He also wore a deadpan expression while fighting that never changed as he dispatched his opponents. Louis’s 68 victories as a professional boxer (he lost only three times) included 54 knockouts, and five of his knockouts occurred in the first round.
Joseph Louis Barrow’s starting point on his road to fame could hardly have been more humble. He was born in a sharecropper’s shack in Lexington, Alabama, one of eight children. His father, Munn, was committed to a mental institution when Louis was two. Two years later the family was told that Munn had died, although in 1938 it was discovered that he was still alive. When Louis was seven, his mother, Lily, married Patrick Brooks, a widower with five children of his own.
Money was scarce in Louis’s extended family. The children slept three to a bed, and young Joe walked barefoot to school. In search of jobs in the growing automobile industry, the family moved to Detroit. Louis’s inadequate schooling down South landed him in a class with much younger children up North. His resulting embarrassment made him withdraw, and he developed a stammer. For many years he kept to himself and talked little.
After teachers told Louis’s parents that their son would have to make a living with his hands—a prophetic statement, to be sure—he attended Bronson Trade School to study carpentry. When his stepfather was put out of work, Louis helped out with odd jobs. His hauling of ice blocks for an ice-wagon driver gave him massive shoulder muscles, which he put to work as a sparring partner at a local gym. He quit school at age 17, then got a job pushing truck bodies at the Briggs Automobile Factory for a dollar a day as he continued honing his boxing skills. As quoted by James Cox in the Smithsonian, Louis’s son, Joe Jr., recalled: “My aunts and uncles told me they were absolutely flabbergasted when he [Joe Louis]
Born Joseph Louis Barrow, May 13 1914, in Lexington, AL; died of cardiac arrest, April 12, 1981, in Las Vegas, NV; son of Munn (a sharecropper) and Lily Barrow; married Marva Trotter, 1935 (divorced); married second wife, 1949 (divorced); married Rose Morgan, 1955 (marriage annulled); married Martha Jefferson, 1959; children: (both with Trotter) Jacqueline, Joe Jr.
Boxer. Worked odd jobs, hauling ice blocks, sparring at a local gym, and pushing truck bodies at the Briggs Automobile Factory in Detroit, MI, all while a teenager Won 50 of 59 bouts as an amateur boxer; turned professional, 1934. Youngest boxer (aged 23) of his time to become heavyweight champion, 1937; held heavyweight title longer than any other boxer; defended title 25 times and retired without a defeat as champion; finished professional career with a record of 68-3, with 54 knockouts. Brief stint as a professional wrestler and co-owner of food franchise in the 1960s. Official greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, NV, 1970s. Military service: Served in the U.S, Army, 1942-45.
Awards: Golden Gloves light-heavyweight champion of Detroit, 1933; National Amateur Athletic Union (NAAU) light-heavyweight champion, 1934; heavyweight champion of the world, 1937-49; elected to boxing’s Hall of Fame, 1954; honored with a U.S. postage stamp honoring the 55th anniversary of his victorious rematch with Max Schmeling, June 22, 1993.
became a boxer because he was so quiet and peaceful. He was the most tranquil kid on the block.”
Louis’s boxing talent developed rapidly and made him a winner in 50 of 59 amateur bouts, with 43 knockouts. In 1933 he won the National light-heavyweight Golden Gloves crown, then won the light-heavyweight finals in the National Amateur Athletic Union (NAAU) tournament the next year. Louis turned professional in 1934 under the management of John Roxborough, a black Detroit businessman and king of the illegal numbers rackets in the city’s black neighborhoods, and Julian Black, a black Chicago-based mortician who was also involved in illegal gambling. Roxborough dropped the Barrow from Louis’s name because he thought Joe Louis Barrow was too long for the pro.
Meanwhile, Julian Black hired Jack Blackburn, a top Midwest trainer with whom Louis developed a close friendship. Seeing that Louis had no speed, Blackburn taught him the flat-footed shuffle that became a Louis trademark. Moving around the ring was so foreign to Louis that in training he practiced stepping to diagrams drawn on the ring floor, like someone learning the cha-cha.
The status of blacks in boxing had been dealt a severe blow by the controversial Jack Johnson, who held the world heavyweight title from 1908 to 1915. Johnson invited the wrath of whites by chattering away to opponents in the ring and gloating after he knocked them down. At the time, the white public was also outraged by his romancing of white women in public. Due to this sensitivity to the Johnson legacy, Louis felt obligated to set an exemplary standard and live down every black stereotype. His managers gave him strict instructions on how to act in public, insisting that he never drink, smoke, or be seen alone with a white woman. He was also told never to exult when he was victorious over white opponents and never to grin or show any emotion in front of the press.
The word was spread that Louis was a shy man who was loyal to his country, didn’t rock the boat, and read the Bible every night. Actually, the image was only partially true. Although he was modest, generous, and didn’t drink or smoke, Louis allegedly liked the night life, spent money recklessly, and had romantic liaisons with both black and white women. However, he was discreet in these activities and received no bad publicity.
During his string of 22 wins without a loss in his first year as a pro, Louis was dubbed the “Brown Bomber of Detroit.” U.S. media coverage during the 1930s revealed a racist streak that permeated society. Journalists of that time often nicknamed African Americans with a reference to color or a black stereotype, and Louis was called everything from “Shufflin’ Joe” to the “coffee-colored kayo king.” Many articles discussed the fighter as if he were an animal from the African jungle. Cartoonists depicted him with huge lips, and he was quoted in an exaggerated “Uncle Remus” dialect.
Fight promoter Mike Jacobs put the national spotlight on Louis by arranging a bout for him against former champion Primo Camera at Yankee Stadium. Louis sent Camera to the floor in the sixth round in 1934, then dropped former champion Max Baer in 1935. Mere hours before the Baer bout, the fighter married Marva Trotter, a 19-year-old Chicago stenographer. At age 21, Joe Louis was the most famous African American in the United States.
One of the most well-known bouts in boxing history was Louis’s first fight against the German Max Schmeling in 1936. Schmeling knocked out Louis, even though the “Brown Bomber” was a 10-to-1 favorite. The victory was trumpeted by Adolf Hitler’s Nazis as proof of Aryan superiority over blacks. Racism reared its ugly head in the States, too, as hundreds of Americans sent congratulatory telegrams to Schmeling. Many sportswriters, especially those in the South, reported that Louis was finished, nothing but a flash in the pan. Embarrassed and angered by the defeat, Louis whipped himself into better shape and won seven bouts over the next eight months. Then, on June 22, 1937, he knocked out heavyweight champion James J. Braddock and became the new world champion. Just 23 years old, Louis had become the youngest man ever to hold the heavyweight crown.
Meanwhile, a second bout with Schmeling was scheduled for 1938. With the Nazi menace looming more ominously on the international horizon, this grudge match became a symbol of good versus evil. Cox wrote in the Smithsonian that “Louis-Schmeling II was no longer just a championship boxing match. It was a prelude to World War II.” President Roosevelt actually met with Louis and told him how vital it was to triumph this time. The “Bomber” was ready. Overwhelmed from the opening bell, Schmeling was knocked out by his swarming opponent in the first round.
