SEVENTEEN years separated Joe Louis’ defeat to Max Marek in the 1934 national amateur championships and Rocky Marciano rampaging through the last remnants of “The Brown Bomber”. Between those two ugly bookends, Louis crafted a handsome story that transcended sport and changed the pale face of the world.
Before Joe landed on the coarse heavyweight landscape, only John L. Sullivan – the great bareknuckle king – and Jack Dempsey enjoyed similar popularity to that which Louis would subsequently experience. The fact the colour of his skin didn’t match those previous heroes made his impact all the more sensational in a time of grotesque racial prejudice.
In 1914, when the only previous black heavyweight champion and deeply unpopular Jack Johnson’s reign was coming to an end, Joseph Louis Barrow was born – weighing a hefty 11lbs – in the Alabama cotton belt. He would stay for the first 12 years of his life, before his father, Munroe (“Mun”) Barrow, moved the family to Detroit after an altercation with the Ku Klux Klan. It was there that Louis’ fists first became weapons as he spurned violin lessons his mother paid for and used the cash for boxing classes instead.
After compiling an amateur record of 50-4 (43), he turned professional in 1934 and rejected the advances of established white promoters in favour of black bookmaker, John Roxborough, who told him how gifted black fighters had ended up penniless and burnt-out without being given a chance to shine. Quickly, with the help of veteran trainer Jack Blackburn, Joe was sparkling brightly.
Joe’s rise to prominence was as carefully crafted outside the ring as it was inside. Some have argued that Louis was little more than a servant to white rule, behaving in a manner that appealed to fair-skinned fans, but he had little choice; almost 20 years had elapsed since the great Jack Johnson had been treated so unfairly and the hangover remained. Louis knew what he had to do. He carried the heavy responsibility to prove that blacks deserved equal opportunities – in the sporting world and beyond – and set about cracking the system. Manager Mike Jacobs, a white man, helped Roxborough build Louis’ reputation but only strong foundations allowed it to grow so elegantly – Joe was a man of impeccable character and a phenomenal fighter.
Nat Fleischer, legendary founder of The Ring, described Joe as a “pugilistic symphony with a tempo geared to bring him across the ring with all the grace of a gazelle and the cold fury an enraged mountain lion. He combined excellent harmony of movement with crushing power stored in each hand.”
That power was irresistible as Joe raced to 24-0 inside two years and he looked invincible; fall guys included former champions Primo Carnera and Max Baer. Another former king, Germany’s Max Schmeling, was set up to be domino number 25.
“Whether the negro will win inside the distance is purely a matter of guesswork,” wrote BN’s Neville Buckley before the bout, “but personally I imagine he will do so, and I expect the German to be saved by the referee, as so many of the Brown Bomber’s recent opponents have been.”
Some 38,878 people, paying $547,531, crammed into Yankee Stadium on June 19, 1936, to witness an inspired Schmeling – a far better fighter than Carnera and more disciplined than Baer – stun Louis and halt him in the 12th round. Louis had no answer for Schmeling’s powerful right hand and he was thoroughly beaten; ending the contest kneeling on the canvas in a praying position.
“I guess I fooled you guys,” Max joked with the press after his victory. Schmeling had earned his shot at champion James J. Braddock, but Mike Jacobs used all his cunning to get Louis the title tilt. Braddock and manager Joe Gould were no mugs either, and recognising Louis’ potential, “The Cinderella Man” negotiated a $300,000 guarantee and, should he lose, a 10 per cent share of Louis’ profits from heavyweight title fights for the next 10 years.
So, seven impressive wins removed from the Schmeling shock – including beating Jack Sharkey and Bob Pastor – Joe was matched with Braddock on June 21, 1937, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Braddock was the unlikeliest heavyweight leader since Marvin Hart some 30 years before, and was not expected to keep his crown.
