Joe Louis was born on May 13, 1914 in a tiny shack in Alabama. He was the fifth child of Lillie and Monroe Barrow. He weighed 11 pounds at birth. When he was two years old, his father was committed to a mental institution, and as a result, the Barrow family never saw him again.
Poverty led Joe Louis to attend school only sporadically. He suffered from a speech impediment and spoke very little until about the age of six. Joe Louis learned to read and write when he was nine years old.
After his mother remarried, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan, forming part of the post-World War I Great Migration. The family settled into a home at 2700 Catherine (now Madison) Street in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. Joe Louis would eventually take a interest in boxing at a at a local youth recreation center as an alternative to gang life.
Joe Louis made his debut in early 1932 at age 17 against future Olympian Johnny Miller, which was a loss. After the defeat, Joe Louis compiled numerous amateur victories, eventually winning the club championship of his Brewster Street recreation centre, the home of many aspiring Golden Gloves fighters. In his two years as an amateur light-heavyweight, he won 48 of 54 fights by knockouts.
Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis turned professional in 1934 under the management of Julian Black and John Roxborough, and made his professional debut on July 4, 1934 at the Bacon Casino in Chicago. He knocked Jack Kracken out in the first round and earned $59. Louis won all twelve of his professional fights that year, ten by way of knockout.
The boxing world was hostile to African-American fighters. White title-holders often refused to accept a challenge from a black contender, and riots sometimes broke out when blacks defeated white fighters.
World Heavyweight Champion
On June 22, 1937, Joe Louis fought James Braddock for the Heavyweight title. Braddock was able to knock Joe Louis down in round one, but afterward could accomplish little. After inflicting constant punishment, Louis defeated the “Cinderella Man” by knockout in Round eight. Louis’s ascent to the World Heavyweight Championship was complete.
Joe Louis’s victory was a seminal moment in African American history. Thousands of African-Americans across the United States jammed the streets in celebration. Joe Louis was not only a champion for black people, but a nationwide hero.
Louis vs. Schmeling II
The rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling would become one of the most famous boxing matches of all time and is remembered as one of the major sports events of the 20th century. Joe Louis lost the first fight in 1936 that made Max Schmeling a national hero in Germany. Nazi officials touted his victory over Joe Louis as proof of their doctrine of Aryan superiority.
On the night of June 22, 1938, Louis and Schmeling met for the second time at Yankee Stadium before a crowd of 70,043. The prizefight was broadcast by radio to millions of listeners throughout the world, with radio announcers reporting the fight in various languages. Joe Louis knocked Max Schmeling out in the first two minutes of the fight.
World War 2
Joe Louis spent four years in the army during World War 2 and was instrumental in helping Jackie Robinson gain admission to Officer Candidate School. Although Joe Louis never saw combat, his military service met challenges of its own. During his travels, he often experienced blatant racism. On one occasion, a military policeman (MP) ordered Louis and Ray Robinson to move their seats to a bench in the rear of an Alabama Army camp bus depot. “We ain’t moving,” said Louis. The MP tried to arrest them, but Louis forcefully argued the pair out of the situation. In another incident, Louis allegedly had to resort to bribery to persuade a commanding officer to drop charges against Jackie Robinson for punching a captain who had called Robinson a “nigger.”
Joe Louis was eventually promoted to the rank of technical sergeant on April 9, 1945. On September 23 of the same year, Louis was awarded the Legion of Merit for “incalculable contribution to the general morale.” Receipt of the honor qualified Louis for immediate release from military service on October 1, 1945.
Joe Louis retired from professional boxing in 1951 after a devastating lost to undefeated heavyweight contender Rocky Marciano. He would, as before, continue to tour on the exhibition circuit, with his last contest taking place on December 16, 1951, in Taipei, Taiwan, against Corporal Buford J. deCordova.
Louis died of cardiac arrest in Desert Springs Hospital near Las Vegas on April 12, 1981, just hours after his last public appearance viewing the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick Heavyweight Championship. Ronald Reagan waived the eligibility rules for burial at Arlington National Cemetery and Louis was buried there with full military honors on April 21, 1981. His funeral was paid for in part by former competitor and friend, Max Schmeling, who also acted as a pallbearer.
Many consider Joe Louis as the greatest heavyweight of all time. He was ranked as the #1 heavyweight of all-time by the International Boxing Research Organization, and was ranked #1 on The Ring‘s list of the 100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time. Joe Louis held the heavyweight crown for 11 years and eight months, which is the longest single reign in heavyweight boxing history. In 71 professional bouts, he was defeated only three times.
I carved his face on my Mount Rushmore of the greatest heavyweights of all-time along with Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, and Rocky Marciano.