As Louis’s popularity soared in the 1930s, he became an important model for the black struggle against white injustice. Chris Mead wrote in Champion: “To downtrodden blacks, Louis came to be a hero of fierce revolutionary proportions—a black man who trounced white men in hand-to-hand combat before a national audience.” Some thought that Louis was an “Uncle Tom” and not involved enough in the fight for equality for people of color, but the champion contributed generously to many black causes. He also helped integrate football and baseball teams in army camps while serving in the military and refused to sit in segregated camp buses.
While still winning in the ring, Louis ran into personal problems that he couldn’t punch out of his life. His marriage began failing, and he lost thousands of dollars betting on the golf course. Throughout his career, he was continually buying expensive gifts for friends and family and supporting a large entourage of freeloaders. To make matters worse, his managers took 50 percent of his winnings, while all training expenses were taken out of Louis’s share. Louis didn’t clear up his debts with the government until the mid-1960s.
In 1941 Roxborough, still managing Louis, was put in jail for two-and-a-half years for running his numbers operation. Then in 1942, Louis’s beloved trainer Blackburn died of heart disease. As he absorbed these blows, Louis was blindsided by the government’s demand for $117,000 in back taxes. To escape this financial hole, he began his so-called “bum-of-the-month” campaign. From December of 1940 through 1941, he took on one challenger every month. No heavyweight champion had ever undergone such a punishing schedule. The going wasn’t entirely easy, as Louis almost lost to Billy Conn in a tough fight at the Polo Grounds. When journalists told Louis before the fight that Conn was too quick for him, Louis uttered his famous line, “He can run but he can’t hide.”
After he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, Louis staged 96 boxing exhibitions for his fellow soldiers. But he was in even worse financial shape after his discharge. When he announced his retirement and gave up his title on March 1, 1949, a few months before turning 35, he owed income taxes of well over $1 million that were compounded by penalties and interest. This financial distress brought Louis back into the ring for an attempted comeback in the early 1950s, but age had finally caught up with him. Consecutive losses to Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano closed the book on his boxing career. He tried pro wrestling, then got involved in sports and commercial promotions. In 1969 Louis and his former victim Billy Conn set up the Joe Louis Food Franchise Corporation in an attempt to operate an interracial chain of food shops. During his last years he was an official “greeter” at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Louis collapsed on a Manhattan street in 1969 and was hospitalized for a “physical breakdown.” Later he said that the collapse resulted from cocaine use and that he had been plagued by fears of a murder plot against him. In 1970 the former champ was hospitalized for five months due to paranoid delusions. His health worsening, Louis suffered a number of strokes and heart problems in his final decade. He was confined to a wheelchair in 1977 following surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm. Death from cardiac arrest came to him in 1981 at the age of 66, mere hours after he attended the heavyweight championship fight between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick at Caesar’s Palace.
Joe Louis remains among the best loved and most talented boxers in the history of the sport. His popularity helped pave the way toward breaking the color barrier in other sports as well—including Jackie Robinson’s legendary entry into major league baseball. As Arthur Ashe wrote in A Hard Road to Glory, “Much of the goodwill for black athletes generated in the dozen years leading to the end of the war was due to the positive image that Louis had created.”
Ashe, Arthur R., Jr., A Hard Road to Glory, Warner, 1988, pp. 11-18.
Bromberg, Lester, Boxing’s Unforgettable Fights, Ronald Press, 1962.
Fleischer, Nat, The Heavyweight Championship: An Informal History of Heavyweight Boxing from 1719 to the Present Day, Putnam, 1949, revised, 1961.
Louis, Joe, My Life Story, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1947.
McGowen, Deane, essay in The New York Times Book of Sports Legends, edited by Joseph J. Vecchione, Times Books, 1991, pp. 171-183.
Mead, Chris, Champion, Scribners, 1985.
Nagler, Barney, Brown Bomber, World Pub., 1972.
Life, June 17, 1940, pp. 48-50.
Smithsonian, November 1988, pp. 170-196.
Sports Illustrated, September 16, 1985, pp.82-196.
Time, November 25, 1985, pp. 117-118.
In his day, heavyweight champion Joe Louis was the most famous black man in America, virtually the only one who regularly appeared in the white newspapers. By breaking the color barrier that had been imposed on boxing after black heavyweight Jack Johnson outraged white sensibilities, Joe Louis began a process that would eventually open all of big-league sports to black athletes. Throughout his unprecedented twelve-year reign as world heavyweight champion, Louis projected a power inside the ring and a quiet dignity outside of it that would transform him from a black hero, obsessively identified in the white media with his race and alleged "savagery," into a national hero, and ultimately a sports icon. His later years were difficult, marked by financial worries and bouts with mental illness, but when he died, millions mourned his passing. As Muhammad Ali put it, "Everybody cried."
Part of Joe Louis' appeal lay in his rags to riches story. The seventh of eight children born to Alabama tenant farmers Munroe and Lillie Barrow, Joe lost his father early on. Two years after Joe's birth, Munroe Barrow was confined to the Searcy State Hospital for the Colored Insane, and Lillie was soon informed that he had died. In fact, Munroe lived on for another twenty years, an invisible man oblivious to his son's growing reputation. Believing herself a widow, Lillie Barrow soon married Pat Brooks, a widower with five children of his own. For a while Joe and the other children helped their parents work the cotton fields, but in 1926 the Brooks/Barrow family joined the growing swell of black migration northward.
The family resettled in Detroit, where twelve-year-old Joe found himself woefully unprepared for school. To his embarrassment, he was placed in classes with younger, smaller children, and eventually the school system shunted him off to the Bronson Vocational School. Fortunately for him, he discovered a vocation that would take him far
beyond the precincts of the Detroit school system. When the Depression threw his stepfather out of work, Joe began doing odd jobs around town and hanging around with a rough crowd. To keep him off the streets, his mother scraped together 50 cents a week for violin lessons, but Joe used the money to join the Brewster Recreation Center, where he took up boxing.
Fearing that his mother would discover where the "violin money" was going, Joe dropped the Barrow from his name and began boxing neighborhood kids as Joe Louis. While he showed great promise, an exhausting, full-time job pushing truck bodies at an auto-body plant left him little time or energy for training. In late 1932, he entered his first amateur match against Johnny Miller, a member of that year's Olympic boxing team. Louis' lack of training showed, and Miller knocked him down seven times in the first two rounds. Mortified, Joe Louis gave up boxing altogether, taking his stepfather's advice to concentrate on his job instead. Interestingly, it was his mother who encouraged him to get back into the ring, seeing in boxing a chance for him to make something of himself doing what he enjoyed.
The Amateur Years
This time, Joe Louis quit his job and focused on his training. He returned to the amateur circuit, winning fifty of fifty-four matches over the next year, forty-three by knockouts. This impressive record soon brought him to the attention of John Roxborough, known throughout Detroit's black ghetto as the king of the numbers racket. Roxborough's other career was as a civic leader, sponsoring a number of charitable causes and helping local youngsters fulfill their dreams. He decided to take Joe Louis under his wing, even moving him into his house, putting him on a proper diet, and getting him some decent training equipment.