But the champion decked Louis in the opening session, a snapping uppercut landing flush and forcing the favourite to take a brief count. It would be Braddock’s only real success but he stubbornly refused to relinquish his hold on the richest prize in sport for several rounds. After seven, Gould told him he was going to stop the fight.
“If you do,” Braddock snapped through bloodied lips, “I’ll never talk to you again.” Jim bravely answered the bell for round eight but Louis planted Braddock face-first into the canvas with a straight right. Joe Louis was the new world heavyweight king and it would be almost 12 years and 25 defences – both enduring records – before another man wore the crown.
Historians often point to Louis’ habit of taking on inferior opposition (“Bum of the Month Club”) during that quarter-century of defences but Joe also accommodated every deserving challenger. Including an old nemesis…“I don’t want to be called champ until I lick Max Schmeling,” Joe would say.
After a tougher-than-expected 15-round win over Tommy Farr and knockouts of Nathan Mann and Harry Thomas the rematch was set for June 22, 1938.
With the world on the brink of war, Louis became an icon of hope and justice in America. Schmeling was a rather more reluctant symbol for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the Aryan race. No fight, before or since, compares in global significance.
Louis, blocking out any distractions, was desperate for revenge; Schmeling appeared nervous as the expectations of a nation tugged heavily on his shoulders. Yankee Stadium, 70,000 spectators strong, watched as Louis obliterated his rival inside a round. The final fall of three came from a punch that barely travelled but was laced with power; Max’s head shook violently before he took the full count. Before the end of the bout the Germans cut the radio broadcast, because of Schmeling’s audible cries of pain and the Nazi shame at his showing.
The era of Joe Louis, global idol and fearsome predator, had begun.
Neither light-heavyweight king John-Henry Lewis nor overmatched Jack Roper lasted a round before balding slugger Tony Galento – an unsightly 5ft 9ins and 233lbs – wobbled forward. During the pre-fight instructions, Galento informed Joe of his sexual plans for Mrs Louis. Blinded by a red mist, Louis was staggered in the opening round before a wild hook dropped the furious champion in the third. With range located, Joe violently ended things in the fourth.
Louis’ reign was not all slam-bang-wallop stuff, of course. He struggled with Arturo Godoy in February 1940 and eked out a split decision before dominating the rematch. Buddy Baer gave him trouble a year later only to be knocked out inside three minutes of their return. But in June 1941, light-heavyweight boss Billy Conn beautifully boxed his way to a lead on the cards after 12 rounds and Louis showed few signs of breaking through until the challenger opted to slug with the challenger in round 13 and was knocked out.
Louis was inactive for four years due to World War II and during that time, his popularity soared as he toured with the USO and boxed several exhibitions all over the world. He defeated a shot Conn in a 1946 rematch but Joe was not the same fighter either – evidenced by the 15-round struggle he endured with Jersey Joe Walcott in December 1947.
Unlike fighters of today, Louis, convinced he lost, dispensed with any bravado and tried to leave the ring only for his team to delay his exit. He was looking out to the crowd when announcer Harry Balogh informed everyone inside Madison Square Garden that he had won a gift split decision. A rematch was set and for 10 rounds Louis toiled again with Walcott’s crafty counterpunches; at the age of 34, Joe looked old and at 213lbs, was heavier than he’d been before.
But in round 11, Louis unleashed one of his characteristic short right hands that froze Walcott before a barrage sent him to the canvas for the full count. Realising he was not the fighter of before he quit as champion and as a hero, but a lack of funds would soon force him to return. A generous free-spender, and poor businessman, a faded Louis lost widely to his successor Ezzard Charles in 1950 and later to Rocky Marciano.
His sad comeback failed to line his pockets, though, and he owed $1.2million to the Internal Revenue after his final retirement. He was plagued by poverty until President Kennedy wrote off his tax bill, but drug-use ravaged his health during middle age. He later became a greeter at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas – where a statue stands today – before he died of a heart attack on April 12, 1981. The US government ensured he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, an area reserved for American heroes – and there were few greater heroes than Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber”.