In June of 1934, on the verge of going pro, Joe Louis asked Roxborough to become his manager. To help fund Louis' career, Roxborough brought in Chicago numbers runner Julian Black, a longtime business associate. Together, they brought Louis to Chicago to train under Jack Blackburn, who had already taken two boxers to world championships. Those boxers, however, were white. The fact was that black boxers had very little chance of getting a shot at the title, particularly in the heavyweight division. Racism and segregation were endemic to American society, but in boxing there was a special reason that blacks were virtually ruled out as heavyweight contenders. That reason was Jack Johnson, who had held the heavyweight championship from 1908-1915.
Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion, and he reveled in the distinction, flouting white conventions by gloating over defeated white opponents, consorting openly with white prostitutes, and marrying white women. For seven years he defended his title against a series of "great white hopes," but in 1915 he finally lost to one of them, Jess Willard, in a match that may have been fixed. The white press openly rejoiced, and white boxing promoters and fighters vowed never to give another black man a shot at the title.
Given this history, Blackburn was reluctant to take on a black boxer, but he needed a job and Roxborough and Black promised him a "world beater." Blackburn put Louis on a strict training regimen, including running six miles a day, and trained him in a style that combined balanced footwork, a strong left jab, and rapid fire combination punches. At the same time, his management team carefully nurtured an image designed to draw a sharp contrast between Joe Louis and Jack Johnson. Louis was to be gracious before and after a fight, conform to an image of God-fearing, clean-living decency, and above all avoid outraging white opinion by dating white women. Together, training and image building would propel Joe Louis to a shot at the title.
Joe Louis' first pro boxing match took place on July 4, 1934, when he knocked out Jack Kracken in the first round. By October 30th of that year, when he knocked out Jack O'Dowd in the second round, he had won nine straight matches, seven of them by knockouts. Along with his reputation, his payments were growing, from $59, to $62, $101, $250, $450, in the midst of the Depression when most of his old neighborhood was struggling on relief and occasional work. Louis was conscientiously sending money home to support his family, but he also began to develop spending habits that would plague him in later years, buying expensive suits and a shiny black Buick he would use to cruise for girls on visits home.
|1914||Born May 13 in LaFayette, Alabama|
|1926||Moves to Detroit, Michigan|
|1932||Fights first amateur boxing bout|
|1934||Moves in with John Roxborough, asks Roxborough to become his manager|
|1934||First professional boxing match, July 4|
|1935||Defeats Italian Primo Carnera, June 25, and becomes media sensation|
|1935||Marries Marva Trotter, September 24|
|1935||Defeats Max Baer to become top heavyweight contender, September 24|
|1936||Loses to German Max Schmeling, June 11|
|1937||Becomes World Heavyweight Champion, defeating James Braddock on June 22|
|1938||Defeats Max Schmeling in rematch, June 22, becoming national hero|
|1942||Enlists in U.S. Army|
|1945||Enlistment ends in October|
|1945||Divorces Marva Trotter|
|1949||Retires as undefeated World Heavyweight Champion|
|1950||Loses comeback attempt against new heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles, September 27|
|1951||Last professional boxing match, loses to Rocky Marciano, October 26|
|1955||Marries Rose Morgan, a successful beauty shop operator, on December 25|
|1959||Marries attorney Martha Malone Jefferson|
|1967||Louises adopt a baby boy, naming him Joseph. Apparently, this the child of Joe Louis and a New York City prostitute, identified as "Marie" in Louis' autobiography. Martha would go on to adopt three more of Marie's children, of unknown paternity.|
|1970||Committed temporarily to Colorado state mental institution|
|1970||Takes position as greeter at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada|
|1981||Dies of massive heart attack on April 12|
It was soon clear that Louis had outgrown these carefully chosen opponents designed to nurture his early career. Louis' managers began to look around for tougher competition, and soon settled on Charlie Massera, ranked eighth in Ring magazine's survey of top heavyweight contenders. On November 30, 1934, Louis met Massera, knocking him out in the third round. Two weeks later, he went up against Lee Ramage, another up-and-coming heavyweight, and a real challenge for Louis. Ramage was quick on his feet and accomplished in defense. For the first few rounds he managed to fend off Louis' powerful jabs, and between rounds Blackburn advised Louis to start hitting Ramage's arms, if he couldn't reach anything else. Eventually, Ramage was too tired to lift his arms, and Louis got him against the ropes, knocking him out in the eighth round.
Roxborough decided Louis was ready for the big time, and that meant New York's Madison Square Garden, which had controlled big-league boxing since the 1920s, when it sewed up contracts with all the major heavyweight contenders. And that presented a major difficulty. Jimmy Johnston, the flamboyant manager of Madison Square Garden, said he could help Louis, but Roxborough had to understand a few things. As a Negro, Joe Louis wouldn't make the same as the white fighters, and more ominously, he "can't win every time he goes in the ring." In effect, he was telling Roxborough that Louis would be expected to throw a few fights. That went against one of Roxborough's commandments: no fixed fights, and he hung up on Johnston. Fortunately for them, Johnston's monopoly was getting a little shaky.
A man by the name of Mike Jacobs would prove their salvation. Passed over for leadership of the Madison Square Garden Corporation, Jacobs had been looking for a way to break the Garden's monopoly, and in a bizarre series of maneuvers surrounding a New York charity, he found it. Traditionally, Madison Square Garden had hosted a few boxing competitions for Mrs. William Randolph Hearst's Milk Fund for Babies. The Fund got a cut of the profits, and Garden boxing got good publicity from Hearst's powerful papers. When the Garden decided to raise the rent on Milk Fund events, some enterprising Hearst sportswriters, including Damon Runyan, decided to form their own corporation to stage boxing matches in competition with the Garden, with a share of the proceeds to go to the Fund. They could provide the publicity, but they needed an experienced promoter, so they brought in Jacobs, forming the 20th Century Club. Officially, Jacobs held all the stock, as the sportswriters didn't want to be publicly identified with matches they'd be covering.
In the meantime, Joe Louis' winning streak continued. On January 4, 1935, he defeated sixth-ranked Patsy Perroni, and a week later he beat Hans Birkie. Mike Jacobs needed a serious contender to get his Club off the ground, and before long the name of Joe Louis came to his attention. He went to Los Angeles to witness a rematch between Louis and Ramage, and this time Louis knocked Ramage out in the second round. Impressed, Jacobs invited Louis to fight for the 20th Century Club, assuring his managers that "He can win every fight he has, knock 'em out in the first round if possible."
The Brown Bomber
Jacobs promoted a few "tune-up" fights for Joe Louis out of town, while his secret partners in the Club began to churn out the publicity that would eventually make Louis a household name. Scouting around for an opponent for a big New York match, Jacobs hit upon Italian Primo Carnera, a former heavyweight champion. The match was scheduled for June 25, 1935—and the timing couldn't have been better. Throughout the summer, Mussolini had been threatening to invade Ethiopia, one of the very few independent black countries. Feelings ran high throughout the international community, and particularly among black Americans. In the prematch publicity, Jacobs sold Louis as a kind of ambassador for his race, and by the time of the fight, black as well as white were deeply curious about this heavyweight contender crossing the color line.
More than 60,000 fans, and 400 sportswriters, poured into Yankee Stadium that night to see six-foot, one-inch Joe Louis, weighing in at 197 pounds, take on the six-foot, six-inch, 260-pound Italian giant Carnera. After a few lackluster rounds, they saw something amazing. Starting in the fifth round, Joe Louis came out swinging, nailing Carnera with a right that bounced him off the ropes, then a left, and another right. Only hanging onto Louis kept Carnera from going down. In the sixth round, Louis knocked him down twice for a count of four, but each time Carnera staggered to his feet. Finally, Carnera had had enough, collapsing against the ropes. The referee called the fight.
Overnight, Joe Louis became a media sensation, and Americans awoke to a rare phenomenon: a black man in the headlines. Naturally, commentators focused overwhelmingly on his race, hauling out a seemingly limitless supply of alliterative nicknames to characterize the newly prominent contender: "mahogany mauler," "chocolate chopper," "coffee-colored KO king," "saffra sandman," and one that stuck, "The Brown Bomber." Sportswriters played up and exaggerated Louis' Alabama accent and limited education to convey an impression of an ignorant, lazy "darkie" incapable of anything but eating, sleeping, and fighting.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1933||Won 50 of 54 amateur boxing matches, 43 by knockouts|
|1935||Won 20 of 20 professional boxing wins, including defeats of former world heavyweight champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer|
|1935||Associated Press "Athlete of the Year" award|
|1936, 1938-39, 1941||Ring magazine's "Boxer of the Year"|
|1937-49||World Heavyweight Champion, longest reign in boxing history|
|1941||Edward Neil Memorial Plaque (for man who contributed the most to boxing)|
|1993||First boxer honored on a U.S. postage stamp|
At the same time, many sportswriters peppered their columns with dehumanizing savage references. For Davis Walsh, "Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle last night to strike down and utterly demolish Primo Carnera." Grantland Rice wrote in the Baltimore Sun, "His blinding speed, the speed of the jungle, and instinctive speed of the wild, was more than Carnera could face … Louis stalked Primo as the black panther of the jungle stalks his prey." Even New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico, widely viewed as a cultured liberal often sympathetic to black athletes, seemed overwhelmed and a little unhinged by Joe Louis. After watching a training session, he wrote: "I had the feeling that I was in the room with a wild animal…. Helives like an animal, fights like an animal, has all the cruelty and ferocity of a wild thing…. I see in this coloredman something so cold, so hard, so cruel that I wonder as to his bravery. Courage in the animal is desperation."
Getting a Shot at the Top
Cruelty and laziness had nothing to do with the real Joe Louis, as his management team well knew, but it would take more than the truth to change the image. A combination of skillful public relations and external factors would be needed to transform the Brown Bomber into a national hero embraced by all segments of society. Fortunately for Louis, the public relations aspects were in the hands of skilled management team that had been successfully crafting Louis' image from the beginning. With his sudden rise to fame, they went so far as to release to the press a series of "seven commandments" that Joe Louis had lived by, rules that many newspapers would use in shaping their own coverage.
Other factors were out of Joe Louis' control, but worked to his advantage. Among these was the sorry state of boxing. Riddled by scandal and lackluster champions, professional boxing had been losing fans since the retirement of Jack Dempsey in 1929. Boxing was hungry for an exciting champion, and Louis' undeniable power in the ring and his willingness to fight any serious contender fit the bill.
And far beyond boxing's precincts, world events were undermining America's racial worldview. In Germany, Nazism's aggressive trumpeting of Aryan superiority was beginning to irritate many Americans, who started to ask themselves hard questions about what exactly they found offensive in the doctrine. Together, these factors began to soften the rigid color line that had prevailed in heavyweight title competitions for twenty years.
Another twist of fate would put Louis in sight of the championship, and dissolve that color line. Just weeks before Louis beat Carnera, James Braddock had defeated reigning heavyweight champ Max Baer in one of boxing's biggest upsets. Assuming a Baer victory against a challenger who'd lost twenty-six fights in his career, the Garden's Jimmy Johnston had made a fatal contractual error. He had signed Baer to the standard contract, obligating him to fight his next match in the Garden only if he won. Mike Jacobs went to work on Max Baer, eventually signing him up to fight Lewis on September 24, 1935.
But Louis had personal business to attend to first. That day he married Marva Trotter, a 19-year-old secretary at a newspaper, beautiful, intelligent, well-spoken, and perhaps most important to his managers, black. As Louis put it in his autobiography, "No Jack Johnson problem here." The new Mrs. Louis had a ringside seat when Max Baer was counted out in the fourth round when he refused to stand up from one knee. Later Baer told a reporter, "I could have struggled up once more, but when I get executed, people are going to have to pay more than twenty-five dollars a seat to witness it."
The Schmeling/Louis Matches
With his victory over Baer, Joe Louis was widely seen as the best fighter, and his drawing power eclipsed that of the hapless James Braddock. But there was another white hope on the horizon. Former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling, a German, was looking for an American comeback after years of successfully boxing in Europe. Naturally, he wanted a shot at the title, but the boxing commission informed him he'd have to fight Louis first. Unfortunately, Joe Louis was too busy enjoying his newfound wealth and fame to train seriously for the Schmeling match. On June 11, 1936, Joe Louis lost his first professional boxing match, in a twelfthround knockout by Max Schmeling.
Louis and his fans were devastated, but not for long. The next year, it was Louis, not Schmeling, who got a shot at the championship. Partly this was due to events in Schmeling's homeland. Many Americans had been disgusted by Hitler's attempt to use sporting events, such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics, as a showcase for Nazism and Aryan superiority.
The "Seven Commandments" for Joe Louis
- He was never to have his picture taken with a white woman.
- He was never to go to a nightclub alone.
- There would be no soft fights.
- There would be no fixed fights.
- He was never to gloat over a fallen opponent
- He was to keep a "dead pan" in front of the cameras.
- He was to live and fight clean.
Everyone knew a Schmeling rematch was the next order of business if Louis' title was to be seen as fully legitimate. A year later, on June 22, 1938, it came. The buildup to the match was incredible, even by the standards of the most famous black man in America. The world was on the verge of war with Nazism, and Max Schmeling was seen as an Aryan poster boy. For the first time, white and black America were united behind Joe Louis, proof that America's best could defeat Germany's. Louis had a simple strategy for the fight: unrelenting attack. From the beginning Louis came out swinging, landing an overhead right that stunned Schmeling, breaking two of his verterbrae with a roundhouse right, and knocking him down three times in rapid
succession. Two minutes and four seconds into the match, Schmeling's trainer threw in the towel. Seventy-thousand fans hailed Joe Louis as an American hero.
A National Hero
Between the Schmeling match and the outbreak of World War II, Joe Louis would defend his title fifteen times against opponents who were so clearly outmatched they were nicknamed the "Bums of the Month." Only light-heavyweight champion Billy Conn seemed to offer any kind of challenge, taking Louis thirteen rounds to defeat on June 18, 1941. Before the match, Joe Louis introduced a memorable phrase into the American lexicon by declaring of Conn, "He can run, but he can't hide."
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Joe Louis enlisted in the U.S. Army, cementing his reputation in white America. The army sent him on a series of exhibition matches for the troops, as well as speaking engagements. Twice he donated the proceeds from title fights to the Navy Relief Fund. At the same time, he worked quietly to desegregate the armed forces, often participating in interracial events.
When Joe Louis left the service in 1945, he was at the peak of his popularity. He was finally accepted as an all-American hero, and in press coverage, words like "integrity" and "dignity" took the place of the old savage stereotypes. He successfully defended his championship against all comers, earning huge purses and retiring undefeated in 1949 after the longest reign of any boxing champion in history. His legendary generosity to his family, old neighborhood friends, and virtually any worthy black cause, endeared him to the public.
But below the surface, things were not always so good. His constant womanizing, carefully shielded from the press, had taken its toll on his marriage. In 1945, he and Marva divorced. They remarried a year later, but finally called it quits in 1949. His generosity also took a toll, and throughout the war he'd actually had to borrow significant sums from his managers. Even more alarming, he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. A year after his retirement, financial considerations forced him back into the ring. He went up against the new heavyweight champion, Ezzard Charles, on September 27, 1950, losing in a fifteen-round decision. On October 26, 1951, he made one last comeback attempt, losing to future champion Rocky Marciano in an eighth-round knockout.
For the rest of his life, Joe Louis would struggle with financial difficulties. Money came from personal appearances, exhibition matches, and even a mercifully brief stint in professional wrestling. From 1955 to 1958, he was married to Rose Morgan, a successful beautician with her own business who could foot most of the bills. In 1959, he married attorney Martha Malone Jefferson, moving into her home in Los Angeles. Under political pressure, the IRS settled with Louis for payments of $20,000 a year on taxes owed, but even that sum remained out of reach.
In the 1960s, Louis' life began to unravel. He took up with a prostitute, identified as "Marie" in his autobiography, who presented him with a son in December of 1967. The Louises adopted the boy, naming him Joseph. At the same time, Louis began to get involved with drugs, including cocaine, and began to show signs of mental illness, warning his friends and family of plots against his life. For a few months, he was committed to a mental institution in Colorado. Martha stuck by him, and with her help and encouragement, he quit cocaine. Unfortunately, his paranoid delusions continued intermittently, though much of the time he was his old, genial self.
In 1970, Caesar's Palace, in Las Vegas, hired him as a greeter, a job which involved signing autographs, betting with house money when the action seemed a little slow, and playing golf with special guests. The job suited him, and the casino even provided him housing, as well as $50,000 a year. Joe Louis lived and worked at the Palace until a massive heart attack felled him on April 12, 1981.
Joe Louis' funeral became a huge media event. A nation that had almost forgotten him suddenly remembered everything he had meant, hailing him anew as a great boxer who had restored class and integrity to professional boxing. Three thousand mourners gathered to hear tributes from speakers like Jesse Jackson, who saluted Joe Louis for "snatching down the cotton curtain" and opening up the world of big-league sporting to black athletes. Perhaps the greatest tribute came from Muhammad Ali, who told a reporter: "From black folks to red-neck Mississippi crackers, they loved him. They're all crying. That shows you. Howard Hughes dies, with all his billions, not a tear. Joe Louis, everybody cried."
Champion: Joe Louis
Journalists repeatedly wrote that Louis slept and ate a lot, read the comics, rooted for the Detroit Tigers, and liked to play baseball and golf. Coupled with the habit of quoting Louis in Uncle Remus dialect, these stories began to shape an image of Louis as a typical "darkie."
There was no truth to any of these generalizations. Even in the ring, much less outside it, Louis did not exhibit cruelty. He did not foul or eagerly attack his opponents when they were hurt or show pleasure at their pain. Nor was he indolent; Louis trained hard, and any writer who covered his training camps knew it. As far as his mind went, Louis was no intellectual, but what boxer was? All this imagery arose from one thing and one thing only: Louis' race.
Source: Mead, Chris. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. London: Robson Books, 1986.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LOUIS:
(With Edna and Art Rust, Jr.) Joe Louis: My Life, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Mead, Chris. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. London: Robson Books, 1986.
Cox, James A. "The Day Joe Louis Fired Shots Heard 'Round the World." St. Louis Journalism Review (October 1995): 11.
Deardorff, Don. "Joe Louis Became Both a Black Hero and a National Symbol to Whites after Overcoming Racism in the Media." St. Louis Journalism Review (October 1995): 11.
Gersten, Seymour P. "Ringside." American Heritage (July 1999): 27.
Hochman, Stan. "Bud Greenspan's 'King of the Ring' Documentary Full of Lessons." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (December 30, 1999): K5619.
Horn, Robert. "Two Champions and Enemies: Bad Blood Existed between Jack Johnson and Joe Louis." Sports Illustrated (May 14, 1990): 109.
"Joe Louis Becomes First Boxer Honored on U.S. Postage Stamp." Jet (June 28, 1993): 48.
McCormick, Bill. "Joe Louis-World Champion." Washington Post (June 23, 1999): C17.
McGowen, Deane. "Joe Louis, 66, Heavyweight King Who Reigned 12 Years, Is Dead." New York Times (April 13, 1981): A1.
Smith, Red. "Joe Louis: A Sense of Dignity." New York Times (April 13, 1981): C1.
Sketch by Robert Winters
May 13, 1914
April 12, 1981
Boxer Joe Louis Barrow was born to a sharecropping couple in Chambers County, Alabama, the seventh of eight children. Louis's father, Munroe Barrow, was placed in a mental institution when Louis was two, apparently unable to cope with the strain of the dirt-farming life. (It has been suggested by a few observers that Louis's mental and emotional problems in later life may have resulted from congenital causes rather than blows in the prize ring.) Louis's father died in Searcy State Hospital for the Colored Insane nearly twenty years later, never having learned that his son had become a famous athlete.
Lillie Barrow, Louis's mother, remarried a widower with a large family of his own named Pat Brooks, who, in 1920, moved the family to Mt. Sinai, Alabama. In 1926 Brooks migrated north to Detroit to work for the Ford Motor Company. The family, like many other African-American families of this period of the Great Migration, followed suit soon after, settling in Detroit's burgeoning black ghetto.
At the time of the move to Detroit, Louis was twelve years old. He was big for his age, but because of his inadequate education in the South and his lack of interest in and affinity for school, he was placed in a lower grade than his age would have dictated. Consequently, he continued to be an indifferent student and eventually went to work when his stepfather was laid off by Ford at the beginning of the depression.
Like many poor, unskilled, undereducated, ethnic urban boys of the period, Louis drifted into boxing largely as an opportunity to make money and to release his aggression in an organized, socially acceptable way. Although his stepfather was opposed to his entry into athletics, his mother supported and encouraged him.
Competing as a light heavyweight, Louis started his amateur career in 1932 but lost badly in his first fight and did not return to the ring until the following year. Following this brief hiatus, however, Louis quickly rose to prominence in boxing and African-American or "race" circles. By 1933 he compiled an amateur record of fifty wins, forty-three by knockout, and only four losses. In 1934, shortly after winning the light heavyweight championship of the Amateur Athletic Union, Louis turned professional and moved up to the heavyweight division. His managers were two black numbers runners, John Roxborough and Julian Black. Louis's trainer was a white man, the former lightweight fighter Jack Blackburn.
Thanks to generous coverage by the black press, Louis was already a familiar figure in the black neighborhoods of northern cities by 1934. At a time when color bars prohibited blacks from competing with whites in every major professional sport other than boxing, Louis became a symbol of black aspirations in white America. Through the prime of his career, Louis's fights were major social events for African Americans, and spontaneous celebrations would erupt in urban ghettos after his victories.
At the start of his professional career, Louis faced a number of obstacles in trying to win the heavyweight title. First, under a "gentlemen's agreement," no black fighter had been permitted to fight for that title since Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. Johnson lost the title in Havana, Cuba, to Jess Willard in 1915. Second, Louis had an entirely black support and management team, making it difficult for him to break into boxing's big market in New York City and to get a crack at the name fighters against whom he had to compete if he were to make a name for himself.
Louis's managers overcame the first problem by making sure that Louis did not in any way act like or remind his white audience or white sportswriters of Johnson, who scandalized white public opinion with his marriages to white women and other breaches of prevailing racial mores. Louis was not permitted to be seen in the company of white women, never gloated over his opponents, was quiet and respectful, and generally was made to project an image of cleanliness and high moral character. The second problem was solved when Mike Jacobs, a fight promoter in New York City, decided to take on Madison Square Garden's monopoly on boxing with his 20th Century Sporting Club and formed a partnership with Louis's managers to promote him with the intention of guiding him to the championship.
Louis, 6'1", with a fighting weight around two hundred pounds, soon amassed a glittering record. Starting in his first professional bout, a first-round knockout of Jack Kracken on July 4, 1934, to his winning the heavyweight title in an eighth-round knockout of Jim Braddock on June 22, 1937, Louis recorded thirty wins, twenty-five by knockout, and one loss. The most memorable of his fights during this period included the easy knockouts of former heavyweight champions Max Baer and Primo Carnera in 1935. Louis's one loss during this period was critically important in his career and in American cultural history. On June 19, 1936, the German Max Schmeling knocked out Louis, then a world-class challenger for the heavyweight crown, in twelve rounds, giving the highly touted black fighter his first severe beating as a professional. This loss greatly reduced Louis's standing with white sportswriters, who had previously built him up almost to the point of invincibility. (The writers had given him a string of alliterative nicknames, including the "Tan Tornado" and the "Dark Destroyer," but it was the "Brown Bomber" that stuck.) However, Louis's loss was also a watershed as it marked a slow change on the part of white sportswriters, who began to stop patronizing him and slowly grew to treat him more fully as a human being.
The loss also set up a rematch with Schmeling on June 22, 1938, after Louis had become champion by defeating Braddock the previous year. The second bout with Schmeling was to become one of the most important fights in American history. It was not Louis's first fight with political overtones. He had fought the Italian heavyweight Primo Carnera (beating him easily) as Italy was beginning its invasion of Ethiopia, and both fighters became emblems of their respective ethnicities; Louis, oddly enough, became both a nationalistic hero for blacks while being a kind of crossover hero for non-Italian, antifascist whites. By 1938 Hitler was rapidly taking over Europe and Nazism had clearly become a threat to both the United States and the world generally. Schmeling was seen as the symbol of Nazism, an identification against which he did not fight very hard. Indeed, Schmeling seemed eager to exploit the racial overtones of the fight as a way of getting a psychological edge on Louis. Louis became an emblem not simply of black America, but also, like Jesse Owens in Berlin a few years earlier, of antitotalitarian America itself, of its ideology of opportunity and freedom. Perhaps in some sense no one could better bear the burden of America's utopian vision of itself as an egalitarian paradise than a champion black prizefighter, combining both the myths of class mobility with racial uplift. Under the scrutiny of both their countries and most of the rest of the world, Louis knocked out Schmeling in two minutes of the first round.
Following the second Schmeling bout, Louis embarked on a remarkable string of title defenses, winning seventeen fights over four years, fifteen by knockout. Because of the general lack of talent in the heavyweight division at the time and the ease of Louis's victories, his opponents were popularly referred to as "The Bum of the Month Club." The only serious challenge came from Billy Conn in 1941, who outboxed the champion for twelve
rounds before succumbing to Louis's knockout punch in the thirteenth.
During World War II, Louis in some ways matured deeply as a man and came into his own as an American icon and hero. When the war began, he was twenty-seven and at his prime as a fighter. When it ended, he was thirty-one, beginning to slip as a champion athlete, and, probably, he was not as interested in boxing as he had been. However, he had become something of an elder statesman among blacks who were also prominent in popular culture. Younger black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson looked up to and respected him. Both men had served in the segregated armed forces with him, and he helped them bear with dignity the hostilities and humiliations that were often visited upon them as black soldiers. Louis became self-consciously political at that time; he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie in 1940.
Louis was drafted January 12, 1942, but remained active as a boxer, continuing to fight professionally during the war. He contributed his earnings to both the Army and the Navy Relief Funds. While this was a wise move politically, it was disastrous for Louis financially. (In fact, even before he joined the service, he contributed the purse from his Buddy Baer fight on January 9, 1942, to the Navy Relief Fund.)
"We're going to do our part, and we will win," Louis intoned at a Navy Relief Society dinner on March 10, 1942, "because we are on God's side." This moment, perhaps more than any other in Louis's career, signaled the complete transformation of the image of the man in the mind of the white public. Louis had risen from the sullen, uneasy "colored boy" from black Detroit who was considered in 1935 the wunderkind of boxing, to become in seven years the mature, patriotic American who could speak both to and for his country. Louis could now not simply address his audience but command it. He could, as one pundit put it, "name the war." Louis's phrase, "We're on God's side," became one of the most famous phrases in American oratory during the Second World War. Ironically, however, Louis had misremembered his lines. He was supposed to say the more commonplace, "God's on our side," yet it is this cunning combination of the inadvertent and the opportunistic, the serendipitous and the intentional, that marks Louis's career in its later phase.
After the war, Louis's abilities as a fighter diminished as his earnings evaporated in a mist of high living and alleged tax evasion. After winning a rematch against Jersey Joe Walcott on June 25, 1948—only the second black fighter against whom Louis defended his title, indicating how much of a presence white fighters were in the sport well into the twentieth century—on the heels of winning an earlier controversial match on December 5, 1947, that most observers felt he had lost, Louis retired from the ring in 1949. At that time he made a deal with the unsavory Jim Norris and the International Boxing Club, which resulted in the removal of an old, sick Mike Jacobs from the professional boxing scene. Louis's deal with Norris created an entity called Joe Louis Enterprises that would sign up all the leading contenders for the heavyweight championship and have them exclusively promoted by Norris's International Boxing Club. Louis received $150,000 and became a stockholder in the IBC. He was paid $15,000 annually to promote boxing generally and the IBC bout specifically. In effect, Louis sold his title to a gangster-controlled outfit that wanted and eventually obtained for a period in the 1950s virtual control over both the management and promotion of all notable professional fighters in the United States. By 1950, however, an aged Louis, reflexes shot and legs gimpy, was forced back into the ring because of money problems. He lost to Ezzard Charles in a fifteen-round decision on September 27. On October 26, 1951, his career ended for good when he was knocked out in eight rounds by the up-and-coming Rocky Marciano.
In sixty-six professional bouts, Louis lost only three times (twice in the last two years of his career) and knocked out forty-nine of his opponents. He was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.
After his career, Louis, like many famous athletes who followed him, lived off of his reputation. He certainly never considered the idea of returning to the ordinary work world he left in the early 1930s when he became a fighter. He was hounded by the Internal Revenue Service for back taxes, began taking drugs, particularly cocaine, suffered a number of nervous breakdowns, and seemed often at loose ends, despite a third marriage to a woman of considerable maturity and substance, Martha Jefferson. Eventually, in part as a result of his second marriage (his second wife, Marva Trotter, was a lawyer for Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa), Louis wound up working in Las Vegas as a casino greeter, playing golf with high-rolling customers and serving as a companion for men who remembered him in his glory years.
On April 12, 1981, the day after he attended a heavyweight championship match between Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, Louis collapsed at his home in Las Vegas and died of a massive heart attack. He was, without question, one of the most popular sports figures of the twentieth century. In 1993 Louis appeared on a U.S. postage stamp.
Anderson, Jervis. "Black Heavies." American Scholar 47 (1978): 387–395.
Barrow, Joe Louis, Jr., and Barbara Munder. Joe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Edmonds, Anthony. O. Joe Louis. Grand Rapids, Mich: Erdmanns, 1973.
Grombach, John V. The Saga of Sock. New York: Barnes, 1949.
Louis, Joe, with Edna and Art Rust. Joe Louis: My Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Reprint, Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1997.
Mead, Chris. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Mead, Chris. Champion Joe Louis. New York: Robson Books, Parkwest Publications, 1995.
Nagler, Barney. Brown Bomber: The Pilgrimage of Joe Louis. New York: World Pub., 1972.
Wright, Richard. "High Tide in Harlem: Joe Louis as a Symbol of Freedom." New Masses (July 5, 1938): 18–20.
gerald early (1996)
African American boxer Joe Louis was world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1948. He defended his title twenty times in four years.
Joseph Louis Barrow, born on May 13, 1914, was the seventh of eight children of Munroe Barrow and Lily Reese. His father was an Alabama sharecropper and died when Joe was four. His mother took in washing to support her family. Joe was close to his large family, particularly to his mother, from whom he inherited a deep religious sentiment. His mother married Patrick Brooks, with children of his own, when Joe was seven, and the family moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1926.
After Brooks lost his job, Joe and his brothers shined shoes, ran errands, and sold newspapers before and after school to help out the family. Joe also worked as an assistant to an ice-wagon driver. He later said that carrying heavy ice helped him to develop his big shoulder muscles.
As a teenager, Joe was the best boxer of his group. At nineteen he won the National Light Heavyweight Amateur Crown of the Golden Gloves in 1933.
Louis received his ring name from one of his managers, John Roxborough, who found the name Joe Louis Barrow too long. Jack Blackburn, a very knowledgeable boxing man, was Louis's trainer. He taught Louis how to punch and worked with him to develop his body coordination.
Before Louis became champion, he was beaten once, by Max Schmeling in 1936. The following year he defeated Jim Braddock for the championship. In 1938 Louis met Schmeling again and knocked him out in the first two minutes of the first round. Louis fought boxers including Billy Conn, Tony Galento, Rocky Marciano (1923–1969), and "Jersey Joe" Walcott (1914–1994). He won nineteen other title fights.
During World War II (1939–45; a war fought between the Axis powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan—and the Allies: England, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union) Louis was drafted, served faithfully, and fought two bouts for army and navy relief.
The curse of many victories in a short period of time was the accumulation of a heavy tax burden. For example, Louis won $349,228 for his victory over Schmeling and $591,117 for beating Conn. In his entire ring career he earned $4,677,992. But his federal income taxes were $1,199,000. When penalties were assessed, taxes became astronomical.
Another source of trouble for Louis was his partnership in a public relations firm. In the early 1960s this firm entered into a contract with Cuba for $250,000 to promote tourism. Although this was not illegal, it was considered in poor taste to deal with a country with whom the United States did not maintain diplomatic relations.
Louis's other business ventures included the Joe Louis Food Franchise, a chain of food shops he opened in 1969 with his former ring rival Billy Conn. The former champ also served as a celebrity greeter at the Caesar's Palace Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Unfortunately, drugs took a toll on the once indomitable (not able to be beaten) champion in his final years. In 1969, he was hospitalized after collapsing on a New York City street. While the incident was at first credited to "physical breakdown," Louis later admitted to cocaine use and fears of a plot against his life. The following year, Louis spent five months in the hospital suffering from paranoid delusions (irrational anxiety and fear toward others). Strokes and heart ailments caused his condition to worsen. He had surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm (abnormal widening of a blood vessel) in 1977 and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair.
Despite failing health, Louis still found time to attend major boxing events. On April 12, 1981, he sat ringside at the Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick heavyweight championship bout at Caesar's Palace. Hours after the fight, Louis went into cardiac arrest (a heart failure) and died at the age of sixty-six.
In 1994, the bronzed boxing glove that Louis used to defeat Max Schmeling was donated to the city of Detroit by the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Dubbed "The Glove That Floored Nazi Germany," it was enshrined in a plexiglass case at the city's Cobo Center, a monument to Louis's enduring legacy.
For More Information
Bak, Richard. Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope. Dallas: Taylor Publishers, 1996.
Barrow, Joe Louis, Jr., and Barbara Munder. Joe Louis: 50 Years an American Hero. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Louis, Joe, with Edna and Art Rust, Jr. Joe Louis, My Life. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Mead, Chris. Champion—Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. New York: Scribner, 1985.
Joe Louis (May 13, 1914–April 12, 1981), heavyweight champion and one of the most admired prizefighters in history, was born near Lafayette, Alabama, the seventh of eight children of farmer Munn Barrow and Lillie Barrow. He first took up the sport of boxing as a young teenager in Detroit, Michigan, where his divorced mother had moved with him and his siblings. He fought as an amateur for two years, establishing a reputation as an extraordinarily gifted boxer and powerful puncher.
Louis turned professional in 1934. Under the direction of his trainer and good friend Jack "Chappie" Blackburn and his managers John Roxborough and Julian Black, Louis fought many memorable bouts and suffered only three losses over a career that spanned seventeen years. He captured the world heavyweight championship in 1937 against James Braddock, and defended the title a record twenty-five times. In 1938 Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in the first round, avenging a loss to the German heavyweight just two years earlier. In 1941 Louis recorded a thrilling last-round knockout of Billy Conn and six years later earned a controversial decision over Jersey Joe Walcott. Louis retired as champion in 1949, but monetary burdens eventually forced him to return to the ring, where he lost to new champions Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano.
Louis's numerous ring triumphs were of great symbolic importance to the African-American community in particular and American society more generally. Although some African Americans were seemingly troubled by what they viewed as Louis's acquiescence to the white establishment, the large majority of African Americans considered Louis a champion of heroic proportions. In the throes of the Depression, when white citizens were exhibiting racial intolerance and ignoring the needs of the African-American community, Louis became a much-needed example of black achievement and a symbol of possibility. To African Americans caught in the midst of economic crisis, Louis appeared messianic—a great champion who dramatized the black struggle against white aggression and indifference. African Americans gathered at local stores and in neighbor's homes to hear the broadcasts of his fights, vicariously shared in his victories, and honored his ring triumphs with literally hundreds of songs and poems. Richard Wright, Charles Johnson, and other African-American intellectuals wrote of being inspired and filled with hope by Louis's apparent invincibility in the ring. Tellingly, Louis's ring triumphs were often applauded by whites as well. His 1938 victory over Max Schmeling was crucially important to Americans of all races who viewed the German's defeat as a symbolic triumph of American values over Nazi racism and totalitarianism. In large measure, Louis became America's national representative, something no African American, athlete or non-athlete, had ever experienced before. Louis was introduced to American soldiers during World War II as "the first American to K.O. a Nazi."
Unfortunately, like many boxers, Louis's life outside the ring was often filled with disappointment and heartache. Married four times, Louis experienced persistent financial problems as a result of bad investments, poor advice, and lack of marketable skills. At one point, he owed some $1,250,000 in back federal taxes. Once his boxing career was over, Louis attempted to support himself financially and maintain a meaningful existence through a series of jobs and business opportunities. He was for a time a pro wrestler, operated a failed fast-food business, and acted as a front man for boxing promoter James Norris. In 1970, Louis's life seemingly hit rock bottom and he was committed for five months to a psychiatric hospital. He spent
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
the last few years of his life as an official greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
Astor, Gerald. "And a Credit to His Race": The Hard Life and Times of Joseph Louis Barrow, a.k.a. Joe Louis. 1974.
Bak, Richard. Joe Louis: The Great Black Hope. 1996.
Capeci, Jr., Dominic J., and Martha Wilkerson. "Multifarious Hero: Joe Louis, American Society, and Race Relations during World Crisis, 1935–1945." Journal of Sport History 10 (1983): 5–25.
Gilmore, Al-Tony. "The Myth, Legend, and Folklore of Joe Louis: The Impression of Sport on Society." South Atlantic Quarterly 82 (1983): 256–268.
Mead, Chris. Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America. 1985.
Sammons, Jeffrey T. "Boxing as a Reflection of Society: The Southern Reaction to Joe Louis." Journal of Popular Culture 16 (1983): 23–33.
Sammons, Jeffrey T. Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. 1988.
David K. Wiggins
American boxer Joe Louis (1914-1981) was world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1948. He defended his title 20 times in four years.
Joe Louis, born on May 13, 1914, was the son of an Alabama sharecropper. Joe was close to his large family, particularly to his mother, from whom he inherited a deep religious sentiment. His stepfather moved the family to Detroit in 1926.
As a teen-ager, Joe was the best boxer of his group. He won the National Light Heavyweight Amateur Crown of the Golden Gloves in 1933. As a 19-year-old light heavyweight, Louis whipped everything in front of him. He received his ring name from one of his managers, John Roxborough, who found the name Joe Louis Barrow too long. Jack Blackburn, a very knowledgeable boxing man, was Louis's trainer.
Before he became champion, Louis was beaten once, by Max Schmeling in 1936. The following year he defeated Jim Braddock for the championship. In 1938 Louis met Schmeling again and knocked him out in the first two minutes of the first round. Louis fought boxers like Billy Conn, Tony Galento, Rocky Marciano, and "Jersey Joe" Walcott. He won 19 other title fights. During World War II Louis was drafted, served faithfully, and fought two bouts for Army and Navy Relief.
The curse of many victories in a short period of time was the accumulation of a heavy tax burden. For example, Louis won $349, 228 for his victory over Schmeling and $591, 117 for beating Conn. In his entire ring career he earned $4, 677, 992. But his Federal income taxes were $1, 199, 000; furthermore, when penalties were assessed, taxes became astronomical. In fact, the tax assessors were so strict that they attached $66, 000 in trust funds for Louis's children.
Another source of trouble for Louis was his partnership in a public relations firm. In the early 1960s this firm entered into a contract with Cuba for $250, 000 to promote tourism. Although this was not illegal, it was considered in poor taste to deal with a country with whom the United States did not maintain diplomatic relations. Louis's other business ventures included the Joe Louis Food Franchise, a chain of food shops he opened in 1969 with his erstwhile ring rival Billy Conn. The former champ also served as a celebrity greeter at the Caesar's Palace Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Unfortunately, drugs took a toll on the once indomitable champion in his final years. In 1969, he was hospitalized after collapsing on a New York City street. While the incident was at first credited to "physical breakdown, " Louis later admitted to cocaine use and fears of a plot against his life. The following year, Louis spent five months in the hospital suffering from paranoid delusions. Strokes and heart ailments caused his condition to deteriorate further. He had surgery to correct an aortic aneurysm in 1977 and was thereafter confined to a wheelchair.
Despite failing health, Louis still found time to attend major boxing events. On April 12, 1981, he sat ringside at the Larry Holmes/Trevor Berbick heavyweight championship bout at Caesar's Palace. Hours after the fight, Louis went into cardiac arrest and died at the age of 66.
Louis married Marva Trotter and had two children by her; they were twice divorced. His third marriage, to Rose Morgan, was annulled. He later married Martha Jefferson of Los Angeles. In 1994, the bronzed boxing glove that Louis used to defeat Max Schmeling was donated to the city of Detroit by the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Dubbed "The Glove That Floored Nazi Germany, " it was enshrined in a plexiglass case at the city's Cobo Center, a monument to its wielder's enduring legacy.
Louis's autobiography is My Life Story (1947). His place in sports history is discussed in Nat Fleischer, The Heavyweight Championship: An Informal History of Heavyweight Boxing from 1719 to the Present Day (1949; rev. ed. 1961), and in Lester Bromberg, Boxing's Unforgettable Fights (1962). Louis and other African-American athletes are considered in a survey of the reality of integration in American sports, Jack Olsen, The Black Athlete: A Shameful Story (1968). Chris Mead, Champion (1985) is a full account of the boxer's eventful life. An assessment of Luis's influence within the context of African-American sports history is contained in Arthur Ashe, A Hard Road To Glory (1988). □